From Delta to desert: the best of Botswana in the midst of a pandemic

Arriving after dark at a camp in the heart of the Okavango Delta was a curious experience. Darkness shrouded the surroundings, and all that I had to gauge the scale of the camp was a long string of lanterns lining the walkways connecting the network of tents at the camp.

Although I couldn’t see it, it was obvious that there was water, and lots of it, around - thanks mainly to the high-pitched cacophony of frogs and insects, bellowing honks from distant hippos, and occasional splashes of pouncing lechwe. 

Listen carefully between this white noise that defines Okavango nights, and you’ll likely also hear lions roaring, paranoid francolin screeches, and, as was the case at one occasion during my stay at Tuludi, a tent-quivering whoop of a hyena, its proximity confirmed by camp-side prints the next morning.

Eventually, the string of lanterns, and our slow nighttime arrival, ended in a small thatched welcoming platform, where hand soap, a pitcher of warm water, and an infrared thermometer - standard apparatus at many Botswana camps since the pandemic - awaited us.

The cacophony stretched through the night but faded with the gentle morning light, and shortly thereafter came a polite wake-up call for a mokoro trip along a small river connected to the Delta.

In the daylight, the grandeur of a camp like Tuludi, its main section built like a treehouse above the wetlands, is spectacular - and difficult to leave. It would be easy to forget that a world of mokoro rides and helicopter flips and game drives exist, and instead spend a day on one of the swinging basket chairs strung from the branches of a leadwood tree, or reading upstairs in the Treehouse Library, or gasping for air in the icy plunge pools on the deck of each tent. And no one would judge you for doing so.

But time in the Okavango Delta is as much about relaxation as it is absorbing the stunning scenery and array of wildlife that define this bountiful region through a variety of activities.

A human-powered trip on a mokoro, dugout canoes (made, these days, of more sustainable fibreglass instead of wood) or a sunset ride aboard a motorised boat that offers greater elevation and easier access to a cooler box, are two activities that set this wildlife experience apart from other destinations around the continent.

   Botswana’s Okavango Delta is created by a delicate balance, but for how much longer?

Those struggling to grasp the vastness of the Delta from water or land may want to get higher up, though. The small planes that conveniently flit between the towns and lodges daily are nice, but a flip in a chopper is an even better way to see just how little of the land humans traverse - and how some animals have made it their safe-havens.

Getting between the boat launch sites and other activities does, of course, involve slow game drives that can deliver exciting sightings of lion, leopard, cheetah, and wild dog. Large herds of elephants and buffalos are also common, as are pods of hippos and some more traditional general game. 

But much of the joy in the wildlife sightings, at least for those new to Botswana, rests with the animals not commonly found in parks across the border. Lechwe and sitatunga - something of the aquatic cousins of impala and kudu - lurk in the marshlands. Pelicans, flamingos, and an array of stalks thrive in the shin-deep waters as they pick through the mud for their dinners.

An eagle-eyed mokoro guide may point out rare frog species perfectly camouflaged halfway up a vertical reed and will tell you more about the day and night waterlily species that hover lightly on the surface of the translucent waters filtered down through the various tributaries.

This is a lifestyle and routine that can quickly become the ultimate form of relaxation - and during my stay, only a smattering of guests, mostly Americans, arrived at the camp. For the most part, it was close to empty - and the definition of peaceful. 

To shake it up and get out of your tranquil G&T comfort zone, though, Tuludi now offers a sky-suite experience several hundred metres away from the main camp. Similar to other sky bed options around the continent, this consists of a raised platform with a lounge area, beds surrounded by a mosquito net, and an outdoor bathroom. 

The team from the camp will deliver a hot meal for you to enjoy by the fireside, and then leave you to your own devices to sleep under the stars less than a leopard’s leap away from the ground below - with a two-way radio in the unlikely event that something like this happens.

Leaving the lush Okavango Delta, I learnt, is hard to do - but when there’s a small Cessna to float you effortlessly to the edge of the stark Makgadikgadi Pans, it’s somewhat easier to tear yourself away. 

Botswana’s network of simple gravel airstrips and fleet of small planes that service them means in just over one hour you can go from watching elephants wading through marshlands, to hopping aboard a game drive vehicle driven by an excitable guide urging you to hurry up, so as not to miss the rare opportunity of seeing a large Kalahari male lion striding purposefully across the plains.

Situated on the transition zone between savannah and salt pan is a mirage-like collection of white tents flapping in the warm afternoon wind, called San Camp. Walking through the parted canvas entrance of the main communal tent feels much like you’re about to intrude on a crazed archaeologist’s field office. And in its early days, San Camp along with nearby sister camp Jack’s may have not been far from this - but these days the lavish encampments are entirely centred around otherworldly hospitality in the most inhospitable of environments. 

On one end of the communal tent at San Camp is a library, bar and miniature billiard table; in the middle, a large communal dining table; and on the far side, a serene shoes-off tea tent. Nearby, perched above the parched earth, is a sparkling pool and tented yoga pavilion. And laid out behind them, almost disappearing in the overexposed white and grey hues of the salt pans, are seven tents that feature chest-high beds, wooden throne-like toilets, rain showers, dressers topped with trinkets and old family photographs, and 360-degree views of the surrounding salt pans.

These days camps pump water into some of the surrounding pans using solar power, which means that wildlife - in particular, large migrating herds of wildebeest and zebra - is returning to the area. With them have come bigger predators, and by the end of the first day, we had added a cheetah with young three cubs to our earlier lion sighting. 

But at other times, photogenic flamingos dot the waters and make for perfect sundowner subjects, and by the time the vast night skies sparkle overhead spring hares, polecats, bat-eared foxes, jackals, and hyenas skulk out looking for nocturnal spoils.

Many who come to the fringes of the salt pans aren’t necessarily seeking wildlife - they do so to immerse themselves in the solitude of these desolate surroundings. 

Uncharted Africa, the safari company that owns Jack’s, San Camp, and Camp Kalahari in the area, have made a deliberate decision not to offer WiFi at their camps. It means that guests are forced into a digital detox - a cold turkey approach that requires just one night falling asleep beneath under the glowing stars of the Makgadikgadi, rather than the glaring screen of a smartphone, to fully appreciate.

Again it would be tempting to while away the day at the pool or with gin and tonics on the tent decks, this time marvelling at the nothingness and distant streams of migrating wildlife. But activities also rule these parts - and horse rides, educational walks, two clans of habituated meerkats, game drives and even helicopter flips are all popular excursions. 

But it’s the quad biking - even for those not excited by roaring engines - that offers the best perspective on the land. Just ten minutes of riding full speed astride these bikes into the nearby pan reveal a world few know exist - devoid of large roaming birds and wildlife, but full of secrets, some stretching back millennia, if you’re told where to look. 

Months-old elephant footprints pressed in the sand, tiny shells and skeletons embedded in the caked ground, and a faint smell of swamp and shrimp churned up by the single track of tires stretching towards the curved horizon point towards a world not particularly easy to comprehend in the moment - but one that manages to put much of life’s other complexities satisfyingly into perspective.