Known as ‘Africa’s Last Eden’ the Okavango Delta is the 1,000th site to be inscribed on UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2014. An incredible ecosystem full of wildlife, it’s a paradise for animal lovers and those with a sense of adventure. And it makes for a pretty life changing experience too.
The landing strip came into sight like a sandy coloured scratch in a green ocean, the bird’s eye view of elephants and giraffe giving way to a smooth landing on one of the many such runways in the area. But this was not our final stop; the 12-seater Cessna was touching down to collect more guests headed to our final destination: Vumbura Plains Camp.
Jeeps, a little staircase and an energetic team on the ground had the bags loaded and the new travellers on board, belted up, and ready to go in the blink of an eye. Nancy and Marion were two New Yorkers on route to one of the Okavango Delta’s most luxurious camps; this trip was in honour of 26 years of friendship and a celebration of their 90th birthdays. Talk about travel goals!
The 15-minute flight to our camp may have been short, but it was rich in scenery, with watery arteries spidering out over the bright green landscape. No sooner had the aircraft come to its final stop, when we were whisked away to Vumbura Plains Camp, one of Wilderness Safaris’ premier camps in Botswana.
Vumbura Plains is comprised of two separate satellite camps, consisting of 14 rooms. With a lounge and dining area overlooking the Okavango Delta, the deck extends into the floodplain for stargazing or nights around the campfire.
The luxury safari design merges earthy elegance with complete comfort. The four-poster king-sized bed could have been divided into postcodes, as could have the indoor shower. A private plunge pool and outdoor shower meant we never had to stop following the hippo action on the floodplain in front of us. As an ecotourism company, Wilderness Safaris prioritises conservation. Case in point: because solid bars of soap nearly all use palm oil according to the company, instead they always favour liquid soap.
The rooms have no solid walls; nets separate the interior and exterior, allowing for all the lavishness of infrastructure, with the wildness of the landscape ever present.
Vumbura Plains Camp is situated in the northern reaches of the Okavango Delta, and shares the private Kwedi Concession, which comprises 90,000 hectares. Grasslands, referred to locally as ‘melapo’, surround the camp, and vegetation is varied, ranging from open floodplains to dense mopane woodland. The permanent swamp and island habitats feature stunning islands and permanent waterways, created by the combined effect of local summer rains and the annual winter floodwaters of the Okavango Delta.
We went during the wet season, which is considered low season as the flourishing vegetation makes spotting animals harder, coupled with lots of rain, but we saw absolutely everything with the added bonus that all the animals were fat and healthy, and with lots of “mini me” babies.
Days start early. Very early! Here, you are at the mercy of a different rhythm, that of the wildlife. A member of staff wakes you at 5.30am and by 6am you are feasting on an elaborate breakfast. Cameras and gear at hand, by 6.30am you are on your jeep, wind blowing through your hair, setting off following the footprints of the night’s wilderness shenanigans.
Our guide, Ike had the demeanour of James Bond and ran a tight schedule. He liked early starts. The relationship with your guide on a safari is a tight one; after all, you spend all day together, experience breath-taking moments and rely on them to look out for your life whilst you go to the bathroom behind termite mounds.
Botswana is a unique safari destination - prices are high and guest numbers are low. Tourism makes a significant financial contribution to the local communities, and concessionaires are obliged to pay sizeable lease fees to them. A good track record for safety and a strong government commitment to conservation (it is the only county with a “shoot-to-kill” anti-poacher policy) justify the country’s reputation as the most expensive safari destination on the continent.
At Vumbura, guests choose two activities a day, game drives or water activities such as mokoro (canoe) or boat rides, each offering its own jaw dropping experience. During our game drives, we saw the most majestic and entertaining animals in Africa, from warthogs - the ‘gangsters’ of the savannah, running around with their upright TV antennae tails and throwing attitude left and right - to gentle giraffes who stare unashamedly whilst chewing on trees, to noisy and stalker-like hippos, all ears and eyes above water, with their unequivocal gaze, acknowledging their reputation as the most dangerous animals in town.
We followed sounds of snitching squirrels (yes, they are the biggest tattle tales out there, alerting everyone when a predator is close) to find a leopard under a bush, and followed him as he wove his way through the tall grass and then completely vanished in front of our eyes.
We followed fresh tracks that led us to four sleeping male lions, gentle in the morning sun, lying on their backs, legs akimbo, as sweet and docile as giant killer cats can be.
We saw every type of antelope possible, Impala to Tsessebe, while jewel-coloured birds looped around the jeep as eagles perched on branches looking for victims. We found a mother hyena and saw up close why they are said to have the soul of the damned in them. We stood our ground (or rather – sat still and stopped breathing in the jeep) as female elephants tested our presence by flapping their ears and mock charging us. We watched as an injured female zebra with a deep raw cut on her leg from a lion attack cared for her young and kept up with her herd. And we observed troops of baboons generally get up to no good, as they are known to do.
On our final day, we struck safari gold when Ike heard the sound of wild dogs in the distance. One of the world’s most endangered animals, sightings are rare and we went full speed in search of the source of the sounds. Wild dogs are the most curious of creatures, a mix of brown, black and white coats, massive Micky Mouse ears and big white bushy tails, like a cute cut-and-paste of a few of your favourite breeds.
As we approached, we could see them bounce through the tall grass as they got into formation for a kill. With an 85 percent hunting success rate, my heart started beating faster as we sped up to follow them descend on their kill. When we reached the concentrated pack, in all the commotion I looked up to see a dog with half a baby impala in his mouth. It took them seconds to tear the animal in half, and just like that the fluffy dog had morphed into the true hunter he is, and the circle of life played out in front of us.