It's just after seven in the evening; Venus is improbably bright in a blue-black sky; and the Southern Cross is emerging through the afterglow of an incendiary sunset. The bush around the camp has already congealed into darkness, and my world is defined by a circle of flickering firelight. It was more than 100 degrees at lunchtime (the Zambezi Valley, in north-central Zimbabwe, is hot year-round), but now the air is cool and a soft fitful breeze is gusting down from the hills. Only the sand in the dried-up bed of the Jenje River, where we are camped, remembers the strength of the midday sun. I wiggle my toes in it, take a sip of wine, stretch out in the canvas chair.
It feels inexpressibly good to be back in Africa. The word safari means many different things these days, but for me this experience—sitting by the fire, under the weight of the stars, listening to the sounds of the African night—will always be the heart of it. It's so utterly primal you become subliminally aware of deeper rhythms and unsuspected harmonies; you're overcome by a sense of profound contentment and the mysterious rightness of things. And it is addictive: Once the spell has been cast, you have a nagging need to return. Indeed, the French have a rather poetic expression for this longing: Le Mal d'Afrique, The African Sickness.
"It's such a beautiful night that I thought we'd have dinner out here in the riverbed." I turn and see my host, John Stevens, striding toward me across the sand. Nearby, Isdore Matsanga, the camp chef, and his assistant, Washington Sibanda, are setting the table for dinner—polishing silver, folding napkins, lighting candles, arranging the hurricane lamps.
"When we did this last week an elephant came out of the trees just over there, and halfway through the meal a hyena dropped by to see what we were up to." Suddenly, Stevens spins round and points into the blackness beyond the mess tent. "Listen!" And sure enough—in the middle distance—I hear a lion roar: a sound that is the essence of the African wild. "Must be about a mile away," says Stevens, who then smiles with quiet satisfaction.
Stevens is a legend in southern Africa, widely regarded as the best private safari guide in the region. We'd met for the first time that morning. Stevens had me picked up at Kariba Airport and then brought across Lake Kariba by speedboat to the northern boundary of Matusadona National Park, a 40-minute trip. Stevens himself was at the pier, chatting affably to the sailors of a decrepit local supply ship. Reaching down, he wrung my hand before hoisting my bags onto the dock. "Meet Masimbi. He's my tracker." A distinguished-looking African, hair receding with the onset of late-middle-age, strolled over to greet me. "Masimbi is a chief around here," Stevens continued, "but he can't be bothered by the tribal politics, so he comes out with me instead. He's more than just a tracker, you see. Actually, he's my best friend."
Candor turned out to be one of Stevens' dominant traits; the other I soon discovered to be enthusiasm. Having clambered into the vehicle, we drove out onto a wide expanse of grassy floodplain. "Look at that!" Stevens expostulated, sweeping an arm over the top of the steering wheel. "There must be six hundred buffalo in that herd. And elephant over there! Impala! Simply marvelous, isn't it?"
Matusadona is not a particularly big park by African standards (543 square miles), but because road access is poor the pressure of tourism is slight. Most visitors stay in one of the small lodges that dot the shoreline of Lake Kariba, which was created in 1958 by damming the Zambezi River, and go for game drives along the water's edge. Few venture into either the dense bush or the wooded, hilly areas that together make up the bulk of the reserve. Stevens, however, worked for the Zimbabwe Parks Service for 16 years, serving as the warden in charge of Matusadona from 1978 to 1982. So not only does he know every inch of the place, but as a licensed guide he's entitled to walk wherever he pleases and even to carry a rifle for protection.
We continued our leisurely drive along the shore, cautiously skirting herds of elephant with young. To the north rose the green hills of Zambia, while to the south, the forested peaks of the Matuzviadonha Range marked the outer limit of civilization in this area. After about an hour Stevens veered away from the lakeshore and headed into a tangle of thick vegetation. "I love the bush," he enthused. Clearly this was his element: a secretive world where the animals can hide away undisturbed and most safari guides seldom think to venture. Supremely confident in such surroundings, Stevens likes to set up camp in areas as remote as feasibly possible. "You see, we're in a national park," he went on, "so I have to use one of the official campsites. But the great thing about this place is that no one else wants to be here. Actually, it's a beautiful spot, but they take just one look at all this thick stuff—this is ideal rhino habitat by the way—and they head off somewhere else."
Stevens' camp turned out to be in the classic African style, with spacious guest safari tents facing out across the riverbed; a long-drop lavatory; a separate, screened shower area (the shower itself being the gravity-fed, bag-up-a-tree variety); as well as a dining tent. Of course, compared to the permanent camps now found throughout Africa, such arrangements are relatively primitive. But Stevens' camp has to fit on the back of a truck because from April to November—the dry season—he divides his time between Matusadona and Mana Pools, 100 miles downstream, the other major national park in the Zambezi Valley. Stevens' guests are not in search of four-star creature comforts but rather authenticity and privacy and, naturally, the undivided attention of an exceptional guide.
