The experience of spending eight hours a day with a companionable guide looking for animals is more than an adrenalin rush – it is an indelible experience. The absolute freedom gives one an emotional high. No decisions are necessary other than to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m., layer on clothes to peel off throughout the day, eat and jump into a Land Rover (a vehicle for which you will develop a fondness as you bounce over boulders, plow through sand and forge through bush).
An evening walk over millions of uneven red rocks with our guide, Raymond, offers a break from the bouncing. Darkness descending, we grumble, “How will we get back?” And then voilà: The sunset view at the hilltop is enhanced by a waiting Land Rover with appetizers and cocktails. This is camping!
Day 11 – Nxamaseri Camp
We hate leaving, but we are on our way to Botswana and some of the best wildlife viewing on offer. We focus on the northern extension of the Kalahari Desert, the inland 15,000-square-kilometre Okavango Delta. Waters originating in the Angolan highlands flood the delta, usually starting in April and subsiding in August.
The small plane bounces, but our stomachs co-operate and we scan the world below. This is a different kind of beauty – a flat land of shallow floodplains, grasses, date palm islands, mopane woodlands and riverine forests. Reserves here are huge and crowd-free: 17 per cent of Botswana is National Park or game reserves; 20 per cent are Wildlife Management Areas.
We land in the northwestern panhandle of the delta, a world of tidy villages, subsistence and livestock farming. A 30-minute boat ride through papyrus and reeds takes us to Nxamaseri, a privately owned, rustic fishing camp. Mid-April is shoulder season, so it’s all ours.
The Tsodilo Hills, a World Heritage Site of ancient rock paintings, revered by the Hambukushu and San communities, is nearby. We spend hours bird watching, drifting on the water in either a mokoro (dugout pushed with a pole) or a comfortable shallow-bottomed motorboat.
Day 14 – Tubu Tree Camp
We go deeper into the island world of the delta. A young leopard greets us at the runway, displaying his catch of an unlucky squirrel. The camp is beautiful. We drive through so much water that land and liquid distinctions blur. Vervet monkeys trampoline on our roof in the morning. They are better than an alarm clock. We dine by candle-light in the bush, where the sky begs us to reach out and touch the Milky Way. We spy constellations of another hemisphere, reminding us just how far we are from home.
Day 17 – Little Mombo Camp
The best game drives are at Little Mombo Camp. “Hold your nose,” Cisco, our guide, warns. A gas attack announces our first lions. A sated pride, digestive tracks working overtime, sleep on the grass. They look like furry sausages. Legs in the air, some spooning each other, they seem like the puss next door.
We are thrilled to spot the King of Beasts, a fine-looking specimen with a load of golden mane. “Not so fast,” Cisco says. “Wait for the rear view.” No male equipment! This rare “HeShe” in the Moremi Reserve is revealed as the Queen of Beasts.
Silence is one of our great memories – barring elephants and hippos munching all night, or the ear-splitting blast of an emergency air horn, set off when nervous guests hear lions growling at 1 a.m. and again at 3. Lessons learned: 1) all variety of wildlife may wander through camp, even on an elevated boardwalk and 2) that’s why you can’t walk unescorted after dark.
Day 20 – Little Mombo Camp