A Wild Calling

An intimate look at life in Botswana's Okavango Delta

By: David Swanson

When you hear the drums you’re being called to tea,” said John van der Berg, manager at Xigera Camp, an eight-tent safari lodge located deep in the Okavango Delta, in Botswana.

The plan worked well my first day at Xigera, as a quickening heartbeat of tribal drums played by staff and guests announced afternoon tea. This was followed by an excursion in a mokoro, a dugout canoe and time-honored transportation method through the delta’s papyrus-lined waterways. Hippo, elephant and crocodile were encountered, along with a panoply of vivid bird life.

But such is the intimate relationship of most Okavango camps to the delta’s dynamic wildlife that the following afternoon there was no drumming to summon guests for a game-viewing drive. Hyenas found a way onto the camp’s elevated walkways during the night and stole the large, leather-rimmed drums.

Remnants of the torn-apart instruments were strewn around the grounds. Van der Berg looked on with a weary, resigned sigh.

Running a remote safari camp probably offers more than its share of management obstacles, but Johannesburg-based Wilderness Safaris, one of Africa’s foremost eco-resort operators, has persevered to solidify its position as the leading safari hotelier in Botswana. The company offers 17 camps in Botswana, all of which are reached by light aircraft, along with scheduled fly/drive safaris that involve guest participation in temporary camps, at a lower cost.

Botswana is a country rich in some luxuries particularly diamonds and democracy but one where rainfall is so scarce that the nation’s currency is named pula, which means rain in the Setswana language. But the Okavango River pours into northern Botswana and fans out to nourish a vast, yet fragile, ecosystem in the otherwise desert-covered nation. The result is the world’s largest inland delta, supporting a remarkably diverse, carefully protected wildlife population. It is also one of Africa’s most exclusive game-viewing destinations.

“One of the things Botswana did about eight years ago was to commit to high-value, low-impact tourism,” said Russell Friedman, director of Wilderness Safaris.

The Okavango, in particular, is primarily made up of private concessions holding up to four safari camps each.

“The concessions are given very specific limitations as to the number of beds, and the lease fees are very high,” Friedman added.

Although “big five” game lion, buffalo, elephant, leopard and rhino in the Okavango is not always as concentrated as it is in East African parks, the upside is that guests have far more intimate experiences with the wildlife rather than sharing lion sightings with dozens of strangers. The largest Wilderness Safaris camp holds a maximum of 20 guests, yet the camps sit on private reserves as large as 600,000 acres.

With the number of beds in the Okavango already at its maximum, demand exceeds supply, particularly during high season (July through October).

“Africa is booming and the safari camps are bursting at the seams,” said Norman Pieters, president of Miami-based Karell’s African Dream Vacations. “People are afraid to go to the Middle East or Northern Africa. They don’t want to go to Europe. Southern Africa is seen as a safe destination.”

The Wilderness Safaris Web site includes extensive photos and information about the individual camps, but no contact details, encouraging guests to work with specialist tour operators such as Pieters, who talk, breath, eat and sleep the continent.

“A lot of companies are trying to go direct to the consumer because the margins are better, but we prefer to support the Karell’s of the world,” Friedman said.

What’s New

Wilderness Safaris’ newest operation is Tubu Tree Camp, located in the Jao concession. Open since June, the five-tent camp offers splendid views across a flood plain. Each unit has a private outdoor shower on a raised platform with a 180-degree view.

Kings Pool Camp in the elephant-rich Linyanti Wildlife Reserve will be upgraded to the company’s Six Paw luxury category. The 10 rooms will be knocked down and replaced with nine larger units, each with its own private plunge pool. The renovation is scheduled for completion in April 2003.

Gudigwa Camp, scheduled to open in April 2003, is a new concept for Wilderness Safaris an immersion into a Bukakhwe settlement, a community of 800 on the edge of the Okavango. The eight rooms are grass huts modeled after traditional bushman shelters; instead of game viewing, activities will focus on cross-cultural exchange.

Wilderness Safaris has created a pair of two-night bush experiences to debut in May 2003. The Xigera Mokoro Trail explores the Okavango by water, with camps set up on remote islands. The Chitabe Walking Trail features overnights in “hides” manmade structures designed to conceal humans from animals in the Chitabe concession.

Although Karell charges a $250 initial consultation fee for FITs, it is applied to the final cost of the trip.

“We care about our passengers irrespective of what they paid,” Pieters said. “The itineraries are crafted to meet our clients’ personal interests and fit into their budgets.”

All-inclusive rack prices for Wilderness camps in Botswana range from $250 to $550 per person, per night, in low season, to $425 to $935 in high season. The 11-day Mopane Safari a participation camping trip that features five nights in the Okavango and a night at Victoria Falls is priced from $3,405, including air from Atlanta or New York, through Karell’s.

Call 800-327-0373. Web site: www.karell.com.