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Breathtaking Botswana

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Martin Fletcher on 01 Jul 2018

The Straits Times

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Get up close and personal with the wildlife at the lush Okavango Delta, home to herds of game and only a handful of luxurious campsites

 

Ahead of our tiny Cessna Caravan plane, the perpendicular columns of rain are so dense, they seem to drop solidly from a horizontal layer of thick black clouds.

 

Kirsty, our pilot, threads between those columns until we emerge into the brilliantly colourful and sunlit world beyond - a pristine Eden in northern Botswana boasting the clearest light and cleanest air, more leopards and lions than humans, and the greatest concentration of elephants on earth.

 

My wife and I spend the next two days at Kings Pool, a luxurious camp so remote, it is accessible only by air.

 

We watch hippos and an elephant crossing the Linyanti River during an evening cruise. We hike through the bush with an armed guard, admiring the fabulous bird life and towering termite mounds. At night, we fall asleep to the sound of hippos snorting in the nearby reed beds.

 

But Kings Pool, wonderful though it is, is merely a prelude. The main act is Mombo, one of Africa's oldest and most iconic safari camps, just reopened after being rebuilt and upgraded for the fourth time in its 27-year history.

 

We arrive by helicopter, scattering baboons and warthogs as we land. We gasp as we enter the camp, with its breathtaking view across a verdant floodplain teeming with elephants, zebras and buffalo. "Welcome to paradise," says Doc, our guide.

 

As we lunch off pan-fried bream with cherry tomatoes, grilled corn and bulgur wheat salad, we watch elephants advance towards us, munching grass, trailing white egrets and spraying dirt over their backs for protection from the sun.

 

A great bull lumbers right through the camp. The waiters laugh. The previous day, one tells us, a hyena was found lying across the entrance to our tented suite.

 

It is no ordinary suite. It is reached by a raised boardwalk and shaded by ancient jackalberry and mangosteen trees. It is longer than a tennis court. The bed is big enough to get lost in and there is an additional swing bed on the deck for siestas.

 

There are indoor and outdoor showers, a great bronze bathtub and a private plunge pool. The floors are oak, the shutters iroko wood and the beams blue gum.

 

The soft furnishings include the finest linen sheets, hand-stitched leather sofas and hand-embroidered cushions. It takes us five minutes to master the lighting alone.

 

It is for this that Mombo's guests pay up to US$3,000 (S$4,100) a person a night. For this, and a succession of gourmet meals - even the afternoon teas are a culinary event. And for the splendid new gym, spa, infinity pool and yoga instruction. And, of course, for the game viewing, which the Bradt travel guide to Botswana describes as "just about the best you'll find in southern Africa".

 

MAGICAL MOMBO

 

Mombo, the "place of plenty", occupies a prime location in the very heart of the Okavango Delta, an astounding Unesco World Heritage Site.

 

The delta is a vast, shallow depression covering an area half the size of Belgium at the northern end of the Kalahari Desert. Between April and August, it fills with rainwater that courses down the Cuito and Cubango rivers from the Angolan highlands more than 1,000km to the north.

 

For several months, it becomes a magical labyrinth of islands and marshes, lagoons and channels, until the waters finally evaporate in the hot African sun because they have no egress.

 

The delta was protected for hunting during the colonial era and Botswana's government has since gone to great lengths to protect this unique ecosystem.

 

It allows no indigenous peoples to live there. It has banned all hunting and its defence force operates a shoot-to-kill policy to deter poachers. It permits only high-end, low-volume tourism, which means there is just a handful of very exclusive camps scattered across its 15,000 sq km.

 

Mombo, on Chief's Island, has a limit of 24 guests, and the next nearest camp is a three-hour drive away, so its guests have the wildlife to themselves. Having never been hunted, moreover, the wildlife has little fear of humans.

 

On our first evening game drive, Doc drives us through plains and woodland teeming with impala, kudu and lechwe - antelopes whose abundance inevitably attracts plenty of predators.

