Back In The Okavango
Text and photographs Vanessa Raphaely Additional photographs Amanda Bloch I first visited the Okavango in Botswana many wild-dog years ago, when I was just 19. Back then, my friends and I had time but not much money. Consequently, we found the pain of driving for 48 hours from Cape Town to Maun in an elderly Datsun 1100 bakkie and a tatty orange Nissan saloon (both with no air conditioning or shock absorbers) a small price to pay when the destination was one of the world’s most beautiful and exotic. I remember finally arriving in the hub of the Delta and desert, Maun. The town was then, as now, an out-there cowboy place with The Duck Inn (now, sadly, no more) the notorious pub at its outlaw heart. I remember happily drinking vast quantities of cheap ‘medicinal’ and ‘preventative’ gin and tonic with the reprobates, earnest UN aid workers, shady fugitives and gung-ho young pilots who still prop up the bars of the town’s many human watering holes. The next morning, nursing a headache, our battered, hungover crew grabbed our dusty rucksacks, caught a ‘delta taxi’ (one of the single-engine planes that still serve the area) and headed off for what I still remember as one of the happiest adventures of my young life. And the model for many more trips into the bush. Back then all it took were a few commitment-free weeks, a bedroll and a merry band of playmates for me to hit the road. Age and children, of course, put an end to all that. Or do they? Human beings are all storytellers at heart. Perhaps listening to stories is the reason my children have inherited a love of the bush and adventure. And sharing the passions of youth with your children is one of the greatest pleasures of parenthood. Older, lazier and less hardy, as parents you’ve just got to find some faster, easier, more luxurious way to do it. Seeking out greater ease and comfort, on our recent trip to Seba Camp in the Delta and Jack’s Camp in the Kalahari (with children) we gratefully made use of Air Botswana’s direct flight from Cape Town to Maun. While I couldn’t in all good conscience vote Air Botswana as the best airline, carelessly mediocre as it is, I can say that it is certainly preferable to 48 hours with no air conditioning or shock absorbers when travelling with children. To alight at Wilderness Safaris’ Seba Camp in time for an evening game drive with no-one hungover, carsick, drunk or exhausted is also the great pleasure of not being 19 any more. Seba is a dream camp for families. The accommodation, consisting of the kind of luxurious tents (ours had its own pool) that don’t resemble tents at all, is nestled around a large sycamore fig, mangosteen and leadwood–rimmed lagoon, in which hippos wallow and around which vervet monkeys and baboons carouse. The camp’s common areas are easy, comfortable and sensitively designed for rest, privacy and the re-telling of tall tales around the fire. The camp is named after Seba, an elephant released a few years ago from the nearby Abu Camp. As a baby, we were told, Seba starred in the Walt Disney movie, Whispers: An Elephant’s Tale, which was filmed in the area (‘seba’ means ‘whisper’ in the local language). Night is a noisy place in the Delta. You should expect no whispering from the ‘locals’ here. Luckily, those luxurious tents are secure enough to make the raucous chorus of elephant, hyena and lion seem like a lullaby, even though animals of all shapes and sizes regularly and confidently stride through the camp. Seba has been designed and is run by people who understand, perfectly, the needs of families. The food is delicious and varied, satisfying the conservative, spag-bol-loving U11s as well as their foodie parents and older sister. But the true joy is in the memorable and happy experiences, which I know will stay in the children’s hearts and memories for years to come. Thanks to our warm and generous guide, Matamo, the children learned how to drive a speedboat through water lily-filled channels and to recognise many of the 300 species of birdlife that frequent the area. They fished at sunset; tracked lion and leopard; learned to pole a mokoro (the local canoes); and drove, in crystal-clear water, sometimes reaching up to the top of the vehicle, through the world’s most breathtakingly beautiful lagoons and rivers. On afternoons, as we lounged next to the lagoon, the kitchen crew played football with the boys on the sand next to the lagoon as the vervet monkeys watched from the trees. Happiness! All three children loved their close-up experience with a bunch of curious and fearless young spotted hyena and adored the banquet, lit by candles and a super moon, and the beautiful singing to which we were treated on our last night. My tough little six-year old wept as he said goodbye to the Delta and Matamo, but his eyes brightened when he spied Super (legend among guides, King of The Kalahari), our host at our next stop, Jack’s Camp. Flying the long, hot and bumpy hour from Maun to Jack’s Camp, even the most experienced traveller could be forgiven for wondering what you’d got yourself into. Jack’s is really in the middle of nowhere. The eponymous Jack was the father of Ralph Bousfield, one of the camp’s current owners. He was a rugged individual and a bit of a maverick. Legend has it that on arrival sometime in the 1960s from East Africa, Jack had this conversation with someone at a bar: ‘Makgadikgadi? I asked what was out there, and they said, “Nothing – only idiots go there.” I thought, fine, that’s the place for me.’ While a traveller looking out into the distance at Jack’s and seeing mostly emptiness might feel like an idiot themselves for coming so far for ‘nothing’ (Jack’s is not cheap) it’s now one of the world’s most unique and celebrated destinations, winner of multiple international awards. The camp’s attention to detail in food, decor and planning is the work of a true perfectionist. When you find yourself sipping freshly made lemonade, or eating perfectly cooked terrines or roulades, it is hard to remember that you are many miles away from any infrastructure at all. The camp’s design is whimsical, sophisticated and colonial, uniquely stylish but also eccentric. The ‘mess tent’ where guests gather to eat at night and to socialize during the day is also a museum of found objects and indigenous specimens. Expect to spot an aardvark in the desert before dinner and then to eat under the beady eye of his stuffed ancestors later. The guests’ tents are stylish and Victorian, featuring dark furniture and mostly high single beds (there are also three double beds). Standing as it does in the middle of a desert, you would imagine that there was not much to be seen or much to do at this camp. The fact is, if you’re looking for the Big Five, best you go somewhere else. But the visionary owners were among the first in the industry to recognise and understand the power of Experiential Tourism. As a result, Jack’s specialises in creating memories and unique experiences, which guarantee guests a tale to tell the next time, when (at a more conventional camp) they find themselves gathered around the fire. Everyone, these days, needs content for a Facebook page. From spending time among the three habituated colonies of meerkat (having a meerkat perched on your head being the perfect profile pic opportunity) and learning the ancient tracking secrets of the desert from bushmen to driving quad bikes across the desolate, starkly beautiful and silent Makgadikgadi moonscape, as a guest you are assured experiences here you can have nowhere else. One evening we drove in that chain of quad bikes out onto the pans to spend an hour at sunset in a place so silent that all you can hear is your own breathing. I am sure my children will be telling their own children these stories, in many years’ time. I’m so glad that I will be part of them. GETTING THERE:
- HL flew from Cape Town to Maun on Air Botswana.
- Seba Camp: for information, rates or reservations, contact Wilderness Safaris: call 011-807-1800, email email@example.com or visit wilderness-safaris.com. Wilderness Safaris has also launched an African Residents Programme. To find out more about member benefits, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit wilderness-residents.co.za.
- Jack’s Camp has special rates for SADC residents. The Green Season rates, from 1 November to 31 December 2013, are from BWP 4 900 (about R5 800) per person per night sharing. A minimum two-night stay and proof (ID or passport) of residency or citizenship of a SADC country is required. Contact Uncharted Africa Safari Co.: call 011-447-1605, email email@example.com or visit unchartedafrica.com.
This article was originally featured in the October 2013 issue of House and Leisure.