‘Welcome to paradise!’ Doc, our designated guide, declared as my wife and I arrived at the Mombo safari camp in northern Botswana. We saw little reason to challenge his description.
Our helicopter had scattered baboons and warthogs as we landed. Minutes later, we walked into the camp itself and gasped at its spectacular view of a lush green floodplain teeming with elephants, zebra and buffalo. As we sat on the broad wooden deck, lunching on cold avocado soup, bulgar-wheat salad and pan-fried bream with cherry tomatoes and grilled corn, we watched the elephants languidly approach, trailing egrets, munching grass and spraying themselves with dirt for protection from the sun.
One great bull failed to stop. He lumbered right into the heart of the camp, stepping across the raised board walk that links the main building to the tented suites. The staff seemed unperturbed. The previous day, one told us, a couple of guests had been unable to reach their suite because a spotted hyena was lying across the doorway.
One of the pools at Kings Pool Camp
Thus we were introduced to one of Africa’s oldest and finest safari camps. Staying at Mombo can cost more than $3,000 (£2,100) per person per night. But for that you get the luxury of a camp that has just been rebuilt, modernised and upgraded for the fourth time in its 27-year-history (a temporary camp was opened nearby during the eight-month project). You get private game viewing that is described by Bradt’s Botswana guide as ‘just about the best you’ll find in southern Africa’. The camp sits, moreover, in the heart of the Okavango Delta, a truly astonishing Unesco World Heritage Site.
The delta is a vast, shallow depression at the northern end of the Kalahari desert. It is arid and brown for much of the year, but from December to March the rainy season turns it green. Rain waters from the Angola highlands, some 600 miles to the north, then course down the Cuito and Cubango rivers between April and August, transforming the delta into a magical labyrinth of islands, marshes, lagoons and channels covering roughly 5,800 square miles – an area half the size of Belgium and even flatter. The water has no egress, as the delta is right in the middle of southern Africa, far from any sea. It simply evaporates over the next few months.
Al fresco dinners, complete with wildlife
Reserved for hunting during the British colonial era and protected by Botswana’s government ever since, the delta remains a pristine ecosystem with the clearest light, the freshest air, and an abundance of wildlife, including one of the world’s densest concentrations of elephants.
Only humans are kept at bay. No indigenous peoples live there any more. The government has banned all hunting and cracked down hard on poachers, deploying troops that operate a shoot-to-kill policy.
It has also opted for high-end, low-volume tourism, which means there are just a few, exclusive safari camps scattered across the delta, most accessible only by air. Indeed, Wilderness Safaris, which runs Mombo and several other camps, maintains its own fleet of 14 Cessnas to ferry its guests in and out, the pilots overflying the remote dirt airstrips before landing to check for stray game.
Mombo sits at the northern end of Chief’s Island, the largest expanse of dry land in the delta, and we reached it by helicopter because its airstrip was being renovated – the last stage of the camp’s reconstruction.
Oil lanterns lend a traditional feel to Kings Pool, alongside the luxuries both camps offers CREDIT: DANA ALLEN
The bar, restaurant and lounge are now as chic as any London hotel, their elegant modernity a far cry from the more traditional African safari lodge. A high-tensile membrane fabric has replaced the old thatched roof, but they are still open-fronted, with a sublime view.
As for the nine tented suites, each built on stilts and shaded by jackalberry, mangosteen and sausage trees, they lack for nothing. We were given a five-minute introductory talk simply to explain the lighting, the bar and coffee machines, the three showers, great bronze bath and private plunge pool on the expanded deck.
Our suite was the length of a cricket pitch. The bed was big enough to get lost in – and there was a second swing bed on the deck for afternoon siestas. The floors were oak, the shutters iroko wood, the beams blue gum. The soft furnishings included the finest linen sheets, hand-stitched leather sofas and hand-embroidered cushions. The colour scheme was all browns and greys, copper, brass and gold, with not a primary colour in sight.
An infinity pool at Kings Pool Camp CREDIT: DANA ALLEN
Mombo also offers a brand-new gym, spa and infinity pool, yoga instruction, and helicopter and hot-air balloon trips, as well as gourmet dining – accompanied by choice South African wines – that might compete for a Michelin star were the camp not deep in the bush. Even afternoon tea is a culinary event. Fresh produce is flown in twice a week and prepared by a dozen chefs led by Johan Van Schalkwyk, a South African. The staff are uniformly charming.
So seductive is the luxury that we left for a game drive late that first afternoon with a slight feeling of regret that we could not stay and wallow in it. But this feeling swiftly evaporated as Doc drove us through plains and woodland punctuated with towering termite mounds and teeming with impala, lechwe and kudu. These antelope are attracted by the lush grass, and they in turn attract the predators. Soon we were sitting beneath a fever berry tree, our binoculars trained on a majestic female leopard that was dozing on a bough, paws and tail dangling, occasionally shifting position or lifting her head to gaze at us with mild disdain.
The following morning’s game drive was even better. After a night disturbed only by the snorts and grunts of assorted wildlife beneath and around our suite, we rose at 5am and were off within 30 minutes, armed with coffee, fruit and freshly baked muffins.
