Let me start with a confession: I have never wanted to go on safari. No matter how many people come back glowing and dazed from their expeditions under the African sun, there's always something that makes me feel slightly queasy about the way it's often politely packaged up into a post-colonial fantasy, rosé sky-tinted sunglasses staining an entire continent sepia.
In a part of the world that has taken on more than its fair share of single-story stereotyping, I'm reluctant to take part in any romantic role play that reduces the savannah to a playground for the wealthy West; an Out of Africa-fuelled animal bingo that prioritises billowing headscarves and icy gin and tonics above the complexities of the land, its wildlife and its people. As the Nigerian author Chinua Achebe said in 1975, there is a tendency to see the continent as "setting and backdrop which eliminates the African as a human factor" - a point of view encapsulated in recent controversial choices such as Louis Vuitton's 2014 Spirit of Travel campaign, Taylor Swift's 2015 Wildest Dreams video, or the doyenne of shocking sartorial decisions, Melania Trump, donning a colonial pith helmet on safari in Kenya last year.
Learning from the mass-tourism mistakes of neighbouring countries such as Kenya, in the 1990s Botswana implemented a high-cost, high-job creation and low-impact, low-volume strategy. Park entry fees were increased, colossal wildlife management areas were introduced and concessions were leased out to safari companies. The result is that today national parks and game reserves account for 40 per cent of Botswana's land mass, the government and local communities are guaranteed a high percentage of camp revenue and since 2009 there has been a ban on hunting.
All this is not without its challenges - the elephant poaching crisis that has decimated other African countries is heading southwards, population growth is adding pressure to issues of human-wildlife conflict and the traditional lifestyle of nomadic tribespeople is being threatened. However, by using tourism to galvanise both conservation and community, Botswana suggests that it is possible to retain the mystery and magic of the traditional safari while stepping towards a sustainable future - to be an icon rather than a cliché.
It's a belief shared by Natural Selection, a pioneering, conservation-driven safari company that prioritises giving back, with 1.5 per cent of its gross revenue donated to conservation aims, partnerships with the local community paramount and each camp designed to minimise impact. It's with this in mind that I dig my best leopard-print gear out of the back of my wardrobe and prepare to suspend my cynicism, swallow my preconceptions and submit to the savannah.
My odyssey begins in the Khwai Private Reserve, a 200,000-hectare sprawl of grassy floodplains, marshland and dense forest. Minutes after waving goodbye to our stomach-swooping, six- seater plane I find myself clinging to the side of our 4x4, our guide Zambo's cavalier attitude to driving doing nothing to assuage my nausea. We jolt and bounce along a sandy track past shy impala and skittish zebras before pulling up outside Sable Alley. This contemporary revamp of a traditional tented camp, which works in partnership with the community-led Khwai Development Trust, bucks bush convention with its elegant chandeliers made of sea glass, bulbous bronze lamps, palm-print wicker chairs and silvered glass cabinets. However, it's the lagoon in front of the main deck, studded with the smooth, pebble-like backs of huffing hippos, that is our first hint of the surreal proximity of the spectacular here.
We pile back into the jeep and almost immediately stumble across a herd of elephants bathing in a watering hole, illuminated soft copper in the late afternoon light. The elders shift from foot to foot to relieve the pressure of standing, like a girl in high heels at the end of a heavy night, while babies weave and gambol between their legs. Zambo explains how, far from their reputation for destruction, elephants are in fact the "engineers of the savannah", opening up areas to other plant and animal species as they push down trees, break up roots and disperse seeds. We move off into the woods and spot the stringy legs of an impala intermingling with the high branches of a tree, likely the leftovers of a lunching leopard. This hypothesis seems to be confirmed when we uncover a female lying in some nearby roots, her perfect pelt a shock of the familiar against the brush and bracken. Thanks to the Khwai Private Reserve's leopard survey, which utilises the skills of locals who used to work in the hunting industry to track and record the animals, these elusive cats are used to the hum of 4x4s and she ignores our presence completely.
