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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 18 December 2018

Botswana: luxury safaris and wild landscapes

When Dr David Livingstone – the British explorer and medical missionary whose encounter with The New York Herald journalist Henry Stanley brought about the famous quote: “Dr Livingstone, I presume?” – died in 1873, his heart was buried in what is now Zambia. It was said that he loved Africa so much that his heart belonged there. Even now, more than 140 years later, it is easy to understand why he felt this way.

I arrive in Maun, the safari heart of neighbouring Botswana, on a warm mid-November day. The rains haven’t arrived yet, and it’s hot and dusty. We are among the first off the plane and are lucky to be close to the front of the immigration queue. Our fellow passengers are lining up out the door and, unlike us, they aren’t accustomed to the heat. By the time we are at the front of the queue, though, the computer stops working. The immigration officer shrugs his shoulders. This is Africa – TIA – what can you do? A few laughs and some shoulder shrugs later, my passport is stamped, and I’m on my way to catch a small plane to Xakanaxa in Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta.

It’s a very busy time at Maun Airport – most of the day’s flights land and take off within an hour. Visitors usually travel around Botswana by light aircraft as the roads to the game reserves are unsurfaced and would take hours to traverse. Our flight takes about 40 minutes and doesn’t go as high as a regular commercial aircraft, which means we can look for wildlife along the way. The Okavango Delta is one of the best places in Africa for wildlife viewing.

We are greeted at Xakanaxa by one of the guides, Noah, who takes us on the scenic route to Okuti, a five-star lodge operated by Ker & Downey Botswana in the heart of the delta. Moremi is a “Big 5” destination, renowned for its concentration of wildlife, and because hunting is banned in Botswana, the animals are not as fearful of humans, allowing visitors to get closer than would be possible in neighbouring countries.

As we drive to camp, this concentration of wildlife quickly becomes apparent, and I’m furiously snapping away on my camera, while my husband pans around with the GoPro. The first animal we spot is the ubiquitous impala, also known as, according to Noah, the McDonald’s of Africa because there are so many of them.

We spy three greater kudu antelope with big, spiral horns and fine black stripes across their backs and just a bit farther along we see our first zebra – a dazzle of zebras, in fact, crossing the dirt road in front of us.

Next we see a warthog, hippopotamus and elephants. And then, instead of going to camp to check in, we decide to join the afternoon game drive with guides Moses and Solani. This turns out to be a very good decision as we track not one, but three leopards, including an older male chasing a younger one. Moses tells us it’s rare to see these big cats together because they’re solitary animals. We also infer that they avoid confrontation because they rely on their strength and ability to be independent to survive – unlike lions who live in a pride and can get their food and protection from their fellow lions.

As the sun starts to set, we head to Okuti satisfied with our day’s wildlife-spotting. We are shown to our mosasa (ancient tribal word for “house of reeds”) and given a quick briefing. Moses shows us three cans – two are insect repellent (one for day and one for night), the third is an air horn for emergencies, such as “when there’s a lion in the room”. I hope I don’t need that one, but TIA, after all.

Our mosasa has a huge netted four-poster bed in the centre; indoor and outdoor showers; and a balcony overlooking the Maunachira River, which runs through the Xakanaxa Lagoon. Although there is no electricity, a generator runs the fan and lights, and having our balcony door open at night allows us to hear the hippos calling and other wildlife trotting around.

We head off to the expansive open-air dining area for a pre-dinner drink and chat with our fellow guests. This turns out to be one of the best times of each evening because we share the day’s stories. Tonight we’re the envy of the group because we’ve spotted three leopards. We’re also treated to some singing and dancing before a delicious three-course dinner, which includes a main course of kudu – not from the game reserve, though, our guides are quick to point out. The guides eat with us and answer any questions we have about the camp, the wildlife or Botswana, and their knowledge is immense.

Days in the delta start early so that we can catch the animals before the heat sets in. We’re woken each morning by a knock on the door and fresh tea or coffee. We have half an hour to get ready and then another half an hour to eat our breakfast before setting off on the game drive. There’s no going hungry on safari – every meal is delicious and generously portioned.

On day two, luck shines on us again, and we come across three big, fat lions resting beside the old airstrip. They’re content after a big feed. We continue driving and spot a big bull elephant, some hippos and loads of impala. Then we come across our fourth leopard. She’s on a kill, but the baboons are thwarting her efforts, alerting the prey to her presence.

In the afternoon, we take a tour of the waterways, and spot an old bull elephant in the water eating grass. Moses tells us that an elephant’s teeth wear away as it ages and so elephants often venture into the water for grass as it is softer. We watch this beautiful giant up close for about five minutes and then head off in search of hippos, which are fast becoming my favourite African animal with their fat bodies and noisy honks and snorts.

The next day we say goodbye to Okuti and catch a tiny five-seater plane for Motswiri in the Selinda Spillway. We’re staying at Raw Botswana, where we’ll do two days of horse riding. Our whole trip has been centred around the horse-riding safari at Raw, and we’re pretty excited to say the least. The flight is very bumpy, and as we pass over the dirt airstrip and loop back, I’m relieved to see the camp and stables. Raw is very isolated – which is part of what makes it so special – and has specialised in horse-riding and walking safaris, hence the name Raw: Ride And Walk.

The heat is oppressive, and after a lunch of salad and homemade lasagne we cool off with a dip in the small swimming pool, where we chat with some of other guests and quickly discover that many of our fellow travellers – here and at Okuti – are honeymooners. The isolation and lack of modern necessities, such as mobile-phone reception, internet and television, provide the ideal conditions to connect with your partner. My husband and I make a promise to put away our phones when we return home and spend more time talking to each other instead of whiling away the hours online or in front of the television.

