The name Great Plains Conservation is synonymous with ultra-luxurious safari camps in the most incredible locations in Africa. Adding the most exquisite stay with every creature comfort imaginable taken care of, this really is the best way to savor what the continent has to offer.
Botswana is a striking landlocked country in Southern Africa, and a magnet for all things safari. Having visited on two previous occasions, I can hardly contain my glee when an invitation by the extraordinary Charlotte Rous Communications enlightens me that my visit to not one, but three different Great Plains Conservation camps have been confirmed. Anticipation doesn’t even begin to describe my feelings as a trip of this significance is in short, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Zarafa Camp overlooks a permanent lagoon on the extensive Selinda Reserve. Photo courtesy of Great Plains Conservation
Heading up north to the Selinda Reserve
My first stop is Zarafa Camp in the Selinda Reserve, set amongst Mopani woodland and towering palm trees. Hailed to be one of the finest camps in Botswana, in true Great Plains style it overlooks a permanent lagoon on the extensive Selinda Reserve. “Zarafa Camp,” says Dereck Joubert, CEO of Great Plains Conservation, “is a beautiful sweeping design we had a little fun with and epitomizes the romantic Botswana safari many seek. The décor is handmade in a colonial style, all from reclaimed wood, and this is the first camp where we added our iconic copper baths to the suite’s bathrooms.”
A drive from the Selinda airstrip to camp brings with it some great animal sightings: guides Joseph and Obie point out red lechwe in the swamps and warthogs foraging for food. I am welcomed by camp managers Jamie and Ruby, who ushered me to a delicious lunch of deconstructed beef burger with monkeygland sauce and parmesan fries, perfectly prepared by Executive Chef Wijan and served by waitrons Game and Wilfred.
Going out on a game drive to the eastern side of the sizeable Selinda Reserve, which comprises 790,000 acres, I spot a Blue-cheeked Bee-Eater for the first time as a large breeding herd of elephants makes their way into the lush greenery. Fellow guests regale tales of the day with pre-dinner drinks around the fire, after which dinner is served. Wijan has gone all out with an aperitif of caramelized onion & camembert cheese tart, followed by a main course of beef fillet with fries, vegetables, and butter with mustard. For dessert, the delicious fried chocolate with berry panna cotta and chocolate ice cream is simply sublime.
My suite is magnificent, with a mix of old-world charm and modern amenities. The doors to the suite and the bathroom are eye-catching, forming a wonderful departure from the traditional safari look. On our morning game drive, the little ones are out in full force – a baby python, a baby crocodile, and a marsh terrapin. An amazing find is the coalition of six male lions, affectionately referred to as The Army Boys.
Next up is Selinda Camp, situated on the Selinda Spillway and my chosen mode of transport between the two camps is by boat, with skipper Master at the steer. Before boarding the boat, guide Reuben collects me at the airstrip and a veritable game drive paves the way to my smooth lagoon transfer. There is so much to see en route to the lodge from a boating perspective – water lilies, African Jacanas, hippos, and a herd of elephants crossing the water in swimming mode.
At the jetty, general managers Michael and Anica, and manager MD wave us in. This is not your average arrival – gliding across the water to this well-crafted walkway, and looking up, I notice the entrance to Selinda and the pristine craftsmanship. “Selinda is a handmade camp in many ways,” explains Dereck Joubert. “Molded around the trees, Selinda visualizes five essential elements: Earth, Wind, Water, Fire, and Metal.”
Chef Assistant is ready to whip up something for lunch, with waiters Amon and Kenosi serving my dish of tilapia, tempura zucchini, and chips on a bed of peas. After a respite in my comfortable suite, Reuben heads out to the north-western side of the reserve, where leadwood forests take center stage. Impalas are enjoying the fresh plant leaves and moody clouds serve as the backdrop for a few elegant giraffes passing in the distance. We also find a side-striped jackal and The Army Boys lion pride causing havoc with two female lionesses, chasing them out of the area.
Dinner is served alongside the fire, and the chef has concocted a starter of new style eggs, Benedict, with spring onions, hollandaise sauce, and quail eggs, followed by the main course of beef fillet and brisket, and concluded with rice pudding, poached pears, and caramelized chai ice cream. We are going north to see what we can find and are not disappointed when we happen upon a lioness with six adorable cubs, three being her own and the other three belonging to her sister. Short legs are trying to keep up with her and one of the cubs keeps falling behind, and he’s sure to make his displeasure known, albeit very vocally!