On our way back to camp the horizon begins to glow a buttery yellow and we come across a huddle of elephants throwing cascades of dirt, creating an artificial haze of dust that muddies the skyline and silhouettes their wriggling trunks. I feel a chill that I can only describe as déja vu, a kind of recognition of the prehistoric echoes of such a scene. It's a blood-level nostalgia that will creep up on me repeatedly, an awareness of the rhythms and rituals that have been occurring here for millennia irrespective and unaware of human history.
Early the next morning I watch the hippos arrive to the lagoon for their morning bath, sinking beneath the water in a lordly fashion as the inky mystery of the night sky dissolves into a panoply of gradated blues, greens and pinks. It's hard to resist tumbling into cliché when talking about the light here, which stuns me into silence at every turn - the eat-it-on-your-porridge treacle of sunrise, candy floss shimmer of early morning, Cotswolds-biscuit colour of late afternoon, cosmic flashing of a beetle's wing at dusk, intense sienna burn at sunset.
I tear myself away for a walking safari. Although I initially feel anxious as we brush past tufts of wild sage on foot and hear squirrels tittering in the trees like tiny supervillains, I eventually relax into the surroundings, traipsing behind our rifle-clad leader and trying not to think about the warning tales of the night before about unfortunate encounters with lionesses.
Back in the car that afternoon I wonder how much protection the vehicle really affords as we swerve into the path of an oncoming bull elephant on musk, stare into the yawping jaws of honeymooning hippos warning us off their territory, and crash through the darkness as elephants abruptly trumpet and flare at us from all angles. I'm later awoken by a crunching sound. I tiptoe out of bed, peek behind the canvas and am confronted with the bulk of another gargantuan elephant munching on vegetation just a few feet away. I can barely contain my mirth as he thuds across to Jacob's tent and I see a torch click on, frenziedly beaming in every direction.
We string together the next few days with similarly visceral encounters: a family of painted wolves fighting over an impala leg, their splashed and spotted fur and moonish ears quivering as it swings from their mouths like a grotesque rag doll. The sound of the wind rushing through pampas grass as we pause underneath the bloated fruit of a sausage tree. Floating between white and purple waterlilies on a mokoro, a kind of canoe traditionally used by the local Bayei tribe to travel huge distances across the delta, accompanied by scudding water beetles and slender-beaked birds searching for their evening meal.
On our final morning we witness the unbearable tension of a pride of eight lionesses and cubs spying on a herd of oblivious buffalo. They stand stock-still and watchful in the long grass, reminiscent of fierce statues guarding an Egyptian tomb.
Our next stop is Mapula Lodge, a cosy counterpoint to the polish of Sable Alley. The vibe is that of a rustic homestead - Christmas baubles are strung from the branches of a great tree that erupts through the deck, tinsel is wrapped around the posts of the jetty that stretches into the delta and there's a proliferation of faded maps, anthropological sketches, tasselled lamps, wooden chests, carvings and curios scattered around, as well as a huge liquor cabinet that we're told to help ourselves to. There's also a long outdoor dining table where we'll be dive-bombed with figs by bats and from which I'll witness baboons stealing the fruit out of pitchers of iced tea. My room is a tent/thatched cottage hybrid with gap-toothed floorboards, butler's trays and a teetering four-poster swathed in white netting, plus an open-air shower where I watch a family of warthogs snuffling below my feet.
Our evening game drive presents a less obvious abundance of wildlife than the previous few days, but also affords an opportunity to imbibe the landscape. Mapula is situated in the Okavango Delta, a geological freak of nature and one of Africa's Seven Natural Wonders. Despite the fact that 84 per cent of Botswana is covered by the barren sands of the Kalahari Desert, the delta is able to thrive as the Okavango River has its source in Angola nearly 1,200km away. Shortly after the river reaches Botswana it fans out to form the world's largest delta, which can triple in size after the annual oods, peaking between June and August. Even though we're here during the dry season, the resulting topography is still a tapestry of fascinating contrasts: mulchy riverbank to deep sand, at plains erupting with termite mounds, and wide expanses of waving golden grass.
