Elephants never forget but when you are kissed by one, as I was on a Wednesday lunchtime in the swamplands of Botswana, you don’t forget either.
The coarse bristles on Morula’s face and the way she dribbled a cupful of saliva down my shirt were a bit alarming, as was the fact she weighed about four tonnes. But her thick grey skin was dry and agreeably warm, her breath was perfumed with cut hay and her gentleness was quite beguiling.
The kiss came at the end of a morning my daughter and I spent hanging out in the bush with three tame elephants: Morula, Jabu and Thembi. Doug and Sandi Groves adopted the trio a couple of decades ago, and have devoted their lives to teaching them good manners. The Groves now show their elephants off to small groups of guests at one of Botswana’s most luxurious safari camps. Thus we came to watch at close quarters as the big grey beasts batted their extraordinarily long eyelashes, contracted the sphincter muscles in their ears, bared their ginormous yellow teeth, stood up, lay down, trumpeted, blew raspberries, stripped leaves off trees and peed (which for the male involved revealing a penis so startlingly large that, had it been standing on the ground, it would have been taller than me).
Though the elephants and their minders made a charming if curious family group, I felt a bit uneasy as we bumped away in our jeep afterwards. Partly it was the devastation all around us caused by the trio’s wild cousins. Everywhere in the Okavango Delta are the silhouettes of dead trees, killed by elephants binge-eating on their bark. But it was mainly because no tame animal can give you quite the jolt of joy of seeing a wild one.
Our first taste of this came a couple of days earlier through the window of a Cessna five-seater taking us from Maun to our camp’s private landing strip. “Buffalo on the left,” the pilot yelled, and the plane gave a sickening lurch downwards so we could see about a hundred dark beasts engaged in some mysterious conference around a cluster of trees. Aside from the odd animal, the view from the air showed a repeating pattern of land and water with no sign of man at all.
This is because Botswana has wisely decided on a “low-volume, high yield” approach to its beautiful wilderness. Unlike Kenya and South Africa, where hundreds of thousands of tourists traipse about every year gawping at animals, in Botswana it’s altogether more exclusive – as well as massively more expensive.
Sanctuary Baines’ Camp is one of the most expensive and tiniest of the lot but promises guests an experience that is both luxurious and real. As the jeep waiting for us at the airstrip bumped towards half a dozen huts, the entire staff had gathered under a thatched porch to sing a welcome. Whether or not this was “real”, it was without doubt the loudest welcome I’ve ever had anywhere. The only problem was that, being a virgin when it comes to receiving stamping ululations, I was at a loss as to how to respond. My “thank you, so much” seemed inadequate.
Welcome over, we were then taken along raised walkways to our hut, where it was explained that the walls were the latest in ecological building – made from recycled Coke cans glued together with elephant dung. Inside was a four-poster bed festooned in mosquito net, artfully faded fabrics, plain wood floors, and pretty sarongs to wear while wandering down to the tastefully landscaped pool.
We sat on our private terrace, and surveyed the uninterrupted view over marshland, listened to the birds and breathed in a smell of wild sage. I took a shower and through the window could see an elephant doing the same in the muddy water outside. Bliss, I thought.
Less blissful was what passed that night. An elephant sauntered over and started to desecrate a tree barely a foot from where we were lying. My daughter, who at home is frightened to walk through a field with a cow in it, was petrified by the nearby crash of breaking branches. I woke for just long enough to consider how easy it would be for a tusk to pierce the wall but was so overcome by the comfort of the bed that I left my poor child to deal with fear alone, and returned to oblivion.
The next morning we were woken before the red disk of sun had come over the horizon to strike out on our first game drive with our guide, Teuelo. He grew up on a farm nearby (another smart thing the government has done is to insist on camps employing only people from local villages) and was able both to drive through deep water and to point out animals behind him at the same time.
“Wildebeest at five o’clock,” he’d say. “Where?” we’d reply, peering hopelessly.
Teuelo spent his childhood hunting with wild dogs and a bow and arrow. Now he’s not allowed to kill anything – in Botswana you can get 50 years in prison for killing a rhino – and so, instead of pointing spears at animals, he points a finger to show clueless visitors where to direct their enormous zoom lenses.
On the second day he led us to a pair of lions asleep in the morning sun. Beautiful, noble cats, they opened half an eye to look at the jeep then closed them again, rolling over on their backs and waving their legs in the air. Animals are so used to the jeeps, Teuelo explained, they consider them no threat. This has the advantage that you can get close enough almost to touch, but the disadvantage that a meeting with the king of the jungle comes without any exciting frisson of danger. Indeed, one of the lions looked so sweet quietly snoozing in the shade, I was almost moved to nip out and give him a pat.
No sooner had we got the hang of living things than we were introduced to dead ones. Up in a tree killed by elephants were half a dozen vultures, looking so like the birds in The Jungle Book that I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if they had started talking in Liverpudlian accents. Nearby lay the remains of a baby giraffe, a bundle of bone and skin, like a toy with no stuffing left in it.
Teuelo explained how first the vultures suck the flesh, and then the hyenas move in to crunch the bones. Nature doesn’t like waste, he said.
I couldn’t help thinking that luxury safari camps mind waste rather less. Throughout our stay we were never more than an hour or two away from an opulent eating opportunity. The day started with a pre-breakfast snack followed by breakfast, elevenses, a three-course lunch, high tea, pre-dinner snacks and a three-course dinner. The scones at tea were as good as they make them in Devon but two people can’t eat 15 of them, especially with lunch such a recent memory.
