In December I packed my bags ready for a longed-for trip to Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Having worked in the travel industry for over 8 years, I’d learnt plenty about our camps there and always enjoyed hearing about our guests’ experiences on their return. Even though December isn’t usually considered the prime time to see the Delta, I had high expectations. Would the ‘Jewel of the Kalahari’ live up to its reputation?
From the very start of my two week trip I am on a high. My senses are overloaded; glistening ribbons of water meandering over the flood plains as we fly overhead, elephant walking into camp during dinner, lion roaring in the night so close to camp we almost think we can feel his breath, a surprise champagne lunch in the bush and swimming in the Xudum River as little fish nibble at our toes.
Most guests arrive into camp in style with a helicopter transfer from Maun to camp. But since I am visiting in the dry season, we can be driven into camp in a game drive vehicle. We are met at Maun airport by one of Kujwana’s longest –serving guides Person. He expertly negotiates rickety bridges and deep sand during our 3.5 hour journey to camp. Although only the beginning of our adventure our road transfer is a great introduction to the Delta, as we see zebra, kudu, leopard tortoise, giraffe and elephant.
We are met on arrival in camp by owners PJ and Barney Bestelink and their team. Barney takes me to the stables to introduce me to the horses. They are contented, glossy and cherished. We watch from a rise in the ground as the horses are put away in their barns. Barney assessing each horse’s well-being as they trot towards their stable.
My tent is gorgeous; spacious and airy atop a decked platform overlooking the river. My bathroom has a flush loo, hot and cold running water, soft fluffy towers, soap, shampoo and shower gel – bliss! As we sip pre-dinner drinks around the fire, the African sun slips towards the horizon turning the sky beautiful shades of soft velvety orange. Gathering around the dining table we are treated to stories of close encounters, fishing successes and exciting rides. Fellow guests Helena and Dan, David, Richard and Coco have had the time of their lives.
Next morning I am woken with tea in my tent at 5am. Breakfast is eaten around the fire as the sun rises over the plains. For my first ride I am teamed with Mahale, a stunning chestnut Arab. Led by experienced guide Thabu, we head out across the Delta, swishing through tall grasses and splashing through streams. We are treated to excellent sightings of buffalo, giraffe, zebra and hippo. We also see the plucky little honeyguide, giant eagle owl and saddle billed stork.
Mahale, also known as ‘Mr Posh’ is a real delight. He is well-balanced, polite and willing, with a special presence rarely seen in a safari horse. After two hours or so we dismount and walk the horses on foot for about 10 minutes. Mid-way through our ride we stop in the shade for a snack as the horses graze nearby. We are back at camp by around 11am, giving time for a refreshing dip before lunch. During siesta time, we head back to our tents to sleep off the heat of the day. Afternoon tea refreshes before we head out on the mokoro with our guides. It is such a peaceful way to see the Delta and so relaxing (if you are not poling!).
The next day is an exciting one as we bid Kujwana camp goodbye and head to Moklowane camp on horseback. Today I ride the mighty Mpumalanga, a grey Boerperd whom PJ describes as “the perfect safari horse”. He’s not wrong; Mpumalanga is sure-footed, experienced in front of game, eager to go, but easy to stop. He adjusts his stride easily as we pop over puddles or dips in the ground. It is almost as though he has lived before; he seems all-knowing and very wise! We spot wildebeest, buffalo and giraffe, the rare roan antelope and the curious-looking tsessebe. Our mud-spattered faces grin with glee as we canter across open ground. We stop to let the horses drinks at a large pool; lead guide Rogers never stops scanning the horizon for game. His eyesight is truly amazing. “It’s because he has never had to sit in front of a computer,” PJ tells us.
We reach a wooded area dotted with palm trees and a young male giraffe ambles close to us. As we emerge on the other side of the wood, suddenly Rogers stops, focussing on something at the base of an island. We follow his gaze and just make out a barely-there golden shape. All is quiet as we question our eyesight. “Lioness,” breathes Rogers. We watch in silence for a few precious moments before PJ signals to Rogers to lead the group quietly away.
Less than a mile further on a small army of Kujwana’s staff are waiting to greet us. Our horses are un-tacked, groomed and fed and then led out to graze. We pile into the waiting vehicle and are off in search of the lioness. Skirting the wood we search for the lioness and finally see her lying in the shade. Well-camouflaged she is relaxing contentedly, two exquisite cubs gambolling beside her. We gaze at her for 20 minutes or so, until it is time to leave her to her family. Back at the picnic spot a delicious lunch is served; quiche, fresh bread, salad and potatoes, washed down with cold drinks from the cool box. Camp beds are set out for us in the shade to relax on after lunch. Having had the chance to pack a ‘day bag’ before leaving Kujwana, we can change into shorts and then relax with a book.
After whiling away a few hours, we drink tea, still dozy from our siestas. Soon it is time to mount up for the final few hours in the saddle. Approaching Moklowane you can see that the vegetation is quite different, with taller bush and large islands dotted with palm trees. We have some splashy canters and Al and I argue gently about whose horse would win in a race. In some dense bush we have wonderful elephant sightings. I love the deep slow rumble of these magnificent animals (my favourites!).
Moklowane camp is north of Kujwana, situated on the Matsebi River. Five tree houses line the river, high up in the tree line so as to appreciate the view. The beds are under cover, but open to the elements at the front. The en-suite bathrooms have hot and cold running water, a sink and flush loo. We wander down to the deck gin and tonic in hand. We watch the sunset and re-live the adventures of the day. I am so sad to be leaving and wish I could stay longer.
People go on safari for many different reasons; perhaps to get away from it all, to see the ‘real’ Africa, to spot game and to experience a true wilderness. A fellow guest turns to me and says, “this is the best thing I could ever have bought for my wife”. And that’s it; this is no relaxing beach holiday, it is no ordinary gift. This is an experience, something that will stay with you forever. It is something you can keep in your mind for years to come. The horses you have ridden, the game you have seen, the laughs, the thrill, it’s all there to be conjured up in your memory whenever you want. Priceless? Yes I think so.
You can read more about the In The Saddle holidays at Kujwana here: