Abercrombie & Kent, the global exploration company, earns top marks from our family for first-class wildlife safaris in Botswana's Okavango Delta.
Sanctuary Chief's Camp -- When I'm lying awake, unable to sleep, I don’t count sheep. Instead, I imagine Botswana's Okavango Delta, its elephants splashing in cool lagoons, leopards hunting alone at dusk and herds of zebra and impala grazing on grassy savannahs.
Moments later I picture our tour guide, Denise Silver, welcoming us at the Johannesburg airport with a smile, a baggage cart and an Abercrombie & Kent sign. And I remember Poniso Shamukuni, our guide at Chief's Camp, who discovered four furry hyena pups playing near their den, and went out of his way to show them to us.
The Okavango Delta, where we’ve been twice before, is Africa’s last bit of Eden. Protected and pristine, it’s always golden, no matter when you go. But with tourism down this year, and wildlife safaris on sale, there's no better time to visit. And so we went again, this time with Abercrombie & Kent, the adventure tour company and Africa specialist whose Sanctuary Retreats define the classic African safari.
What’s a wildlife safari all about? First, it’s a chance to see Africa’s “Big Five,” – elephants, lions, hippos, rhinos and African buffalo – with an experienced guide and from the safety of an open-sided all-terrain vehicle. We spent an hour quietly watching a pride of lions 12 feet from the rear fender, and crept past rhinos grazing at 50 feet. Baboons barked as we approached and clutching their babies, scampered toward the nearest trees. Giraffes turned their heads to watch us, and we stopped to watch them.
But a first-class Okavango safari means more than just big animals. True wilderness adventures, they provide an insight into Botswana, Africa’s most stable and prosperous country. You'll have a chance to meet and talk to local people, and to share your experiences with like-minded travelers. Comfortable rustic lodging and delicious meals are part of the pleasure, as are trained professional guides, many of them raised in the bush. You can see it all on television, but being there in person is in a league all its own.
THE OKAVANGO DELTA, NATURE’S EDEN:
Most rivers flow to the sea. But the Okavango River, flowing southeast from Angola and Namibia into Botswana, has no outlet. When spring rains fall and the river rises, it floods the Delta, flowing out in a uncounted fingers between wooded islets, and filling ponds, lagoons and marshes that support hundreds of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and plants, and local and migrating birds.
To protect this unique ecosystem from being loved to death, Botswana’s government adopted an enlightened policy. It divided the Delta into individual districts and leased the rights to bring in tourists to a few approved tour companies. Each outfit owns and/or operates its own lodges within its own sector, and must conform to a general set of regulations.
SAFARI LODGES AND HOW THEY WORK:
To minimize scarring the fragile terrain, all lodge structures – the main lodge, adjacent guest cabins, employee housing, kitchens and laundry – are constructed of canvas tents bolted onto multi-level wood decks. Usually, the living and lounge areas, bar area, library corner, dining area, gift shops and internet space are arranged under several large, connected, open-sided tents. Each guest cabin is closed, with screened walls, a front porch and door, bedroom, sitting area and private bath.
A TYPICAL DAY IN CAMP:
Your wake-up call comes at 5:45 a.m. when a maid delivers a tea tray with tea or coffee and bread or sweet rolls. Dressing, you hurry to the main lodge, grabbing a piece of fruit or coffee cake to go. By 6 a.m., you’ve met your assigned guide and climbed into his safari vehicle – usually with four to five other guests who arrived on the same day. Before the sun comes up, you're on your way into the bush in search of wildlife: elephants, giraffe, lions, i mpala, waterbuck, wildebeest, snakes, birds, African buffalo, warthogs and hippos. Midway through the morning you’ll stop for a trailside breakfast.
As the day heats up and the animals disappear to nap – about 11 a.m. – each group returns for lunch. Afterwards you have time to nap, chat with fellow guests or join a guided walk. You can also shop for hand crafted art, buy batteries or toothpaste) in the gift and sundries store, check your email on the communal computer, or cool off in the swimming pool.
At 4 p.m. as the temperatures cool, the afternoon game drives begin. Male lions awake and stretch, lionesses hunt, leopards climb down from their trees and elephants and antelope move onto grassy meadows. As the sun sets, you stop on the trail for a class sundowner – wine, spirits, beer, crackers and cheese on the tailgate. As dusk falls, male lions begin to roar, hyenas cackle and the ponds are alive with a deafening chorus of frogs.
By 8 p.m., you’re back in camp and gathering for dinner, a leisurely four-to-five course meal served with wine at family-style tables. The travelers, numbering from eight to 26, depending on the lodge, compare the day’s wildlife sightings before heading to bed – escorted by a guide.
Most travelers visit three lodges, staying several days in each. We added a fourth, going from Chobe Chilwero Lodge, south of Victoria Falls. On each transfer day, you pack your bag early and join the morning game drive as usual. Afterwards, your guide drives you to the air strip, usually a grassy field, where a high-wing single-engine plane lands and delivers arriving guests. Your bags are loaded, you buckle up, the the plane takes off and 30 minutes later you’re eating lunch at the next lodge on your itinerary.
GAME DRIVE ETIQUETTE:
Good manners and safety rules enhance safari drives with strangers. Talk softly, sit quietly and don’t stand up suddenly, especially when lions and elephants are close by. If the animals are on your side of the car, slowly lean out of the way to accommodate seat mates anxious to snap photos. Surprising as it seems, lions, hyenas and other predators have learned that vehicles are not edible prey. As long as you stay in the vehicle and sit still you’re in no danger.
ANIMAL SAFETY: Never walk alone outside of camp, at any time, without an escort, especially at night. Nor should you leave your tent, or return to it after dinner without an escort, usually one of the guides. Though there are no telephones, each cabin has a battery-powered horn you can activate if you’re sick or need help. Later, as darkness envelops the cabin, you may hear huffing or rustling as animals prowl through the camp. Always remember, this is their space.
FAST FACTS: For more about Abercrombie & Kent's Sanctuary (Africa) lodges go to www.abercrombiekent.com. South African Airways (SAA) flies non-stop and one-stop flights from American cities to Johannesburg and Cape Town, in South Africa; at (888) 722-4872 or visit www.flysaa.com. British Airways flies from London through Cairo and Nairobi; visit www.britishairways.com. Dates and prices change according to the season. Look for special promotions during the current economic recession.
©The Syndicator, Anne Z. Cooke