Returning to Botswana, where it all began
When I first travelled to South Africa in the 1980s as a wide-eyed teenager, all anyone talked about was Botswana and how magical it was. I heard tales of the Okavango Delta and how there were very few visitors. Friends spoke of the huge tracts of unexplored bush and the sense of real adventure and pioneering spirit that permeated the place. I was determined to go.
Some months later, I found myself squashed into the back of a Land Rover and about to embark on the long journey from Johannesburg to Maun – then a frontier town on the edges of the Delta full of safari folk. This was the real beginning of my lifelong love affair with Africa, the world of safari, the wildlife and, most of all, the sense of freedom that being in the bush brings to the soul.
So, it was with huge excitement that I, once again, set off to Botswana two years ago, the African country where it all began for cazenove+loyd. Botswana is one of Africa’s success stories. It is very stable politically, with the continent’s longest continuous multi-party democracy. It protects some of Africa’s largest areas of wilderness, and the safari industry is a crucial source of income alongside diamond mining and cattle farming.
Landing in Maun is very different to what it was then. It is a frontier town no longer – in that there are tar roads, a shopping centre and even a traffic light – but it still has the same feeling as it did then. It is hot and dusty – being on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. Donkeys and cattle roam at the side of the roads and Toyota safari vehicles are lined up at the airport to greet another group of expectant clients. A sense of adventure still abounds.
We were on a five-night mobile safari – very much in the essence of what a safari used to be. Safari means ‘journey’ in Swahili and what a journey we were on. We moved camp every second night, supported by a crew of 12. While the camp moved, we immersed ourselves in the wonders of the bush. One of the strong senses of being in the African bush is smell. I remembered that a certain area in the Okavango Delta, adjacent to the Moremi Game Reserve, was synonymous with wild sage and campfires. And all these years later, the smell was the same. It was magical! Being one’s own unit on a mobile safari allows the days to take their own course, with no restrictions on time, and it was this freedom that safari enthusiasts in the 1920s and 30s first recognised. It was also this freedom that made me fall in love with Africa a few decades ago.
Botswana is a hotbed of fantastic game-viewing areas and, on my recent trip, we were treated early on to leopard sightings that surpassed any of our group’s previous experiences – despite us all being seasoned Africa-philes – which set the tone for the rest of the days. Gliding on a double-decker boat through the Delta towards our island camp, high above the reeds and papyrus, is something everyone should do. There was no noise except the very gentle hum of the motor, the splashing of elephants crossing the river and chirruping of myriad waterbirds in the reeds, such as malachite and pied kingfishers.
We were led by guides, John Barclay and James Stenner, who are passionate about rediscovering safari as it used to be. Their trips are all about real adventure, sleeping under canvas with the sounds and smells of the bush all around. They are doing away with set itineraries and embarking on extraordinary adventures in the wild that introduce you to the very soul of a destination.
Because I have been fortunate enough to have this amazing continent at my fingertips for so many years, the desire to return – because we physically cannot at the moment – is overwhelming. I will savour beyond words being back in Botswana, breathing in the smells of the bush, watching whatever animal we are lucky enough to see and just ‘being in the moment’. It is essential we get visitors back as soon as we are able to ensure the wonders of wildlife are safe for future generations, as without tourism, Africa is severely threatened.
Botswana will always hold a very special place in my heart. It never fails to deliver on all counts and remains one of my favourite safari destinations in Africa. I will return as soon as I can.