Richard Beck is blown away by southern Africa’s wildlife, clear night sky and top-notch camps and lodges on his first safari
I doubt if there is anyone who likes to travel that hasn’t been intrigued by Africa. When my friend John told me that he was planning a trip to Botswana’s Okavango Delta, I knew this was my chance. We decided to arrive in June, as it was early in the dry season so the plains were still lush after the rains. The weather was perfect, being colder in the morning and reaching the mid-60s to early 70s in the afternoon. After a night in Johannesburg, we flew to Livingstone in Zambia, where we were met by our driver and treated to our first ‘African massage’ on the 5km dirt track that led from the paved highway to our first camp: Islands of Siankaba. We explored the river, ogled at Victoria Falls and called in on a nearby village, talking to the chief and visiting the local school.
Crossing the river between Zambia and Botswana in an 18ft boat was slightly precarious, and I was more than a little happy to see our driver waiting on the other side. We left Kasane Airport for an hour-long flight across the edge of the Delta. Being from coastal South Carolina, it made us feel as if we were back home to see the flooded plains meet the horizon. The swirls of green, orange and yellow, the slightly elevated hummocks of dry land and the clarity of the water are all best appreciated from above.
As we neared our second camp, Kwando Safaris’ Lebala, we buzzed the strip to clear the giraffe and elephant, landed our little plane and stepped out into the Kalahari bush. Our safari started when our guide turned the key. It was here we had our first true glimpse of Africa’s beautiful night sky, which is unimaginably clear. There was no heat at night so we took ‘bush babies’ (hot water bottles) to bed with us.
At &Beyond Sandibe Safari Lodge, we were delayed access to our rooms for half an hour by the local landscaping elephant herd. One even put his trunk over the side of the outdoor shower to the surprise of our friend Judy. The property is right on the edge of the Delta, with each cabin having its own elevated platform over the water for afternoon Cognac. The guides managed to get us quite close to leopard, cheetah, hyena and lion, among other herding animals. Perhaps the most special moment came when our guides informed us that some monkeys were making alarm calls, which is often a sign that there is a cat in the area. We headed off into the bush and, out of nowhere, a leopard came into view, chasing a warthog. It waited on top of a termite mound for its target to emerge from its hiding place. We moved so that we could see her face in the sun and, unbelievably, she sat there for a good five minutes with us just 18m away.
Our next stop was Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp, a two-hour drive from the landing strip. Crossing partially submerged bridges, skirting the edge of the Delta all the while, the transfer turned out to be an excellent safari in itself. From our sunset mokoro ride to the motorised tour of the ecosystem, complete with an elephant foraging among the reeds that border the waterways, the experience was fascinating and a great way to end our trip.
To other Africa first-timers who are trying to decide whether to opt for a national park or an isolated camp on a private game reserve, I cannot recommend our experience highly enough. Whatever the difference is in cost, consider paying it if you can.