One of Africa’s most renowned safari camps, Abu remains one of the continent’s most famous lodges for many reasons. The abundant wildlife of the Okavango Delta, including lion, leopard, wild dog and elephant, may cross your path and since there is no roar of a Land Rover or boat engine, you will enjoy not just the sights, but the sounds of the spectacular pristine nature.
Abu occupies a concession of 450,000 acres (180,000 hectares) in the middle of the delta, and the elephant herd is the core of any visit. What makes Abu such a powerful experience is the intimacy that exists between man and beast, which includes you for the time of your visit. You meet the herd upon arrival, feed them and walk with the elephants. Each animal has a name, a story and a personality, so being at Abu allows for a much more intimate animal experience than you have elsewhere and adds a completely different aspect to your safari.
Abu, which is named after one of the camp’s original elephants, was started in 1994 by Randall Moore, an expert who rescued orphaned elephants from America and transported them home to pioneer elephant-back safaris in Botswana. His personal story and that of the herd and how he expanded it is fascinating and each of the six guest rooms contains a book with the history. Today Abu is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen who was so smitten after his visit that he bought the camp in 2009. Many of the original elephants and their handlers remain and some say that Allen has introduced a gentler routine for the pachyderms. (They are no longer chained in the bush ever and the camp has stopped offering elephant riding as of late 2016.) The main pavilion footprint remains the same but Allen upgraded the décor in the public spaces and guests suites. He hired a stylish designer from Cape Town who added homey yet sophisticated touches like a library of African nature books and CDs; a pizza oven and a small outdoor gym (really a rowing machine). The guest tents include WiFi (very slow), copper tubs and homey touches like Africa books and objects.
In addition to walks with the elephants (which are at set times), other activities like game drives, guided walks, scenic flights (at an additional cost) or mokoro (wooden canoe) trips are available when a guest chooses. The resident manager acts as a host and sets up different “wow” moments, which could be the present of a special book or a surprise movie in the bush complete with popcorn. During high season when the weather is best, it's possible to spend the night in the Star Bed on a platform under the stars and next to the elephant boma, where the elephants sleep at night. At the end of the day there are campfires, sophisticated suppers and informal talks about the elephants and their conservation. This is truly an experience that ranks up there as one of the most memorable in Africa.
The Chitabe concession in the eastern part of the Okavango delta borders the Moremi Game Reserve and is one of the richest wildlife zones in the country. It was established by the Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks and awarded as a lease to its current holders. The camps were opened in 1997 by owners Dave and Helene Hamman, who are still intimately involved in the camps running, even though they are now part of Wilderness Collection. The Hammans come up to Chitabe three or four times a year from South Africa and each time Helene tweaks the design somewhat. Her attention to detail comes through in everything from the wine selection to the art in each guest tent.
Set on raised decks above the marshland and connected by boardwalks with rough tree trunk railings are eight guest tents in each Chitabe and Chitabe Ledibe (the sister camp next door). The canvas cottages have polished wood floors softened by area rugs, cozy club chairs with reading lamps and desk areas. Helene has always overseen the camps’ design and refurbishment. She has chosen every décor detail from the lovely Provencal-style boutis quilts on the beds and vintage-like suitcases that contain the coffee and tea services in each room to the tribal crafts in the lounge area and the leather bound books in the library. Her husband Dave is a well-known photographer and his black-and-white prints hang over each bed. Bathrooms have indoor and outdoor showers as well as double sinks with a tusk towel bar in between the basins.
The communal areas in large thatched tree house like structures include a living room, dining room (meals are communal except when a private dinner is arranged) and a small library tree house with club chairs and a selection of Africa-focused books. On another deck is a small raised pool with loungers and great views of the floodplains. Helene has also been deeply involved with the camp staff, hiring each member and working with many of them on continuing their education and skills by introducing a training and learning center in the camp. This has resulted in a distinct Chitabe pride and warmth among her team that infects guests.
Chitabe is a land-based camp so activities include day and night game drives and, depending on the season, walking safaris, but these can only be done in winter when the grass is low enough to ensure guests’ and guides’ safety. With open plains areas on this tree island, Chitabe supports lots of plains species like zebra, wildebeest, tsessebe and lechwe, which attract predators like lion, leopard, cheetah, hyena and wild dog. Both the diversity of animals and birds one can see here and the frequency of high drama feline spottings make Chitabe a favorite among Botswana wildlife enthusiasts.