The following morning, we’re up bright and early – like every morning in Botswana. We need to prove our horse-riding skills before we’re let loose in the reserve. Carmen, the stable manager, prefers to work with geldings, and most of them are the South African breed boerperd, which is known for being sure-footed and forward-going. Being a competent rider is vital as horses can be a target for predators, such as lions, but also because the camp is so isolated it could take several hours to reach the nearest hospital should something happen.

I’m matched with a trusty steed called Roman. Carmen tells me he has a cheeky side, and I soon find out that it’s true when he kicks my husband’s horse, Solomon, in the face, which causes him to rear up. Roman is relegated to the back of the pack, which suits him well because he can also be a bit lazy. Still, I quite like him and his cheeky ways.

We ride alongside a herd of buffalo, but are careful to keep our distance as our guide, Cliff, says they can be very unpredictable. Selinda Spillway has the largest buffalo herd in the delta, he says, and possibly even the world.

Since around 2000, there has been good rain in the Okavango Delta, filling the spillway to the north, which makes it a haven for animals during the dry season. When the rains come, Cliff tells us, the animals spread out into other areas of the reserve that are usually uninhabitable during the dry periods.

We spot a herd of wildebeest with one lone zebra. There are baboons being chased by reedbuck. We’ve got our eyes strained trying to spot cheetahs, which usually hang out on the top of termite nests keeping watch. They come down later in the day and start stalking their prey.

As we round a corner, we spy a dazzle of zebras running and try to join up with them. Unfortunately, they’re too fast. We continue on our way, cantering through the plains and slowly weaving through the trees on higher ground. All of a sudden, Cliff’s horse rears up. Something in the trees has spooked it. Roman does a 180 turn, too, and it takes a fair effort to pull him up. One of the first things we’re told on safari is that if we’re threatened by a wild animal, it’s safest to stand our ground – easier said than done when you’re facing a lion. Luckily this time there’s no lion – it’s just a greater kudu.

That afternoon on our game drive, we’re enjoying sundowners and some biltong when we see a waterbuck being chased down by four wild dogs. The clever buck runs into a waterhole right in front of us to wait it out – wild dogs don’t like the water. It’s a lucky escape for the waterbuck this time, and another animal crossed off our wish list.

The following day, as we arrive back at camp after our morning horse ride, we get word that a cheetah has been spotted with its kill. We quickly pack up our belongings and grab a bite to eat, before rushing off to spot the big cat. The cheetah has caught an impala, and is devouring its rump. She looks up at us, her face covered in blood. For some, this is a confronting sight, but it’s part of the cycle of life. TIA – this is Africa.

We head straight to the airstrip after spotting the cheetah and are bound for the final leg of our holiday – Livingstone, Zambia, where we plan to see the Victoria Falls and sleep in past 6am. We arrive in Kasane, in the north of Botswana, and are picked up and taken to a ferry, where we cross the Zambezi River. In front of us is Zambia, behind Botswana. To our left is Namibia and to our right is Zimbabwe. After getting our passports stamped, we’re on our way to Tongabezi, which has been consistently voted one of the best and most romantic resorts in Zambia.

We are met on arrival by the general manager, Rudy, who informs us that although we’ve booked into a River Cottage, another room, the Nut House, is available if we’d like that instead. He shows us the River Cottage and we both agree it’s pretty amazing. How can anything be better? And then we see the Nut House and our grins spread from ear to ear. From its high vantage point, it overlooks the Zambezi and has a plunge pool, huge living areas and a claw-foot bath, which is filled every night for us.

That afternoon we take a river cruise to spot some wildlife and then stop at a sand bank for sundowners. Afterwards we enjoy a delicious candlelit dinner by the pool in our room. It’s a huge three courses of Zambian beef and local seasonal produce from the resort’s organic vegetable garden. With bursting bellies, we retire to our enormous netted four-poster bed and wake up the following morning to see a herd of 16 elephants by the river on the Zimbabwean side.

A few nights later, we move to Sindabezi, sister lodge to Tongabezi, on an island about half an hour downstream. It can only be reached by boat, and when we visit, we are the only people staying. We are given our choice of cabins and choose number one, mostly because it has a hammock and big bathtub overlooking the water. That night we get a storm and delight in hearing the cracks of thunder and heavy showers. The rain is a welcome relief after the long dry spell.

A highlight of our time in Livingstone is visiting Victoria Falls – or Mosi-oa-Tunya in the local language, which means the “smoke that thunders”. The water level in the Zambezi is low, so we can swim to the Devil’s Pool, a natural rock pond at the edge of the falls, and peer over the edge, a drop of 100 metres. When the water level is high – generally from mid-January to mid-August – Devil’s Pool is off limits as swimmers would be swept over the edge. Victoria Falls is considered the largest waterfall in the world based on its height (108 metres) and width (1.7 kilometres), and its spray usually reaches 400 metres high (although it has been known to go higher) and can be seen for up to 50km. Because it’s so dry, we don’t see much mist, but I make a promise to myself to return at a different time of year.

We have morning tea on Livingstone Island, where a statue commemorates Dr David Livingstone. A quote reads: “Scenes so lovely must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.” I understand why his heart belonged in Africa, and now I feel there’s a part of mine that does, too.

Read this and other travel-related stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Wednesday, March 23.

atomlinson@thenational.ae