The Jewel of the Okavango Delta
In the heart of the Okavango Delta, Duba Plains takes pride in place amongst palm-dotted islands, floodplains, and woodland. Flying in with Mack Air and looking out the window, the landscape below resembles snaking arteries that form the lifeblood of the Delta. Keen eyes might spot watering holes from the sky, where elephants delight in a muddy splashdown to cool their bodies.
I’m collected at Omdop airstrip by my guide Gee, and after a quick 3-minute transfer to the arrival area at Duba Plains, I relish the cleansing handwashing ritual that is presented at each Great Plains camp after every outing. General managers Justin and Vero give me a tour of the large communal area when I notice some of Beverly Joubert’s must-have fine art photography adorning the walls. Out on the deck, my table has been set for lunch with wraparound views of the marshlands. Food and beverage manager Prem enquires what my cuisine preferences and dislikes are, and chef Raymond immediately goes to work to craft the perfect gourmet beef burger with fries, served by waiter Evans.
Vero shows me to my opulent suite, decorated in shades of cream, burgundy, and wooden finishes. A nod to the classic African style of the 1920s, all rooms are raised on recycled railway sleeper decking. The spacious suite contains a lounge area, a dreamy bedroom, a large bathroom with double vanities, an inside and outside shower, a flush loo, and a signature Great Plains copper bath. Outside on your private verandah, there is a pool and a shaded sala. A superb modern amenity is an environmentally friendly air-conditioner, with heating or cooling, forming a cozy cocoon at night when the mosquito net is closed.
Meeting in the main area for our first game drive after a scrumptious High Tea, Gee is excited to announce that we can start off at the airstrip. He can probably sense my confusion when he clarifies – “there are three opportunistic lionesses trying to catch themselves an afternoon snack of warthogs.” The warthogs escape unscathed, and we make our way over the long wooden bridge onto the plains. We pass by kudu, red lechwe, then suddenly stumble upon the most phenomenal sighting of a lioness and her two young cubs playing in the middle of the path. These boisterous siblings have boundless energy, pouncing on one another until mom exclaims that she’s had enough. She gets up and effortlessly scales a flat brush to use it as a vantage point, leaving the cubs on the ground. This is intolerable to them, and with lots of noise and loads of effort, they both manage to clamber up the tree, where one unceremoniously falls, fortunately landing on his feet.
Back at Duba Plains, I decide to go straight to dinner as the chef let it slip that tonight, there is brisket on the menu. Plated to perfection, the tender brisket is accompanied by vegetables, and potatoes and served by waiter Edwin. After a good night’s sleep, the sunrise over the Delta is a sight to behold as Gee and I set out on our morning game drive. Two lionesses are out in the open on the grasslands, clearly in hunting mode, but the alarm calls of red lechwes put a stop to any catch they might have made. I opt for breakfast at the lodge and enjoy the afternoon at leisure in my impressive suite.
Following lunch and a siesta, Gee informs me that today, he will focus on finding the most elusive of them all, a leopard, no small feat I might add. As we leave the lodge, he instructs me to get my camera ready. Not one to argue when it comes to wildlife photography, I carefully attach my new Sigma 150-600mm contemporary zoom lens to my Canon 5D Mark III camera body. I can feel the Toyota Land Cruiser 4×4 slowing down and then the vehicle stops. I glance upwards and emotion washes over me. Right in front of us, is the most stunning rosetted species I have ever seen – a gorgeous leopard cub of only four months old. He looks forlorn, and according to the guides, has been separated from his mother for more than a week. His sister, who kept him company, has also not been seen for a few days. We sit quietly and watch this hopeless scene with the lovely Soowal family from New Jersey, and for the rest of our stay, we are all deeply distressed about this poor baby.
All our attention has shifted to this lonely cub and time after time, we see if we can catch a glimpse of him. Gee and I find him one evening, hidden in the long grass. Through his binoculars, Gee just makes out the top of his ears. He eventually repositions and now only can I see his soulful eyes. Gee and I sit in quiet wonderment for about an hour, when the cub decides to climb up the base and use the tree stump as a lookout point. We leave him as the sun starts to set, hoping he will stay safe from predators. Back in South Africa, the heartwarming news reaches me that the mom and sister have returned, and are reunited with the cub. What a marvelous conclusion to an unforgettable stay at Great Plains, reconnecting people and nature.
*** Views expressed are the author’s own.