Wilderness, reserves, and national parks
When it comes to the quintessential off-the-beaten-track safari, Botswana is the business. A country one third the size of South Africa, it has one of the highest conservation land ratios on the continent with twenty-five percent of untrammelled wilderness set aside for reserves and national parks. There is space for days and a sense of having it all to yourself, precisely what crowd-phobic travellers crave.
The perfect nothing
When the late explorer and crocodile hunter Jack Bousfield asked what lay in the Makgadikgadi of Botswana, he was told ‘nothing-only idiots go there.’ “Fine,” he said, drawn to its mystery, “that’s the place for me.” Located beneath Chobe in the North East part of the Kalahari Basin, the Makgadikgadi spans more than 30,000sq kilometres and comprises vast grass plains, baobab forests and the Sua, Nxai and Ntwetwe saltpan complexes, believed to be the remnant of a prehistoric superlake. The bleached flatlands shimmer by day and morph into a silvery moonscape by night and possess an ancient aura that invariably sends a hush over first time visitors.
For most of the year the land lies parched and crusty, seemingly devoid of life but as the seasonal rains fall between November and March the pans fill with water and the transformation is sensational. The ephemeral wetland becomes a haven for a multitude of migratory birds like the Greater and Lesser Flamingo and countless desert- adapted creatures, including thirty thousand zebra and wildebeest that traipse great distances to graze on the nutritious, mineral-rich vegetation. After the Serengeti, this is the planets second largest terrestrial migration and it is a magnificent sight to behold.
One of the best places to gaze on the gaming glory is at Meno a Kwena, ninety minutes from Maun by off-road vehicle. Made famous by HRH Prince Harry who whisked Meghan Markle there on their pivotal third date, the tented camp on the western edge of the Makgadikgadi Park epitomises the perfect disconnect. With a strong commitment to ethical tourism, sustainability, community and conservation, the focus at Meno is on immersion in nature and the offering does not disappoint.
Perched on the edge of a cliff with a panoramic outlook across the park biome and the curve of the Boteti River, the explorer base-turned-safari camp is privy to year-round game viewing. Aside from the migrating herds, a number of species including wild dog, the black maned lion, leopard, antelope and jackal move through the area but the star of show is the elephant. They are a continuous presence along the river, gathering daily to churn up mud pools, fling dust and slosh about in the shallows. Being able to observe them in such close proximity without tourist interference is a privilege – a bucket list experience guaranteed to make even the most seasoned safari types come undone.
Botswana’s elephant population is estimated at approximately 131 000 individuals. Decades of tough anti-poaching laws, eco policies and partnerships with the private sector have had a positive effect on wildlife, especially elephants, that until recently mainly occurred in Chobe, Moremi and the Okavango Delta until the returning Boteti waters brought them south to the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. According to conservationist Dr Jennifer Lalley from Natural Selection, new breeding herds have been identified and semi-resident bachelor groups are opting to stay in the National Park beyond the dry season.
The camp itself has a rustic atmosphere, complete with a ‘Flintstonesque’ dipping pool on the cliff edge that provides the perfect wildlife surveillance spot. There are nine canvas lodgings, fully equipped and tastefully decorated with campaign furniture, African art, books and vintage memorabilia and the emphasis is on attention to detail, top notch service and understated sophistication rather than the sort of elegancy one might expect from a property clearly favoured by Royals. The camp is run on solar power and internet access is sketchy at best and no-one cares. The rare luxury here is digital downtime and Meno a Kwena presents a chance to redirect your eyes and lose yourself in the unmarred, raw beauty of the Makgadikgadi.
Temperatures can peak at fourty-five degrees in the summer months and so camp activities are generally scheduled for the early morning or late afternoon. A walk with a group of San elders accompanied by a Khoe translator sheds light on survival techniques and the ancient ways of Southern Africa’s first nation, the Kalahari Bushmen.
From fire-making to scorpion hunting and traditional dancing it’s an enriching and insightful outing. Lodge guides with navigation skillsets that are second to none host game drives, sleep-outs in the Park and boat rides downriver where giraffe peer shyly through the riverine thickets along the sand banks. For twitchers and anyone moved by the stirring sight and sounds of wild birds, there are fish eagles, pearl spotted owls, kingfishers, herons, darters, and the most magnificent of them all, the iridescent lilac-breasted roller, the national bird of Botswana. For those reluctant to leave the luxurious seclusion of their private verandahs, the ‘armchair safari’ is a deeply satisfying alternative to the traditional outings and a classic way to observe the animal parade below.
Poolside sundowners precede the electrifying sunsets that are synonymous with Africa. Darkness brings a magic of its own with star spangled skies and the nocturnal soundtracks that define the African bush and impact to the core. Day or night, every minute in the bush is laden with emotion and indelibly imprinted on your soul.
The Makgadikgadi is an apex travel experience. As Karen Blixen said, “If there were one more thing I could do, it would be to go on safari once again.” The world’s great wildernesses are dwindling and now is the time to go. The Makgadikgadi is beckoning.
I was hosted on this trip by Natural Selection. Visit for details about various packages and safari options: www.naturalselection.travel