There are a few different ways to go about a safari. One is roughing it — getting dirty, sleeping in a flimsy tent on an even flimsier camping mat, sitting around an open fire to enjoy modest meals seasoned with dust and ash and lit by an awkward headlamp. And then there is a Botswana luxury safari— Champagne, multi-course meals, candlelight, glittering plunge pools, and palatial canvas-walled safari “tents” nicer and more elaborately decorated than most houses.
Botswana is well known for having charted a route to luxury tourism rather than embracing low cost options that draw in the masses. What you get in exchange for the luxury price tag is more than just creature comforts. In Botswana, luxury buys exclusivity. Of course, the animals don’t care whether you’re on a luxury safari or a budget, do-it-yourself camping outing. A lion in a luxury concession looks pretty similar to his cousin next door in the publicly accessible national park.
The difference is, on a luxury safari, you’re more likely to find the lion in the first place thanks to very experienced guides and constant communication among them. You’re also more likely to have the sighting to yourself and not have to jockey with other vehicles for the best angle of view. The fewer the other visitors you encounter, the wilder the wilderness feels. (Although budget camping feels plenty wild when rustling in the grass wakes you up at night and you find lion prints circling your flimsy tent the next morning.)
In Botswana, luxury safari camps reign over much of the prime wildlife viewing area. The world-famous Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to several luxurious and well-respected camps, many operated by Wilderness Safaris, a Botswana-based company that is well-known for conservation-minded ethics in addition to fantastic camps. I recently had the privilege to visit Chitabe Camp, which is on an island in the Okavango Wetlands that is teaming with wildlife and birds. Many of the camps in the Delta are accessible only by small aircraft, and it’s a real treat to get a birds-eye-view of the dynamic landscape.
But the real action starts when you touch down—our first game drive took us from the dirt airstrip to the camp, well camouflaged and built to harmonize with the natural landscape. After an orientation of all the camp’s luxury features, we grabbed a few sweet and savory treats from the bountiful afternoon “tea” spread, and then we were off on another drive. The cool evening brought plenty of animal activity. Depending on the season, you’re surprisingly likely to see lion, leopard, buffalo, elephant, and more on a single drive, so study the seasons well before you book your trip.
The northern part of Botswana, along the Linyanti and Chobe Rivers, has plenty of luxury camps and great wildlife viewing areas too. It’s a quick trip by bush plane from the Okavango to experience this totally different ecosystem. Further north, the landscape is drier, and the vivid colors of the mopane woodlands dominate the landscape. Animals congregate along the verdant river courses. On the banks of the Linyanti, Wilderness Safaris maintains Duma Tau camp, a perfect outpost to watch elephants crossing the river by the hundreds. Late in the dry season, buffalo too congregate in massive herds, waiting for rains.
As in the Okavango Delta, predator viewing can be epic at the right time of year. We had the good fortune to see wild dogs on the hunt, but we were a little too late in the season to find lions and leopards at Duma Tau. After the rains, the prey animals can move away from the river, and new leafy foliage provides plenty of hiding places.
Once again, getting the seasons right is key to great game viewing and also to avoiding the worst of the hot weather. Though a luxury safari tent looks lavish, canvas walls do little to insulate from the oppressive midday heat during the hottest months around October.
Javier Luque is a Co-Founder and Director of Your African Safari.