Andrew Harper editors planned a recent trip to South Africa and Botswana to include a number of new or recently upgraded safari properties. If you choose to follow in their footsteps, you will experience astonishing scenic variety, from dry bushveld to the tangled lagoons of the Okavango Delta and the overpowering immensity of the Kalahari Desert. All the lodges and camps offer a high degree of comfort (although some are more luxurious than others), delicious food and hospitable staff. You will also experience some of the most prolific and pristine wildlife areas of Africa. Although not guaranteed, it is highly likely that you will also see the so-called “Big Five” game animals: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo.
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Johannesburg is the commercial and cultural capital of South Africa, and for its devotees, a fascinating and dynamic place, despite its notorious problem with violent crime. After arriving at the airport, head northwest to The Saxon, an exceptional boutique hotel in the tranquil suburb of Sandhurst.
The Saxon is an idyllic enclave with luxuriant gardens, imaginative interior design, delicious food and obliging staff. There are few more delightful places in which to recuperate from the rigors of a long trans-Atlantic flight.
It is an easy one-hour flight from Johannesburg to the airstrip at Madikwe Game Reserve, close to the Botswana border. Madikwe was reclaimed from unprofitable farmland, and since 1991 it has seen the biggest program of wildlife translocation in history, “Operation Phoenix,” with the reintroduction of more than 8,000 animals belonging to 28 species. It now is the fifth-largest reserve in South Africa, and it hosts numerous lodges, of which Mateya Safari Lodge is by far the most opulent. Mateya is so comfortable that it provides a gentle and gradual introduction to the African wild.
Three nights is the ideal length for a stay at Mateya, providing enough time to unwind and acclimatize, to enjoy the exceptional cuisine, explore the fine library and visit the small spa.
The wildlife at Selinda is prolific, and on any game drive, you will see numerous large species such as elephant and giraffe. The local lions, leopards and wild dogs are free to roam and generally have to be tracked down by your safari guide, who is skilled at recognizing recent prints in the dust and following them, for miles if need be. More adventurous travelers can walk in the bush accompanied by a guide with a rifle, or canoe down the Selinda Spillway, a stretch of tranquil water that connects the Zibadianja Lagoon to the Okavango Delta.
A three-night stay lets travelers become attuned to the wildness and remoteness of the region.
The Okavango is arguably the greatest wildlife area in the world. About 150 miles long by 100 miles wide, it teems with both animal and birdlife. At its heart is Chief’s Island and the Moremi Game Reserve, home to large lion and leopard populations, as well as a full range of herbivore species. The annual flood reaches its height from May to July, attracting still more animals from the arid surrounding regions. (Paradoxically, this is the dry season; the floodwater originates in the highlands of Angola, 750 miles to the northwest.) Although there are distinct wet and dry seasons, it is possible to visit the Okavango year-round — but we suggest avoiding October and November, when it can be excessively hot and humid. During the flood, much of the game-viewing is by makoro (dugout canoe), and sometimes it is possible to come quite close to grazing elephants, or to watch from a safe distance as the herds surge through the water from island to island.
Just southwest of Chief’s Island lies Abu Camp. To walk with, or ride on, the camp’s herd of trained African elephants is an extraordinary and unforgettable experience. Abu Camp provides a full range of wildlife-viewing opportunities, so it is unnecessary to move elsewhere. However, some travelers will wish to spend a few additional days on Chief’s Island, perhaps at Mombo Camp, where the lion and leopard sightings are unequaled.
From Abu Camp, via Maun, it is a 90-minute flight to Jack’s Camp, located at the edge of the Makgadikgadi salt pans in the northern Kalahari Desert. The Kalahari is not a desert of sand dunes like the Sahara, but a vast expanse of arid land that the annual rains briefly transform into a grassy savanna. At its heart lies the 20,400-square-mile Central Kalahari Game Reserve, second largest in the world. For much of the year wildlife is thinly scattered, but during the rains from January to March, large herds of zebras and wildebeests arrive, accompanied by predators, to feast on the new grasses.
The main reason to travel to the Kalahari, however, is to experience its awe-inspiring silence and immensity. Here you will find an untouched wilderness, 800 miles across, still populated by the San bushmen hunter-gatherers, the original human inhabitants of Southern Africa. From Jack’s Camp, travelers have the opportunity to walk with the bushmen across the bleached grasslands beneath a cloudless sky.
At night, the sky above the Makgadikgadi pans is ablaze with stars. The four largest moons of Jupiter are usually visible with the naked eye, and the Magellanic Clouds, neighboring galaxies invisible from much of the Northern Hemisphere, appear almost close enough to touch.
Jack’s Camp and the Kalahari are suited to slightly more adventurous travelers and are best visited toward the end of a safari, when you have completed your wildlife checklist and are ready for a different experience. The contrast with the watery world of the Okavango Delta is astonishing, and the fact that two such utterly different places should be little more than 100 miles apart is sometimes hard to comprehend.
Rather than going straight from the middle of the Kalahari to the Departures lounge at Johannesburg’s airport, unwind for a day or so and ease back into civilization. Take this brief interlude to recall the trip and return to the demands of everyday life. The Saxon is an ideal place to reconnect with reality — except perhaps in the middle of winter (June and July), when Johannesburg, at an altitude of 5,700 feet, can be a little chilly.
Travel in Southern Africa can be tiring, not least because of the heat at certain times of year. The principal safari areas are best visited during the cool, dry season from April to August (though, of course, this period straddles the winter in Cape Town, more than 1,000 miles to the south). Obviously, the levels of comfort and convenience (and expense) will greatly increase if you opt for private charters when transferring between lodges. Most flights in Botswana are aboard roomy Cessna Caravans (typically configured for 12 people), but sometimes couples and small groups will find themselves squeezed into a cramped five-passenger Cessna 206 or a Beechcraft Baron, unless a larger plane has been specifically requested in advance.
Although you may wish to consult your physician prior to departure, the areas of Southern Africa on this itinerary are generally healthy places in which to travel, and providing that you take all sensible precautions — such as drinking only the water specifically provided — you will be extremely unfortunate to fall sick. Malaria is present in the Okavango Delta, chiefly on its periphery near human settlements, but it is not a chronic problem as in some other African wildlife areas.
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