As we sat waiting for lunch, I asked Stevens about his clients. "Mostly American," he said, "but a few Brits as well." When I pressed him to be more specific, he began to look embarrassed. "Well, you know, chiefly CEO types. They bring a party of six or eight people. But last year I took out Prince Edward. And I get some media people too. Peter Jennings was here just a couple of weeks ago. Actually I'd never heard of him, but someone told me he was famous. Jennings himself was very nice about it. He just said, 'Well, you've never heard of me, and a few weeks ago I'd never heard of you either.' "
At lunch Stevens suggested that we meet later in the afternoon, when the day began to cool off, for a walk in the vicinity of camp. At the appointed time I found him sitting outside the mess tent studiously polishing his boots: Like most white Zimbabweans of his age, 50, he'd done a stint in the army as a young man, and his exposure to martial virtues had clearly left a deep impression. (Early the next morning I would find him doing pull-ups on the roll bar of his Land Rover and sprinting up and down the dry riverbed.)
We set out in single file, Stevens slinging his Winchester .458 and Masimbi carrying an elderly automatic weapon of, apparently, British military origin. "Oh, that thing," Stevens said, when I pointed it out. "I don't know why he likes it. He's had it for ages. To be honest though, a few years back we used to get a lot of rhino poachers around here, all armed to the teeth with AK-47s, and if you bumped into them it was handy to have a bit of firepower."
Many safari camps claim to "track" wildlife, by which they mean following game in a Land Rover as far as possible. Stevens' approach is entirely different, essentially that of a hunting safari, except, of course, that there's no shooting. Specifically, he discusses with his clients in advance what species they want to see; he and Masimbi find some fresh tracks; and these are then followed up for as long as is necessary to overtake the animal. In the case of lions, which spend most of the day asleep, this usually doesn't take long. But tracking, say, rhino, which amble slowly through the bush, eating as they go, can easily take five or six hours.
We started off with something undemanding, a visit to the local lion pride. At first, however, we could find no sign of it. Masimbi restlessly scanned every blade of grass as we strolled along, while Stevens kept a sharp eye on the middle distance, in case we suddenly came upon elephant or buffalo. Then, abruptly, Masimbi stopped. I surveyed the patch of open grass in front of us with binoculars but could see nothing whatsoever.
"You go out in front," Stevens whispered. "Edge forward, very slowly, one foot at a time, and stop every six or seven paces. Don't look directly at her. If she thinks we haven't seen her, she'll probably stay put. Let's see how close we can get."
"Close to what?" I whispered.
"In the long grass over there. No, not there. There. That female cheetah."
Sure enough, directed where to look, I saw the cheetah's head, about 150 yards away, peering uncertainly in our direction. As instructed I inched forward, assiduously avoiding eye contact. It was tortuous progress, which the cheetah tolerated for about 20 minutes before getting up and, casting a resentful glance over her shoulder, jogging off into some bushes. There was nothing in her manner, though, to suggest alarm, and indeed, we saw her again—about five minutes later—stretched out on top of a small hill.
"There, you see," Stevens said triumphantly. "Not bothered at all. That's what I aim at on my safaris: zero impact. In fact, I try to get really close to the animal, close enough to shoot it if you were hunting, to watch it for fifteen, twenty minutes, and then to leave without it ever having known we were there."
An hour's walk brought us to the dry bed of the Biriwiri River, where Masimbi easily found fresh tracks of the lion pride, sunk deep into the soft sand. "Looks like seven. No, hang on, nine," said Stevens. "There are two more over here." Knowing that every footstep is taking you closer to a pride of wild lions is a curious sensation, a feeling that was notably intensified by leaving the riverbed and entering the thick bush. Here visibility, at least to my untrained eye, was less than 30 feet.
Once again, Masimbi stopped suddenly and pointed. This time I needed no guidance: Under a tree in a small clearing, no more than 50 yards away, a lioness was stretched out in full view. I raised my binoculars an inch at a time. Behind her, in the undergrowth, an indeterminate number of tawny sides could be seen heaving in peaceful sleep.
"They haven't seen us, and we're right downwind, so they haven't smelled us either," Stevens whispered. Right on cue, the lioness leapt up as though she'd been stung by a scorpion and glared furiously in our direction before turning tail and going to join the rest of her pride in the bushes. Our cover blown, we backed off and retraced our steps to the riverbed.
"Lions are not really a problem," Stevens remarked cheerfully, as we regained the open ground. "They're all hot air. During the daytime anyhow. Just as long as you don't run away. Even if you get a male charging and roaring, face him down and he won't hurt you."
If there is one animal that symbolizes the perilous situation of the African wild, it's probably the black rhino. Half a century ago the Zambezi Valley contained hundreds, maybe thousands of them. Now, the only country that still has them in significant numbers is South Africa. (It is chiefly the insatiable demand in Yemen for rhino-horn dagger handles that has resulted in the obliteration of the species.) Matusadona, however, protected both by a range of steep hills and the expanse of Lake Kariba—some 20 miles wide where we were—still manages to keep alive a population of around 40 or so.
