Botswana Safari

 

(this article was recently in the Miami Herald)

We were eyeing one another. I didn’t blink. Wrong move, Elicious said. Leopards leap at stares. Good to know, I said somewhat annoyed at myself, after all as former director of program acquisitions for Animal Planet and Discovery Channel in Canada, I thought I had learned the do’s and don’ts of animal “etiquette.” Not so! Watching these magnificent beasts on TV, film or in a zoo, is light years away from seeing them in the wild. My seat in an open safari vehicle beats the couch at home, hands down. Eyes somewhat averted, my guide and I watched in silence as the glint of the evening sun turned the leopard’s eyes to a burnished amber and his muscular body to rippling silk. He scrutinized us warily, but did not move.

It was my first ever safari, and Elicious, my guide, had spotted the leopard in the Okavango Delta (an UNESCO World Heritage Site) of the landlocked southern African country, Botswana. One of the world’s largest inland deltas, it’s shaped like a hand generously opening to long narrow fingers of water nourishing the vast and varied ecosystem.

Here is where andBeyond, an international luxury experiential travel company, owns several safari camps and lodges, as well as 25 others throughout Africa. Their motto – “Take care of the land, take care of the animals, and take care of the people” – was evident during my six-day safari in three of andBeyond’s five-star accommodations in Okavango. AndBeyond is renowned for training its guides and trackers. Elicious was the first of six I was fortunate to travel with.

Backtracking a bit: I flew from Johannesburg to the city of Maun in northwest Botswana. From there, despite being a white-knuckle flyer, I boarded a seven-seater plane that landed 15 minutes later on a landing strip in the bush, where we were met by warthogs, baboons and our charming safari vehicle driver. For 45 minutes we rumbled along past the termite mounds (towering, white sculptures), a dazzle of zebras, impalas, kudus and giraffes. An elephant glided by, silently, as if he were on a pulley – his grace belying his size. The pungent smell of sage permeated the air and several of the 450 bird species in Botswana displayed their vocal colors. (One species sounded like castanets on steroids).

All this before we even arrived at the canal for our short boat ride to Xaranna Okavango Delta Camp. As we approached, motoring through swathes of water lilies and within earshot of the deep grunts of the hippos, the genuinely warm-hearted Batswana staff, singing and dancing on the wharf, signaled our arrival at this secluded oasis.

I was met by my butler, Lesedi, who escorted me along a winding path to my suite (one of only nine). They are well spaced, a sense of complete privacy prevails, but so too the ever present realization that in this unprotected camp wild animals have the right of way. Walking to and from my suite to the main lodge took a bit of courage on my part, and Lesedi’s philosophy (“Everything we want is on the other side of fear”) helped, although so did the fact that he accompanied me in the early mornings and evenings, as were all guests with their respective butlers.

The three andBeyond properties were designed by Fox Browne Creative from South Africa, each imprinted with its own signature theme. Xaranna: soft palette of pink, khaki and white enveloped in natural wood and canvas riffed on the water lilies, reeds and hippos. Kudum Lodge, a boat ride away, Xaranna’s male counterpart, with its chocolate and ebony hues reminisced with playful recycling touches in repurposed tires, old Mokoro canoes and liberal use of rough-hewn chunky timber. On first sight, Kudum was a disappointment, not as visually inviting as Xaranna, but I soon learned to relish my split-level lodge with its treehouse look-out. Like Xaranna, the luxurious bed is surrounded by fine mosquito netting while a deep soaking bathtub claims center spot in the vast bathroom with its clever use of partitioning for the indoor showers. Outdoors, a second shower, near the plunge pool and adjacent cabana area, provides private relaxation.

After an evening safari, and dinner at Xaranna, I returned to my suite to find the bathtub foaming with bubbles and aromatic scents; at Kudum on another such evening, dozens of votive candles lit a path from the front door to the bathtub, this time with a bottle of Amarula (a cream liquor from South Africa) seductively leaning in its own bath of ice cubes. I barely was able to get out of the tub after the heat of the water and the intoxicating drink!

How the chefs managed to create such truly excellent meals with the finest of ingredients way out in the bush was a magician’s secret. Each day the blackboard announced what was on the menu for both lunch and dinner, and I can honestly say I was always impressed and couldn’t wait for the next chalk temptation.

Mornings began with a gentle knock on my door and a tray laden with hot tea with cookies, at 5:30 a.m. A half hour later, again a knock at the door and out I go into the darkness to breakfast: porridge, fresh fruit, yogurt, and fellow guests gathered around the Boma (meeting place) for sustenance before our five-hour safari outing. The rising sun illuminated the paths where the tracker and guide scanned for visible signs of wildlife: foot imprints, insect tracks (scorpions cross only at night, for example), which way the wind is moving, the smell of urine, feces droppings … all signs observed to determine which animals are around and where. This all paid off big time when we came upon a den of eight lion cubs waiting for their parents to return. Priceless!

About midway through the morning, we stopped for a snack set up under a tree. Out came the metal table, tablecloth, hot tea, coffee, cold drinks and bowls filled with candied ginger, cheese, crackers and various sweets. No animals decided to join us, mercifully. Returning home, a herd of elephants entertained us with a mud bath roll, the little ones so endearingly protected by the matriarch and “aunties.” During an afternoon siesta at andBeyond Kudum, I was awakened from my snooze by rustling sounds just beyond the screened-in porch a few meters from my bed. Two bull elephants decided to grab a little acacia tree snack. Transfixed, I watched them tussle with one another while intermittently tucking the leaves of their dexterous trunks into their mouths.

