Otherworldly Encounters

A bespoke journey through Zambia, Botswana and Namibia provides perspectives that extend beyond extraordinary landscapes and animal sightings.
June 2024

The sun hasn’t yet risen over the banks of the Zambezi River, the beautiful setting of our accommodation, Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma, in Zambia. Yet I stir to an African alarm: grunts and croaks of surrounding creatures. As our group gathers for a dawn wilderness drive, the frisson buzzes more than the insects that skim like tiny ice skaters across the water. We will return later to the deck of the lodge’s main hub to feast on eggs Benedict, while watching weavers build their cocoon-like nests in branches nearby.

The morning drive, our first of many activities, is replicated over my ten-day journey that heads from here to Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero, Botswana, and Sanctuary Elephant Lodge Okahirongo, Namibia. At each place A&K provides a well-paced program of wilderness drives, sunset cruises, spa treatments and swims. Let’s not forget the ever-tantalising ‘surprise’ sundowners.

But the duplication ends with the activity names; these astonishing locations are as varied as a zebra’s stripes (unique to each). One day, I’m walking along the raised boardwalk that connects Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma’s individual tree houses. Two days later, I’m sitting under the shade of a Zambezi teak tree on the spongy green lawn of Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero (Botswana). And at my final stop, I’m staring out at infinite red and rocky landscape from my futuristic-style suite at Sanctuary Okahirongo Elephant Lodge (Namibia). And each place shines with stellar moments.

A ‘star’ of Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma is Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park. Zambia’s smallest public park doesn’t have big cats, but it protects instead another special animal – southern white rhino.

From our elevated vehicle seats, we can see the park’s ten rhinos, part of their successful rehabilitation program, browsing in the distance. We alight, one of the rare times this is permitted here. A park guard, Kapoko, leads us in single file and, when sensing our slight trepidation, he points to his rifle: ‘This is my second wife’. (It’s to ward off potential poachers). From a safe distance, we pause to observe these pre-historic creatures as they graze. It’s a remarkable moment.

That afternoon (after a massage in the lodge spa), we head off in a motor boat on the Zambezi River. On boarding, Shadrek warns us: ‘No dangling hands in water. Hippos are territorial. Plus there are whirlpools’. Before we zoom over eddies, Shadrek requests our ‘special interests’. ‘Hippos!’, cries one. ‘G&Ts!’, jokes another. He delivers.

Minutes later, we’re sipping on cocktails (the glasses reflect pink sunset hues) and viewing hippos with their babies as they bob the depths. Egyptian geese fly overhead and a massive crocodile lies motionless on a rock. It’s a far cry from how Scottish missionary and explorer David Livingstone experienced the river and the nearby Victoria Falls from his dug-out canoe in 1855.

If it’s one thing to immerse yourselves ‘in’ the Falls (Mosi-Oa-Tunya) which we do the next day, by meandering along the mist-filled gorge path, it’s another to soar above the torrents in a helicopter. Promoted as ‘The Flight of Angels’ – after Livingstone’s descriptions where ‘scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight’ – the experience is a lofty one indeed. We fly across the switchback of gorges before whipping, James Bond style, through a narrow pass. There are more thrills to come.

The next morning sees an easy one-hour transfer to A&K’s handsome Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero in Botswana. Here, a large expanse of lawn spreads to the boundary and silver cluster leaf trees spread out like giant bonsai. The main building is an aesthete’s delight with massive open fire places, polished concrete floors trimmed with mosaic tiles, and cream and grey décor. Much of the lodge-based relaxation takes place on the terrace where the restaurant-bar overlooks a boma (outdoor enclosure with fire pit). A series of individual suites are spaced along paths that extend on each side.

That afternoon, we climb aboard the 4x4 for a wilderness drive in Chobe National Park, an 11,000-square kilometre park that was formed in 1968. Bobby is on a mission – this is lion country and he wants to find one. He homes in: a female lion, sated from an earlier kill of kudu (hidden in a nearby bush), lies on the ground licking her jowls. On departing, Bobby accelerates the vehicle. A few metres later, we screech to a halt. He’s spotted something: a kudu is crossing the path of a giraffe.

‘That’s a good photo!’ he instructs. ‘Double bonus!’ He has an eye for an angle.

But what captures my attention is the boat trip on Lake Chobe. Far from the Zambezi’s fast-moving torrent, the water is mirror-slick. We move slowly, soaking up the warm breeze and the sight of shorebirds and water life, easy to spy from the top deck of the double-layered cruiser.

Bobby is delighted to witness my newfound knowledge: the flash of purple and aqua indicates the Lilac breasted roller; the distinct jagged wings equal African hawk; and a 1.2-metre wing span distinguishes the Marabou stork from other stork species. It’s our final experience together; it’s time to move on.

Our arrival the following day in Namibia, comes as a shock. We emerge from our light plane on the desert airstrip of Purros Conservancy, Kunene, a region in the country’s remote northwest. I feel like I’ve been transported to Mars. A vast sandscape stretches to the horizon, interrupted only by red rocks, carved by the wind, and a silhouette of hills. It’s a surreal, but stunning sight.

We continue driving in this unworldly landscape until we reach a ridge, where Sanctuary Okahirongo Elephant Lodge – a series of cuboids and trapezoids – spreads out along a ridge that overlooks the arid Hoarusib River. Fanning out from its core (an egg-shaped dome, the shape of a traditional Himba hut) are several communal areas, plus an infinity pool, all connected by boardwalks. The décor of driftwood, local stone, and muted fabrics reflect the natural surrounds.

Our guide, Karitjangua, a local Himba, is patient and gentle and, thanks to his beautiful turns of phrase, is as philosophical as Plato. On searching for the region’s solo bull elephant on one of our drives, he says thoughtfully, ‘we will see whether he is available or not’. His poetic phrasing reminds us that we are privileged to be in the animals’ territory, not the other way around, especially given the drought-ravaged conditions. Nevertheless, over three days of our activities (including guided walks), animals emerge like mirages: oryx, springbok, zebra and ostrich. (And, thanks to Karitjangua’s incredible spotting skills, the bull elephant eventually graced us with his presence). And the sensations continue.

At the Elephant Coast, a remarkable series of dunes (a two-hour drive from the lodge), we peer out at the never-ending chain of sandy undulations, and catch the scent of wild tamarisk and wild tobacco trees that remarkably eke out survival from the parched earth.

For our final dusk experience, we’re driven to the summit of a basalt tabletop mountain, carved over thousands of years by the wind. Planet Venus glitters above the moon (star-gazing is brilliant here). In the distance, a lone giraffe stands motionless, like a leggy model posing in a sand-themed set. The silence is thicker than an insulated recording studio. The horizon beams a warm orange. This superb final viewpoint is the perfect place to reflect on my ten-day, three-country, three-lodge journey, and the challenge of providing an impression on such a diverse and stimulating adventure.

I recall my final morning in Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero in Botswana, where I ask Guide Bobby (he of the good photo angle) what he enjoys about his role. He responds that ‘each and every day is different’. But he’s not referring to experiences; rather, he loves meeting ‘different types of people’.

‘It’s not only about me giving guests information. We also learn from each other,’ says Bobby.

Of all the perspectives of this incredible African journey, this one – intangible and subtle – may be its most defining.

Contact one of our expert Journey Designers or talk to your travel advisor to learn more and start planning.

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