The next day, shortly after dawn, we began our search for one of them (they're solitary creatures). It took quite a while, and by the time Masimbi spotted the tell-tale roundish print, about the size of a dessert plate, with the characteristic indentations dug out by the rhino's nails, the sun was high in the sky.
"Okay, now you can find the rhino for us. Masimbi and I are going to teach you how to track." So saying, Stevens cut a straight branch from a nearby tree with his knife, trimmed it, sharpened one end, and handed it to me. "Use this to point out the footprints: If we chatter all the time, we'll scare every animal for miles around. You have to be on the lookout for bruised and flattened grass; for twigs that look as though they have been bitten through—black rhino are browsers, remember, and eat as they go along; for patches of scraped earth; for anything that seems unusual."
At first I found it almost impossible to decide which way the rhino had gone and every 20 paces or so Stevens would tap me on the shoulder and point to some blindingly obvious sign—to him at least—of its passage. It was infuriating. However, after an hour or so, I began to acquire an eye; sometimes I would go for five or 10 minutes unprompted. At one point the rhino had wallowed in a pool, which made tracking it easy for a while, as its passage was marked by low branches thickly encrusted with mud. However, I wondered just how long our pursuit was likely to take. We'd been going for three hours in the heat, having stopped only for a drink of tepid water. Suppose the rhino were walking faster than us? It could take forever.
At least Stevens seemed to be enjoying himself. "Now this is real bush," he said with a delighted grin after a close encounter with three elephants. After trumpeting loudly, they disappeared with a rending and crashing of branches.
Finally we came to a large pile of rhino dung, into which Stevens immediately plunged his hand up to the wrist. "Marvelous. It's still very warm. We're getting close," he said.
Actually, we weren't. It took another 45 minutes, slogging through the undergrowth, getting snagged on thorns, stumbling through deep sand, before suddenly, immediately in front of us, 75 feet away, stood a huge black bulk, looking twice as large as ever a rhino did from a Land Rover. It clearly had no sense of being observed and after a while—sensibly in my view—lay down in the shade for a siesta.
Which is how we left it. "A perfect sighting," Stevens noted, as Masimbi, using some kind of extrasensory perception, led us on a shortcut back to the vehicle. "She never even knew we were there."
Into the Delta
Thrilling though such experiences on foot can be, you have to work hard for them. And however diligently you might tramp through the bush, you will never have the kind of varied and consistent wildlife viewing that's almost routine from a Land Rover. So where is the best such game viewing in the whole of southern Africa?
During extended travels in the region, over more than a decade, I've heard plausible arguments advanced in favor of half a dozen places. But one name cropped up more than any other: Mombo, in Botswana's 1,150-square-mile Moremi Game Reserve, part of the Okavango Delta.
The Okavango is big, about the size of Massachusetts, and is singular in that it is formed by a river that flows away from the sea. The Okavango River rises in the highlands of Angola, briefly crosses the Caprivi Strip in Namibia, and then spreads out into a wilderness of islands and reed-beds in northwestern Botswana, before finally expiring from evaporation a little more than 800 miles from its source.
You fly into the delta by small plane from Maun, a dusty town on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. The flight to Mombo takes only 35 minutes. Shortly after take-off the drab brown of the Kalahari gives way to a convoluted landscape, water and land inextricably tangled, of infinite shades of green.
From the air the Okavango looks empty, but it contains dozens of camps these days. Most of them are small, with accommodations for 12 to 20 people in fixed tents large enough to walk around in. Generally speaking, there are two types of camp: water camps, deep in the delta, which tend to have spectacular birdlife but offer relatively little in the way of large game; and camps at the delta's edge, where there is conventional game viewing from a vehicle. What makes Mombo different from all the other camps is its incomparable position, just off the western end of Chief's Island (some 40 miles long), by far the largest island in the delta. This location is the perfect hybrid: out in the middle of the delta, with no other camps nearby, but adjacent to a substantial landmass at the heart of the Moremi Game Reserve.
The wildlife viewing here was almost too easy. As the plane taxied to a halt the pilot pointed to a tree at the end of the runway where three adolescent male lions were sitting impassively in the shade. On the five-minute drive to the lodge I saw elephant, giraffe, and three or four antelope species, while within 20 feet of the dining room a family of warthogs peacefully cropped the grass.
"They know where they're safe," manager Chris Greathead explained. "There are a couple of cheetah around here that have been doing some serious damage to the warthog population over the past couple of weeks. We've seen two kills from the deck over by the swimming pool."
Mombo is a tented camp, but like most it also has a large, thatched, central building, which contains the dining room and bar, and a raised teak deck with low tables and easy chairs. From here guests look out across an extensive floodplain, framed by date and ilala palms; umbrella thorns; acacias; fig, leadwood, and ebony trees.
