Can you safari like royalty in Botswana without completely blowing the budget?7th Mar 18 | Lifestyle
It may be Africa's most expensive safari destination, but it is still possible to enjoy Botswana on a (relative) budget. Sarah Marshall visits two 'affordable luxury' camps - including where Harry wooed Meghan.
It’s predicted we’ll be gleaning most of our nutrients from creepy-crawlies in the future. A sustainable food source, it makes total environmental sense – but I think I’d draw the line at scorpions.
Dangling a whip-tailed arachnid teasingly above his tongue, I wonder if San Bushman, Xuma, has a death wish. Yet as he lowers the menacing creature into his mouth – pinching the stinger as a safeguard – it surrenders into a pancake-flat slumber; in Botswana’s agitated November heat, cooling human saliva, it turns out, is a sedative.
Belonging to a formerly nomadic tribe from the western part of the country, on the border with Namibia, Xuma and his family are camped temporarily in the grounds of Meno a Kwena camp on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
Set in the sand and surrounded by arid plains and brittle vegetation, it feels a million miles from civilisation. Truth be told, we’re only a 90-minute drive from the international airport in capital city Maun, and this is one of the few safari camps in Botswana connected by tarmac – partly explaining why it’s often incorporated into more affordable itineraries.
Even more surprising is the fact Prince Harry chose this location to woo Meghan Markle, when he took a “huge leap” and whisked her away for a romantic birthday break in August 2017. It’s proof Africa’s most expensive safari destination can be explored on a (relative) budget, while still enjoying a holiday fit for royalty – and I’m here to find out how.
Old scraps of parachutes and sepia-tone photos in the dining area reveal Meno a Kwena’s long history; it was built at a time when there were no roads in this area and Harry, who’s friendly with the owners, has been visiting for 20 years.
More recently, it’s been welcomed into the Natural Selection portfolio, a conservation-led company co-owned by Wilderness Safaris founder Colin Bell, with a focus on getting to the heart of Africa. Currently, they offer camps in Botswana and Namibia, mostly from USD$500 (£360) per night – a fraction of what competitors charge in the same luxury league.
San Bushmen – the original desert nomads
Everyone associates Botswana with the Okavango Delta, an inland network of swamps that swells and evaporates depending on rainfall, providing a healthy playground for Africa’s most iconic species. So it’s hard to believe 70% of the country is actually made up of semi-arid savannah and desert, a landscape of increasing intrigue to outsiders.
Former hunter-gatherers, the San Bushmen have come here to share their culture with tourists, staying at Meno for three months at a time before returning home and rotating with another group.
Their dress is minimal, fitting for this climate. Both men and women wear beaded headbands crowned with an ostrich feather to detect wind direction; around their waists are dried antelope skins, stretched and dyed red for camouflage.
Slung across shoulders, dried moth cocoons are strung together like bullet belts; others, filled with stones, are tied around ankles. When men dance, shifting weight from one foot to another, the organic rattles create a hypnotic chant, syncopated by the clicks, pops and snaps that make up their lyrical and rhythmic native Khoisan tongue.
A camp fit for a future princess?
Meghan and Harry famously sealed their love with a night spent under the Kalahari’s stars, but during my visit – when the rains are due to break – mobile camps aren’t operational. (Travelling off season is key to keeping prices down.)
No matter. Sandy pathways leading to nine canvas walled rooms perched above the wending Boteti River and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park are similarly embraced by nature. It’s a far – and welcome – cry from the numerous hermetically-sealed five-star lodges often found in Botswana.
Dry for almost 20 years, the Boteti is now flowing again, although it’s supplemented by a waterhole in the riverbed below Meno. A vital source of water, it attracts thousands of zebras during their dry season migration, along with opportunistic feline predators.
Animals are usually drawn to the river as the day heats up, meaning game drives start later at 8am and making Meno arguably the only safari camp in Africa where you can justify a lie-in – one luxury a royal couple falling in love should afford themselves.
So what are the game drives like?
Although it’s possible to armchair-safari from the camp, where a fire burning from dawn until dusk doubles as an open-air kitchen, we drive for an hour along the park boundary, crossing the river on a simple ferry (essentially a raft and an outboard) to reach the entrance gate.
Extending 3,900sq-km, the park encompasses sparkling salt pans and clusters of curvy baobabs, but we concentrate our efforts in 2% of the land, an area of thorny acacia bushes and palm-fringed riverbanks.
Botswana is renowned for its elephant population – a favourite animal of Meghan’s – and we see large herds ploughing through a haze of dust into the water. Greeting each other with curious, outstretched trunks, they play like excitable children at a water park, clambering on shoulders to give their friends a thorough dunking. It’s an interaction I’ve never encountered before and is simply joyful to watch.
Next stop – the Delta
Despite its more challenging access, the heart of the Okavango Delta is one of Botswana’s deserving highlights – and although it’s home to some of the country’s most expensive lodges, there are some more affordable options too.
Another member of the Natural Selection stable, Hyena Pan is located in the Khwai Private Reserve, forming a bridge between the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park – both world-class wildlife destinations.
Creating almost ecclesiastical vaults, a canopy of columnar mopane trees shades the homely eight-tent camp, where even tree squirrels feel comfortable enough to dig their paws into the biscuit tin. A scenic waterhole extends directly from the foot of the dining area, welcoming a parade of thirsty elephants throughout the day.
A former hunting concession, wildlife is still adapting to this area and most of the action happens a slightly annoying 45-minute journey away. The rewards though are worth it: a pride of lions closing in on red lechwe along waterways, stealthy ground hornbills plucking rodents from the long grass, and a young male leopard basking in a glowing sunset amid dancing clouds of quelea birds.
Playing hide and seek with elephants
Long journeys aren’t always necessary, though. A five-minute drive from the camp – via a stop to observe a thriving metropolis of beetles in a dung ball – we spend several hours in an underground hide.
Providing the only water source along an 80km migration route between Khwai and the Savute Reserve, it’s a favourite spot for elephants.
Pitched at eye-level with these enormous wrinkled, plodding feet, it’s a totally novel perspective. Shrouded in silence, footsteps are betrayed only by vibrations rippling through the earth, although the sound of heaving breath is pounding.
Hidden from view, we’re a privileged audience to Attenborough-style scenes of animal behaviour; squabbles over whose trunk hogs the water pump have all the amusement of playground tussles. And there’s not a single other person – or vehicle – for miles.
For me, it’s these crowd-free connections with nature that define real luxury. Not even a prince and his glamorous fiancée could put a price on that.
How to get there
A 7-night all-inclusive safari with Natural Selection (www.naturalselection.travel) starts at US$3859 per person, staying at Meno a Kwena and Hyena Pan. South African Airways (flysaa.com) fly to Botswana from London Heathrow via Johannesburg from approx £1,000 return.
© Press Association 2018