Morning mists rose over the golden savannah of Botswana’s Okavango Delta as our Overseas Adventure Travel Land Rovers did the African mambo through deeply rutted sand. Fifteen guests, eager to read the day’s morning adventure headlines, kept their eyes peeled for game. Luck was ours. Guides Cowboy and Wise Guy momentarily stopped the vehicles to point out tracks in the powdery sand that told them a lion had passed this way in the night.
“Hold on!” Cowboy called as he lurched off road and charged through thickets, knocking over young mopane trees and fording deep gullies carved by hippo. After 45 minutes of heart-thumping pursuit, our wagons circled around a pride of five lions sprawled in the tall grasses and resting after a night of hunting. A majestic male with a dark brown mane and orange eyes stared at us with what must have been utter disdain. His mate and their two adolescent daughters remained in quiet repose as we snapped cameras like paparazzi.
Our bush camp, located in the largest inland delta in the world, is part of a private reserve leased from the Khwai villagers. Unlike in the national parks in Africa, we were allowed to off-road and track game and take photos. (Shooting game is outlawed everywhere in Botswana). We crossed the bridge on the River Kwai to cruise the flood plain where crocs lay in wait for the careless red lechwe, impala, or puku grazing on the shore. A couple of secretary birds and the giant horn billed and saddle-billed stork poked the grasses for frogs as a water monitor lizard slithered by.
We stopped for lunch at a waterhole where a band of big boys were swilling water with their massive trunks. Young male elephants are cast out of the herd and stay together for many years learning what it takes to be a dominant male. A learned matriarch is in charge of females and the young. There were many baby elephants in the parades that we saw that day. At our sundowner, the ritual happy hour of the bush selected for the best spot to view the orange sun dropping on the black horizon, we witnessed elephants charging across a meadow trumpeting and flapping their ears wildly as they chased a hyena away from a two-month old baby.
Each of the four bush camps visited on the Ultimate Safari—a 17-day, all-inclusive holiday offered by Overseas Adventure Travel—is set in unique micro-climates. They are similar in that the main lodge with its thatched roof, teak wood floors, and open beams serves as meeting place and dining hall where delicious buffet meals are served. Screened tent homes with all the amenities including private baths and electricity provide glamping at its best. Guests are greeted with dancing and drumming and the three-night stay ends with a traditional ceremony around the fire in the boma (a sort of livestock enclosure). Hosts are gracious, extending, and eager to please. Influence of past British rule is seen in formal table settings and high tea at 3 p.m. each day.
Our first camp on the edge of Botswana’s Chobe National Park was in the third largest preserve in Africa. It overlooked the Chobe River where the gold framed flamingo-pink sunset stained the water magenta. Sightings included numerous elephants, herds of impala (the fast food of the savannah), handsome kudu with elegant curling antlers, bad-tempered Cape buffalo, and wart hogs running with tails held high. A journey of gangly giraffes frolicked in the Chobe River that was lined with water birds like the avocet, Egyptian geese, herons, and egrets.
In Zambia we enjoyed a dreamy day beneath tender blue skies on the Kafue River where it merges with the Lafupa. Birders like me were excited to be on the slow boat, a pleasant change from the rocking and rolling in safari vehicles on dirt roads during game drives. Fisher people shot up river on a fast boat and came home with buckets of tilapia and catfish. Hippos blew bubbles and yawned with gaping mouths as we floated past their watery home. Jacana with characteristically long toes walked on the lily pads with huge white blooms, and flashy malachite kingfishers kept us company on our glide past waterberry trees and unlikely palms lining the shore. While resting that afternoon in my tent home on the bank of the Lafupa, a troop of vervet monkeys peered in at me with quizzical faces. Wildlife in the camps is commonplace. I went to sleep one night listening to the belly rumblings of elephants; another, the pounding hooves of a herd of buffalo; and, at the river camp, the grunts of hippos that sounded like they were laughing at us.
At Hwange in Zimbabwe our lodge sat on the edge of an escarpment overlooking basalt mopani woodland stretching to the horizon. Our game drive here garnered a cheetah strolling casually across a dead zone created by the many elephants that munch the leaves of the mopani and tear at the bark of the upside down baobab trees with their tusks. At our lunch stop at the Masuma Pan watering hole, a menagerie of animals that would fill Noah’s Ark grazed casually at water’s edge. A parade of elephants sauntered in for a drink while chuffing Impala let us know that big cats were nearby. Zebras, kudus, hippos, crocs, giraffe, and baboons all came to the party.
Victoria Falls, the largest curtain of water in the world, is a wild, untamable torrent that charges through a deep gorge sending spray 1,500 feet into the air. This was the grand finale to our tour. Mist from the falls nourish a rain forest of tropical foliage that seems out of place in what is mostly an arid region. A path tracing the gorge takes you to Dangerous Point where a deluge drenches the undaunted tourist. I lunched on crocodile salad on the terrace of the Victoria Falls Hotel overlooking the falls where heads of nations come to relax in a remnant of the colonial splendor. You can see the mist and hear the thunder of the falls in the distance while giving homage to a body of water that knows no master.
In easy walking distance of the hotel is an open air market where one is encouraged to barter. Indoor shops offer high-end sculpture, jewelry, and artwork for discerning tastes. Activities offered at Victoria Falls are helicopter rides, white water rafting on the lower Zambezi River (not for the faint-hearted), and elephant-back safaris. The last night of the Ultimate Safari is an enjoyable dinner cruise on the upper Zambezi capped with a copper sunset farewell.