Read about Travel Designer Antonia’s journey through the majestic country of Botswana. Vast, wild and a land of striking contrasts, there’s nothing that can quite prepare you for how astonishing this tantalisingly wild and remote corner of Africa is. From the unparalleled wildlife sightings to the incredibly diverse ecosystems, Botswana is magical and simply needs to be seen to be believed.
Touching down in Maun, I was greeted by a fleet of tiny planes lined up ready to drop guests off in the most isolated parts of the bush. My first destination was somewhere only in my wildest dreams I ever could have imagined visiting: the Makgadikgadi Pans. Spanning an area greater than Switzerland, these salt pans are the largest in the world and known for their arid, sandy desert, sparse vegetation, and unusual wildlife.
After soaring above the chalky lunar-like landscape and endless horizon, we came to land at Tsigaro Airstrip, greeted by a refreshingly cool drink under the shade of an acacia tree. We then set off for camp, speeding through the hot dusty wind, past ostrich and secretary birds, before the scraggy low bushland opened up to one of the many salty oases. Nestled among the clusters of majestic mokolwane palms in the distance, we spotted Moroccan-style khaki canvas tents rising majestically on the horizon, creating a picturesque backdrop for what was to become a series of unforgettable adventures.
Our home here in the Kalahari was Jack’s, one of Africa’s most iconic camps. Gleaming from its recent rebuild is this 1940s-styled safari camp, originally founded by the legendary Jack Bousfield – a fourth-generation hunter and pioneering visionary with a passion for adventure and isolation. The nine colossal tents, adorned with Indian print fabrics, vibrant cushions and mahogany antique furniture, appear as a cross between a Moorish Palace and a museum piece, transporting me back to a bygone era. And whilst there is an old-world charm, modern touches bring the camp up to date with cooling systems and private plunge pools – a real treat at the end of hot dusty days exploring the pans. There is truly nowhere else like this on earth.
Eccentric tents aside, the experiences offered at Jack’s are second to none, and our days were brimming with close encounters with nature’s wonders. We found joy in spending time with the playful meerkats, who eagerly perched on our shoulders and heads, keeping watch for any potential predators. However, there is no frantic box-ticking of the ‘Big Five’ here. We learned about the migratory patterns of the zebra, the journey made by tens of thousands of the creatures from north to south in search of lush grasslands. It’s also impossible not to miss the blue wildebeest in vast numbers, and the breeding colony of flamingos in the nearby Sua Pan.
The green season in the desert is one of Africa’s great unpredictable spectacles. Though we don’t spot the elusive Kalahari lion during our stay, we traced his footsteps whilst marvelling at a close encounter with two brown hyena cubs. At first light we took to the salt pans on an adrenaline-fuelled quad biking adventure, roaring across the expansive dusty landscape, and as night fell, indulged in an incredible dining experience under the expansive African skies. There is no shortage of fun and surprise at Jack’s.
Other than the thrill-seeking pursuits, discovering the secrets of the pans and the oldest culture on earth – the Khoisan – while trekking with the San Bushmen was an incredibly thought-provoking experience. This was a real chance for us to learn from the true masters of this harsh habitat and how they have survived in the Kalahari Desert.
Khwai Private Reserve
Following our Kalahari adventure, it was time to head north to the 200,000-hectare Khwai Private Reserve, known to be one of the most wildlife-rich areas of the Okavango Delta. Formerly a hunting concession, safari operator Natural Selection has invested a huge amount of work to transform the area into a safari destination, spending hours tracking and habituating the wildlife, By staying in Natural Selection’s camps, guests immediately support the Khwai Development Trust and the local communities living on the edge of the reserve.
On arrival at the private airstrip, we trundled through the distinctive landscape made up of dense clusters of mopane, fragrant sage trees, and winding channels from the Khwai River. We also encountered huge herds of elephants on their way over from neighbouring Chobe National Park. Over the course of the next few days, we became immersed in our new surroundings and embarked on some of the most memorable game drives I have experienced.
On our first evening drive, we happened upon a female lion and her five baby lion cubs playing peacefully amongst the dry savannah, and the following morning brought a spine-tingling moment witnessing two male lion brothers calling to each other, with a roar so deep and powerful it reverberated through our bodies. Our home for the night, the seven exclusive tents at Tuludi were sanctuaries of luxury amid the May heat, strategically positioned to maximise far-reaching floodplain views. By night, we came together to exchange stories by the fire, where above us, stars overwhelmed the sky and the only sounds we hear are those of croaking hippos and buffaloes rustling in the bush surrounding us.