"We reckon that in the immediate vicinity of the camp there are thirty-six lion, twenty-seven cheetah, eighteeen leopard, and fifty-six wild dog," Greathead continued with evident satisfaction. "We had the BBC not long ago, and National Geographic recently made a film here about the wild dog, as this is the best place in Africa to see them. Oh yes, and last week an elephant gave birth behind tent number two."
Over the next couple of days, the game viewing was exactly as the brochure had foretold. The highlight was our sighting of an exquisite young female leopard draped languorously along the bough of a tree. From her chaise she regarded us, her star-struck audience, with an air of unconcern.
Despite Mombo's incomparable wildlife, a trip to the Okavango Delta would be incomplete without a visit to a "water camp" like Jedibe, only 30 minutes away by light aircraft but a different world altogether. (In fact, you can only reach it by boat—a 15-minute ride from the airstrip.) The delta here is a wilderness of papyrus laced with narrow winding channels, often no more than 10 to 12 feet wide, which abruptly broaden out into lagoons, or meres, 300 to 400 yards across.
This is the classic Okavango landscape, one that gives you an extraordinary feeling of utter removal from the world. By mokoro, the dugout canoe characteristic of the Okavango, it's about a two-week trip back to Maun. Stock markets might crash and governments fall, but no one at Jedibe would know or care. Hence there's a dreamlike quality to the place.
On my first morning at Jedibe, I was awoken at five by a shattering dawn chorus—an entire orchestra of birdlife sawing and banging away at several different scores simultaneously. Sleep was an impossibility, but then the first two hours of daylight in Africa are invariably the most beautiful. On the path to the lodge, I came upon a bushbuck standing motionless, its spotted, chestnut coat glowing in the rich, slanty light. It turned to look at me, wrinkled its nose, clearly unalarmed, then merely stepped into the shadows and silently disappeared.
At water camps everyone has his own mokoro, a hollowed-out tree trunk, usually about 12 feet long, which is propelled by a man at the back with a fork-tipped pole, or ngashi. After downing a quick coffee I strolled down to mine to meet my guide. Despite the fact that a mokoro draws no more than a foot of water and has a freeboard of six inches or less, it feels stable and safe. The shallow draught frees you to glide along the backwaters, through the lily pads and lotus blooms.
With practiced ease, my guide pushed off and stepped aboard in one fluid movement. We slid through the dark water almost without a sound, virtually part of the environment. Birds—which instantly take wing at the approach of a speedboat—wait until the mokoro is just a few feet away before lazily flapping off to an adjacent perch. Within minutes I'd ticked off purple heron, reed cormorant, African fish eagle, giant egret, squacco heron, malachite kingfisher, black-shouldered kite, and African darter, before tossing my bird list into my camera bag and settling back to enjoy the sunshine and swish of the reeds as they were smoothly brushed aside by the bow.
As we slid past a small herd of red lechwe, one of the more common of the delta's antelope species, I asked my guide what chance we had of seeing a sitatunga, a shy, stealthy, aquatic antelope, which lives among the papyrus, feeding on inundated grasses, and seldom venturing into the open. (In fact, its splayed and elongated feet, perfectly adapted for swampland, make it clumsy and extremely vulnerable on dry land.) He shook his head and said he hadn't seen a sitatunga for more than a month and anyway, all you ever catch is a glimpse. Despite his pessimism, I restlessly scanned the reeds for half an hour or so before giving up and transferring my attention to a nearby fish eagle's nest.
We were on our way back to the lodge, moving swiftly with the current, and by now more concerned with breakfast than natural history, when we swung round a bend and there, standing up to its chest in water, but otherwise in full view, was a medium-size antelope with white vertical stripes on its reddish, shaggy coat: a female sitatunga. My guide poled us swiftly into the reeds. Clearly the sitatunga hadn't been reading the right field guides, as by now it should have been 200 yards away. Instead it was staring at us while chewing, its large, round ears twisting and flexing. And then, to the guide's evident incredulity, the sitatunga sniffed the air, looked around, lowered its head, and casually carried on eating.
Until recently, all of the camps in the Okavango have conformed to type: small, simple, and comfortable enough, though scarcely stylish. However, in Botswana, as elsewhere in southern Africa, the emphasis is shifting toward ever-greater levels of comfort and sophistication. Leaving Jedibe I flew to the east-central Okavango, just on the edge of the Moremi Game Reserve. There, a new camp, Chitabe, opened in July 1997.
The landscape around Chitabe is relatively open: wide grasslands and seasonal floodplains interspersed with stands of acacia and mopane woodland. It's ideal country for game viewing from a Land Rover, and on the way from the landing strip to the lodge we ran into, almost literally, a pride of 17 lions, lying in the open, legs spread-eagled, yawning, dozing, and with no intention of stirring until nightfall at the earliest—and probably not even then. (In fact, they stayed in virtually the same spot for the next three days, before hunger finally won out over sloth.)
