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Single-file, our group of six slipped through Botswana’s Okavango Delta scrub near the Bushman Plains Camp.
“In our culture, we always believe the gods help us — and they do,” said our guide Motswasele “Diesel” Tshosa.
We skirted around a tower of giraffes as he elaborated.
“When I wake, I have to let the gods and my ancestors know what activities I’ll be doing and ask for their strength,” he said. “Often they reply through the woodpeckers. They have many calls — some for regret.”
He proceeded to whistle, then elaborated.
“Shrike-shrike-shrike signals ‘let’s go!’ Then there’s the laughter,” he said. “It resembles a person sharpening a knife and can mean ‘let’s hunt’ or ‘visitors are arriving.’”
“What does it sound like?” I asked
A woodpecker replied from a nearby tree: “Tsa-tsa tsa-tsa!” Goosebumps freckled my skin, despite the desert heat.
“That might be my grandfather!” Tshosa said.
Moments like this abound at the first safari camp owned by the Botswanan Bushmen. This year-old property lies in the country’s northwest, where Africa’s last wetland wilderness drains into the sands of the Kalahari Basin, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The dynamic landscape attracts some of the world’s most endangered mammals, including lions, cheetahs and the largest savanna elephant population. There are also African wild dogs, predators who look adorable — think polka-dot coats and Mickey Mouse ears — but can hit speeds of 44 mph and bring down gazelles.
Bushman Plains has a special relationship with these creatures. A group of the African wild dogs dens and hunts within its concession area. It bears the name “Ash pack” — named for the daughter of wildlife biologist Bill Given, founder of the safari-planning agency Wild Source, the camp’s only non-Botswanan shareholder.
“A property majority-owned by local people is rare, but this Bushmen-led effort is unique,” Given said. “It allows members of the Bukakwe tribe to return to heritage lands, where their hunter-gatherer clan nomadically moved when the owners were small boys. We hope the camp will celebrate their culture — and help keep it alive. Not just for them, but for us, because, ultimately, we all descend from these First People.”
Heritage often blends with bar-raising wildlife encounters at Bushman Plains. Its trackers employ skills that allowed their ancestors to thrive in this rugged terrain for the last 100,000 years. They will be the last generation raised in this way of life, as the country banned hunting in 2014.
Shaded by giant ebony trees, the camp sits 2.25 hours from the town of Maun via jeep and bush plane. One of Botswana’s most intimate properties, it can host eight guests in four A-frame tents with fans, lights and giant wardrobes, along with en suite flush toilets and gravity-fed showers.
Don’t expect a pool or a hot tub: Bushman Plains is an authentic, mobile wilderness camp. But decorations — carved on-site by head waiter Max Morusni or intricately woven in the nearby village of Eretsha — elevate the experience. So do the views of the Samaurutwa seasonal flood channel, where guests can fish and pole mokoros (the region’s traditional dugout canoes now replicated in fiberglass). Chef Lesh occasionally hosts cook-outs in these grasslands, serving kudu stew and roasted tenderloin from game-farmed elands (a kind of antelope).
The classic Hemingway-esque feel continues with the family-style mess tent, where the buffet lunch and three-course sit-down dinners unfold. Start the day with breakfast around the campfire — so central to Bushman culture — and perhaps end it there as well, gazing at flocks of bright stars.
But Bushman Plains has luxe options, too. From April to August, visitors can visit the UNESCO-protected Tsodilo Hills via hot air balloon ($500 each) or helicopter ($1,800 for a max of three passengers). Once at the so-called "Louvre of the Desert,” they can view some 4,500 ancient rock paintings.
My favorite moments, however, involved the vivid stories of the bushmen who grew up thriving in this inhospitable environment. Take owner and guide Dicks Ditshebo Tsima. At 15 years old, he hunted a leopard to impress his intended bride, Lehutsana Mosweu, and her parents. He had found one stalking a hare, so he hid behind a termite mound and threw his spear. It missed, soaring right over the leopard’s head.
“Then the spotted cat was on me,” Tsima said. “She jumped on my chest, with all of her claws hooked in.”
Menaced by his hunting dogs, the leopard dropped Tsima, who grabbed his spear and ran away.
“I thought I was sweating, but when I stopped I realized it was blood,” he said. “You had to get through these challenges before you could be a man. But it’s not a practice anymore because of the law and Western culture.”
Tsima, Tshosa and their colleagues are the last generation to straddle this ancient lifestyle and modern times. Visit Bushman Plains Camp and witness their stories while you still can.
The Details Bushman Plains Campwww.bushmanplains.com