Water here is so vital that even the Botswana currency – pula – is the Setswana word for rain.Water is everything in Africa. In a desert more so. The rains come and life thrives. Nowhere is this more evident than in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. And it is this phenomenal and bizarre geographic accident that I have come to see. Conscious that much of the rest of southern Africa is still waiting for the rains to come, I’m in Maun, the starting point for so many safaris.
Soon, though, I’m in the air. My small helicopter flies over a sparkling horizon of channels and waterways, dotted with wild palms and baobab trees. For much of the year, this northern pan of the vast Kalahari Desert lies waiting for rain that will fall in the distant highlands of Angola. When it comes, the results are spectacular. 11 trillion tons of water flow into the region, from March to June, creating a myriad of canals, lakes, swamps and islands. The world’s largest inland delta is formed in the middle of a desert, teeming with game.
My pilot flies low over this spectacular landscape. Low enough to enjoy the sensational views; high enough to leave the game in peace. On landing I’m met by cool towels and ice-cold drinks. As the helicopter returns to the clear blue sky, the thud of the blades are slowly replaced by the sounds of the bush. My first morning on safari welcomes me, as the outside world melts away.
We drive towards the camp and I am reminded that Botswana is a place to be savoured. Time spent here always yields an all-star cast, but the joy of Botswana is in the unexpected. We pass through a cloud of yellow butterflies, floating over red lechwes grazing in lagoons. I glimpse a porcupine whose spines bristle in the sunlight, before sighting a rare Pel’s fishing Owl, setting off to hunt at dusk.
Game drives are only part of the experience. Here, you can explore on foot, canoe, mokoro, speed boat, helicopter and even paddle board, in the company of some of Africa’s most thoughtful guides.
The wilderness of the delta is immense and exclusive, yet the game is phenomenal. We pass through a meadow of wild sage, with the silhouettes of a family of elephants kicking up dust against the setting sun.
If the drives are good for game, the sensational camps are good for the soul. At the camp, later that night, dinner is refreshingly simple – delicious fine dining and lip-smacking wines. I eat my way through three courses that rival anything served in the restaurants of London or Paris.
The surroundings are luxurious, the atmosphere relaxed and the service as polished as the cut glass. I chat to my fellow guests, who although revelling like newcomers to this unspoilt wilderness, turn out to be here for their third or fourth time. Throughout the country, these small, beautiful and sensitively styled camps offer the perfect water hole. They combine world-class guides and convivial hosting, with everything on offer from editing suites for the serious photographer to fully stocked wine cellars to enjoy at leisure.
Inevitably, costs are high compared to other safaris, but the wildlife experience is priceless. I ponder this as the sounds of the night-time delta join me on the walk back to my bed: when done well, a luxury safari in Botswana has no equal. Sitting beneath the stars on my private veranda, a cool breeze blows in from the delta. I’m thankful that this indulgence comes with a clear conscience. The Botswana government’s pioneering policy of high-end, low impact tourism means the generous cost of staying here pays for the ongoing protection of one of the world’s great wildernesses. And it shows.