Chitabe Camp takes the familiar Okavango formula of safari tents and thatched public buildings and develops it into something infinitely more imaginative and appealing. The whole camp is elevated about 10 feet above the ground, on thousands of piles, and the public areas are at the center of a cobweb of raised walkways, illuminated at night by dozens of hurricane lanterns. The eight tents are as comfortable as tents can be. Their best feature is a private balcony, which is secluded, tranquil, and faces the sunset.
I sat on a bar stool at the main lodge and sipped a glass of Stellenbosch Sauvignon Blanc. Everything at Chitabe is perfectly understated: bookcases, orange-russet sofas, a rattan chaise longue. On the deck a fire was burning in a large circular hearth, while in the dining area the candlelight strengthened in the gathering dusk. Down below, beyond the small swimming pool, an elephant was uprooting a tree.
It occurs to me that Chitabe has managed to get things just about right. This is a camp that is pleasing to the eye, indulgently comfortable, and yet one where the wild has not been banished. It is a place where, in the hour before dinner, you still feel that magical frisson at the descent of the African night.
The Kalahari's Siren Song
Immediately to the south of the Okavango Delta lies the immense, virtually trackless Kalahari Desert, a region of short, pale yellow grass, thinly scattered wildlife, and negligible human population. At a time when truly wild areas of the continent are dwindling and wildlife parks are increasingly fenced and managed, it is reassuring to glance at the map of Botswana and see this great empty tract—a landscape so vast and overpowering that it simultaneously fills you with exhilaration and crushes you with a sense of your utter insignificance.
My destination was Jack's Camp, which is perched on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans, created eons ago when a gradual upthrust of land to the east cut off the flow of the Okavango River. The camp's founder, Jack Bousfield, was a fairly rakish individual by all reports, a professional crocodile hunter who thought it expedient to leave his native Tanzania when it became independent. He settled in the Makgadikgadi, where the scale and sweep of the landscape reminded him, he said, of the East African plains. Bousfield died in 1992, but his son, Ralph, stayed on to create an upscale tented camp that is not just the best but virtually the only place to stay in the entire Kalahari.
The sun was already low on the horizon when I arrived. The moon, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter were all plainly visible in the colossal vault of sky; a profound and uncanny silence covered the flat, bleached landscape. It seemed as if all the normal processes of nature had been suspended, and it was possible to believe in Einstein's idea that time might be a relative concept, subject to being slowed down, or even, just possibly, stopped. We drove along a dirt road, lurching in ruts baked hard as flint by weeks of unremitting sun. Late October is the end of the dry season in the Kalahari, and the only signs of life were springhares, suricates (a kind of mongoose), and a solitary lanner falcon, tirelessly searching for prey. This apparent absence of life was misleading, or so I was assured by my guide, Graham Hemson:
"There are more animals here than you would suppose at first glance. Most are desert-adapted and can survive with very little water. There are even a few lion. We hear them sometimes. They get by on a diet of aardvark and ostrich mostly."
The Makgadikgadi has two completely different seasons. Come late November, with the advent of the rains, the pans flood, thousands of flamingos fly in, and down from the north comes a vast migration of elephant, wildebeest, zebra, and antelope, accompanied by cheetah and lion.
"See that line of mokolwane palms? Look how straight it is," said Hemson. "That's because it's an elephant migration route. The elephant eat the palm seeds but can't digest them, so they drop them in their dung along the trail, and after a while the trees grow up along the path."
It's only during the dry season however, that Jack's Camp is accessible to visitors. It is built on an island, which in the Makgadikgadi means a patch of ground elevated some three or four feet above the surrounding floodplain. The tone and style of the place are deliberately nostalgic, harking back to the twenties and thirties, the supposed Golden Age of African exploration and adventure. There are eight widely spaced tents, furnished with Oriental carpets, copper water jugs, wicker trunks, and other slightly self-conscious period details. But for the middle of absolutely nowhere, it's all extremely comfortable and reassuring. Dinner that night turned out to be ravioli filled with ricotta, followed by fillets of Okavango bream.
Despite the extreme hostility of the environment, there's long been a route across the Makgadikgadi. In the mid-19th century it was a section of the so-called Missionary Road, which took explorers and evangelists deep into the then unknown interior of Africa. (Livingstone himself came this way.) Close to Jack's Camp, there is an ancient baobab tree, thought to be at least 3,000 years old, which acted as a kind of signpost for travelers: The carved initials of many of them are still plainly visible. (There's also a hole in the trunk, which for decades was used as a postbox.)
In the morning—just as the sun was inching itself above the horizon—I was introduced by Hemson to my quad bike, a trail bike with four broad wheels, ideal for venturing onto the potentially treacherous surface of the pans. As we sped along at 30 or 40 miles an hour the dry, grassy plain gradually thinned until, after about 45 minutes, we came to the edge of the Makgadikgadi—one of the world's largest salt pans. Ten thousand years ago this had been the shore of a great lake fed by the Okavango River and was probably one of the most densely populated places in Africa. Here we stopped to stretch our legs.