Apart from eating and being driven about in an amphibian jeep looking for animals, the main other activity at camp was being pampered.
When we returned from a drive one day, a beautiful young woman appeared offering a foot massage to soothe our feet, which had walked at least 10 steps to and from the jeep. One night my daughter and I arrived back at our hut after an evening drive to find a white mountain had appeared on our terrace. It turned out to be bubbles coming out of two tin baths set down along with candles, piles of soft towels, a champagne bucket, and what I could have sworn was mistletoe artfully strewn about the place.
These special effects were presumably not designed with a middle-aged woman and her 19-year-old daughter in mind. Yet we were glad to experience the outdoor bath like this: no real relationship could ever live up to such outrageously perfect romantic trappings. With no pressure to be enraptured by the other, we each settled down into the fragrant bubbles and contentedly looked up at the stars.
On our last night at Baines’ Camp, our beds were wheeled outside too. For a while we lay there under our nets listening as the frogs croaked and the crickets chirped in the foreground, while further away the lions roared and the hippos made their weird moaning noise. But we didn’t listen for long. We slept as if drugged by the sweet air and the safari orchestra, woken by the arrival of another pre-breakfast snack.
The following day we got back into the tiny aircraft and headed off to Sanctuary Chief’s Camp – bigger, drier, even more expensive. This time the singing staff welcome, though just as well done, was both less special and less stressful. The rooms were even more comfortable, though a little less charming – a hybrid of tent and bland hotel room.
Here there were even more animals. In the course of the next couple of days we saw a leopard up a tree, a convention of buffaloes with their horns that look like barristers’ wigs, and even a rhino, disobligingly hiding behind a bush. We saw tiny animals too, little painted reed frogs in a mokoro, a dug-out canoe, propelled by a guide who said he used to be taken out in such a boat as a baby, with a water lily pad over his head as an impromptu sunshade.
Yet by the end of six days in the Okavango Delta, something sad was starting to happen. The intensity of the thrill can’t go on reproducing itself: every new giraffe, though still impossibly elegant, looks pretty much like the last one.
The same isn’t the case for the other creatures on the holiday – man. There is a large variety of humans to see on a safari holiday, which is just as well as there is a certain amount of compulsory socialising to be done.
One night at the bigger camp there was a dance before supper, in which the guests sat like wallflowers around the dancing staff, praying not to be called on to join in. Watching a somewhat complacent retired banker being dragged to his feet and then attempt to jiggle his hips in a torment of embarrassment while the staff stamped and whooped around him was another thing about the holiday I won’t forget. I dare say he won’t either.
But there is little danger of any of the visitors forgetting any of it, as every moment was captured on video, on iPhone and, above all, on cameras with the largest zoom lenses I’ve seen.
My daughter and I took photos too, of course. But now that we’re home we have hardly looked at them. What is the good of a picture of a giraffe or an elephant, when it cannot begin to capture the joy of seeing the tall graceful form for the first time, let alone bring back the heavenly smell of wild sage.
Lucy Kellaway was a guest of Rainbow Tours, which offers three nights at Sanctuary Baines’ Camp and three at Sanctuary Chief’s Camp from £4,590 per person, including flights from London to Maun via Johannesburg, light aircraft flights, the “elephant interaction”, all meals and game drives.
More new luxury safari lodges: Where the buffalo roam and the butlers attend
Deep in the Chobe National Park, the vast Selinda private reserve is home to hippo-hunting lions as well as cheetah, roan antelope, zebra, giraffe, buffalo, wildebeest, sable and wild dog. Last month, the Selinda Explorers Camp opened on the banks of the Selinda Spillway, the waterway that links the Linyanti wetlands with the Okavango Delta. Available only on an exclusive-use basis, it sleeps eight in four handsome canvas tents, furnished with directors’ chairs, rugs, trunks, hammocks, copper basins and bucket showers of solar-heated water, though there are flush WCs and net-swathed beds as well.
Mara Toto Camp, which opens in the Masai Mara on November 7, has four guest tents along with a library and dining tent pitched by a bend in the Ntiakitiak River, each equipped with a pair of top-of-the-range Swarovski Optik binoculars, the better to observe the leopards who live in the surrounding forest. It’s also a prime site from which to witness the great migration of zebra and wildebeest. Canon camera equipment is also available to hire.
The newest accommodation in the Kruger National Park is &Beyond’s entirely reconstructed Ngala Tented Camp, which reopened in August in the 15,000ha Ngala Private Game Reserve. It has just six air-conditioned cabins of wood, canvas and glass, with outdoor showers and shaded decks overlooking the seasonal Timbavati River. Ngala, incidentally, is the first private reserve to have been absorbed into the Kruger, and revenues from the lease fee paid to the South African National Parks Trust are being used to fund the Mountain Zebra National Park in the Eastern Cape.
Formerly run by Kempinski, 72-room Bilila Lodge, which overlooks a watering hole frequented by elephants, will become the Four Seasons Safari Lodge Serengeti on January 1, the Canadian hotel group’s first venture into sub-Saharan Africa. The brand has two further Tanzanian properties in development: a tented camp in the Ngorongoro Conservation Area and a beach resort on Zanzibar.
In anticipation of next year’s UN World Tourist Organisation general assembly, which will be co-hosted by Zambia and Zimbabwe, the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge opened 20 modern butler-serviced rooms and suites last month. Overlooking a watering hole and forming what it calls the Victoria Falls Safari Club, it’s rather smarter than the rest of the resort and functions as a self-contained lodge.