When I found out I was heading on an African safari holiday, I’d expected to see huge, open plains and luscious greenery enclosing picturesque waterholes.
But, at first, the landscape I’m actually faced with is more like a scene from an apocalyptic film. It looks like something has bulldozed its way through the trees, leaving a trail of crushed trunks and twisted branches.
Well, something has bulldozed through …
“Elephants,” explains our safari guide, Gareth, as we trundle along in our open-topped Land-Cruiser.
I am in Botswana, home to the largest remaining elephant population in the world.
Our tour has started in Moremi region of the Okavango Delta, in northern Botswana.
A little further on, we suddenly grind to a halt. A painfully sharp cry comes from a tiny bird perched on the tree to our left.
“It’s panic-calling,” says Gareth, scanning the area with binoculars. “There must be a predator nearby.”
And sure enough, moments later, a female leopard skulks slowly across the path, 100 metres in front of us.
Solitary creatures, and excellent at camouflage, leopards are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild, which makes our close encounter feel even more spectacular.
It’s difficult to believe that just hours ago, I was stepping off of a plane. I truly have landed in a different world.
Another few minutes on, Gareth points to the ground, instructing us all to look.
I instantly spot the trail of humungous elephant prints. But, there’s a second set of paw-prints, following in the same direction, belonging to something smaller.
“Lion prints,” Gareth says, echoed by the audible gasp of a jeep-full of excited tourists.
He tells us the prints are fresh. We drive slowly in their direction, and soon, we catch up with him.
Merely leaping distance away, the lion stares right at me, following my nervous gaze. It seems all he’d have to do is rise to his feet, open wide, and I’d be lunch!
Thankfully, he wasn’t hungry – but we humans were, and began our drive to camp.
I’d imagined a site surrounded by protective gates and fences, perhaps an armed guard or two.
Instead, we arrive to find four tents, a campfire and a small marquee. No gate, no fence – but the four staff greet us with huge, welcoming smiles.
Under the marquee, an invitingly-laid table, lit with candles, awaits.
We enjoy a three-course meal, consisting mainly of locally sourced ingredients, all cooked on a makeshift iron stove.
Our tents each contain a mattress on a raised bedstead, a bedside table and an en-suite with a toilet and a bag shower (yes, that’s a shower in a bag, filled up with water every morning by staff, and attached to the ceiling).
The nearest settlement is a 40-minute-drive away and, though the region is scattered with private campsites, surrounded by total darkness, we are well and truly out in the wilderness.
It feels suitably adventurous yet also surprisingly safe. However, I don’t need to be told twice not to leave my tent during the night.
I sleep lightly – every bird cry suddenly sounds like a panic-call and at one point, I hear loud rustling.
Somehow, I eventually manage to drift off and wake at the crack of dawn to the enticing aromas of freshly baked cakes and bread.
As we tuck into breakfast, Gareth informs us that last night’s rustling was, in fact, a hippo …
I can’t believe it. I feel like I’m on the set of The Lion King movie – not on a Saga holiday!
Today, we have a 5am start. Setting off early gives us the best chance of spotting game. We see plenty of animals, but thankfully, don’t spot a single other Land-Cruiser all morning.
That is one of the joys of Botswana.
Unlike some of the other African safari destinations, Botswana has been careful to keep its national parks open only to low impact tourism, so you don’t see mass convoys of cars. This makes the whole experience feel more authentic.
At the heat of the day – the point at which the sun is hottest, as morning gives way to afternoon – there’s a three-hour siesta-type period.
The animals head for water and rest. We do the same and stop for lunch.
Later, we head east towards the Savuti region. On the way, we spot a pack of lions hiding beneath a bush.
A cuddly-looking cub nestles into its mum’s neck, and they gleefully play, while I look on in disbelief that we’re so close.
However, it soon became clear that this safari holiday wasn’t all about the big predators. Our guide shows as much enthusiasm for insects as he does for big cats, and Botswana is also famed for its vast birdlife – showcased beautifully near our camp on the Savuti marsh.
We witness a feeding frenzy of thousands, made up of 150 different species of birds, all feeding from one pool.
Our guide points out eagles, lilac-breasted rollers, red-billed hornbills, and black egrets, to name just a few.
Later, we stumble across a huge flock of pelicans, all wobbling their beaks simultaneously, to cool themselves down. I can’t help but chuckle; it’s such an amusing sight.
A little later, I have to pinch myself as we stop for a cup of tea and biscuit, and as I sip from my mug, an Ostrich grazes on the marsh ahead, while two elephants chomp away behind.
Then we watch a male leopard leap elegantly out of a tree and prowl straight past us. It’s completely surreal.
This region is a lot busier than Moremi. The Savuti attracts more tourists as the landscape is prettier and the wildlife more concentrated.
Driving across the centre of the marsh, herds of wildebeest, elephant, buffalo, impala and zebra can be seen in one sweep of the binoculars.
After a lucky sighting of rare wild dogs and giraffes, we hop on a boat to neighbouring Namibia.
The Savanna Lodge on the Chobe River, consisting of twelve thatched chalets, is our final stop. After camping, this is pure luxury.
My room is large and comfortable with a balcony overlooking the river.
There’s a small restaurant, lounge area and bar, with incredible panoramic views of the vast floodplains of Chobe National Park.
We explore Chobe by boat. A family of elephants swims by as the sun sets in the background.
It’s the perfect end to an incredible holiday. It may have been an adventurous trip, but it wasn’t particularly active. We only left the car once for a short walk up a rock face to see some ancient drawings, and the drives between camps were long.
But, they were well worth it. And as I sip my gin and tonic watching the sunset, I can’t think of anywhere in the world I’d rather be.
KEY FACTS – BOTSWANA SAFARI
BEST FOR: Couples or friends who have been on safari before.
TIME TO GO: May-October.
DON’T MISS: The “small five” insect species as well as the big five.
NEED TO KNOW: Not all guides are experts, so find a highly qualified one.
DON’T FORGET: Neutral-coloured long sleeves and trousers for early morning drives.