With the advent of the dry season the game retrace their steps north. Thus you don't come to Jack's Camp to see animals, but rather to find vestiges of the human past. "Just walk around and see what you can find," Hemson said, with an expansive sweep of his arm. "We had the people from Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg here, and they said they had never come across anything like it."
To my astonishment, after only half an hour, I had uncovered with my bare hands at least two dozen arrowheads, spearheads, stone knives, hammers, and axes. It was a bit like an archaeological dig conducted in an outdoor museum.
The great virtue of Jack's Camp is that it tends to turn the basis of a safari on its head. Instead of being a detached observer of wildlife, I was reminded of the time when man was just another prey species, scratching a living from the African bush. It made me feel reintegrated into the natural order and prompted over the next few days reflections on precisely what it means to be human.
Having rescattered the artifacts—which would doubtless baffle some future archaeologist—we pressed on, this time into an illimitable, dead-flat expanse of whitish-gray sand. Several times a year the guides from Jack's Camp take trips far out into the wilderness. These can be either by vehicle or quad bike, and often involve two or three nights spent sleeping on a canvas bedroll. The most frequent destinations are Kubu Island, an enigmatic granite outcrop that appears to have thrust its way through the dazzling crust of salt, and Deception Valley, at the northern edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. Almost no one ever goes to this place, though it was made famous by the bestseller Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens.
As the heat of the sun increased, mirages of lakes and islands acquired an ever-greater semblance of reality. About 10 miles out, Hemson flagged me down. For a few seconds, the din of the engine and rush of the wind continued to reverberate. But then the silence flooded back. There was not a sound, not a breeze, not even the slightest stirring of the air.
"There aren't any flight paths over the Makgadikgadi," Hemson said. "You never see a plane, not even a vapor trail. We often bring people out here in the middle of the night. It can be quite overpowering. You just lie on your back on the pan and look up. It's the ultimate African sky."
Abrupt transitions are one of the privileges of modern travel. To leave a place as elemental as the Kalahari, and to find oneself somewhere utterly worldly like Singita Boulders in South Africa's Sabi Sand Private Game Reserve little more than a half day later, is oddly exhilarating.
When it opened in December 1996, Singita Boulders set an entirely new standard in safari lodges. It even managed to eclipse its own sibling, the original Singita (now known as Singita Ebony), which until then had been the benchmark for luxury safari camps.
Singita Boulders is the only game lodge that would be well worth visiting whether there were animals to see or not. In essence, it's a blissfully indulgent resort that comes with South Africa's best game area, Sabi Sand, a private reserve next to Kruger National Park, as part of the package.
In the early years of this century, the area was divided into farms. But ranching having proved unprofitable, these properties were eventually joined together to create a conservation area. Today the wildlife reserve has a central administration, and it employs its own warden and rangers, but it is still made up of blocks of privately owned land. One of these has long been in the possession of the Bailes family, and it is the present owner, Luke Bailes, along with his architect, Bruce Stafford, who has revolutionized the luxury safari lodge.
When you first arrive at Singita Boulders, all you see is a small water garden and magnificent golden sweep of thatched roof. This conceals the public area of the lodge—an enormous open space decorated in what might perhaps be described as "contemporary African" style: white furnishings and clean architectural lines providing a backdrop for tribal artifacts and sculptures. The far side of this space is entirely open and leads onto a split-level teak deck, which serves as both outdoor dining area and an observation platform. As I sat there sipping an orange juice I watched a hippo rooting around noisily, a mere 10 feet beneath my perch.
It is the six guest accommodations that put Singita Boulders in a class of its own. "We've had quite a few guests check into their suites and not come out until it was time to leave," said lodge operations manager Tim Cumming as he led the way along a winding boardwalk. "Which is just fine with us. Our staff actually enjoys it. And though I say so myself, we can make the place look very attractive for dinner, with hurricane lamps and candles."
Actually, the word suite is grossly misleading. "Small house" would be a more accurate description. Built into the bank of the Sand River, so the architecture submits to the contours of the land, each accommodation is made up of a huge living room with a central fireplace, a bedroom where you can lie and gaze out across the reserve, a lavishly appointed bathroom, adjacent outside shower, deck, and a swimming pool. I spent the afternoon enraptured by the design. I took a swim in my pool and tried out both the indoor and outdoor showers, then passed the late afternoon desultorily scanning the plain for game.
One of the periodic trials of safari life is the food, which at all too many lodges is ordinary, bordering on the banal. Paradoxically, remarkable things are frequently achieved in the least promising of circumstances. I've eaten some truly delicious meals that have emerged from ovens that were no more than a hole in the ground, filled with charcoal and covered with a sheet of corrugated iron.
