Journalist Delta Willis seeks sanctuary in Botswana’s Selinda reserve
On my very first safari to Africa, I was introduced to endangered Rothschild giraffe at a sanctuary in Kenya. Over the years I have returned to the Giraffe Manor, and now live on the edge of that sanctuary. But it was in Botswana that I learned about a very special giraffe, named Zarafa, thanks to wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert.
After a long day of filming, the Joubert’s paddled down a river in the Selinda Reserve, looking for a place to camp as night fell. They fell asleep under a magnificent African ebony tree, now the anchor for their luxurious Relais & Chateaux camp, opened in 2008, which they named after the giraffe.
Meaning the “beloved one”, Zarafa captivated the French nearly two centuries ago. Cruising down the Nile on her way to Europe, the young female giraffe was transported in an East African dhow, with a hole cut in the upper deck for her long, slender neck.
Likewise, the Joubert’s like to see where they’re going, and designed their Great Plains Conservation camp, Zarafa, with rigorous environmental principles.
Energy comes from over 150 solar panels, which produce enough electricity for the main camp and a private villa known as the Dhow Suite. Game drive vehicles operate on a mix of vegetable oil (85%) and diesel (15%). Drinking water is treated with a UV filtration system, and there are no plastic water bottles.
Even the wine served at Zarafa supports conservation efforts. Sip a flute of Graham Beck Brut while enjoying a bubble bath in your copper tub – the Beck estate allows room for eland, leopard and bat-eared fox. But the bottle that caught my eye was a Rhino Run red blend named after Ian Player, the innovative conservationist who dedicated his life to saving rhino. His bold rhino translocation was featured in one of the Survival wildlife documentaries I promoted in my early career. While the herds he saved grew to a healthy number, three decades later rhino are again under siege, with one animal being killed every seven and a half hours in South Africa. The Joubert’s are raising funds to airlift 100 rhinos to safety; 25 have been moved already to Botswana. A film about the project is in the works for 2017.
“We are moving rhinos from existing, high density populations which are attracting more poaching, and releasing them into a country that has the best anti-poaching record on the continent,” said Dereck. “This initiative also secures rhino breeding diversity and provides stock in a different location, so it could be considered an Ark for rhino genes.”
Because hunting is outlawed in Botswana, and there is low human population density compared to East Africa, there is less human/wildlife conflict. Near Zarafa camp, a leopard mother with her cub were so trusting they walked within a metre of our Land Cruiser. With some astonishment I heard my guide whisper the age of this cub at exactly at 13 months; a few minutes later he showed me where the cub had been born. He’d been watching the mother and cub since that day, so these big cats knew and trusted his vehicle.
Getting close is one thing, but knowing the behavior and habits of wildlife adds to the potential for great photographs. My guide at Zarafa knew the leopards were going down for a drink at the river; he also told me when ground hornbills were about to jump up a tree.
If, like me, you have dreamed of being a National Geographic photographer or wildlife filmmaker, Zarafa Camp is for you. Professional cameras with huge telephoto lens are on loan in each tent; your images are downloaded on a CD that you take home with you.
This is the memory I will keep forever. After a couple of hours on a game drive, I suggested to my guide, Lets, that we park in the shade near a waterhole and wait for the wildlife to come to us. There we sat, chatting quietly, facing the water, when out of the corner of my eye, a young bull elephant approached confidently. A loud leathery ear flap from the very large matriarch reminded us who was boss, as a herd of 18 elephants, including a tiny new calf, made their way to the water, where we watched them enjoy a midday drink, and heard that magical satisfied rumble, like a deep purr. Maybe that was me.