When it comes to magical landscapes that roll uninterrupted to the horizon and animals strutting past your camp, Botswana has it all.
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“This is a true tree of life,” says our guide Vasco of the mighty Adansonia trees and the myriad ways they’re used by local communities here in northern Botswana. In traditional medicine, they provide a cure for asthma, while the creamy tartar in the pulp of the edible fruits is packed with vitamin C and potassium and used locally in cooking and preserving. “The trunk of the marula tree is very light when dried, so in the Okavango it’s a good tree for making mokoros (canoes),” adds Vasco as we escape the searing sun and head back to Planet Baobab.
It’s just a snippet of the arboreal trivia we discover as we wander through the forests surrounding Planet Baobab, a laid-back traveller’s lodge on the A3 highway that links the towns of Nata and Maun. It’s a perfect launch pad for exploring the region, but after a long drive or short flight on Airlink into Maun, it’s worth kicking back at Planet Baobab for a few days to relax.
Part of the Natural Selection portfolio of owner-run lodges, Planet Baobab’s 18 Afro-chic Bakalanga huts are scattered beneath the baobab and mopane trees encircling what’s dubbed the coldest pool in the Kalahari. And they’re not wrong: as the temperatures sneak into the upper-30s each day, there are surely few better places to be in Botswana.
On our two-hour drive, we gradually leave the baobabs behind, our destination? Jack’s Camp on the fringes of the famous Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
The Makgadikgadi is actually a collection of three vast salt pans, Nxai, Ntwetwe and Sua, each the remnants of an ancient lake. We’re heading for the central Ntwetwe Pan and what is surely one of the most memorable safari destinations in southern Africa.
Jack’s Camp dates back to the 1960s, when explorer Jack Bousfield established it as a hunting encampment. The rifles have long been packed away though, and today it’s all about offering a glimpse of yesteryear safari adventure.
But it’s the landscapes beyond the camp that are the most beguiling. Jack’s Camp is just one of three camps sharing nearly half a million hectares of protected wilderness, and the sense of solitude and peace is palpable. Except when the crowds arrive, that is. In the green season from January to April these grasslands welcome Africa’s second-largest migration of zebra and wildebeest, with thousands of animals strutting past the camp. Daily game drives, nature walks and horseback adventures offer an easy way to soak up this magical landscape.
Yet even without the herds it’s a remarkable place, and an afternoon quad-bike adventure takes us far from camp. Following carefully established trails, we motor deep into the saltpans to admire the lunar landscape that rolls uninterrupted to the horizon. We end the evening with drinks by a roaring campfire way out on the pans, as the Southern Cross rolls through the heavens above us.
Jack’s Camp is justifiably one of the iconic camps of Botswana, but it comes at a cost. Botswana has long pursued a low-volume, high-yield approach to safari tourism, and Jack’s is certainly a camp that will need a little financial planning.
Meno a Kwena, on the other hand, clocks in at around a third of the cost per night and offers a wonderful combination of camp comforts and safari excitement. Set on a ridge overlooking the Boteti River, on the western edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, ‘Meno’ is just 90 minutes’ drive from Maun and an easy option for self-drive visitors.
It’s a comfortably rustic camp, where vintage photos adorn the central dining area and all meals are cooked over an open flame. With panoramic views from the private terraces, and outdoor showers overlooking the national park, there’s no shortage of romance and seclusion.
Little wonder that a certain Prince Harry brought his intended, Meghan Markle, here on their third date. It’s idyllic for romantics, but families will be happy here too, with a pair of interleading suites offering plenty of space for larger families. Daily activities include interpretive walks with San guides and full-day safari drives to the Makgadikgadi Pans.
Come evening the only place you’ll want to be is out on the river, with sunset boat cruises on the Boteti dishing up close-up views of elephant, antelope and the rich local birdlife. With an ice-cold G&T in hand, and a full moon rising up over the sandy plains of the Makgadikgadi, Botswana is worth every hard-earned Rand.
RICHARD’S TRAVEL TIPS
NICE TO KNOW If you have an hour to kill between flights, Tandurei Indian Restaurant in Maun dishes up impressive North Indian cuisine.
GOOD TO KNOW Invest in a polarising filter for your camera. It’ll add extra intensity to your pics of those wide desert skies.
WHAT TO PACK Dress in layers to navigate chilly nights and hot days. Neutral colours are best on game drives.
SAFARI FOR LESS
The Natural Selection Explorers programme is aimed at making an African safari more affordable for local residents. A once-off joining fee of R1 000 pp* provides access to a range of special room rates, offering discounts of up to 75% during the ‘green season’ (10 January – 31 March). Along with additional discounts in the busier months of the year (ranging from 25% to 35%), the Explorers programme also gives access to heavily discounted last-minute room rates, valid for travel within 30 days. naturalselectionexplorers.travel
PLANNING YOUR TRIP
WHEN TO GO The ‘green season’ (January – March) offers lush grasslands, great game viewing and cheaper rates.
GETTING THERE Airlink offers direct flights to Maun from both Cape Town and Jo’burg. From Maun, self-drive visits are welcomed at both Planet Baobab and Meno a Kwena. Self-drive 4×4 visits are possible for Jack’s Camp, but these require a staff escort, so pre-booked transfers are recommended. flyairlink.com
WHERE TO STAY Fully inclusive rates at Natural Selection lodges in Botswana start from US$415 pp*, but hefty discounts are offered to local residents through their Explorers program. If your budget won’t stretch to Jack’s Camp, Planet Baobab offers guided day visits and overnight trips into the Nxai Pan.
VISAS South African passport-holders don’t require a visa for Botswana.
CURRENCY Botswana Pula is the official currency. At the time of going to print BWP1=ZAR1,2*, but lodges accept major foreign currencies. A cup of coffee costs BWP20* (about R26) at a café in Maun.
*Correct in March 2019