"Well, at Singita Boulders we try pretty hard with our food," Ian Human, the lodge's chef, said defensively that evening, after I had inflicted on him a description of a notably egregious broiled fillet of kudu I'd had on my last trip to South Africa. "And actually we do serve kudu, but you have to hang it for up to a week and then leave it for another five days in a marinade of pawpaw, juniper berries, buttermilk, and sage. The game served at most camps is simply shot, skinned, and cooked.
"I believe in clean, low-calorie, New World food," Human continued. "That is what people want to eat in this climate. South Africa was isolated for so long that sometimes our cooking lacks subtlety and invention. But the local produce is exceptional, and things are improving fast. You must let me know what you think of dinner: There's going to be a choice of rack of impala with walnut, rosemary, and Parmesan crust or roast guinea fowl with sultana and tarragon sauce. Don't worry," he added, "the impala has been marinated in red wine, lemon pepper, coriander seed, olive oil, sherry vinegar, and bay leaves."
So saying, Human disappeared to supervise the production of the evening meal, and I wandered across to the dining room. At the door, I was waylaid by a breathless game ranger who said, and I promise I'm not making this up, "We've got a leopard in camp; it's drinking out of the swimming pool over by the gymnasium."
The game viewing at Singita Boulders is routinely sensational (but this topped everything). There are regular close encounters with the Big Five (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino, buffalo), chiefly attributable to the variety of vegetation and year-round availability of food and water. However, there seems to be no simple explanation for the remarkable collective sang-froid of the wildlife in Sabi Sand: I've never seen a reserve where the animals are so habituated to humans, or more accurately to humans in vehicles, where even the most secretive of creatures—like leopard—wander nonchalantly along in broad daylight.
The next day we set out not long after dawn in one of Singita Boulders' new top-of-the-range eight-cylinder Land Rovers. (I mention this only because the big engine is so smooth and quiet it significantly improves the quality of the experience.) The landscape of Sabi Sand is, to be honest, quite uninspiring, an unrelieved flat tangle of bush interspersed with clearings.
However, the regular wildlife sightings more than make up for the scenic dullness. Within 40 minutes of setting out, having already seen a pride of lions as well as half a dozen antelope species, one of the rangers from Singita Ebony came on the radio to say that he had caught sight of two young leopards heading in our direction.
As far as I am concerned, the male kudu, with its superb spiral horns, is the most impressive antelope; a cheetah in pursuit of an impala the most graceful of the big cats; while a solitary male lion, old enough to have grown a full mane but still too young to have been scarred and battered fighting fellow members of its pride for ascendancy, is a creature of unrivaled grandeur.
But the leopard is the most exquisitely marked and proportioned, the most perfectly self-reliant, and above all, the wildest of game animals. Lion, and especially cheetah, can be domesticated. The leopard never can. Lion and cheetah raised on a bottle have to be taught how to hunt. (In fact, cheetah are usually taken for a walk on a lead, have a gazelle pointed out to them, and are then incited to chase it.) But a hand-reared leopard can simply be released and, instincts unimpaired, it will immediately fend for itself.
The leopard is chiefly nocturnal and secretive, which further enhances its charisma. It was not until my sixth safari that I saw one at all, and even then it was just a three-second glimpse of an animal vanishing into the long grass.
But not in Sabi Sand. During a stay of three or four days at Singita Boulders you would be extremely unlucky not to see at least one leopard. Moreover, you're highly likely to see it in daylight. There is a huge male leopard whose territory includes the lodge area; on my first visit to Singita a few years ago I was able to watch him for about 20 minutes, in midafternoon, at a distance of approximately 30 feet, sitting on top of an anthill.
This time I did even better. The radio crackled briefly and the ranger swung the vehicle off the dirt road and pressed about 300 yards into the bush. We pulled up to a small glade. And waited. Occasionally the stillness was shattered by an alarm call, usually impala, while nearby two vervets almost fell out of their tree with agitation.
Then, just as it began to seem certain that we'd missed them, the two leopards emerged from the undergrowth, youngsters less than a year old, and a bit more than three-quarters grown. They were perfect physical specimens: glossy, lean, muscular—teenage athletes on the verge of the big time. "Their mother must be somewhere around," the ranger whispered. At this, the pair looked up sharply, and four yellow eyes bore straight through us. But they were more curious than afraid and, without even breaking step, passed within 10 feet of the open side of the vehicle. The encounter lasted less than a minute, but the memory is indelible.
Only in Sabi Sand.
The Ultimate Southern African Safari—four destinations in three countries—is a three- to four-week trip. The combination of places shows you a broad cross-section of the region and its major ecosystems: river valley (John Stevens' safari in Matusadona National Park), marsh (Okavango Delta camps), desert (Jack's Camp in the Kalahari), and bush (Singita Boulders Lodge). It includes some of the best game viewing on the continent and concludes at what is arguably the most luxurious wildlife establishment in the world.
The trip is arduous, as it involves a long flight from North America to either Johannesburg or Harare, the two jumping-off points, plus numerous small-plane flights, especially in the Okavango Delta. Whether you do part of or the entire itinerary, it is a good idea to take a couple of days in Johannesburg or Harare to get over the jet lag. (See Black Book pages on these cities for hotel recommendations.)
