Four boys go hunting for birds in the Okavango Delta. Their traps full, the 12-year-old cousins are walking home with their dinner when they spy a kettle of vultures circling ahead. For reasons they still can't explain, instead of steering clear, they walk towards them, curious, forgetting there's only one thing guaranteed to attract vultures.
The boys interrupt a pride of lions ripping apart a freshly felled buffalo. Almost too late, they recall a lesson their fathers taught them: don't run, stay still, stay silent. Stare down the lion.
The boys freeze. The lions circle. Predators and prey stay this way for hours, the boys never breaking eye contact - until the big cats scatter as a grass fire sweeps through, lit by a father who comes searching for his boys, who sees the same vultures circling and assumes the worst. "He rescued us and took us home, and to this day we've never forgotten what our fathers taught us."
The firepit at Sanctuary Stanley's Camp.
Kebonye Ramorusi, known to everyone as Ice, tells his story over a fireside dinner at Sanctuary Stanley's Camp deep in the delta. The dense night presses in around us, full of alarming noises and long shadows. We listen, saucer-eyed, in fear and fascination. Like most of the staff here, our guide grew up in one of the six villages within a 105,000-hectare private concession called NG32 on which the camp is located. On safari in the delta, I want to follow the man who has stared down a lion.
Ice was born the day Botswana gained its independence from Britain. In September last year the little landlocked republic of two million people celebrated 50 years of peaceful democracy. Surrounded by troubled neighbours - Zimbabwe, Namibia, South Africa and Angola - Botswana has long been regarded by the international community as "the African miracle". Its rare political stability and spectacular economic growth were fuelled by the discovery of the world's largest diamond reserves - fortuitously, soon after the British relinquished their protectorate, then named Bechuanaland - and overseen by Seretse Khama, a benign and beneficent president. Ice's passage from a tribal childhood to highly respected safari guide is emblematic of his nation's story.
A guest cottage at Chobe Chilwero.
Botswana is miraculous for other reasons, too. In a region notorious for trophy hunting and rampant poaching of elephants and rhino, the nation has an uncompromising shoot-to-kill policy towards poachers, and hunting of any kind is banned on public land. A third of Africa's elephants have disappeared in the past seven years, according to the findings of the Great Elephant Census released in August last year, and increasingly the remainder is seeking refuge in Botswana: 130,451 of them at last count - the biggest population of elephants in Africa.
We've come to see them, and the many other miracles of Botswana, at a trio of lodges and tented camps in the nation's north run by Sanctuary Retreats, an affiliate of the global Abercrombie & Kent travel group. Though each location and camp style is unique, the welcome at Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero lodge, our first stop, sets the pattern. A choir of staff with lovely, seldom-heard names - Ishmael, Finneas, Florence - gather for our arrival and throw their hearts into a song in melodious Setswana, while a cup of bush tea and just-baked scones wait for us. Past a pair of warthogs grazing on the front lawn, along a path scattered with basketball-sized dung heaps and the delicately veined footprints of elephants (as big as serving platters) are 15 cottages. Each has all the comforts of home plus an outdoor shower, a hammock in a courtyard at the back, and a front veranda with views across a floodplain to the mighty Chobe River, broad and brown and teeming, I imagine, with hippos and crocodiles.
Elephants at Chobe River.
Sure enough, there are floats of hippo and plenty of lantern-jawed Nile crocodiles glowering on muddy banks when we take a boat out on the Chobe late each afternoon. We sidle towards a male hippo the size of a minibus as it slides from one stinking puddle to another; our approach elicits a full 180-degree yawn, shocking in its candy-pinkness and unmistakable aggression. We move on.
Birdlife throngs in the dying day: Egyptian geese and helmeted guinea fowl, storks and spurfowl, darters and doves. Fish eagles wheel overhead, crying like babies. We glide past scimitar-horned waterbucks and a 50-strong troop of baboons, momentarily becalmed by their communal delousing exercise.
