Our helicopter hovered noisily over a grassy clearing beside the Okavango River, but the pilot—gripping the throttle to level us—couldn’t land. We’d taken off 30 minutes earlier from the dusty frontier town of Maun, the starting point for nearly all Botswana safaris, and had flown north to spend a few nights at the Moremi Game Reserve, where the Okavango fans into one of the earth’s great delta systems before draining into the Kalahari Desert. As we curled in closer to our target, the surface of the river rippled with a prowling crocodile, while impalas and zebras scattered beneath us. There we hung in the air, waiting for the elephants grazing peacefully in the papyrus to lumber out of our way.
If Botswana has a fault, it is a perverse one for modern Africa: So bountiful is the wildlife, it can feel like a zoo. There are reasons you can point to for the conservation success of this country that has converted nearly 30 percent of its land to protected park or game reserve. A British protectorate until 50 years ago, Botswana has the most enduring democracy on the continent; it’s led by a conservationist president (who banned commercial hunting in 2014) and bankrolled by a lucrative stash of diamonds. Admittedly, the headline-grabbing recent killing of 26 elephants in the country’s north is a sign that it’s hardly immune to the wave of poaching currently engulfing the continent. But Botswana’s got more of these giants than any other African nation—130,451, according to the massive new Great Elephant Census, a two-year aerial survey of 18 countries paid for by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen (price tag: $7 million).
In the Okavango Delta, where the animals drink up the annual floodwaters with the lazy air of creatures that have known neither hunger nor thirst, the densities are so convincing it can feel as if you’ve stepped into the field where Noah’s cargo dispersed and multiplied after the rains.
And it’s not just the elephants that are doing okay. On Chiefs Island in the Okavango Delta, I’ve walked with rare wild African dogs before breakfast.
In the Selinda Spillway—a channel linking the delta with the Chobe and Linyati rivers—I’ve listened to an impala cry as another pack of dogs made their kill right outside my tent. For three days, I’ve paddled a canoe 83 miles down the Okavango through pods of hippos so numerous that the animals looked like stepping stones in the water, their nickel backs glinting in the sun. Back in Moremi, I’ve tracked rhinos, stood under an outdoor shower with a bull elephant grazing near enough that I worried he’d try to drink from its stream, and been kept awake at night by the low rumble of a nearby lion. I will never forget slipping through a grove of jackalberry trees at dusk and hearing a Pel’s fishing owl—among the largest of its species in the world, with a call like a crying baby. When I finally spotted the bird in the canopy, its round eyes as black as obsidian, it stood almost two feet tall.
That’s why I tell friends to come to Botswana first. More than any of the 13 sub-Saharan countries I’ve visited, it works—for the hungry first- timer, the impatient executive, the teenager whose attention has been depleted by the digital scourge, and the honeymooner who wants to drop a safari into a ten-day-long tour of Cape Town’s top restaurants and Zimbabwe’s roaring Victoria Falls. The delta can be experienced on foot, by four-wheel drive, in a motorboat or canoe, or on the back of an elephant—variety that is impossible elsewhere in Africa.
There are caveats, of course. Would I do a horseback safari in the long grass of the delta, where a lion can jump out of nowhere? Probably not, though my sister does it year after year. Do I prefer the rolling savannas and low-scudding clouds of Tanzania’s Serengeti? Probably yes. The parched, wide-open East African landscape feels more ancient and soulful; its rocky kopjes, like the standing stones of my native English moorland, reverberate with the origins of man. But then I fly up the delta in a helicopter during the seasonal flood in May and look down on an explosion of emerald that announces Botswana’s fecundity, its thrust and burst, its greens and golds redolent of Benozzo Gozzoli’s painting of the Magi in the Palazzo Medici’s chapel. Which isn’t as strange an analogy as it sounds. Botswana’s richness and ease make the delta the Florence of Africa, while Tanzania, under its pale, bleached- out light, is its Puglia.
In spite of (or probably because of) its advantages, Botswana is one of the more expensive destinations in Safari land, with suites at an Abu Camp in the delta or Mombo on Chief’s Island costing upwards of $1,600 per person per night.
Of course, the country’s top-tier lodgings are done with infinite good taste, in Ralph Lauren-style khakis, creams, and leathers, with copper roll-top baths and often with air-conditioning that floats over skeins of cotton voile draping four-poster beds. Before turndown, staff deflect bugs with military precision. Over at Zarafa Camp in the Selinda Reserve, gluten-free meals are a first-class feast of salads and river fish, while wooden decks with roaring campfires overlook the crush of passing wildlife.
For my part—because I feel connected to Africa’s wildest places—I will always prefer camping more simply under star-pricked nights. But let it be said: If I’m offered a bed at the deliciously intimate Little Mombo for a second honeymoon, I’m in. Botswana shows the rest of Africa how luxury in the bush is really done.
Botswana is also just the start, the gateway to an enduring Africa habit. I have never known it to fail. Come here once and awe will become obsession, mounting as quickly and inevitably as the waters of the annual Okavango flood
There’s that moment when you realize you’re in the belly of the African backcountry and there are no fences. “We woke up the first morning to big-cat prints—leopard, the guides said—all over the ground outside our tents,” said former competitive surfer Lee Meirowitz after his first trip to Botswana, organized by travel specialists Cox & Kings for Conde Nast Traveler Voyages. “It was a reminder of just how out of our element we were.”
But no matter how you get there, you’ll be hooked right away, Barnes says, “on the rush of hearing a radio call about zebras, then zooming off to see them.”
WHEN TO GO
Botswana in winter (our summer)— after the rains, when the delta floods and springs to life—is the best time to see the north: The savanna’s grasses are low, while growth along the waterways attracts tons of wildlife. Central Botswana is at its best in Africa’s summer, when the region’s desert and salt pans turn to grassland, drawing parades of animals.
The town of Maun (typically reached via a connection from Johannesburg or Cape Town) is the safari starting point for north and central Botswana. If you’re headed to the former, consider flying into Victoria Falls International in Zimbabwe, a one-hour flight from Maun, and adding a day to your trip to see the epic cascade.
THE LODGING SITUATION
Safari outfitters typically transport you via small plane between two or more of the country’s dozens of luxury outposts, such as Savuti Camp and Abu Camp (where our group stayed). It all depends on the time of year and what you want to see.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
Most Botswana safaris combine land- based activities with boat trips, and helicopters for thrill-seekers. The ideal mix is your call.