THE ROUTE If I had to do the trip over again, I would fly to Harare, spend the night, and then head straight for Tongabezi on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls. There I'd lie by the pool for three days, gaze across the Zambezi and do little else—except go to Livingstone Island for the most dramatic view of the falls possible.
I would start the trip with John Stevens, then go to the Okavango Delta, followed by Jack's Camp in the Kalahari—about the most extreme change of environments I can imagine. I would end up at Singita Boulders.
The exact itinerary would depend on game-lodge availability and airline connections. You can do the trip any number of ways; however, the place I wouldn't visit first is Jack's Camp, as it is more about archaeology than animals. You ought to get a lion or two on film before immersing yourself in the distant human past.
WHEN TO GO The best time for game viewing in southern Africa—and the high season for the lodges—is June through September.
JOHN STEVENS SAFARIS, ZIMBABWE
Getting There The jumping-off point is Kariba, a 45-minute flight from Harare. Guests are picked up at the airport and transported across Lake Kariba (20-minute drive, 40-minute speedboat ride) if the safari takes in Matusadona National Park, where I went; or flown by light aircraft (40-minute flight) to the Zambezi River if the destination is Mana Pools. The flight is spectacular, as it follows the Kariba Gorge for part of the way.
The Camp It consists of large tents with comfortable cots but no electric light or air-conditioning. There are separate tents for shower and toilet (a six-foot-deep hole in the ground). The only means of communication is by radio phone, so don't plan on calling your broker. Meals are cooked on an open fire or in an earth oven; its surprising how such simple arrangements routinely produce excellent meals. Stevens stocks a normal range of spirits as well as good South African red and white wines, and given adequate notice he will be happy to get anything else you require.
Practical Considerations This is a more arduous safari than most. You may walk five miles a day through the bush, so bring sturdy shoes. Lightweight long pants are advisable to keep you from getting scratched. Bring industrial-strength insect repellent and sunscreen.
Rates $480 per person per night for a party of four, $390 per person per night for six. Stevens prefers that clients book for two weeks; the minimum is four nights at one camp.
Reservations Through John Stevens' office in Harare: 263-4-495650; fax 263-4-496113; e-mail: email@example.com.
OKAVANGO DELTA, BOTSWANA
Getting There The jumping-off point is Maun, which is served by international flights from Johannesburg and Victoria Falls. Flying time from Maun to Jedibe is 50 minutes, to Mombo 35 minutes, to Chitabe 30 minutes.
The Camp Plan to spend five or six days, divided between a water camp and a game-drive camp. Accommodations are in large tents, with attached shower and bathroom. There is electricity and hot water, but no air-conditioning. Dining is communal. All three camps are run by the well-respected South African company Wilderness Safaris.
Rates Prices are per night double occupancy for high season (July to October in the Delta): Jedibe $690; Chitabe $690; Mombo $990. Note: Mombo is hard to book in high season.
Reservations Wilderness Safaris, Box 651171, Benmore 2010, Johannesburg, South Africa; 27-11-8830747; fax 27-11-8830911; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
JACK'S CAMP, KALAHARI DESERT
Getting There The jumping-off point is also Maun. The flight takes 45 minutes.
The Camp In the middle of nowhere. No telephones, no air-conditioning, no pool—and nothing like it anywhere else. Plan to visit when the camp offers a three-day excursion into the Kalahari.
Practical Considerations Bring the strongest sunscreen and darkest sunglasses you can get. Out on the salt pans the light is blinding. Also do some homework: Read The Lost World of the Kalahari by Laurens van der Post (Harcourt Brace) and Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens (Houghton Mifflin).
Rates $520 per night double occupancy.
Reservations Uncharted Africa Safari Company, Box 173, Francistown, Botswana; 267-21-2277; fax 267-21-3458.
SINGITA BOULDERS LODGE, SOUTH AFRICA
Getting There The jumping-off point is Skukuza, 75 minutes from Johannesburg by scheduled flight. Singita's six-seater picks you up for the seven-minute hop to the lodge.
The Camp The most luxurious game lodge in Africa, plus gourmet food. Six suites.
Practical Considerations Have dinner in your suite at least one evening. The staff decorate the outside deck and plunge pool with candles and hurricane lamps, and waiters are in attendance throughout the meal.
Rates $1,270 per night double occupancy.
Reservations Box 650881, Benmore 2010, Johannesburg, South Africa; 27-11-2340990; fax 27-11-2340535.
I booked this and every trip I made for this issue through Worldwide Journeys & Expeditions, which specializes in tailormade itineraries in Africa. Owner Nick Van Gruisen and his assistant, Catherine Ronan, possess enormous expertise and are tenacious in arranging complicated itineraries. Contact them at 8 Comeragh Road, London W14 9HP; 44-171-381-8638; fax 44-171-381-0836; e-mail: email@example.com.