From a watery wonderland to salty desert plains, Richard Holmes takes off to discover the best of Botswana.
With just the slightest shake of its thick, twisted horns, the sitatunga gave itself away. Hunkered down within a protective ring of scraggy turpentine grass, it was safely hidden out of sight from predators, but not from the travellers searching for game from above.
“Oh yeah,” drawled our Kiwi pilot, as he swung our Robinson R44 chopper into a steep turn for a second look. “Good spot that.” Our photographs taken, with a snort and a glare the sitatunga watched us thud away across the Okavango Delta.
A flight across the Delta puts this remarkable landscape into a new perspective, from admiring the glimmering channels and deeper pools to ticking off unique game. It was my last day in the Okavango Delta, but our first sighting of the shy, semi-aquatic sitatunga, uniquely adapted to living in these expansive marshes. Elephants, rhinos and the big cats are sure to set pulses racing, but in the Delta a sitatunga generates just as much excitement.
The Okavango Delta is a World Heritage Site that needs little introduction. It’s a watery wonderland, a haven for wildlife, formed by a meandering river that ebbs and flows through the seasons. And the good news? The dry days of winter are the best time to visit. This is the dry season only because the skies are blue and there’s little chance of rain. But there’s water everywhere, thanks to the rains that fell in the distant Angolan highlands. By July, they have reached the Delta to swell the floodwaters that race towards the dry sands of the Makgadikgadi Pans.
There’s no shortage of camps and lodges in the Okavango, but over the course of a dozen visits to Botswana I’ve often revelled in the understated luxury and considered guiding that’s a hallmark of the Natural Selection portfolio. With properties across southern Africa, it’s a brand with deep roots in the safari business and a focus on supporting impactful conservation through sustainable tourism.
Tuludi is one of its newer camps in Botswana, opened in 2019 in the 200,000ha of wilderness that make up the Khwai Private Reserve. And whereas the reserve is vast, the camp is wonderfully intimate, with just seven under-canvas suites perched on stilts above the seasonal floodplains.
Each suite is built to capitalise on the views, with sliding screens – meshed to keep the bugs out – offering grassland vistas from every angle. A highlight is the outdoor bathroom, where a ball-and-claw tub simply begs for bath-time game-spotting, while hot days call for time in the private plunge pool and outdoor lounge.
Wooden boardwalks meander beneath towering leadwood trees to link each suite with the spacious lodge, where wide decks and a sunken fire pit offer a convivial spot for pre-dinner drinks. There’s a playful touch to the decor here too, from the hanging bucket-chairs that drift in the breeze to the striking mosaic that adorns the bar. For quiet moments – whether journalling, birdwatching or simply soaking up the silence – the treetop library offers a peaceful eyrie from which to admire the surrounding wilderness.
And of course, getting out to discover that wilderness is how you’ll spend your days here. Game drives are excellent, traversing both grasslands and the region’s wide mopane woodlands. The birding is superb year-round, though admittedly better in summer when the northern hemisphere migrants arrive.
But I was happiest when on the water, discovering the whispering channels that breathe life into this landscape each year. Trips in traditional mokoro (dugout canoes) are the classic outing and offer a chance to slow down to the natural rhythm of the Delta, floating with the current as the local guides point out water lilies and miniscule reed frogs.
Come evening, a pontoon speedboat takes to the larger channels, enabling us to explore further on the Khwai River, past deep pools where pods of hippos grunt their annoyance and saddle-billed storks hunt in the shallows. Keep a keen eye on the riverside forests and you may spot the elusive Pel’s fishing owl here.
But just as the Okavango floodwaters make their way slowly to the south-east, draining into the dry heart of the country, I packed my bags to follow them. As our Cessna Caravan roared away from the gravel strip, the filigree of watery channels sparkled and shimmered in the morning sunshine. Down there, somewhere, was my sitatunga.
An hour later the landscape had changed, almost imperceptibly, as lush mopane woodlands merged into dry grasslands and then, suddenly, the blinding white salt pans of the Makgadikgadi. My destination? Jack’s Camp, an icon of the desert.
The Makgadikgadi is an ethereal space of moon-like salt pans stretching to the horizon, a featureless landscape broken by islands of tawny grassland. But when the summer rains fall, it is transformed. Shallow lakes draw hundreds of thousands of flamingos here to breed, while the sprouting grasses attract vast herds of zebra and wildebeest. And, in their wake, lions follow hungrily.
But winter is still the best time to visit, as it allows travellers to explore beyond the grasslands and discover the ephemeral beauty of the pans. It was that stark beauty that prompted Jack Bousfield to first pioneer under-canvas photographic safaris here in the 1960s and his spirit lives on in a camp that was dramatically reinvented in 2021.
While the suites doubled in size – to 135m² – and include large private decks, plunge pools and opulent bathrooms, the campaign-style aesthetic that made Jack’s famous is unchanged.
Perhaps in simple opposition to the stark landscape beyond, Jack’s Camp revels in an opulence of colour and texture. A velvet chaise longue sat proudly in the ample bathroom of my suite. Richly patterned fabric adorns the canvas ceilings, while plush couches fill the central guest areas. The camp furniture is all handcrafted in Botswana, while textiles from India and Morocco are sewn locally into cushions and bedspreads. Vintage wooden ‘cabinets of curiosities’ are filled with remarkable skulls, fossils and artefacts, to the point that the lodge is registered as a national museum in Botswana.
Yet, despite its charms, the wonderful team behind Jack’s is only too happy to lead you away from the lodge. Under the keen eye of Super Sandy, the towering head guide who is nothing short of a legend in these parts; highly skilled guides are adept at bringing the seemingly one-dimensional landscape to life.
Jack’s Camp sits on a 4,000km² private concession on the fringes of the Ntwetwe Pan, one of three – along with Sua and Nxai – that make up the Makgadikgadi ecosystem.
An evening game drive through the grasslands delivered a surprising diversity of wildlife – from lion prides to cheetah cubs – while the morning excursion to meet the habituated colonies of meerkats is an absolute delight. Departing before dawn to sit quietly at the colony, as the sun warms the earth my patience is soon rewarded with curious meerkats clambering about me; for a brief moment I’m part of the family.
In the morning cool there are walking safaris to enjoy, while sunset brings a dose of adventure with a quad-bike excursion out onto the pans. With a kikoi wrapped around my face to keep the dust at bay and the dry desert air whipping past, for just a moment I can imagine myself as the intrepid Jack Bousfield first venturing towards the horizon all those years ago. It’s a landscape that’s as timeless as it is captivating and it’s waiting for you just across the border.
Quads to Kubu
For true desert addicts, Jack’s Camp offers an unforgettable three-day quad-bike adventure, travelling 400km across the Ntwetwe Pan to Kubu Island. The journey is broken with a luxurious fly-camp overnight stop on the ‘Lost Island of Baobabs’ before a final push to the remote granite outcrop that erupts dramatically from the salt pans. If you don’t mind plenty of dust, long days and a bedroll under the stars, it’s a remarkable journey of Makgadikgadi discovery.