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Rare rhinos and lazy leopards: Notes (that you can use) from our blissed-out African safari

A leopard retreats from the heat in Botswana.

Linda Intaschi; David Silcox

Day 1 – Little Kulala Camp

An African wildcat, looking like a leggy house cat with major ears, presses her nose to the picture window of our kulala (villa). We look over the banks of Namibia's dry Aub River, lined with Camel Thorn trees, and breathe in pungent wild sage. Springbok bounce as the hot day turns to cool evening. A waterhole attracts black-backed jackals. We are hooked.

Day 2 – Little Kulala Camp

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Sunrise in the desert compensates for crack-of-dawn wake-up calls. The huge dunes, ignited red by the sun, are irresistible. The sand under foot is still cold as we start climbing. Namib-Naukluft National Park is easily accessible by car, and considered the busiest area of our trip. But busy is relative; tourists are few.

The Namib, the oldest desert in the world, stretches the length of the country, about 1,600 kilometres. Flying between camps in small Cessnas thrills with eagle-eye views of a vast land, including ephemeral rivers and a forbidding Atlantic shore, complete with ghostly shipwrecks. It is a land of stunning scenery: rugged mountain ranges, lunar-esque landscapes and wildlife preserves.

The Namib, the oldest desert in the world, stretches the length of the country, about 1,600 kilometres. Flying between camps in small Cessnas thrills with eagle-eye views of a vast land, including ephemeral rivers and a forbidding Atlantic shore, complete with ghostly shipwrecks. It is a land of stunning scenery: rugged mountain ranges, lunar-esque landscapes and wildlife preserves.

Day 4 – Serra Cafema Camp

Tourists are almost non-existent on the northwest border with Angola. After an hour-long drive from a landing strip, through some of the thirstiest looking land in the world, we reach the otherworldly Kunene River. In this ribbon of green vegetation is one of the most remote camps in southern Africa: the luxurious Serra Cafema.

The handsome and engaging Ben is serving in the dining room. He looks right at home in well-pressed khakis, but his family are semi-nomadic Himba and live a traditional life herding cattle nearby. When our Himba-speaking guide suggests a visit, we hesitate: Is it cultural voyeurism? But Ben encourages us: "You'll meet my mother tomorrow. Say Hi."

So we go. The village, one conical dwelling and two simple enclosures (one for animals), rests on a stark, dry plain. The women wear only goat-skin skirts and beaded necklaces; their hair is elaborately fashioned and, like their bodies, covered with a paste of fat and ochre.

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Ben's mother sits on a piece of fabric with four other women, surrounded by children. She asks if the weather in our country has been good for our cattle. They had no rain and it was a bad year. If meeting people with the least carbon footprint on the planet doesn't humble you, nothing will.

Day 7 – Desert Rhino Camp

The Desert Rhino Camp reveals more Namib. Views from our porch are of a wide valley covered with yellow-grasses, mopane tree groves, toxic euphorbia, shepherd trees with their distinctive white trunks, and ancient welwitschia plants. The heat of the day drops to 10 at night.

Black rhinos are almost extinct because of the ludicrous demand for their horns in countries such as China and Korea. It is a privilege to join a team of trackers working for Save the Rhino Trustin tandem with the camp. We are lucky and spot four in one day. A radio call, a race over rough terrain, a quick hike and there they are, grazing.

Save the Rhino Trust, formed in 1982, hired ex-poachers to protect the last free-ranging black rhino in the world. One of our guides is a grandson of one of these men. His grandfather died 12 years ago and, at 15, he was offered the job. "I had to quit school, but I knew that I wouldn't get a better job than this."

Fellow guests provide another cultural experience. We are slack-jawed one night at dinner when a lovely blonde from California gushes earnestly to Namibian staff about spray-on tanning: "And you don't even have to go to a salon. They come to your house!"

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Day 9 – Desert Rhino Camp

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

A guidebook warns of "khaki fever," a.k.a. falling head over heels for your guide. Indeed, when the only thing standing between you and a trumpeting angry elephant is trust that your guardian will act quickly before ears flatten and a freight train of irritation charges, you certainly are grateful. A good guide makes a safari fascinating and fun. We're beginning to wonder if there isn't a bit of magic helping Cisco: Following tracks on sandy roads, through the bush and over rocks is exciting – but how did he actually spot that leopard sleeping up in a tree?

Day 23 – in transit

The "Big Five" (lion, elephant, leopard, cape buffalo and rhino) are grand, but in three weeks we compile an encyclopedic list of creatures, each deserving a thesaurus of superlatives. Who can resist a giraffe – graceful, leggy and designer beautiful (a bat of an eyelash can knock you sideways)? Or a zebra, fish eagle, African wild dog, bat-eared fox, hippopotamus or warthog for that matter? Most exciting was the rhino; the most beautiful was the leopard. We are headed back to Cape Town. Our visit to Namibia and Botswana was a valuable reminder that places of breathtaking beauty – where one can exalt in the wonders of the natural world – still exist.


Where to stay

All of the lodgings, except Nxamaseri, are part of Wilderness Safaris, a luxury eco-tourism company. In Namibia, Little Kulala features chic decor in 11 air-conditioned thatched villas with plunge pools and rooftop "skybeds" for stargazing. Serra Cafema offers eight canvas and thatched large "chalets" with private decks on the Kunene River. Desert Rhino has eight upscale safari tents, each with writing desk and small deck. In Botswana, Tubu Tree is an intimate camp with five pretty tented accommodations on wooden platforms with decks looking out on floodplains. Little Mombo/Mombo features spacious and elegant tents with verandas. And Nxamaseri is a comfortable, laid-back six-cabin fishing lodge.

What you'll pay

Wilderness Safaris: Classic camps such as Desert Rhino start at approximately $500 a person a day during low season (January to March); $700 a person a day in high season (June to August). Rates climb to three times that at "premier" camps such as Mombo. All food, drinks, game drives and laundry included.

Nxamaseri is located on an island in Botswana's Okavango Delta. Rooms start at $415 a person a night in the low season; $525 during high season.

Michael Haines, of Safari and Company, patiently answered our questions and arranged our trip perfectly. 1-800-303-6799;

The writers received a discounted rate on lodging.

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