Kim, the interim manager at the Macatoo Camp in Botswana's Okavango Delta, said, "You never know what you'll miss unless you go."
I'm glad I listened to her as I planned my last day in camp. I had been waffling about whether to ride in the morning or go for a boat ride in one of the dugout canoes, called a mokoro, before catching a plane to my last stop in Botswana. I wasn't able to go out with the regular group because of my early flight time, so I went on a private ride with Wabongwa "Bongwe" Makate, African Horseback Safaris' head guide. My chaperone Paul had left the previous afternoon to spend time with his family in Maun before heading to Durban, South Africa, for Indaba, Africa's largest travel trade show, so I was on my own.
I enjoyed the one-on-one time with Bongwe, having an opportunity to ask a million questions about his life in Botswana, the flora and fauna of the Okavango Delta and the many challenges that come with horse care there. I was fascinated watching Bongwe use all of his senses to track: When we spotted African buffalo tracks in the sand, he gently waved his hand in front of his face, capturing the scent riding on the slight breeze in his palm. He immediately turned his horse left, and it wasn't long before we came upon the herd of nearly 100 buffalo with their flat, curving horns that reminded me of a Dutch milkmaid's hat.
I hadn't yet seen buffalo on my trip, so I was quite engaged with photographing them. Bongwe then pointed to the tree that was surrounded by the herd. We'd nearly missed a lioness who'd been treed by the buffalo! She was having a rough morning; if she came down from her safe perch in the crotch of the tree, chances were good that the buffalo would kill her. Lions will prey on single buffalo, but she was outnumbered that day.
About a minute later, the lion looked up and caught sight of us. I could nearly hear her weighing the options in her feline brain: Hmmm. do I chance getting killed by the buffalo in the hopes I will have a nice lunch, or do I stay up here and hope these guys will go on their merry way? For a moment it looked like she was going to chance coming down but then thought better of it. Bongwe led me in a businesslike walk in the other direction so as not to change her mind.
Breathing in the sweet scent of wild jasmine, we retreated to a safer area out of the lion's sight. Bongwe told me he'd never seen a lion treed by buffalo before. He was very excited that we'd both captured it on camera, too. I knew it would have been a great story to tell around the dinner table in camp that night, and I was sad to think I wouldn't be there. However, all it took to get past that regret was thinking about the previous night:
After my lovely evening ride on Karimba, a Thoroughbred, through water up over his chest, our group dismounted, untacked and started walking back to our tents when Matt, one of the staff members, intercepted us. He told us to hurry back to our tents, change our shoes, grab a jacket and meet him at the boat. He said there had been a buffalo herd sighting on the road heading to the airstrip. I swapped out my waterlogged riding boots and socks for sandals, flipped up the cuffs of my soggy breeches and made a beeline for the dock. I met Matt and fellow guest Hannah while we waited for Michelle and Brenda.
We hopped in the boat and Matt powered us across to the opposite shore, skimming past marsh grasses and lily pads in the waning light. As we neared the shoreline, I could see flames through the trees. I wondered if there was a fire. As Matt docked the boat, we saw that the "flames" were actually about 20 white candles, lanterns and the fire pit used for cooking. The Macatoo staff had hauled everything by boat from the main camp and raised it 15 feet in the air onto a platform built in the canopies of several large trees. Candles beckoned us up the steep wood staircase to the deck where we were greeted by the staff, a linen-covered table and a lovely dinner under the stars. The camp's cooks presented a beautiful meal of kudu stew, potatoes, butternut squash--and vegetable dishes for Kim and me--that had been cooked entirely in Dutch ovens over an open fire. I wiped away tears when I thought about the special evening they'd arranged.
After a memorable evening of great food and swapping stories, I fell asleep listening to Tusk (aka Iraq) kicking his stall wall while a hippo splashed around in the water outside my tent. Just before drifing off, I wondered what the last camp, Vumbura Plains in the Moremi Game Reserve, would be like. Paul had mentioned that he'd booked it for me as a treat; it was somewhere I could relax and prepare for the long trip home and back to reality.
To be honest, I hadn't done much research on the camps before I left home. I knew I'd be writing about it and wanted to go with a fresh perspective. I couldn't imagine anything better than my time on horseback safari in Macatoo and Mashatu. However, I was wrong.
Vumbura Plains is a private luxury camp that lies in the far north of the Okavango Delta. My guide "Mork" greeted me as I exited the Cessna that brought me from Macatoo. Vumbura is run by Wilderness Safaris, a company in southern Africa that promotes responsible tourism and conservation.
Once at camp after a 45-minute drive, I was greeted by the camp manager and her chef husband with an ice-cold drink and an orientation while the staff made up a cheese sandwich for lunch for me. Vumbura Plains is made up of two seven-room camps connected by a raised deck. Each camp has its own dining room, stargazing deck and staff. The entire camp overlooks the Okavango Delta floodplains, which makes for fantastic wildlife viewing. From the deck I could see elephants quietly munching on Mopani trees in the distance.
After lunch, I was shown my "room." I entered through a door in a 10-foot privacy fence and immediately noticed the plunge pool set into the deck overlooking the sweeping vistas, and a nearby sala (a covered eating/lounge area). To my left was the living area constructed of wood-framed sliding screens. One side featured a king-sized bed covered with mosquito netting; the other a sunken living room. On the far side of the room was a wood vanity with back-to-back vessel sinks. To the right was the shower--a 6-foot concrete slab in the floor with a channel running around it. It had curtains that could be left open to enjoy the scenery. A separate room behind a sliding door housed the commode, with the outside wall made of screen so I felt as if I was out in nature. Beyond that was another deck with a private outdoor shower. It looked like something from Architectural Digest magazine--and I discovered it is on Cond? Nast Traveler's 2010 Gold List of top travel destinations.
But this kind of luxury doesn't come cheap: An online search revealed rates of over $3,000 per night for two people! It's certainly fit for a rock star, and if you're looking for an exclusive resort where you will be treated like a queen (or king), this is the place to go. And it's an ideal camp for viewing all the big game on your list. To me this camp felt a bit uptight, though. The guides and staff are very results oriented--if you want to see a leopard, the guide will do his best to find one. However, I found the constant chattering of radios among the safari vehicles out looking for game distracting. I preferred a more laid-back atmosphere: My feeling is that if I see something while out on a game drive, wonderful! If not, it was a really nice drive. However, that is just my personal preference and in no way marred the exceptional accommodations and service I experienced at Vumbura.
Before the evening game drive, I took advantage of the (unheated) plunge pool and outdoor shower. On my drive, I saw a leopard up close as well as a family of elephants. Feeling like a princess that night, I luxuriated in the comfortable and spacious bed swathed in the mosquito netting. Just before closing my eyes to sleep, I reflected that safari in Botswana is one of those trips of a lifetime that everyone should try to experience. But now that it's in my blood, I doubt it will be my last.
More Journal Entries
Part 1: Bush Magic | Part 2: Big Cats | Part 3: Delta Dreaming | Part 4: The Elephant in My Living Room | Packing and Contact Lists