Wildest Dreams: Travelling Beyond Safari Clichés in Botswana

Wildest Dreams: Travelling Beyond Safari Clichés in Botswana

This article appears in Volume 26:
The Nostalgia Issue

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



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 4×4, 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

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

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.


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

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

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

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