A sea of land and a land of thirst
Our editor in chief experiences Belmond’s Botswana through a trio of contrasting bush encounters.
I’m aboard a dinky 12-seater MackAir Cessna, leaving Maun Airport and heading for Chobe, taking the accompanying bumps and dips with as much calm and surety as I can muster. As I peer out through my little window over the wing, a vast tapestry of grassland, inland lakes and a network of microscopic tracks mark the land that is laid out below. No sooner than I marvel at the web of waterways carving up the earth below, I’m suspended over an eternity of thirsty savannah. So sparse is its vegetation that I can spot game traversing the bush or gathering under the shade of trees from my seat.
As we take off once again from Xaranna airstrip, having dropped off two passengers, a lone giraffe sees us off beside the dirt runway, un-phased by the droll of our engine. Not long after and back on the ground at Savute, things are bone-dry, and all signs of the Delta have evaporated.
Land of Thirst – Savute Elephant Lodge
Named after the transient river whose canal runs a path directly in front of the lodge, the Savute Channel has been without water since 2015; having flowed for around 5 years, it was dry for roughly 30 years prior to that. This intermittent drying and flooding has more to do with the tectonic plates that underpin it and less to do with the rainfall in the area.
However, the parched landscape has its own magic. Game is easier to spot, with flat vistas for miles and little foliage to challenge the pursuit of animals. On our first night here, we witnessed a pack of more than 10 wild dogs who pulled in like they owned the joint. Running rings around the herd of drinking elephants and delivering their message with a shrill and unsettling call, the ellies quickly made way for these bolshie dogs.
Savute Elephant Lodge is splayed out alongside the Channel with little distance separating us and the shallow and muddy pools of water that attract wildlife day and night. Besides daily game drives throughout Chobe National Park, its 12 plush tented rooms are prime game-viewing spots and serve as a theatre for animals on a permanent basis. Chobe is home to the largest surviving elephant populations in the world due to the incredible protection they receive from poaching here, with numbers well beyond 120 000. These gentle giants wake me during the night thanks to their nearness to my room and the perpetual noise from drinking and bathing at a well-positioned watering hole.
At the lodge, we’re accompanied by great big camel thorns, acacias known for their drought-hardiness, with their fluffy yellow blossoms piercing the landscape. The Kalahari apple-leaf also proliferates beyond the lodge, softening a sea of browns with its fading purple blooms.
When we do venture out on our game vehicle, the abundance of game is matched. We see lions daily, as well as a young leopard who makes a halfhearted attempt at hunting near the Savute Marsh, no sooner giving in to a shady spot and the chance of a nap – her markings a staggering display of nature’s best design work. We pass by a series of San paintings discovered in 1968 chronicling eland, sable, giraffe and elephant, painted with ox blood and egg yolk around 1500 years old. They’re immaculately preserved, despite their age, and the constant exposure to sun and rain. We also drive along the Savute channel riverbed, passing dead acacias (a result of the floods) who leave their sculptural skeletons behind.
A Sea of Land – Eagle Island Lodge
Described as a sea of land, a land of water and more frequently as the river that never finds the sea, the Okavango Delta is a place of fame and fable, land of beauty and perplexity for David Livingstone and one of the planet’s richest cradles of biodiversity. The UNESCO World Heritage site is quite simply an Eden for fauna and flora and makes for a stark contrast from Savute’s parched terrain. It’s at once luscious and green; it’s cooler, and feels tangibly gentle on the senses.
Our Cessna touches down after a series of drop offs at other lodges on the Delta and we’re transferred by game vehicle for all of 45 seconds before reaching the entrance to Eagle Island Lodge. Here it’s the soundtrack of fish eagles and the whooshing of water from resident lazy hippos that accompanies the 12 luxurious tented rooms. The lodge overlooks a wetland with the Delta just beyond it and offers immediate access onto the water for a totally unique safari experience. It’s also worth mentioning that it’s a refuge for sustainable design lovers and those with tall style orders.
Renovated in 2016 by The Gallery HBA this lodge channels its unique sense of place through rich local references and an organic use of form and materiality. With sweeping, curving forms inspired by the nearby waterways and adjacent termite mounds, the largely open communal areas make use of raw finishes and a palette of earthy hues spiked with yellows and blues inspired by fish eagles and other spectacular birds found in the area. The ultra-luxe rooms are beyond generous, and each has its very own private swimming pool surveying the wetland and its resident visitors – among them, elephants who gorge on the fruits of the sausage trees.
Once unpacked I find myself perched inside a traditional mokoro with instructions not to make any sudden movements, lest we topple into the water. Little wider than my own frame and extra low down, I’m drifting down one of the Delta’s narrow channels as if one with it. The water slaps the bow with a thwack as we push on aided only by my guide with his long wooden pole. Other than that, it’s a silent mode of transport, broken only by the strident call of fish eagles. We stop to observe elephants grazing, yellow-billed storks feeding on bream, egrets, pygmy geese, red lechwe (the region’s aquatic antelope), crocodiles and hippos whose daily transit, I’m told, creates the very channels that form our passageway through this watery wonderland. So peaceful is this safari experience that it feels healing. It’s utterly unlike any bush encounter I’ve ever had before.
The day ends with sundowners at the famed Fish Eagle Bar, located at the end of the walkway to the water beneath the boughs of a pair of jackalberrys. Fame comes to this charming spot thanks to its listing by the New York Times as “one of the most romantic bars in the world.” And they’re not far off I have to say. The London Philharmonic Orchestra clearly agreed as they held two small (read: tiny) performances from this idyllic little watering hole. Perched at the water’s edge overlooking the Delta, it’s an intimate and rustic escape with a Swiss Family Robinson ambience and a full drinks menu to boot. And since this property (and its inimitable bar) is the only west facing lodge on the Delta, the sunsets are sweeter than ever.
Touring the Dark Skies
There are numerous ways to connect with the natural world beyond our cities and astrotourism is one that’s just beginning to feature on safari itineraries across Africa. Gazing up at a 13.6-billion-year-old canvas is spectacularly impressive, but even more so when you’re joined (as I was) by Catherine Cress, Professor of Astronomy and one of South Africa’s most respected and well-versed astrotourism guides. According to Catherine, this is one of the best places in the world to view the Milky Way and its dense center (that 13.6-billion-year-old canvas I mentioned) due to our proximity in the Southern Hemisphere, as well as the lack of light pollution, making this a “dark sky” destination.
Translating this mind-boggling dimension for the novice like myself is something Catherine does with ease, and I found she had an answer to just about every (silly) question thrown at her. In the stillness of evenings and on one particularly early morning pre-dawn we gathered with her around the telescopes to probe the skies. Here, she explained that if the Milky Way had less dust, we’d be almost blinded by the light from its stars which number roughly 100 billion. She also reminded us that when you’re looking up at the stars, you’re viewing history in front of your eyes, because everything we see is light-years away from us. Our closest star (apart from our sun) is 4.3 light-years away, while others are 100s even 1000s of light-years away, so what we’re seeing is not a current representation but a past one. Mind blown, I found this to be another unexpected encounter of the region, albeit beyond the reaches of Botswana’s land and water-based safari realm.