I dreamed of Africa, never dreaming that I would discover its thrilling wildlife among lush greenery and watery byways instead of an arid plain. And I dreaded the thought of roughing it in a Boy Scout-style tent.
But when I visited Botswana, where I lodged at two game camps, it blew my mind. All my stereotypes were shattered when I arrived at the Okavango Delta, a flood plain located within the Kalahari Desert, where I stayed at the luxurious 14-tent game camp Vumbura Plains. The only visible canvas was the exterior roll-up shades over three sides of my elegant accommodations. They were never rolled down, not wanting to obstruct the view of the life-holding savanna ? lush, green plains and water-filled streams ? through the heavy-duty screens.
They call this a tent? The thatch-roofed room featured a king-size bed surrounded by romantic mosquito netting forming a cozy cocoon, a sunken L-shaped sofa and a 7-by-7-foot shower, among other furnishings. It was gorgeously contemporary (not Colonial like many other game camps), so it didn?t compete with nature. Amid all this glamour, the eco-friendly environment has no air conditioning, TV or phones. I didn?t see droves of animals, but many unusual types, and I always felt safe.
Twice-daily game drives in a Land Rover ? a topless, three-row vehicle ? immediately revealed spectacular wildlife. I learned to tell the difference between a magnificent 10-year-old cheetah? ? and a leopard, which calmly walked up to within 12 feet of our group. (We learned that leopards don?t have tear markings on their faces but cheetahs do.) We could practically count his spots. We spotted wildly colored red and purple lilac-breasted roller birds, came close to a feasting lion, saw sable antelopes, many leaping impala and vervet monkeys ? all on the first morning.
We noted a troop of baboons, one bossy male sitting on a branch. Our knowledgeable guide, Ras Munduu, called him the branch manager. A spotter, perched on a seat upfront, and the driver scanned for paw prints and dung to see what had been in the area.
At an elegant dinner served to the guests, I met Monique and Gerard Taleb of Madrid, Spain. They?ve visited the lodge several times. Monique said, ?Even if visitors might not see as much game as elsewhere, it?s unbelievably safe here.?
Another morning, I indulged in a boat trip on the Delta?s Mokoro Channel. The 10-foot-long boat called a mokoro is made of Fiberglas. The native version of the dugout canoes were originally made of ebony trees but were replaced every few years. My poler swished through the tranquil swamp, where I spotted high water ferns and then a diminutive world where one-inch painted reed frogs hung on to a single blade of machantan grass and tiny fringed white water shield flowers stood out from the water in delicate feathery perfection. Down another channel towering stands of papyrus rose about us.
The afternoon drive revealed more game plus three endangered wattled cranes, those large black-gray-white birds with red on their faces. The world?s largest concentration of the birds? occurs in the Okavango Delta. We also saw crocodile and an enormous baobob tree, about 600 years old. Then, heading for sundowners, a traditional stop where the guide pulls out a table, tablecloth and drinks with elegant hors d?oeuvres, we passed an awesome sight: As the huge orange orb that was the sun slowly sank beneath the horizon, a group of nine southern giraffes, including two babies, loped across in front of it, forming a perfect train.
I also lodged at a more affordable game park here, the Chobe Marina Lodge, which resembled a two-story motel sitting on the Chobe River. Although far less exciting in decor, families often find that the game activities provide lots of excitement. The eateries, at the river?s edge, were more casual.
A pontoon boat ride on the Chobe River featured amazing birds (Chobe boasts 420 bird species): African dartars, their wings spread out to dry in the sun; the white-fronted bee-eater, the white being on its forehead, with a red chin, tan chest and green wings; a huge African fish-eagle, its white head recalling the American bald eagle; guinea fowl, like a fat chicken; wattled plover standing on its yellow legs; Swainson?s Francolin; and red cormorants.
We learned that there are 65,000 elephants in Chobe. Then we spotted a herd of five bathing at the river?s edge; a mother bellowed, trying to push a stubborn calf into the water to wash, but he wouldn?t budge. A larger female, probably a grandmother, plodded over and wrapped her trunk around the infant.
A game drive revealed buffalo and giraffe, along with the rare ruku, which is like a large impala but only seen here. Also spotted were a banded mongoose and a lion gorging on her kill. Of course, large herds of impala were sailing gracefully in the air.
If You Go
Rates. Daily per person, double occupancy for 2008 during the high season, July to October, before the rainy season.
Stays. Usually arranged with packages from other resorts. All boast private bathroom facilities. All include meals and drinks, except premium labels, daily laundry and two activities per day, such as game drives and boat rides, except as noted.
Vumbura Plains. 14 deluxe tents, $1,335.
Chobe Marina Lodge. Two-story building, 66 rooms, air-conditioned, with TVs, refrigerators, phones, microwave ovens, coffee makers and safes. Rates until April 30, 2008, are $300; children 2 to 12, $90. Visit www.threecities.co.za.
For tourism information.
Airlines. South African Airways flies from JFK in New York and Dulles International in Washington, D.C., to Johannesburg, South Africa, stopping at Dakar, Senegal. Visit www.flysaa.com or call 800-722-1005.