A Guest blog post by Rose Hipwood from The Luxury Safari Company
So we’ve been a little bit spoilt in the past with fantastic trips all over Africa but we’ve got a new favourite. Five days ago we returned from the most magical memorable safari we’ve ever taken. Flying into Xakanaxa airstrip at about one o’clock we were met by Uncharted guides John Barclay and Ralph Bousfield, our guides for the next few days. Ralph is actually Africa’s most famous guide, guiding all over Africa with a knowledge which not only comes from years of family life in Botswana but also from endless thesis on birds, and other animals. The depth of the safari was extraordinary.
John Barclay is Ralph’s nephew and has inherited Ralph’s wonderful way of telling stories, you become totally engrossed in their every word. We took a leisurely game drive through the heart of Moremi, taking in the new sights and sounds of the bush, eventually arriving at our mobile safari camp in time for sundowners. Camp, oh my lord – the mobile tents feel far from mobile furnished fully with campaign furniture which belonged to Ralph’s father, who used to lead the last great hunting safaris in Botswana before the family turned to photographic safaris. Ralph’s father Jack was the first white man to be initiated into the San Bushmen tribe, the oldest surviving traditional tribe in Africa.
Sorry I digress, the tent’s camp beds are more comfortable than our own at home, and the en suite is open air with a throne of a flushing loo and a huge bucket shower big enough for at least ten blissful minutes under the wonderfully hot water. Outside on your private verandah you have a mirror hanging from the tent with a brass basin filled with hot water every morning.
The locations of the Uncharted mobile camps (they have three sites) are in the most remote parts of the Moremi Game Reserve, so they guarantee you will not see another game drive vehicle unless you venture into the more populated parts of the Park following wildlife. The game viewing around the camps themselves is FANTASTIC – every night lions roared near camp, hyena, hippo and leopard could also be heard. This wonderful symphony was music to our ears on our first night in Africa.
Dinner is served under the stars, next to the hippo pool and is delicious. Three courses of London restaurant standard food, and if you saw what these talented chefs were cooking on (holes in the ground and basic campfires) this becomes even more extraordinary. The staff were wonderful, smiley and friendly – nothing was too much and by the first night they all knew us by name and knew what we liked to drink. Quite the most important factor when on a mobile safari!
So we set off every morning at around 6am just after the dawn chorus had started, Botswana was awake. We saw everything – the birdlife was also extraordinary. A highlight was watching zebra males battle it out over a female, John and Ralph’s explanation of this behaviour really brought home how knowledgeable they both are.
One of our most exciting game drives happened one evening, a male leopard was spotted and allowed us to follow him through the bush (after walking very close to the vehicle) – whilst watching him another of the group suddenly noticed a huge male lion on the other side of our vehicles. We then began to follow him through the bush, the light was fading and he was calling into the night. Suddenly another male lion springs up out of no where and hot foots it away from our friend, who also gives chase roaring the entire time. Sadly we then lost the light and so the male lions, but our blood was well and truly up. Just around the corner we came across a campfire, our chairs and a mobile safari style bar – in the middle of the bush, with lions roaring around us and hippos coming out to graze. Just magical.
On day three we set off on a luxurious boat into the Okavango Delta – water is such an important part of this ecosystem, constantly changing and moving. The boat was heavenly, we were bird watching, croc watching and also looking out for the very shy and elusive sitatunga antelope which lives solely in the Delta. Sundowners were served on the boat – the view of the sun going down over the smooth pools of the Okavango Delta is like no other. Suddenly the soft lights of hurricane lamps glisten ahead of us, and a small island comes into view. Set up here is dinner and our beds under mosquito nets. The thrones from the camp have also been imported. We are now fly camping in the middle of the Okavango Delta – it doesn’t get any better than this.
Did I also forget to mention that we swam and had lunch in the Okavango Delta – yes we actually SWAM in the Okavango Delta. Incredible.
After a very well oiled three course dinner (where chocolate fondant was served for pudding – we’re still not sure how they managed that on an island in the Okavango Delta) we all fell asleep to the sound of the African night. For some reason the sleep you have when in the open air is much deeper than any other, so we woke refreshed and set off through the Delta back to dry land after what can only be described as one of the most unique experiences offered on any luxury mobile safari.
So eventually we board our light aircraft and wave goodbye to the lush and varied Okavango Delta, but still more delights await us – we’re off to the Makgadikgadi Pans in the Kalahari. These are the biggest salt-pans in the world, and the site of many of the earliest human remains in the world. These vast open pans are dotted with oasis style doum palms and grasses, and are home to the famous Kalahari lions, the biggest lions in the world. More exciting for us though, they are also home to those endearing little meerkat families. We arrived at San Camp and the whole group was rendered speechless. Built in the shade of palm trees and made out of white sail like tents the camp is stunning. Inside Persian rugs and campaign furniture reign supreme as well as fascinating cupboards filled with artefacts and Ralph’s families belongings handed down hundreds of years. A wonderful breeze also fills the main tent and your own tent with air and coolness in an area which should be unbearably hot.
Many of the staff here have been hired from the local community of San Bushmen and are some of the most charming endearing camp staff we’ve ever come across. The food goes without saying was exceptional – and our rooms beautiful with views of the pans and surrounding area from all angles – our bathroom faced the back and has one of the best loos with a view in Africa. A huge shower with views of the pans is of course also a highlight.
So already blown away by San Camp itself we set off to explore the area – there is so much to do here and it is a must in contrast with the lush Okavango Delta, a luxury safari in Botswana is not complete without this combination – you feel as if you’ve travelled through two different continents.
San Camp offers riding safaris through the Kalahari, dinners and sundowners under the stars (San Camp is famous for being one of the best places in Africa for stargazing, the stars are incredibly clear), walking and tracking with the san bushmen (this is quite surreal as their age old techniques allow them to know specific details about the animal they are tracking before they’ve even seen it) but San Camp also offers two of our favourite things to do in Africa…
The first is meeting one of three groups of habituated meerkats that live near San Camp – go out at first light as these wonderful creatures come out of their burrow and begin to forage for grubs and insects. These meerkats are totally accepting of people and go about their daily business ignoring you, until one of them needs to be on sentry duty which means they must get to the highest point in the surrounding area, as this is usually you they wilfully climb up you and sit on your head looking for predators. This is the most humbling and heart warming experience as these adorable little people (they are very human in their characteristics) use you for a helping hand. Watching how they communicate with each other is also fascinating, there is a constant stream of chatter. We recommend also going to see them in the evening when they are more relaxed often paying and sunbathing, the days feeding done. We actually preferred this experience to seeing the gorillas in Rwanda, it is truly moving in every way.
And secondly San Camp have quads, yes quads – and you can use these to head out into the middle of the Salt Pans, whereupon you can then walk into the Salt Pans and experience what true remote raw wilderness really feels like. As well as those need for speed junkies this is also just a fantastically fun and different way to spend a morning whilst on safari.
Don’t miss a visit to Chapman’s baobab either – it’s the only thing you can see when you’re on the Makgadikgadi pans so was used for navigation by Livingstone and other great explorers, and still bears their carvings. The history and magic of this part of the Kalahari should be experienced by everyone.
As we said at the beginning we’ve been fortunate enough to go on many trips through Africa, all of which have pulled at our heart strings and left us wanting more – but this recent luxury mobile safari in Botswana has affected us more than anything else, the combination of being in some of the most remote parts of Africa, the staff involved and the things we saw have left us feeling that this is the best and only way to see Africa. Nothing else compares.