But this is Africa's Elephant Central - authorities estimate about 80,000 of the nation's 130,000 elephants live here in Chobe National Park - and they steal the show. Families shower together on the banks; the ladies - bags and wrinkles deepening in the twilight - hose each other companionably while their youngsters mock-charge and squirt each other, then roll awkwardly in the mud. Across the main channel on marshy Sedudu Island are huddles of mainly male elephants, methodically salad-spinning their dinner. We edge close to a dozen of them, ankle-deep, trunks grasping and uprooting reeds, rhythmically threshing in a scything motion to dislodge mud and insects, then popping the thatches in their mouths. Watching this mealtime routine at close quarters - close enough to cop a misting of mud, close enough to smell an elephant's herbaceous fart - is both thrilling and meditative.
Poolside at Chobe Chilwero.
It's this mix of exhilaration and intense focus that makes safaris so addictive, and there are twice-daily excursions on river and land at Chobe Chilwero. We head out at sunrise one day on a drive with Chika Kachana, a Chobe guide for 16 years; he shows us the dusty graves of his grandparents in the national park. The early birds are everywhere - flycatchers and francolins, herons and hornbills - and we're discussing the messy feeding habits of the open-bill stork when Chika stops the truck, peers down at a glossy black deposit by the track and announces, "Lion, close."
In the course of the next couple of hours, he tracks a pride back and forth across the park, finding signs of their erratic passage where we can see only sand and scrub. Instead, we're entranced by the persistence of a handsome cappuccino-coloured male impala who chases a wily female repeatedly around a rocky circuit - I'm not sure who to cheer when she evades him on the fifth pass. We feel the pathos in the lowing of a buffalo to her lame, exhausted calf - its limp grows worse as we watch, the distance growing between them. The ride is so packed with distractions we're no longer focused on the big cats when we finally find them: four silent assassins downwind from a waterhole full of elephants and sable antelope.
Aerial view of the Okavango Delta.
The 90-minute flight south-west from Chobe Chilwero to one of its sister retreat, Sanctuary Stanley's Camp - which takes place in a noisy single-prop plane not much bigger than an elephant - is one of the most thrilling of my life, for it's only from this vantage that the complexity, the improbable wonder of this vast delta surrounded by desert can be grasped.
From Chobe, we rise over dry stubbled plains pocked by grey soaks and bisected by a few deadstraight roads that stretch forever. Gradually, the plains become freckled by glittering ponds, then dark ribbons of water appear, winding intestinally around clots of land crowned by palms and termite hills. The ponds become lagoons and the islets multiply and become thousands of islands, and that's when we really know we're in the Okavango Delta.
For a month every summer, the Okavango River surges with rain from the Angola highlands and then spreads dramatically for the next four months across the delta, some 15,000 square kilometres of country in flux. The flood peaks between June and August, by which time the delta has swollen to triple its typical size and attracted one of the biggest and most diverse concentrations of wildlife on the planet. From this low altitude, we can clearly see animal tracks spread like capillaries across the landscape. And we see the animals, too: half-submerged hippos in green swamps, elephants walking trunk to tail, buffalo milling in dark herds.
The firepit at Sanctuary Chief's Camp.
We touch down on a little dirt airstrip and climb into an open-sided Land Cruiser for an airport transfer to top them all - in deep sand and around termite hills, through chattering thickets teeming with birds and baboons, and around a corner suddenly filled by the enormous flapping ears of a bull elephant. Before long we're fording lagoons the colour of bush tea. "Feet up!" cries TT our driver-guide, as the truck dives bonnet-deep and a wave sloshes under our seats.
It's a perfect introduction to the everyday adventures at Stanley's Camp, just eight stylish tents and a communal dining-lounge pavilion, unfenced, on the shore of a huge lagoon bordering Moremi Game Reserve. Most of the staff here and at the even smaller Sanctuary Baines' Camp nearby come from the villages within the concession, and these communities benefit from the camps' lease fees and best-practice land and wildlife management. There are no other camps on this concession, so it's exceedingly rare to come across any vehicles on game drives, and there's complete solitude during walks in the bush or mokoro excursions on water.
