Botswana’s strict anti-poaching laws help guarantee sightings of animals such as leopards. // © 2016 Krista Simmons
Feature image (above): Sanctuary Retreats has two camps in the Moremi Game Reserve. // © 2016 Krista Simmons
Flying above Botswana’s parched Kalahari Desert, our featherweight prop plane bobbed in the arid African sky. Looking down, I began to wonder how anything could survive in this desolate expanse. Then, slowly, the blue veins of the Okavango Delta crept in, pulsing life into the wild African bush. The weathered terrain gave way to fresh water and swaths of green trees, and I gazed in awe at the herds of elephants, giraffe and buffalo below. Flying into the delta is a wildlife viewing experience, and I could almost have gone home happy simply having seen it from above.
As we descended onto the precariously small runway — which, to be honest, was just a strip of compacted dirt — I began to think the aerial tour may indeed have been enough. Our pilot swooped down for the landing, then quickly retreated to circle around for a second attempt — there was an impala on the runway that he didn’t want to disturb.
“Right! Sorry about that guys,” he said in his characteristically South African deadpan.
I was equal parts terrified and charmed as we dipped down for try No. 2.
“If only Los Angeles drivers could show the same respect for their fellow commuters,” I thought to myself as we trundled past the makeshift airport, which consisted of a stretcher and a few buckets of water on the side of the tarmac.
That levity — paired with a deeply rooted respect for nature — characterized my trip through the Okavango Delta. The people of Botswana have grown up on the land, at one with the African bush and all its creatures. Conservation has become an essential part of ecotourism in the delta, and, in particular, at Sanctuary Retreats, a collection of luxury safari lodges that truly embraces the natural surroundings.
I was absolutely blown away by the keen, almost superhuman eyes of Sanctuary’s guides during my safari with Abercrombie & Kent (A&K), which included stays at both Sanctuary Baines’ and Chief’s camps, which A&K owns and operates. Both camps are located on the Moremi Game Reserve in the delta, but have decidedly different vibes. At Baines’, you’ll find a convivial, homey and laid-back approach. At Chief’s, there’s a more upscale, design-driven air.
Chief’s Camp has recently received a spot-on makeover, which includes a solar grid that provides power to each of the 12 rooms. Each bush pavilion has its own plunge pool and floor-to-ceiling windows, making for a luxurious soak with unparalleled views. For those looking for a truly exclusive safari experience, booking the brand-new Geoffrey Kent Luxury Suite, named after A&K’s proprietor, means you’ll get your own butler and a guide to shepherd you though your trip, plus a private fire pit for enjoying gin-and-tonic sundowners with your travel companions. It’s both fabulously appointed and beautifully designed, but the experience is so much more than meets the eye.
The property is located on Chief’s Island, which got its name because the region’s tribal leader used to hunt there. With its astounding diversity of wildlife, it’s easy to see why.
The days of hunting are now merely a memory, as conservation and ecotourism are the focus for those visiting the area, with the delta being a prime destination for photographic safaris. And because the philanthropic arm of A&K has taken such an active role in rhino conservation with Chief’s Camp, it’s now a spot where visitors can view the Big 5, something that would not have been possible just a few years ago.
The Chief’s Camp property works with the Rhino Conservation project, which relocated and reintroduced the prehistoric-looking animals into the area.
“Before 2001, there were no known rhinos in the entire country,” said Sehenyi Tlotlego, philanthropy coordinator for Sanctuary Retreats in Botswana. “The fact that we can see rhinos when we go on game drives is a huge conservation achievement.”
Due to Botswana’s strict anti-poaching laws and strong stance against hunting, this region has become a haven for not only rhinos, but also wildlife such as African bush elephants, Cape wild dogs, lions, leopards, zebras and more — many of which you can see from the front deck of your private pavilion at Chief’s.
But the adventure doesn’t stop at your front door. On a land safari, guests spend the day in Sanctuary’s outfitted safari vehicle charging through wet patches and trundling along the land, stopping for morning tea and freshly baked rusks — a delicious South African biscuit — while watching journeys of giraffes and dazzles of zebras pass by.
And a trip would not be complete without a ride in a mokoro, a traditional canoe that locals often use to paddle around the delta during the seasonal flooding that takes place from June through August, where waters from the Angolan Highlands flow into the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
On our ride, a poler rowed us through reeds and papyrus, pointing out elephants and crocodiles along the way. Crickets and beetles hummed, and a hippo chuckled in the distance. I couldn’t help but smile at his Jabba-the-Hutt-like laugh.
Punishing though it may be, even nature here has a decent sense of humor.