Robert Redford and Meryl Streep would approve of the arrival at Belmond Eagle Island Lodge. After taking off in a tiny propeller-driven plane from Maun Airport in northern Botswana, you fly so low over the swamps of the Okavango Delta that you can spot the herds of elephant splashing in the water, the kudu and impala anxiously checking out their surroundings, and eventhe badly behaved vervet monkeys fighting in the treetops. As you step out into the hot air on the Eagle Island airstrip, right next to the camp, all you see is a cluster of palm trees and dark woods leading to a vast expanse of water.
Growing up with South African parents, I’ve spent a lot of time in the bush. I have loved my many trips around Africa, but the holiday I always hark back to is the one we took to the Okavango Delta, and I’m not alone; Africa experts, travel guides and game rangers all say the same thing— there’s something particularly magical about Botswana. So what is it? Well, unlike the plains of the Serengeti or the scrubland of South Africa, Botswana is lush. The Okavango is the biggest inland delta on earth. The vast area is flooded for most of the year with water that has come gushing down from the Angolan highlands. This fuels not only the spectacular
So what is it? Well, unlike the plains of the Serengeti or the scrubland of South Africa, Botswana is lush. The Okavango is the biggest inland delta on earth. The vast area is flooded for most of the year with water that has come gushing down from the Angolan highlands. This fuels not only the spectacular rainbow strewn scenery but also impressive numbers of game. You can see thousand-strong herds of buffalo, three prides of lion in one day and packs of endangered wild dogs.
Above all, though, it’s the solitude that makes Botswana the most luxurious place for the safari experience. Elsewhere, wildlife sightings often take place in the company of five or six other vehicles—and, really, nothing ruins the moment like listening to people in a nearby jeep talking about their dinner. Most land in Botswana is publicly owned and the government hands out very few concessions, so you’re pretty much alone with your guide. This is why the luxury hospitality group Belmond has chosen to set all three of its safari camps in Botswana. There’s Khwai River Lodge in the northern swamps, Savute Elephant Lodge in Chobe National Park, and the jewel in the crown, Eagle Island Lodge, which recently reopened after a refurbishment that took nearly two years.
Eagle Island is pretty much the safari lodge of your fantasies. The glorious tented bedrooms are a curious mixture of Parisian cool (everything is grey) and safari chic (think handmade copper-finished headboards, oldfashioned fans and outdoor showers). My beautiful tent outdoes any bedroom I’ve ever lived in. Each has a deck that looks straight onto the water, and just so you aren’t jealous of the hippos wallowing in the mud, you have a private plunge pool to submerge yourself.
For most of the year the water is too high to do game drives, so the wildlife spotting is by boat, but I visit in late March, two months before the flooding begins, so we head out by jeep in search of the animals. And this is no arduous hunt. In no time we spot a skulking hyena looking for a meal and a leopard playing with her cub. Our guide, Des, knowing I grew up in a family of twitchers, does his utmost to show me every species of bird on the island. I stop counting at 40.
Back at camp and it’s time for a gin and tonic at the Fish Eagle Bar, a beautifully decorated wooden hut perched above the water, with elephant and giraffe drinking metres away. As bar spots go, it’s up there with the best. Then comes dinner under the stars, a three-course feast of ostrich meat and malva pudding with excellent South African wines. And soon it’s time for bed, which comes early in this part of the world—a lesson I have had to relearn on more than one occasion—as we are woken at 5.30 each morning with coffee.
The following day, after breakfast and a game drive, pilot Barry takes us up in an open helicopter and we sweep so low over the wetlands that we can almost reach out and pat the crocodiles basking in the sun. Back on land, we visit a village, one of the very few human concessions left in the delta, where women sell us baskets and necklaces made of beads and grass as men bring back sacks full of fish they have caught in the shallow waterways.
As the sun sets, my guide and I push off down the river in a mokoro, a vessel similar to a Venetian gondola, although nothing about this expedition feels Italian. After a rather dramatic childhood incident in Zimbabwe, hippos have been my nemesis. True to form, just 15 minutes into our gentle ride along the lightly rippling water, one of Eagle Island’s resident hippos catches sight of us in its territory and becomes enraged. Suddenly it’s plunging towards us with such furious intent that we leap into the water and splash towards the relative safety of the bank, reaching land just in time to turn and see the hippo angrily toss our boat in the air like a cheerleader’s baton. Quite an adrenaline rush. But this is Africa and such unexpected thrills are why people love the African wilderness so much. And, happily for me, the beautiful Fish Eagle Bar awaits with its supply of gin
(Text by Melissa Twigg)