We find a field of the latter and pull up our bottle-green Toyota for a gin and tonic as the flaming sun burnishes the stems a peachy kindling. Everything is framed by a lone acacia tree. I realise with a jolt that I'm inside the postcard-perfect savannah "moment" that has been used to sell safaris for decades. However, far from seeing all this beauty as a mere backdrop to my own experience, my overwhelming sense is of the fragility of this halcyon image. I ask our Zimbabwean guide, Greg, if he's optimistic about the future of Africa's wild spaces. "I'm optimistic about the attitude of Africans to wildlife," he answers. "And protected areas like the Okavango, the Maasai Mara and the Serengeti will always be okay. However, the continent's population expansion is a worry outside of those places." When people are forced to share land with wildlife the outcome is often negative, especially when many people's livelihoods depend upon cattle farming. Greg is nevertheless "hopeful that the government here is committed to finding the right solutions".
As we cross the bridge onto Mapula Island, Greg spots some tracks in the deepening darkness. We crawl along the banks of the river until he spotlights two lionesses known as "the Mapula ladies" tussling over the carcass of a warthog. Despite the gore and their ruby-smeared mouths, it's almost touching to see how cat-like they are, batting the spoils between themselves and nuzzling. This brush with the savagery that underpins the beauty here turns out to be an omen for the next day, when Greg follows a black-backed jackal's alarm cry to find a young female leopard prowling towards some tsessebe (antelopes). We track her through stubby, camouflaging bushes, straining to catch sight of the ripples of her flanks against the shadows. At one point she sticks her nose into a warthog burrow until only her tail is visible, licking like an exotic snake; at another she enters a bush and a terrific, fearsome snarling ensues before she emerges looking sheepish - likely having disturbed a napping honey badger, one of nature's most ferocious creatures.
Suddenly, and so fast I can hardly process it, a huge cloud of dust envelops us and Greg floors the accelerator, yelling "She's got one!" We follow the tumult of squeals to the base of a tree where the leopard is crouched in a fork with her jaws clamped around a baby warthog, its legs scrabbling in panic as its parents butt the trunk below. As my fellow passengers call for champagne - apparently it's incredibly rare to see a kill - I'm almost in tears watching the frenetic movements of the pig slow, the cat's laconic yellow eyes staring fixedly ahead. It's a macabre spectacle that even a bottle of rosé in the pool can't quite erase.
MAKGADIKGADI SALT PANS
Our final destination is an outré example of old-world glamour. Driving across the scorched, grey rubble of a dried-up lake, I have to blink against the desiccated air to ascertain that the billowing Bedouin tents and tall molokwane palms ahead aren't a mirage. The crocodile hunter Jack Bousfield first struck camp here in the 1960s, describing the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans as "the savage beauty of a forgotten Africa". It's a sentiment his son, Ralph, seems to have taken to heart when he launched Jack's in 1993 in his honour. Against the arid Kalahari the camp is a perfect capsule of faded grandeur, a period-drama piece looking out onto the shimmering salt flats.
The main pavilion doubles up as a natural history museum - a long dining table is flanked by mahogany cabinets from which giraffe skulls and vintage taxidermied aardvarks peer out, age- spotted maps and snakeskin are framed on the walls and piles of peeling tomes by renowned conservationists and explorers line the shelves. Stepping into my tent I immediately feel like an intrepid aristocrat. Underneath the luscious paisley-print canopy lies a collection of antique chests, grapefruit-pink velvet chairs, polished golden trays, creamy ostrich quills and a glorious, tasselled four-poster bed that I have to use a carpeted footstool to climb into. There is no electricity so at night the room is lit only by sputtering kerosene lamps and solar jars, transforming it into a cat's eye amid the inky darkness.
It's an inhospitable landscape of parched, tawny grass that we roll through later that afternoon. Our guide, Ruah, explains that in the wet season the land explodes into a riot of thick, tall greenery, but today the effects of climate change mean higher temperatures, longer dry seasons and the delay of the annual rains. Consequently the camp has had to build solar-powered watering holes to help the wildlife here survive.
