Botswana is playing the long game. My safari guide, a member of the Bayei tribe named Meshack, doesn’t use those exact words. But every strategy and statistic he cites, as I pepper him with questions about what makes his country unique, say it for him. I’m in Botswana with The Luxury Safari Company for eight days, and poor Meshack has me for three of them.
The first time I meet Meshack he is chasing a herd of impalas off a remote runway. I’m disembarking from a small plane people back home would call a puddle jumper. The runway belongs to Jao Camp, a five-star property built on stilts in the Okavango Delta.
“I think they’re trying to commit suicide.” Meshack laughs as he says it. But I can tell he’s perplexed, perhaps even bothered, by the impalas’ behavior. Fortunately for these antelopes — nicknamed “the McDonald’s of the bush” because they epitomize fast food — Jao Camp isn’t a revolving door destination. A plane, bringing in new staff or guests, might only touch down every other day. Helicopter Horizons, who specialize in heli-safaris, might land twice a week. After all, there are only two luxury villas and five suites at Jao Camp, and there’s no thru traffic. It’s at least four hours to the nearest hospital, assuming the roads are dry enough to drive on. Most of the year they’re submerged.
Water levels in the Okavango Delta are currently the highest they’ve been in five years. For camps and visitors like me, that’s a good thing. It means increased access — Meshack and I troll the marsh-like landscape in traditional mokoro canoes — and better wildlife sightings. Not only is Botswana home to Africa’s famous big five, it also boasts more elephants than any other country in the world. At last count there were more than 130,000. Yet there are only 2.3 million people living in this landlocked nation nearly the size of Texas. That’s one elephant for every 18 residents.
Later that week, my massage at DumaTau, the newest luxury camp from Wilderness Safaris, is interrupted by a pair of young elephants. Camp staff affectionately refer to them as “ellies.” My masseuse explains it’s a brother and sister who like to hang out by the spa. They’re playing, or perhaps roughhousing is a better term. They leave a trail of broken branches and trampled bushes in their wake.
Later, while cooling off in the pool at Little DumaTau — a new concept catering to families or celebrities who want a private mini-camp to themselves — I watch a herd carefully cross the croc-infested river. They lift their tails out of the water as they go. You know an elephant has had an encounter with a crocodile when it’s missing its tail. Eventually, they arrive on the same island where we hear a lion moaning the next morning. The lions here — and there are so many, 14 are seen on my last day — are good swimmers. They have to be.
If the delta, Botswana’s top tourist attraction, is the country’s beautiful, then the Kalahari Desert, in the south, is the country’s bold. It’s so arid in this endless sea of sand and grass that the staff at Feline Fields, a luxury lodge best described as being in the middle of the middle of nowhere, tell me they often catch the ellies drinking from the
property’s swimming pools. In Botswana, where most of the animals aren’t fenced in like they’d be in national parks and on conservations in neighboring countries, it’s not uncommon to see wildlife in camp.
One morning, Meshack and I head to Jao’s sister camp to search for a leopard who birthed her cubs in one of the bathrooms. They’re only a few weeks old. We don’t find them, but we do cross paths with a very vocal male lion. Meshack reckons he’s calling for his brother, Scarface, or the pride of females known to frequent this area. Restless, he roams and releases sad, guttural mews. His nose is lifted to the wind, hoping to catch a whiff of companionship. We don’t hear any response. He’s alone for the two hours we follow him.
At one point the lion gets so close to our vehicle I could reach out and run my fingers through his mane. To this 500-lb. king of the delta, and most of the animals living here, humans are one with the vehicle they’re in (unless they stand up or make sudden movements). Neither predator nor prey, vehicles are a minor threat, best ignored. It’s impossible not to notice we’re the only vehicle for miles. I quickly learn it’s not just because of the pandemic.