Journeying to the eastern fringes of the reserve, edging ever closer to the wildlife magnet that is the Khwai River, we witnessed a mesmerising display of nature’s prowess: a hunting party of four wild dogs racing across the floodplains in pursuit of a herd of impala, narrowly avoiding mishap in their quest. Phenomenal wildlife sightings continued where, for what felt like hours, we observed two leopards tantalisingly traipse an impala carcass over the narrow branch of a camelthorn tree, with an onlooking hyena eagerly eying the spectacle from below. Khwai is a photographer’s delight, and our phenomenal guides Steeze and Molls helped bring our experience to life.
Botswana embraces diversity in all aspects. Our game drives are interspersed with mokoro rides where we drifted peacefully along the lush water channels to the sound of chirping waterbirds in the reeds. And as we glided, we gained a deeper understanding of the complexity of the delta and its changing annual flood patterns. With new experiences at every turn, before long we were whisked up into the skies on a spectacular helicopter ride, flying low to give us a real sense of the vast scale of the golden bushland and the wildlife that inhabit it.
Truly cut off from the outside world, we slept under the expansive African skies at Sky Beds, a sleep-out initiative with just three wooden sleeping platforms balanced above the dry scrubland beneath. But it’s really our hosts Bonno and Kenny who made our stay truly memorable, going out of their way to make us feel at home, and not forgetting our delicious feast served in traditional Poike pots around the roaring open fire.
Part and parcel of a stay at Sky Beds is the extraordinary experience in a photographic hide, gazing out at almost twenty gentle giants slurping and jostling in the pool ahead of us. And in between the forest of grey legs, we spot hippos partaking in a display of magnificent yawning, alongside giraffe, warthog and impala trying their luck for space in the cooling waters.
Northern Okavango Delta
From dust to delta, under the shadow of our tiny plane’s wing, the capillaries of the Okavango Delta shimmered in emeralds beneath us as we flew to the northeastern reaches of the waterway. Our final safari lodge, recently opened and on everybody’s radar having been awarded Condé Nast Traveller’s ‘Best New African Camps For 2023’, is Duke’s Camp. Three decades after the iconic Jack’s came onto the safari scene, its creators have set up in the delta, and it was a true privilege to be amongst the first guests to visit.
Lying just beyond the foliage, the discreet yet exquisite canvas camp tents and a wonderful team headed up by Mr ‘T’ were awaiting our impending arrival. Many of the lovely staff are from Botswana and local communities, each and everyone goes above and beyond to create a relaxed family atmosphere around camp. Similar to Jack’s, the communal open-air mess tent with velvet sofas and walls adorned with old maps holds an old-world glamour and provides a welcoming space to pour your own G&T from the well-stocked drinks cabinet. In the evenings we dined around long tables in the shade of the ebony tree, sharing stories of our days and Botswanan travels, with hippos far too close for comfort looking on from the water’s edge.
Perched on teak platforms above the waterways are Duke’s nine (and soon to be twelve) vintage tents, decorated with paisley print interiors, hand-carved four poster beds and antique furniture. Tents are, however, a fraction of the size of Jack’s, and whilst they excel in attention to detail and spacious bathrooms, they lack the outdoor showers that even newer sister camp, Duke’s East, offers. For me, though, the sundeck was a personal highlight, providing a peaceful spot to sip my morning tea whilst taking in the scenes of the delta right in front of my eyes.
Out and about, our gracious guide Chabba knew the concession intimately and where to head for leopard and lion sightings during our short stay. Meanwhile, Leo sped us through the waterways with such ease and efficiency, skimming narrowly past a bloat of hippopotamuses, red lechwe and malachite kingfisher. Fishing and remote fly camping are also offered from Duke’s but the one to watch out for is Duke’s East, hot off the press having opened last month. Offering an almost identical experience, yet with exclusivity in buckets with just four vast tents, this is the perfect camp for a family or group of friends to take over. Duke’s East is an absolute must for any client looking for an off-grid yet luxurious tented experience; a safari full of character delivered by a team with ancestral roots running deep in Botswanan soils.
Botswana is a destination of untamed beauty and raw, natural splendour. The feeling of disconnect coupled with the landscapes, the greatest animals on earth and pioneering conservationists and guides, Botswana truly gets under your skin.
If Antonia's Journey through Botswana has inspired you, get in touch with our Travel Team to start planning your own journey.