Remote Safari Chic - An Okavango Delta Safari

Old-school safari etiquette and life-changing encounters with the wildlife of the Okavango Delta take Christine McCabe well away from 21st century pre-occupations.
May 2018

Old-school safari etiquette and life-changing encounters with the wildlife of the Okavango Delta take Christine McCabe well away from 21st century pre-occupations.

We sit motionless in a dugout canoe, barely daring to breathe as a grumpy buffalo regards us from the water’s edge. He’s still some distance away but I’ve read about buffalos in my safari manual. Aren’t they the most dangerous and unpredictable animal in Africa? Or is that the hippo? A moot point when you’re in the middle of a swamp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, but our quietly spoken guide Derek seems unfazed. I’m making plans to slip into the water, overturn the mokoro (or canoe) and fashion a makeshift camouflage cloak using water lilies when Derek picks up his walkie-talkie. Mr. buffalo firmly blocks our path back to camp and we have a light plane to catch so there’s no time for wildlife encounters of this slightly un-nerving kind. Perhaps Derek’s alerting the pilot of a possible, permanent delay.

Just when I’ve resolved to write off my camera and dive in, the bolshie buffalo gives a cranky toss of his head, turns tail and trots away. Almost as thrilling as yesterday’s headlong plunge into a river. “Feet up”, shouts Kenosi, as water rushes through the open sided 4x4, and a small crocodile whooshes passed my door.

Welcome to Chief’s Camp on Chief’s Island, “predator capital of Africa”, where the old-school safari excitement is eclipsed only by a new luxury fit-out. By “old-school” I don’t mean we’re in some kind of pre-war health and safety-free zone; the team here is the best of their kind; expertly trained, knowledgeable and cool under pressure. We spend far more time ticking small birds off our spotters’ lists, watching lions sleep (and they do that a lot) or patiently tracking shy rhino through the bush than we do fording croc-infested rivers or being shirt-fronted by buffalo.

By old-school I’m referring to a frontier atmosphere, utterly devoid of long lens-toting tourists sporting starched khaki shirts, for the Okavango Delta is remote, access is limited and lodges are small and far-flung. Every morning when we head out after breakfast on the first game drive of the day with the unflappable Kenosi, knee rugs, binoculars, bird books to hand and morning tea stowed in the back, we know we won’t spy another soul. In other parts of Africa you’re likely to encounter a dozen or more jeeps in a morning; and if someone spots a leopard up a tree it can become a bit of a mosh pit.

Old-school means we pause for cocktails in the bush at sundown; we take afternoon tea every day beneath the shade of a jackalberry tree throwing caution and calories to the wind. Old-school means a digital detox with “comms” restricted to a bedside walkie-talkie; and déclassé tipples like chilled Shirley Temples served on hot afternoons as we lounge on the deck, watching elephants saunter by.

We are talking a level of luxury that harks back to the golden age of travel when old-school big game hunters like Teddy Roosevelt sallied forth with hundreds of porters, dining tents, leather bound libraries and Turkish rugs to place beneath their canvas stretchers.

Rebuilt and re-launched in June last year, Chief’s Camp is Sanctuary Retreat’s flagship in Africa embodying everything Abercrombie & Kent founder Geoffrey Kent has learnt about safari, and that’s probably more than anyone alive. The mood of the new-look “camp” harks back to A&K’s pioneering Kenyan setups of the 60s when a forward-thinking young Kent kitted out tents with carpets, sprung mattresses, Royal Crown Derby teacups and cut glass decanters before poaching a chef from Nairobi’s posh Muthaiga Country Club to serve chilled martinis and chocolate cake to intrepid travellers setting out on month-long sorties in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda.

I can’t spy any Royal Crown Derby in my humungous guest pavilion but the level of luxury is astonishing and Chef Woody’s food would give any fancy club a run for its money.

Hidden beneath tall trees, the camp numbers only 10 enormous guest pavilions (and a separate Geoffrey Kent compound) fanning either side of a handsome lodge with a large deck and pool cantilevered over the wildlife-rich wetland.