Sundowners by a lagoon.
We head out at dawn in fibreglass canoes that resemble the mokoros traditionally hollowed out by hand from tree trunks. Using long poles called ngashi, Manpower Tsile, a third-generation poler, and Sam Mephatoetsile, who learnt the skill from his father, propel their mokoros along "hippo highways", shallow channels cleared by the creatures. A whiff of mist sits above the reeds, gilded by the morning light, and we glide silently, slowly, the languid pace of a dream. A pair of Egyptian geese take flight in unison; "go away!" cries an aptly named grey go-away bird nearby. In the distance a herd of red lechwe scatters, the antelope prancing easily through knee-deep water. It's so quiet that we hear the thunder of stampeding buffalo, a herd of 500 or more, long before we see the clouds of dust they stir up on a distant island.
Mercifully, on a bushwalk next morning, we encounter no buffalo (they're virtually guaranteed to charge) and the only sign of a hippo (also murderous when surprised) is a bleached skull, gnawed around the eyes by hyenas, the two killer bottom teeth as long as an outstretched hand. A walk in the wild is not for the faint-hearted, and Ice hoists a gun over his shoulder and drills us all carefully on emergency procedure. I stick close behind him, recalling his story about the boys and the lions, and soon he's spotting a porcupine quill here, hyena tracks there, and his stories of medicinal miracles found in the bush and crazy-critter encounters flow like the delta in flood.
Sam and Manpower in mokoros.
The appearance of wild sage bushes triggers another of Ice's incredible childhood stories - about the night he was forced to shelter from a storm in an aardvark hole, and rubbed sage leaves on his body to mask his scent from predators, a common practice among traditional hunters. (The story gets better: the sage branches that the boy pulled over the hole's entrance for protection appealed to a passing lion, which spent the night sleeping above him on the cushiony shrubbery. The boy was scared witless but survived to tell the tale.)
Not all encounters with wildlife are random. In its portfolio of philanthropic projects focused on environmental and community sustainability, Sanctuary Retreats works with the Living with Elephants Foundation, which offers guests at Stanley's and Baines' camps a walk in the bush with three orphaned African elephants. For the past 28 years, Doug and Sandi Groves have lived with Morula, Jabu, and Thembi, heading into the delta with them every day to forage and roam, and walking home with them at night. As ambassadors for a species under threat throughout Africa, the elephants are irresistible and the Groves are articulate advocates for harmony between humans and elephants. Part of their work is an educational outreach project for children from local delta villages - many have grown up fearing or resenting elephants - who spend a couple of days with the Groves and their charges. As we walk hand-in-trunk with the elephants - deceptively quickly, though they look like they're dawdling - the Groves deliver an encyclopaedic overview of the habits and social life of the African savannah elephant. The most fascinating insight, though, comes from watching this unlikely mixed herd of five, as idiosyncratic as any more conventional family.
The Geoffrey Kent Suite at Chief's Camp.
A few days later, we spot the results of another of Sanctuary's conservation projects in the delta. We've flown from Stanley's Camp to Chief's Island, the biggest in the Okavango: 70 kilometres long and 15 kilometres wide, a refuge for huge numbers of creatures during the floods and regarded as one of the best wildlife-viewing locations in Africa. On our first game drive from Sanctuary Chief's Camp, we spot three white rhinos - frisky and healthy (and coloured grey rather than white, by the way). Their existence is another of the nation's miracles. By 1992, fewer than 19 white rhinos survived in the wild in Botswana and the black rhino was declared "locally extinct", prompting the government to take the drastic measure of relocating all surviving rhinos to fenced reserves.
