Going on safari is becoming an increasingly popular option for adventurous honeymooners.
I wake up with a jolt, stirred by the crunching of fallen branches metres from my pillow. A heavy-footed intruder is on the prowl and he isn’t doing a very good job of disguising his tracks.
Since I fell asleep, two hours ago, the beaming full moon has traced a perfect arc across the sky, like a ball-bearing swinging on a pendulum. The thin gauze net, wrapped around my four-poster bed billows in the warm night breeze, offering the only protection between us and the lively savannah.
Sharing a bedroom with a herd of elephants may not be every newlywed couple’s idea of bliss, but for a growing number of honeymooners eschewing schmaltzy romance for a spirit of adventure, it’s a match made in heaven.
Besides, as guests at Sanctuary Baines’ Camp in Botswana’s wildlife-rich Okavango Delta, we’re hardly roughing it: sleeping under the stars on the deck of a luxury lodge is just one of the many intimate safari experiences at which this hotel excels.
Set on the banks of the Bora River, part of the Delta which spreads like a bony hand across northwest Botswana, the five-lodge camp has been constructed with minimal disruption to the environment and is staffed by local communities.
The combination of top-class camps, diverse game viewing (the region is home to 450 birds and 90 mammal species) and far fewer tourists than neighbouring countries makes Botswana an appealing option for safari seekers. With a new international airport terminal due to open in the region’s main town, Maun, in two years, its popularity is only set to rise.
The safari begins as soon as our light aircraft takes off from Maun. During the 10-minute ride, 150m above ground, we sight herds of elephant, zebra and wildebeest marching across parched scrubland, dotted with spore-like mounds of vegetation.
We’re greeted at the airstrip by a welcoming committee of inquisitive buffalo, who raise their heads to catch our scent, and a procession of sombre marabou storks, cloaked in black.
Oddly, the Delta floods in dry season (peaking from June to August) reshaping the terrain, creating new islands and submerging tracks. Our local guide, Tuello, expertly navigates our 4WD truck through the ever-changing landscape, bumping over mud mounds and blasting through puddles almost a metre deep.
Jittery impala (whose availability as prey has earned them the nickname ‘MacDonalds of the bush’) fly from the path of our vehicle, their hooves barely touching the ground. A family of baboons grapple with pendulous seed pods hanging from ubiquitous sausage trees, while the cacophonous call of a blacksmith bird adds an oddly industrial clatter to the soundscape.
And all this before we’ve even reached the camp.
Wildlife viewing is the highlight of a visit to the Delta, but Baines’ Camp also provide opportunities to learn about local ways of life and survival – from weaving baskets with river reeds, to harvesting water-lily roots to make a dense, earthy stew, and steering a traditional mokoro boat (dug-out canoe) through the labyrinth of shallow waterways.
Our guide, Tuello, regales us with stories of countless nights spent sleeping in the bush and using the red root of a star apple tree to clean his teeth.
He demonstrates his ability to follow animal tracks on a frantic hunt for lions. Weaving through bulbous baobab trees and towering termite mounds, Tuello promises us, with confidence, that despite the blistering midday heat, he’ll find two lions, reported to be in the area.
Hitting the breaks occasionally to examine faint paw prints on the ground, we drive in tense silence until Tuello casually points to a lioness and her juvenile cooling off in the water.
Of all the animals in the Delta, though, elephants prove to be the most charismatic. More than a quarter of Africa’s 400,000 elephant population live in Botswana, with 80,000 in the Delta – the largest concentration in the world. Eating up to 200kg a day, these mighty creatures bulldoze their way through trees, bushes, bullrushes, water lilies and even safari lodges.
Run by the Living With Elephants foundation, the Walking with Elephants experience allows guests to learn more about the animals in a controlled environment. For the past 27 years, American zoologist Doug has dedicated his life to caring for three orphaned elephants – Thembi, Morula and Jabu. He eats what they eat (almost poisoning himself on occasion) and confesses he hasn’t left their side – even to visit the dentist – for two years.
During our morning with the elephants, we learn about their behaviour (an emotional memory means they grieve just like humans) and intelligence (their sensitive trunks can pick up something as small as a pea or as large as a person).
The session ends with a picnic shared with the elephants – they graze on tree twigs, we opt for chicken drumsticks. As I leave, Jabu, the bull of the herd, wraps his trunk around my shoulder and plants a sloppy kiss on my cheek.
Of course, there are plenty of conventional opportunities for honeymooners to enjoy romantic moments at Baines’ Camp: join hippos on an early morning boat trip along the Boro river, orange sunlight dancing on the large papyrus reeds; or watch the sunset, sipping champagne in an outdoor cast iron bath overflowing with bubbles.
But my most loving memory is that parting gift from Jabu. Who’d have thought a kiss from another male would be the highlight of a romantic holiday?
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Botswana is in Southern Africa. Sanctuary Baines’ Camp has a private airstrip, about 45-60 minutes from the camp. When water levels are high, guests travel from the airstrip by boat to camp, about 50 minutes away.
STAYING THERE: Sanctuary Baines’ Camp is built on raised platforms near Moremi Game Reserve. It consists of five luxurious suites. For details and prices visit www.sanctuaryretreats.com
PLAYING THERE: Other romantic safari experiences in Africa include the new Norman Carr Safaris camp at Chinzombo, Zambia. It opens mid-June and has been heralded as the first ‘wildly luxurious’ sustainable bush camp in the Luangwa Valley. Visit www.normancarrsafaris.com
Date: 26 April 2013