Your small plane puts down on the landing strip on a remote island just west of the Moremi Game Reserve, and there is Jao, nestled in the marshes. The husband-and-wife team of renowned architects Silvio Rech and Leslie Carstens—who also designed Wilderness Safari’s North Island resort in the Seychelles—based this safari camp on an Indonesian longhouse, with masses of polished wood and a jungle-treehouse feel. Canvas and thatched-roof units are scattered under canopies of such trees as Jackal-berry, Sycamore Figs and Knobthorn Acacias and linked by raised wooden pathways. The camp was renovated with a focus on sustainability, so the thatched roofs and walkways are actually made from recycled materials, all made to look like natural wood. On the interior, the aesthetic is high-end funk, with an earthy, natural vibe.
As for the animals, its location in the Okavango Delta—which floods during the winter—makes Jao a perfect alternative to the traditional land-based big five safari. Glide across the floodplain as the sun rises, swishing through reeds and lily pads as hippos wade in the water and lionesses stand with their cubs having an early morning. Stop at Hunda Island for a game drive or angle for tiger fish en route. Afterward, visit the gym or the glass-enclosed treatment room on the jungle floor, where guests can indulge in a massage and body scrub while colorful birds flit among the treetops. And don’t miss a Jao “sleep out,” at a remote site some 20 minutes away from the main camp. Lying on mosquito-netted beds under the shooting stars, you only have the sounds of the bush as your lullaby—total tranquility.
Sanctuary Chief’s Camp
Sandibe Okavango Safari Lodge
Completely renovated in 2014, andBeyond’s Sandibe is at the front of the pack when it comes to luxe safari accommodations in Botswana. The two-story main building, shaped like a pangolin (an African anteater) and covered in wooden shingles, is architecturally innovative, with soaring curved beams, a library, dining room and inviting living room.
Each of the twelve rooms, which have the look and feel of a cozy bird’s nest, have private pools and decks, outdoor showers and bathrooms with elegant vanity mirrors and copper sinks. The shell of each accommodation is lined with a custom-made insulating fabric, which keeps guests cozy during the colder winter evenings, but can be hot during other times of the year (air conditioning will be installed in each of the rooms soon). Weather permitting, guests may sleep under the stars on their outdoor decks.
The Chitabe concession, where the lodge is located, is a unique combination of grasslands and woodlands with a high density of wildlife (including the elusive leopards). Activities include day and night game drives with a special guide-tracker team and helicopter rides to view the sweeping Botswana landscape. Children are welcome to participate in andBeyond’s WILDchild program, where they can cook with the chefs, make traditional crafts and learn how to track animals. AndBeyond is recognized globally for its work in conservation and sustainability alongside luxury guest experiences, and guests are able to be a part of these efforts during their stay.
Active travelers can maintain their fitness regime thanks to the small gym (one of few among safari camps). There is also a massage room, complete with Africology products—and the occasional elephant passing by.
Located in the Abu concession of the Okavango, Seba is a lovely old-fashioned style safari camp that caters to families in particular. Originally built as an elephant research camp for scientists working with the Abu herd, the property added guest tents and opened as a safari camp in 2007. The main area consists of a large raised deck space overlooking a lagoon and small sandy “beach” area, where tables are set for meals and a bush fire is lit every night for guests to gather for sundowners and stories. The beach isn’t just attractive as a gathering spot for guests; hippos, hyenas, leopards and elephant are frequent visitors too.
Just behind the beach area on the deck is a large tent open on two sides that serves as the library/lounge with comfy couches and chairs. Across the way is a dining tent, which is decorated with the photographer Ian Micheler’s portraits of local bushmen and delta tribes people. For hot days, there is a communal pool with sun loungers that sits on a platform deck under palm trees.
The tent suites have canvas walls and solar powered electricity and heated water. Because of its intimate nature and the two family suites, Seba has become particularly popular with families. One family suite has two bedrooms (including a bathroom with a shower and tub) and the other has three bedrooms, with one in a loft-like treehouse on the tent’s second level. Both have their own plunge pools on decks. The camp, which offers day and night game drives and fishing and mokoro rides depending on the season, still has a link to researchers who often visit the camp and discuss their findings.
Located in the breathtakingly beautiful Khwai Private Reserve, Tuludi offers travelers modern and whimsical accommodations.
Xigera Safari Lodge
Set in a game-rich private concession within the Moremi Reserve, Xigera is the most plush and pampering experience in the Delta.