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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
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
“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
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
“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.
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
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.