It is both incomprehensible and reprehensible that humans slaughter them, as well as rhinos, for their tusks and horns. I must applaud the Botswana government, as they have zero tolerance for such heinous acts and poaching is prohibited as well as game lodges where wealthy hunters can fly in and “bag” their prey for the fun of it. A large percentage of Botswana’s revenues comes from tourism, not torture.

Travel in Zimbabwe’s Hwange Park

(article recently posted in Vogue)

The vast game parks of Africa have a powerful place in our collective imagination. Even those of us who have never set foot on the continent can name its most famous conservation areas—the Maasai Mara, the Serengeti, the Kruger, and Etosha are all evocative of the extraordinary experiences Africa has to offer.

But Hwange, Zimbabwe’s biggest and most diverse national park, is rarely included in that impressive list. This is in spite of the fact that the country is dominated by two iconic rivers, endless bushland, the world’s most famous waterfall, and some of the best game viewing on the continent.

The political devastation of the recent past is, of course, the reason why. But as Robert Mugabe ages, there is a sense of renewed hope for a country that was once known as the bread basket of Africa and which the BBC’s former South Africa correspondent, Fergal Keane, describes as “possibly the most beautiful place in all of Africa.”

Like thousands before him, he was drawn in by the potent mix of thundering waterfalls, sea-like lakes, and animal-filled plains. A tougher, more extravagant version of neighboring Botswana and its gentle Okavango Delta waterways, Zimbabwe smacks you in the face with its dramatic scenery, its endless hot and dusty savannas, and its world record–breaking array of wildlife.

Hwange National Park in particular gives you a taste of what game viewing was like before modern tourism sanitized it with tagged animals, radio call-outs, and seven jeeps crowded around one overwhelmed leopard. Hwange is simply too full of animals and too empty of people to play that game.

At 5,657 square miles, it is 18 times the size of New York City, and in that space, it has an estimated 50,000 elephants, many of which are in breeding herds as large as 300 that pad from waterhole to waterhole. There are also more than 100 different kinds of mammals and an estimated 500 bird species living in the scrubland. This level of biodiversity is matched only by the Serengeti in Tanzania and the Kruger National Park in South Africa, both of which have a far higher population of human visitors than Hwange.

Which means that in the glamorous bush camps that are dotted around the park, you should always be alone with your guide and, hopefully, a pride of sleepy lions or a solitary cheetah. Although, if you get taken to the extraordinary Nyamandlovu pan, it isn’t uncommon to see buffalos, giraffes, elephants, baboons, and even a few big cats in one rather overwhelming sighting.

And the camps themselves are world-class. Wilderness Safaris has played an important role in the rejuvenation of Hwange, and its three camps in the park rival any of the award-winning establishments in neighboring South Africa and Botswana. But most importantly, visiting Zimbabwe is an important way to help control the devastating poaching figures. This is a particularly pressing time for the African conservation community. Poaching is rife throughout the continent but Mugabe’s corrupt rule has made it particularly prolific in Zimbabwe, where a high price is placed on wild animals with commercial value. And unlike neighbouring countries such as South Africa, Zimbabwe has no state-funded anti-poaching projects, meaning parks are entirely reliant on money brought in by tourists. Organizations such as Wilderness Safaris are too late for the rhino population (which now no longer exists in the wild in Zimbabwe), but are protecting lions, elephants, and cheetahs at an astounding rate, thanks to the generosity of guests.

And conservationists are hoping their efforts are only set to get stronger thanks to the government’s latest push to increase tourism numbers. Hwange is 100 miles (or a short propeller-plane hop) away from the brand-new Victoria Falls Airport, which currently welcomes daily flights from Dubai, Doha, Johannesburg, and many other cities around Africa, with the aim of opening up this alluring part of Zimbabwe to the world. It also means visitors can easily combine a trip to the unmissable Victoria Falls with a few days in Hwange.

And while it will take years for the scars of the past to heal, the international travel industry’s attention—which has been very much trained on Zimbabwe for the last year—has given a wonderful sense of hope to the people of Hwange National Park in particular. And many of them speak about how visitors to their extraordinary country hold the key to not only saving animal lives, but also to ushering in a new era for Zimbabwe.

Where to Stay

Little Makalolo
If you’re hoping to get intimate with your surroundings, then look no further than Little Mak, as it is affectionately called. Sleeping just 12 people, you may well find yourself alone in the camp in one of just six beautifully decorated tents that feel like the most comfortable bush home in the world, rather than a luxury camp. There’s also a small plunge pool and a shabby-chic boma in which to have drinks under the stars.

Davison’s
Set around one of the biggest waterholes in Hwange, it is tempting to pass your days at Davison’s doing little more than lounging on either your wonderfully comfortable bed, the newly decorated central area, or simply in the coolness of the pool so you can watch the herds of elephant and buffalo, the troops of baboon, and the occasional big cat pad in and out for a much-needed drink.

Linkwasha
The most glamorous and high-tech of all the Hwange camps, Linkwasha somehow combines the amenities of a five-star hotel in New York with the muted tones of a chic establishment in Paris—oh, and views of a savanna populated with kudu, zebra, giraffe, and ground hornbill. If you can, request a guide called Livingstone Sana, a brilliant old safari hand who has lived in Hwange for decades and knows everything there is to possibly know about bush life.

The Victoria Falls Hotel
The grande dame of African colonial-era hotels, this regal property sits on a manicured lawn a 15-minute walk away from the most dramatic waterfall on earth. And with four-posters draped in mosquito nets; old-fashioned claw-foot baths; a long, shaded swimming pool; and a deep veranda made for sipping gin and tonics, it also fulfills every travel fantasy you’ve ever had in one stop.