We’ve arrived at Belmond Eagle Island Lodge in Botswana’s wild, remote and spectacular Okavango Delta and are preparing for an airboat ride across the lagoon.
As our trusty boat captain Philip delivers a safety briefing, another guide cautions that hippos are prone to chasing boats. “That’s our equivalent of a rush-hour traffic report,” Philip replies with a grin.
Hippos, we’re told, spend much of their time in water because their skin is sensitive to sunlight. They walk but can’t swim and prefer to wallow in shallower water.
While not aggressive animals by nature, hippos actually kill more people than any animal in Africa. As Philip talks, I’m starting to feel like David Attenborough. Minutes later we’re skimming across open water and then along narrow tributaries, dense with vegetation, spotting the wildlife, birds and plants that make the delta so unique and special.
And then we hit traffic. Rounding a corner at speed, we spot a pod of hippos way too late to avoid them and skim right over their heads as they rapidly submerge.
The angry bull roars through the water after us, a heart-stopping moment as he lets us know in no uncertain terms that we’re over the speed limit and in the wrong lane.
If you’re looking for a truly authentic African safari experience, far from the tour buses of Kenya and fenced-in game reserves of South Africa, Botswana delivers by the boatload.
And you can cast aside any notions of roughing it. A trio of luxury safari camps – Belmond Island Eagle Lodge, Belmond Khwai River Lodge and Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge – offers extraordinary experiences in five-star comfort and style.
The sleepy town of Maun in Botswana’s north is the gateway to the Okavango Delta. Charter planes buzz in and out of its tiny airport carrying well-heeled visitors to arguably the greatest safari destination on the planet. One of the world’s largest inland water systems, with 16,000 square kilometers of channels, tributaries, lagoons, islands and floodplains, the Okavango Delta supports an astonishing variety of wildlife.
Moremi Game Reserve, which forms part of the delta, is home to zebras, giraffes, lions, leopards, impalas, hyenas, wildebeests, kudus, baboons and warthogs, among many other species.
Chobe National Park, to the delta’s northeast, is famous for its elephant population – some 50,000 Kalahari elephants comprise one of Africa’s oldest continuously surviving populations.
And Belmond – a global collection of iconic hotels, trains and cruises – delivers all three delta, river and savannah experiences in its trinity of outstanding luxury safari camps.
Our first stop is Belmond Eagle Island Lodge, a 20-minute flight from Maun. Perched on the island of Xaxaba and shaded by Ilala palms, the camp overlooks a lagoon fed by the delta’s waters.
Eleven luxuriously appointed, air-conditioned tents boast four-poster beds draped with mosquito nets along with en suite bathrooms, a dressing area and minibar.
Generous private decks are shaded by traditional African thatch and the views from the lodge, especially from the romantic Fish-Eagle Bar at the lagoon’s edge, are wonderful and ever changing.
Between airboat tours and more leisurely wildlife outings by mokoro (a traditional dugout wooden canoe), life at the lodge is languid and relaxed, with reading, snoozing, sundowner cocktails and gourmet meals the order of most days.
From Belmond Eagle Island Lodge, we travel by small plane to Belmond Khwai River Lodge in the Moremi Game Reserve, located at the delta’s eastern edge.
In this drier environment our game drives are spectacular, with giraffes, zebras and impalas easily spotted. On one drive, a female leopard drops down from a tree, just feet from our vehicle, with a young warthog in her mouth.
Unperturbed, she puts down her prey to rest before moving off. A small herd of elephants also stops to get the measure of us, then parts around our vehicle, the matriarchs keeping a watchful eye.
Much like its sister camp at Eagle Island, Belmond Khwai River Lodge offers the last word in comfort in its 14 beautifully appointed tents and communal spaces. From the outdoor lounge, there is an excellent view across the floodplains to the river, brimming with hippos and crocodiles.
For a true Out of Africa experience, opt for the lodge’s exclusive private suite, which comes with its own plunge pool and his-and-her outdoor showers for bathing as nature intended.
From Moremi we have one more flight to Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge, perched on the banks of the Savute Channel inside the Chobe National Park – a sweeping expanse of savannah dotted with rocky outcrops and prime territory for big game.
Twelve tented residences, arranged in a cluster and raised on wooden platforms, each have an outdoor lounge for easy game viewing across the savannah.
Unpredictable wet and dry cycles shape the landscape and the wildlife. The Gubatsa Hills shelter elusive leopard while ancient rock paintings depict man’s early encounters with animals.
It’s here we finally encounter lions. Two young cubs have sought shelter from the searing morning sun while their mother hunts nearby. The father, neither fearful nor aggressive, comes close to the vehicle, barely stopping to give us the time of day. Our very own lion king in one of Africa’s wildest and most beautiful settings. belmond.com
Image Credits: Photos courtesy of Belmond.