Kathy plodded leisurely across the Okavango Delta’s tall grass, her
flexible toes, hidden in trunk-like legs, cushioned each step.
In front sat Billy, our mahout (elephant driver), who straddled
the African elephant’s neck, tugged on her ear and urged her
forward in a firm, low voice: “Kathy move, Kathy move.”
I sat behind Billy on a padded saddle and marveled at her stiff,
velvety skin and the careful way she stepped over fallen trees. Now
and then she arched her trunk back to find my hand, gently feeling
for one of the bits of kibble that Billy doles out during these
The rest of our group, five visitors from the U.S., rode similar
elephants all rescued from zoos and circuses, brought to Botswana
The Elephant Back Safari at Abu Camp is one of the many unique
safaris offered to clients in Botswana and its close neighbor South
Africa. Whether clients want to travel by elephant or cruise in a
four-wheel-drive vehicle, wildlife encounters are as up close and
personal as safety allows.
“Most of the animals kudu, lions, even leopards are used to
seeing vehicles drive by, stop for a few minutes and then leave,”
said Paul Swart, vice president at Ker & Downey, the
safari-travel company that planned and booked our 10-day trip.
“They’ve learned there’s nothing to be afraid of. As long as you
don’t get out of the car, they ignore you.”
And I must admit, being ignored while driving by wild giraffes,
lions and leopards is one of Africa’s great wonders.
Southern Africa is home to variety of lodges, and most offer
game drives that follow a similar routine. Clients wake early, grab
breakfast before a 6 a.m. game drive to get up close to Africa’s
wildlife when the animals are most active.
At around 10 a.m., clients return to camp for lunch. Afternoon
game drives start at around 4 p.m. and last about four hours, after
which dinner is served back at camp. During the drives, travelers
are guaranteed to see all kinds of animals with the help of guides
who read pad-prints like road signs.
While the game drive itineraries are fairly standard among
camps, the differences in lodge amenities can be drastic. Some
camps are government-owned and offer the basics, while other
privately owned camps offer clients luxe settings.
As a rule of thumb: In Botswana’s game parks, clients typically
stay in tents outfitted with twin or double beds, electric lights
and a private bathroom with shower, while South Africa’s game
lodges usually offer clients comfortably furnished cottages or
We enlisted Ker & Downey to plan our southern African
safaris. The Houston-based company operates four game lodges in
Botswana and also books safaris at all lodges in Namibia and Kenya.
All reservationists are South African or have visited the
properties they sell.
We first flew into Johannesburg, South Africa, and then headed
to Singita, a game-viewing resort on a private wildlife reserve
next to Kruger National Park. The luxury resort is perched above a
river with a long outdoor pool overlooking a popular elephant
Next, we flew to Royal Malewane a colonial-style lodge outfitted
with English antiques, oriental rugs and four-poster beds. Both
lodges conduct safari drives on private tracts of wilderness with
ample populations of lions, leopards and rhinos.
After flying into northern Botswana, we were greeted by giraffes
and baboons grazing beside the runway. When we reached Kanana Camp,
we had just enough time for lunch and a nap before leaving for a
mokoro (canoe) trip deep in the heart of the Delta.
This camp, like most lodges in the Okavango Delta, is a
temporary structure designed to protect the environment. The main
lodge is a tent bolted to a multi-level deck with a large dining
area and lounge. In the evenings, electricity provides
The bungalows, usually eight per camp, are also tents pitched on
raised decks with shade flys and porch furniture. Mosquito netting
covers the windows and heavy-duty zippers close the doors. All have
But the lodge at Shinde Camp, also in Okavango, was my favorite,
with its treehouse-like terraced decks.
It seems no matter where clients stay while on safari, nights
end with the sounds of a chorus of frogs and roars of distant
lions. This, too, is a wonder of Africa.
Ker & Downey’s rates are fully inclusive, including
alcoholic beverages and daily laundry service.
Commission: 10-11 percent, depending on trip
Abu Camp requires a three-night minimum stay at $5,100 per
In high season, Kanana and Shinde camps range from $395-$550 per
person, per night, double.
Singita’s 15 bungalows start at about $1,000 per night,
Royal Malewane starts at about $850 per night, double.