One of the legendary bush camps of Africa, Abu Camp provides the kind of monumental experience we seek when we travel to exotic places. Here you can sit atop the world’s largest mammal, behind an expert mahout who steers it in style, urging it on with “Move it up, Cathy, move it up.” From this oh-so-peaceful perch (no chug, chug of an engine), your mount’s trunk swinging in front of you, ears flapping back against your ankles, baby elephants frolicking through the waters beside you, you may encounter lions, cheetahs, wild dogs and all the other glorious fauna of the Okavango Delta. The whole thing has a ploddingly majestic 18th-century feel to it, and as you look about at the vast, glimmering horizon, you know you are in a pure, untainted Africa—no vehicles, no other people. At the end of the day there are campfires, sophisticated suppers and informal talks about the elephants and their conservation—Abu’s was founded by Randall Moore, who rescued orphaned elephants from America and transported them home to pioneer elephant-back safaris in Botswana. Finally, you retire to tents outfitted in old-fashioned luxury with mahogany beds, copper baths and platforms for viewing the lagoon. Awesome.
Jack’s Camp, deep in the Kalahari Desert, is a seriously special, atmospheric place. Don’t expect modern luxuries like minibars and butlers. Guests visit to experience the landscape in all its natural beauty, to be educated, not mollycoddled. It provides a full-on adventure for the whole family. The outstanding staff includes zoologists and biologists, among them the cream of Oxford graduates, all brimming with knowledge about the Kalahari and its inhabitants.
You can go to watch the meerkat research program in action, which will keep even the most restless fascinated for hours, or visit the biggest baobab tree in Botswana, or just be blown away by the desert. Or go quad-biking across the endless salt flats—so exhilarating—and eat under the superbly bright stars, while kept toasty warm by hot coals on the ground under your seat. You can also enjoy fascinating walks guided by the local Bushmen, who will show you how to make a fire out of nothing and to extract water from plant roots.
The camp itself is half the fun, with wooden cabinets full of animal skeletons, photos of Jack (one of the legendary crocodile killers of Africa, now deceased) and his family, a long mess table dotted with pots of marmite and simple tents equipped with antique Indian four-posters, bucket showers and oil lamps. Be sure to stay for at least three nights or you’ll miss one of the highlights of your life: a surprise that the organizers manage to keep a secret even from those in the travel industry (we’re simply not allowed to tell you). You’ll want your grandchildren to come here, too.
Your small plane puts down on the landing strip on a remote island just west of the Moremi Game Reserve, and there is Jao, nestled in the marshes. The husband-and-wife team of renowned architects Silvio Rech and Leslie Carstens—who also designed Wilderness Safari’s North Island resort, in the Seychelles—based this chic safari camp on an Indonesian longhouse, with masses of polished wood and marvelous pieces of indigenous art. Canvas and thatched-roof units are scattered under canopies of such trees as Jackal-berry, Sycomore Figs and Knobthorn Acacias and linked by raised wooden pathways. For peace and privacy, bag tent 9, which is just that little bit farther than the others from the boma (enclosure) and has uninterrupted views of the fluttering savannah.
As for the animals, its watery location makes Jao a perfect alternative to the traditional land-based big–five safari. Glide across the floodplain as the sun rises, swishing through reeds and lily pads as hippos wade in the water and lionesses with their cubs having an early morning drink at the edge. Stop at Hunda Island for a game drive or angle for tiger fish en route. Afterward visit the glass-enclosed treatment room on the jungle floor, where you can pamper yourself with a Botswana massage and a milk-and-honey body scrub while watching colorful birds flit among the treetops – it’s surreal! And don’t miss a Jao “sleep out,” at a remote site some 45 minutes away from the main camp. Lying on mosquito-netted beds under the shooting stars, you only have the sounds of the bush as your lullaby—total tranquility.
Like Jao Camp, Vumbura Plains is also the brainchild of North Island architects Silvio Rech and Leslie Carstens. Surprisingly contemporary and utterly different from what you’d expect, it’s not for safari purists: think hanging egg chairs in muted colors, sunken seating areas and acres of pale gray cushions. It’s remarkably eco-chic, too, with all the bleached wood outside and the pine inside sourced from a sustainable supply. The camp is split into Vumbura North and South, each of which has seven units. And they’re spectacular—gigantic, every one boasting its own plunge pool and terrace with breathtaking views on three sides. The food is seriously good, as well. If you can drag yourself away from your afternoon siesta at teatime, you can tuck into great, sticky slices of nut-filled baklava and fresh-fruit smoothies.
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