In 2001, in a complex project involving government authorities, the defence force and private bodies, four white rhinos were released in Moremi Game Reserve within the delta, chosen for its lush pastures and relative inaccessibility to poachers; black rhinos were released two years later. Sanctuary Retreats joined the project in 2015, enabling the introduction of another handful of black rhinos. The results of 15 years of painstaking management and vigilance graze in front of us now, part of a healthy breeding population of white rhinos and a viable number of black rhinos in the delta.
The central pavilion at Chief's Camp.
Chief's Camp hugs the shore of a pristine lagoon filled with reeds and lilies, an oasis within this vast oasis. Rebuilt last year, it's the company's flagship property with luxuries hard to imagine on safari: a spa, a lagoon-facing pool, children's activity cottage, a gym (which makes sense, given no one can venture outside to run among predators), and cool communal pavilions styled with tribal jewellery, river-stone room dividers, beaded chandeliers and clusters of leather sofas, cowhide benches and deck-side rattan lounges.
Ten apartment-sized guest pavilions have walls lined with canvas, though they're not in the least tent-like, with indoor and outdoor living and dining areas beneath high thatched ceilings, indoor and outdoor showers, deep freestanding bathtubs, coffee machines, and even private plunge pools. Delta décor involves kindling sconces, finely woven baskets and vintage campaign trunks. At the top of the food chain is the Geoffrey Kent Suite, named after the safari pioneer and founder of Abercrombie & Kent: 620 square metres of pavilions and decks accommodating up to six, with a chef, waiter, housekeeper, wildlife guide and vehicle on call.
Chobe River, near Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero lodge.
The camp is unfenced, which means it's occasionally necessary to pursue an alternative route from the dining pavilion to my suite to avoid an elephant, say, or a rabble of baboons. (At night, all guests heading to dinner must summon a staff escort by walkie-talkie.) At midnight, from behind glass doors, I watch a genet - resembling an oversized pet cat - creep onto my deck and lap from the pool, the tip of its long bushy tail twitching.
But the real, raw action happens on twice-daily drives in Moremi Game Reserve. Binoculars aloft, eco-checklists poised, we never fail to encounter an astonishing range of wildlife: there's the Big Five, the Little Five, and scores of creatures in between. In 90 minutes one morning we see, in the following order: a pair of hyenas, a catwalk of giraffes, a battle-scarred lion fast asleep beside the track, and a pack of rare painted dogs minding 13 playful speckled puppies. When Martin, our guide, parks the truck and sets out muffins for morning tea or mixes G&Ts at sunset, we're usually in wide open country where a single, slow head-swivel typically reveals grazing impala and kudu, zig-zag clusters of zebras, a family of elephants, a lagoon full of hippos and cranes, and a herd of buffalo on the move.
Guest pavilion bathroom.
By my last morning at Chief's Camp, the place is fairly bursting with life. It starts before dawn, with a shower of jackalberries followed by the alarming racket of baboons mating on my roof. After breakfast, I step off the main deck into a mokoro with a poler named Derek and we slide across the golden lagoon for the last time. There are birds everywhere: hunting, wading, nesting.
We return to camp as an elephant named Boy, a frequent visitor, wanders onto the scene and goes to step into the mokoro we've just vacated. Will he destroy the canoe? At the last moment, his foot clears the obstacle and he continues towards the pool. When I head to the lobby to check out soon afterwards, Boy is blocking the way, wedged between the boutique and the bar. I wait at a distance while he considers his options and moves on, by which time I'm late for the 40-minute ride to the airstrip.
Plunge pools are at each guest pavilion.
"Please hold on," the driver suggests politely, no time to exchange names, and, rocking and rolling through swamps and along sandy tracks, we make the transfer in record time. The Cessna is a speck in the sky but approaching fast as we speed towards the airstrip but, oh, it's covered with impala, forcing the driver to jump out and shoo them off, while still displaying the unfailing courtesy and grace that are characteristically Botswanan. He's still there, waving to me - or perhaps shooing impala - as the tiny plane rises above the delta.