 

Soon, our binoculars are trained on an exquisite female leopard dozing on the bough of a fever berry tree, with her paws and tail dangling down. Occasionally, she would raise her head to gaze at us with mild disdain. We linger, entranced, as the gorgeous evening light sets the treetops ablaze.

 

The next morning's drive is even better. We rise at 5am and set off armed with coffee, muffins and fresh fruit. An hour later, the rising sun turns the eastern rim of the vast, overarching sky from fiery red to molten gold.

 

We listen to the dawn chorus ringing out around us. The great hulks of elephants seem to float above the low layer of mist covering the ground. Herds of zebras and impala huddle together for protection. A jackal slips through the long grass in front of us. "This is heaven," says Doc, though he has seen it many times before. We cannot disagree.

 

A little later, we come across a pride of lions waiting their turn as a great-maned adult male devours a freshly killed impala, crushing the bones with his powerful jaws to get at the marrow.

 

Six cubs play and mewl. When one ventures too close, the lion half-rises and growls to drive it away. Satiated, the lion finally stretches out on the grass and falls asleep.

 

Not far away, we find a pack of four African wild dogs, an endangered species, tearing apart a young lechwe with bloodied jaws and snouts. Again, we watch close up as they devour every last morsel - fur, bones, paws - leaving nothing for the circling vultures. They drink deeply from a nearby puddle before lolloping away.

 

BIG FIVE AND BRILLIANT BIRD LIFE

 

Over the next two days, we see plenty of four of the "big five" mammals - lions, leopards, elephants and Cape buffalo - though not the rhinos.

 

But that is hardly the fault of our host, Wilderness Safaris. Working with the government, the company has reintroduced several dozen rhinos, black and white, to Chief's Island from Zimbabwe and South Africa.

 

Botswana had allowed those critically endangered species to be hunted almost to the point of extinction by the 1990s, but this joint effort means it is now one of just half-a-dozen countries in Africa with viable populations of those prehistoric beasts.

 

Nor are the animals the only attraction. We spot all manner of rare, exotic and brilliantly coloured birds - diverse eagles, cranes, bustards, woodpeckers, storks, bee-eaters, geese, orioles, shrikes, kingfishers and hornbills.

 

We watch electric storms of elemental ferocity crackling on the horizon, this being the rainy season. We enjoy the air scented with wild sage and basil, the total lack of sound or light pollution, the perfect tranquillity of an environment untainted by man.

 

And at night, we return to Mombo for a sumptuous dinner eaten under a brilliant firmament of stars and accompanied by the finest South African wines.

 

To date, Mr Matt McCreedy and Ms Robyn Dreyer, the charming young South African couple who manage Mombo, have bravely declined to offer guests Internet access, arguing that it prevents them from fully appreciating the wonders of the natural world all around them. I hope they stand firm because staying at Mombo is truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

 

But even paradise has shortcomings. Being situated in the Moremi game reserve, a national park, Mombo is subject to certain restrictions. It is limited to seven jeeps, which means that even the wealthiest guests may occasionally have to share a vehicle.

 

It cannot offer night drives, walking safaris or water activities, though it has just acquired a licence for a single boat. To circumvent those shortcomings, most guests stay at two or three camps in the course of a week-long visit to the delta. We, for instance, take a 10-minute flight to Jao at the end of our dreamy sojourn at Mombo.

 

Jao is another supremely luxurious camp. It boasts a magnificent Indonesian-style longhouse raised high on stilts so it overlooks another great floodplain.

 

From there, we explore the reed and papyrus marshes in a polepropelled dugout called a mokoro, but, in truth, we have come a couple of months too early to enjoy the delta in full flood.

 

As with all great trips, we leave yearning to return to this amazing but little-known African idyll.

 

• The writer, a former foreign and associate editor of The Times of London, was hosted by Wilderness Safaris and Africa Odyssey.

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.