Each thatched pavilion is self-contained with a private deck overlooking the wetland, running the length of the building and featuring a plunge pool, lounging pavilion and dining area. Inside, the four-poster bed is separated from a kitchenette by beaded clay curtains; a separate dressing area leads into a gigantic bathroom with deep tub set at the window, double vanity (stocked with Africology unguents) and indoor and outdoor rain showers. Nothing has been overlooked from best quality binoculars and Nespresso machine to a daily laundry service with neatly pressed safari togs returned each evening wrapped in tissue paper. It’s a far cry from canvas stretchers and bucket showers but getting here is still a great adventure beginning with a light aircraft, milk-run flight from Maun over the mesmerising Delta with stops at two or three camps en route. Even from the air there’s wildlife to be spied: loping giraffe and elephants surging like battleships through the water. Eventually a tiny jeep is spotted driving towards a pencil thin airstrip. “That’s you,” the pilot shouts. Amid clouds of dust we put down, then it’s all aboard for a bumpy 4X4 “transfer” through the bush (warthogs right; elephants left) to be greeted at camp by a staff choir and splendid afternoon tea.

The open plan lodge and dining room is tremendously chic, kitted out with beaded chandeliers, rugs and squishy sofas in subtle savannah colours, and chunky African beads arrayed as objets d’art. Comfy chairs are set at the deck’s edge for up close views of passing elephants.

Following a welcome foot massage courtesy of the charming Tumi, we don our boots, assemble wildlife checklists and get out amongst it. Subsequent days take on a pleasurable routine; every morning I’m woken by the low, rolling rumble of lions, an elemental, deep-down-in-the-gut sound that carries for miles, before making a coffee and heading out onto the deck to watch the dawn, always in the company of several yapping baboons. At breakfast we discuss the morning’s drive and hatch a plan; the three to four-hour excursions are generally a free flowing affair, based on Kenosi’s instincts and intimate knowledge of the Delta. One morning we track a pair of male lions on patrol, so closely we might reach out and touch them; another we search for rhino, a process requiring absolute silence, a keen eye and patience, rewarded with six up close encounters in a single day. We tick off four of the big five (elephant, rhino, buffalo, lion, leopard), minus the elusive leopard, and much more besides: giraffes, hippos, zebra, assorted antelope and birds galore.

But like Kenosi I’m happiest simply relishing the incredibly beautiful landscape and we both love the late afternoon drives best when the sun is low and the Delta’s colours come alive. It’s a shifting scene of golden grasslands, deep channels drifting with velvet-green weeds and belching hippos, and small islands of umbrella acacia, sausage trees and ancient baobabs standing like lighthouses in a watery world. All about are the sparkling wetlands where lechwe (wetland antelope) skip swiftly through the swamps (aided by a water resistant substance on their legs) and the dainty jacana (or Jesus bird) hides her lovely speckled eggs on a lily pad.

Kenosi always finds the perfect spot for sundowners, a lonely wetland where hundreds of zebra have gathered to graze or beside a deep channel where hippo and crocodiles amiably co-exist. But some afternoons we get caught up, spending far too long observing rhino at dusk, or hyena cubs playing outside their den, and must beat a hasty retreat back to camp as dark falls, headlights catching wary eyes in the bush.

No matter the hour George and Duma are on hand behind the bar ready to rustle up a quick martini as we shake the dust from our safari togs and chef Woody whips up a delicious three-course dinner or traditional boma barbecue. The days pass all to quickly and just when I think that this might become my life — that every morning I’ll head out with Kenosi to check our favourite pride or take a paddle with Derek to inspect the jacana eggs he so expertly spotted —  it’s time to head back to that dusty air strip and begin the long journey home to the 21st century.

That grumpy old buffalo didn’t do me any favours at all.

A&K Southern Africa Safari Flash Sale - Save up to $6,790 per couple (twin share)