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Early morning in Deception Valley, the brief desert rains are at an end but the sweet valley grasses are still green enough to attract large herds of antelope. Most noticeable are the gemsbok, handsome beasts with faces like African tribal masks, and I watch entranced as a herd canters past – until something catches my eye.
A lion is standing at the edge of the plain, his shaggy head raised above the grasses, and at once it’s clear he isn’t just any lion. This is a full-on Kalahari male in all his glory, and probably
the finest lion I’ve ever seen. His glorious mane is midnight black and he walks with the confident swagger only the territorial pride males possess.
The Central Kalahari, where this encounter took place, is a game reserve in the heart of Botswana, a country that has set aside more land for conservation than any other nation in the world.
If you’re thinking of going on safari then Botswana is a brilliant destination. English is widely spoken in this most politically stable of African countries; there is more than enough to keep you enthralled for a fortnight; and when it comes to wildlife, Botswana means business. Its policy of eschewing the mass market in favour of high-end, low-impact safari camps has created a hugely successful tourist industry without disturbing the wild places that visitors come to see; and nowhere is this more apparent than in the Okavango Delta.
Born hundreds of miles away in the Angolan highlands, the Okavango is a mighty river by the time it reaches Botswana, where it tries in vain to seek a way across the Kalahari desert. Before it dies in the desert sand it creates Africa’s biggest oasis, an earthly paradise whose 10,000 square miles of lagoons, islands and flood plains are divided into vast private concessions, each with its own exclusive camp or lodge to make you feel as if you’ve checked into your own personal wilderness.
Maun, the Okavango’s dusty capital, is where all safaris start and finish, and only when you take off from here in a light aircraft does the Delta’s sheer size and scale sink in. Soon the desert landscape gives way to endless vistas of grass and reed beds. The sun glints on a maze of winding channels and blue lagoons stippled with water lilies, and as you pass over the flood plains you see the first animals: buffaloes scattered like black beads on a green baize cloth; lechwe antelope splashing through the shallows; and herds of elephants heading for shade.
After touching down on a Delta airstrip you are whisked off to your camp by open-topped Land Cruiser. Some of the best camps are those run by Wilderness Safaris (which also manages Kalahari Plains Camp in the Central Kalahari). Among them are Mombo Camp, which likes to call itself the predator capital of the universe, and the remote Vumbara Plains Camp, renowned for dramatic confrontations between herds of buffaloes and hungry lions.
The most practical way to explore the Delta is to book through a specialist travel firm. Pure Safari is one such company, with a range of attractive holiday packages in the Okavango at elegant camps such as Okuti (pictured above) and elsewhere. No matter where you choose to stay, you will be living deep in the comfort zone with en-suite tents on wooden decks, superb food and a host of facilities.
Some camps, such as Shinde, have plunge pools and all have stunning locations from where you can set out on game drives in search of the big cats for which the Okavango Delta is famous.
One big advantage the Okavango has over other African wildlife strongholds is the abundance of water, especially after the annual floods that give visitors the opportunity of game viewing by mokoro
– the traditional Delta dugout canoe.
Soundlessly you go with the flow, poled along by a guide who points out the frogs, dragonflies, otters and kingfishers that inhabit these magical wetlands.
Not all camps offer mokoro rides, but among those that do are Kanana (another Pure Safari favourite) on the Xudum River, and Eagle Island, owned by Orient Express and the setting for Alexander McCall Smith’s latest novel, The Double Comfort Safari Club, featuring the redoubtable Precious Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.
The most authentic way of getting close to the Okavango’s teeming wildlife is a mobile camping safari in the Moremi Game Reserve. Led by some of Botswana’s most bush-wise guides, you’ll cover a lot of ground as you move from one campsite to the next. The Moremi covers a huge tract of the Delta, including the 1,900 sq km of Chief’s Island, and its eastern end merges seamlessly with Chobe National Park.
Chobe is, quite simply, the best place in the world to see elephants. Most evenings during the dry season you can watch them coming down to drink at the Chobe River in vast numbers, the sunset flaring along the western skyline as the herds emerge from the woodlands – tuskers, mothers and tiny babies all drifting soundlessly through the dust that hangs in the dying light.
But above all Botswana is a desert country, and if you truly want to understand it you must head for Nxai Pan and the Makgadikgadi. Nxai Pan National Park is best explored from the eight-room camp run by Kwando Safaris, and from here you can visit Baines Baobabs. Marooned in the emptiness of the desert, these ancient trees are visible for miles across a landscape that hasn’t changed since Thomas Baines painted them in 1861.
Even more dramatic is the Makgadikgadi National Park, a mosaic of immense saltpans and desert grasslands. Set in a palm grove at the edge of the pans is Jack’s Camp, a safari destination that should be on everyone’s must-do list for its sheer style and romanticism. It was built half a century ago by Jack Bousfield, an old-time hunter, and today is run by his son, Ralph, a dedicated conservationist whose knowledge of the Kalahari is second to none.
Don’t expect to see lots of big game, though there’s a huge migration of zebras and oryx during the rainy season. Instead Jack’s Camp offers quad bike adventures, encounters with meerkats and what Ralph Bousfield calls the world’s greatest luxuries – space and solitude. ‘In the Makgadikgadi,’ he says, ‘there is still room to breathe, to be yourself and count the stars.’ And that goes for the rest of Botswana as well.
Square Meal readers can take advantage of a special offer when visiting Botswana, and save up to £650 per person. Safari holiday experts Pure Safari are offering readers the chance to go on a six-night safari at any combination of the Shinde, Kanana or Okuti lodges for £1525 per person, based on two people sharing. The price includes return flights from Maun and between camps (including departure taxes where applicable), all game-viewing activities offered at the camps, all accommodations, meals, drinks (South African wine and spirits) and laundry, park entrance fees and VAT where applicable. To take advantage of the offer, contact Pure Safari on 01227 753181 and quote 'Square Meal'. For more information on the lodges, visit www.puresafari.co.uk.