Cessnas transport visitors into and out of the area CREDIT: MIKE MYERS
An hour later, Doc stopped the jeep so we could watch the rising sun turn the horizon from a fiery red to molten gold behind a distant line of palm trees. The air was scented with wild sage. The dawn chorus rang out around us. The great grey hulks of elephants appeared to hover above the low layer of white mist covering the land. Herds of zebra and impala clustered together for protection from predators. A jackal slunk through the tall grass in front of us. ‘It’s heaven,’ said Doc, and again we concurred.
We found our first pride of lions on a floodplain called Boro. We watched from barely 20 yards as one of the two adult males ate an impala, crunching the bones with his powerful jaws to extract the marrow while the other male – having failed to make the kill – stayed away.
Three lionesses and six cubs looked on, waiting for him to finish so they could devour what was left. The cubs played and mewled, and when one ventured too close the lion growled to drive him away. ‘Watch,’ said Doc. ‘When the lion has finished he’ll go and rub heads with the other male to make up.’ That is exactly what he did.
The camp’s location is considered one of the best areas for wildlife in southern Africa
We left the pair lying side by side, sleeping on the grass, and drove to the far side of the plain because we had seen, in the distance, a herd of lechwe running from some invisible predator. There we found four African wild dogs, an endangered species, ripping apart one of the young antelopes. Again, we had a close-up view as those splendidly coloured animals ate everything – bones, fur, hooves – leaving scarcely a scrap for the flock of vultures waiting expectantly nearby. They then drank deeply from a nearby pool, and sloped away with blood-smeared snouts.
Over the next two days, we enjoyed an amazing variety of wildlife, much of which simply ignored our presence; having never been hunted, the animals had not learned to fear humans. We spotted all manner of rare and exotic birds – eagles, cranes, bustards, woodpeckers, storks, bee-eaters, geese, orioles, shrikes, kingfishers, hornbills. It being the rainy season, we watched electric storms of elemental intensity crackling on the horizon in the late afternoons, and distant columns of rain so dense that they seemed almost solid dropping from dramatically black skies.
All these marvels we had virtually to ourselves because the government limits Mombo to a maximum of 24 guests at any one time, and the next camp is a three-hour drive away. There is no jostling of tourist-laden jeeps around lone cheetahs here.
Up close and personal with a lioness on a game drive in Mombo Camp
The only one of the so-called ‘big five’ mammals that we did not see were rhinos, but it is to Wilderness Safaris’ credit that we had even a chance of spotting an animal that had been hunted to the point of extinction in Botswana by the early 1990s. Since 2001, the company, working with the government, has reintroduced several dozen rhinos, black and white, to Chief’s Island from Zimbabwe and South Africa. They have thrived, making Botswana one of just six African countries with viable populations of that highly endangered species. But the company does not highlight them, or search them out, for fear of attracting poachers or detracting from the other wildlife.
Like many of its rivals, Wilderness Safaris takes great pride in its ecological credentials. Mombo, for instance, is now 100 per cent solar-powered. It has eschewed air conditioning in favour of natural ventilation. Over a dinner of wild mushroom lasagne and grilled beef fillet with red wine jus and carrot purée, Matt McCreedy and Robyn Dreyer, the charming young South African couple who manage the camp, told us how they had banned cling film, strongly discouraged the use of bottled water and non-recyclable Nespresso pods, and truck all non-organic waste to the town of Maun, a good eight hours away on a rutted dirt track.
They are also fighting a rearguard action against offering internet access, believing it prevents guests from fully immersing themselves in the natural world. ‘Disconnect to reconnect’ is the company’s motto.
Visitors are taken out on the delta in a mokoro – a pole-propelled dug-out canoe
We loved Mombo, but even paradise has a few shortcomings. As Chief’s Island sits within the Moremi game reserve, it is subject to restrictions. It is only allowed seven jeeps, meaning that even its ultra-rich guests may sometimes have to share vehicles on game drives. And it cannot offer night drives, walking safaris or water activities, although it has just acquired a licence for a single boat.
A common solution is to stay at a couple of other camps as well. We flew to Mombo from Kings Pool, another delightful camp, which looks across reed banks and an oxbow-shaped lake off the lovely Linyanti river to Namibia. There we walked through the bush with an armed guide one morning, watched hippos and an elephant crossing the river during an evening cruise, and were serenaded by the 40-odd staff before dinner with exuberant African songs and dances.
From Mombo, a short flight took us to Jao Camp, which boasts a remarkable Robinson Crusoe-style wood-and-thatch longhouse standing high in the trees overlooking another great floodplain. There we explored the reed and papyrus marshes in a pole-propelled dug-out canoe called a mokoro. We were a little early, though; Jao comes into its own when the delta is in full flood and ringed by an aquatic wonderland.
In truth, many camps in Botswana offer guests luxury and prolific wildlife in magnificent scenery. But none is quite as regal, perhaps, as Mombo, Queen of the Okavango Delta.
Africa Odyssey offers a six-night Botswana trip with Wilderness Safaris from £8,200 per person, including two nights at Jao Camp, two nights at Mombo Camp, and two nights at Kings Pool Camp, o n an all-inclusive basis, with twice-daily activities, internal flights, and return international flights from London Heathrow to Maun. To book, visit africaodyssey.com or wilderness-safaris.com.