We pass clusters of zebras and wildebeest at one such hole, clouds of twittering red-billed quelea birds swooping around them and into the water as one entity, as well as a stray cow, likely lost from someone's herd. Ruah explains how cattle farming is deeply entrenched in Botswana culture - despite working as a guide, back home he still owns cows as a status symbol. I had always thought of farming and conservation as inherently at odds so it's uplifting to hear how through careful management, compensation and education, camps such as Jack's are working with the community to avoid conflict.
As the air cools we race the sunset along the edge of the salt pans, an endless expanse of white that crunches under the tyres as I stick my head out the window, hair streaming into the breeze. The evening deepens into a purplish-blue like a bruise, while a thinning line of filament-orange flares where the salt licks the sky. I look forward and yelp in surprise - amid the blank glare sits a campfire and a table crowded with bottles. I fix us rocket-fuel negronis that we drink as the stars blink into being, hemmed in by the eerie near-silence. Yet again I'm stuck by an unexpected feeling of homecoming - at dinner another of the guides, Super, explains this innate tug. "We're in the Kalahari Desert where we all walked out from. You don't have to interpret that connection for guests - it's already there."
Not everything here is weighted with the same spiritual dimension, as I experience the next morning when I find myself facing off with a squeaking meerkat. Jack's operates a long-running habituation programme which means that these hilariously solemn creatures pay us no more mind than if we were termite mounds, scurrying officiously over my legs, digging for scorpions and surveying for predators with politely folded paws and intelligent, bristling faces. On our way back we pass Green's Baobab, estimated to be over a thousand years old and once used as a camping ground by explorers, ivory traders, missionaries and hunters travelling along the historic road from Cape Town to Cairo in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its trunk is inscribed with crucifixes and the names of famous travellers - Livingstone, Moffat, Green - a reminder of a time when dominion was the main lure for visitors from foreign lands.
Later I scramble onto the back of the laziest horse in the continent, Kambuku, for an afternoon stroll across the pans. After a good hour of staggering ten feet behind the rest of our party the sun starts to set in a haze of dust kicked up by a herd of cantering zebras, a tangerine in a brown paper bag. We approach a watering hole and gasp as a baby zebra comes into view, stuck up to its middle in mud. Our astonishment deepens as our guide jumps off his horse, rolls up his trousers and proceeds to lever it out, one leg at a time. Following a few nail-biting moments when the zebra trundles after us bleating feebly and I'm convinced Jacob and I are going to break, its mother gallops to the rescue and we watch as they dissolve into the dozens of storybook creatures observing us.
On our final morning we set out for a walk with the San bushmen, a nomadic people originally from the western Kalahari. Their traditional lifestyle is at threat of disappearing, partly because of the total hunting ban and partly because of the rapid encroachment of modernity. I had felt somewhat uneasy about the prospect beforehand, fearing an inauthentic re-enactment closer to exploitative theatre than genuine connection. However, as the tribe lead us through the bush and demonstrate their incredible knowledge of the land, drawing poison from the sap of a tree, plucking medicinal bulbs from the seemingly barren earth and setting a trap for wild birds, it becomes clear that these rituals and remembrances are not enacted for my benefit so much as to preserve them for their descendants and provide a window into a world at risk of being eclipsed. While it's not comfortable to confront the fact that the rapacious pace of technological and social change is inevitably altering this community, I get the sense that, as with Botswana's attitude to wildlife, the impulse is to protect and preserve what remains for future generations.
So much of what I've experienced here speaks to the same urge to bear witness to this utterly foreign, ineffable part of the world, which nonetheless stirs some sense of recognition in all those who pass through. My earlier cynicism seems to somewhat miss the point - the romance was never an empty flirtation born of cinematic clichés, but instead a deep-rooted emotion that emerges from these abundant landscapes, these fairy-tale animals, these sunsets that roar across the sky. It's a different, more prehistoric kind of nostalgia that predates paisley print - one that I could only understand by being here. Let me end with a confession: I was wrong.