Travel agents should be the source of all knowledge – but, one wonders, are they sometimes out of date? My safari friends here in beautiful Botswana wish those professional advisors, wherever they happen to be in the world, would think 2012.
For a start, the best luxury lodges have free and good WiFi, either in your tent or in public areas, and all take credit cards. You, the visitor, do not need to carry wads of dollar bills. More misinformation. You do not have to take the single-engine small private plane to get from Maun International Airport, main base for the Okavango Delta.
Orient-Express can now drive you from Maun to its Khwai River Lodge: this fascinating excursion meets you from the main incoming Air Botswana flight from Cape Town or Johannesburg and, having passed through several interesting villages, you will be at the lodge in plenty of time for evening cocktails. The gal predicts this new service will do extremely well.
Khwai River Lodge, one of Orient-Express’ three lodges in the Okavango Delta, has 15 ‘tents’. Each PVC tent, with thatch roof over, is about 400 sq ft, built on a wood deck three feet above the ground.
You have an outer front deck with seating. Sliding doors open to reveal the bedroom, dominated by a California-size four-poster with mosquito nets. Behind is the bathroom area (tent one has a second outdoor bathroom, and its own private plunge pool).
You have tea and coffee equipment, a mini bar, safe and free WiFi. There is unique writing paper – made from recycled elephant dung. Your only restriction is not being able to walk outside after dark.
Khwai River Lodge is pretty open-plan, which means cracked paving along the walkway from tent to the main area as a result of visiting elephants, who have also left their poop ‘calling cards’ right next to some tents.
The communal areas of Khwai River Lodge are, well, different. Think of a big Chief’s tent, with thatched roof, but the Chief has forgotten to build the walls. This is what you have.
This whole area, the size of a tennis court, has a bar, and two seating areas, and a big deck overlooking the hotel’s main pool. Also under the covered area you have a shepherd’s crook bar, and the area for dining, which is changed depending on how many pairs, how many quartets, how many really big parties there are. (Last night a party of nine Spaniards arrived late and made a bit of a noise…)
Communally, you have an air-conditioned television room with lots of videos and, in the main area, a few books that others have left behind. Behind the big Chief’s tent is the boutique, with the lots of varieties you would adore to buy if you were not compelled by local tourism laws only to travel with 15 kg, period, nothing extra.
What is a typical day’s programme at Kwai River Lodge? At 0530 you hear someone saying ‘knock knock’ outside the door of your tent. You are brought a tray with a steel vacuum flask holding boiling water. There is a plunger filled with coffee, and tea sachets, and a fresh-baked muffins.
From 0600 you stagger along to breakfast, which is full continental, plus eggs brought on command. At 0630 you leave for your four-hour morning safari, with a stop along the way for more hot beverages and home-baked cookies.
The vehicles are high-backed diesel Toyota Land Cruisers, holding a maximum of seven but if you are lucky there will not be more than three others, and if you are wise you will have paid extra to have your own vehicle, and guide.
Orient-Express’ guides are superb. They can see dots in the distance and tell you what kind of animal or even tiny bird that is, and all about it. You learn how impala and zebra live so well together, the zebra benefitting from impalas’ outstanding eyesight… and so much more.
You get back sometime after 1030, and do whatever until brunch, served from 1130 to 1300. Every day there is a printed menu for brunch, and for dinner, with lots of choice.
They even manage salads, which is a marvel since all produce comes, generally once a week, from Maun, either by road or jump-seating a lift with new guests arriving by plane. The breads at all meals are so healthy you feel you will be able to run in the Rio Olympics at this rate.
For even more exercise, opt for a walking trek. I did this and adored it. You walk in a straight line, very quiet, sandwiched between the leader in front (he has a loaded gun) and a scout at the back. You are warned to freeze if anything approaches.
I hear of a couple of French people on a walk safari who disturbed a lion pride. He, the guy, immediately tried to run and he was only saved by being tackled to the ground by the scout behind him.
Today we see giraffe in the distance – see the centre of the photo – and a couple of elephants, but I learn about the highly poisonous fireball lily, and ant lions. You see all the little things, when walking. You do have to wear long trousers, in case of snakes.
Talking of gear, what do you really need to be well-clad in the bush? In India, I have been on – sadly fruitless – tiger safaris where animals have obviously been frightened out of their wits as well as out of sight by local visitors dressed in fluorescent saris with gold-brocade edging and jewellery to match as, packed in, standing in open-topped vehicles as if sardines, they make their way through the bush chattering nineteen to the dozen (Italians anywhere, by the way, tend to bellow like Pavarotti when they see anything big, but at least they are well dressed).
Warren Stone, GM of all Orient-Express’ ops in Botswana, is dressed today in ‘real’ safari fashion, camouflage gear, light khaki or green- beige.
Get natural fibres, and buy a size too big as you need to be really comfortable spending four hours or more sitting in your safari vehicle. Have as many pockets as possible. You need somewhere to store such essentials as lip salve, eye glasses and sunglasses, Kleenex, notepad and pencil.
Although you tip your guide at the end of a stay, you do not need money on each trek. Debbie Tucker recommends people coming on safari to bring a hat that covers the ears, a warm jacket and a fleece, long trousers and a warm-up suit (I personally find British Airways’ First Class sleepsuits indispensible, and then I chuck them). In winter, add a thick scarf and gloves and thick socks. Year round, you need trainers, and possibly flipflops, although I manage just with trainers. That free laundry is great.
Debbie, by the way, is relief manager for Orient-Express, which means she spends a month at each of the three Botswana resorts, replacing the main managers, who work three months on, one month off. Brought up in Zimbabwe, she gave up banking in Johannesburg to return here, to the bush. She is one of many who cannot imagine living without ‘the bush’.
And you do have plenty of your time to yourself. At all times, you are on the lookout for wildlife. After lunch, or brunch or whatever you call it, there is more whatever time (a swim, or workout in the bijou gym, or have a massage or read?), until high tea is served at 1530.
Yes, this is a full spread, with scones and big bowls of berry jam and whipped cream as well as cupcakes and a variety of sandwiches, and savoury bacon rolled around prunes. At 1600 it is time for the second Land Cruiser safari of the day, with a half-time break for your choice of sundowner.
You get back sometime before 1930, when dinner starts. Another memorable meal, with excellent South African red and white wine skilfully and plentifully poured, and stories of the day, and looking forward already to tomorrow…