Johnny's Journeys: Africa Part Three
Written by Johnny Fugitt
Chobe National Park, Botswana
Zimbabwe’s borders with both Zambia and Botswana are lined with miles and miles of parked semi-trucks as drivers wait half a week for customs clearance. Travelers know the border is near when they see roadside camps with drivers’ laundry suspended from outward-turned windshield wipers. The customs process for foot traffic isn’t nearly as quick or straightforward as returning home through JFK, but it only takes hours instead of the days required of truck drivers.
Northeastern Botswana is home to Chobe National Park, which is considered one of the world’s best locations for safari due to its abundance and variety of wildlife. Most visitors stop at one of the lodges outside the park. I ventured into Chobe to stay at andBeyond’s Chobe Under Canvas. This proved the best experience of my African adventure.
Meeting the government’s requirements to camp within the park, Chobe Under Canvas moves every five days. Five luxury tents, accommodating two guests each, offer incredible amenities (for a temporary camp) including hot showers (the water warmed over the campfire gives it a slight sense of smoke), private toilets with running water, solar panels to provide electric lights and creature comforts such as bathrobes.
The campfire-prepared meals were enjoyable, highlighted by the freshly baked bread from a small metal oven hovering over a bed of coals. One might take this loafal compliment as an insult to the rest of the food, but that certainly is not the intent. There is little I enjoy more than fresh homemade bread, and the natural, rustic essence of these thick, grainy, campfire-kissed slices of toast perfectly fit the setting.
That first night we embarked on a game drive to see what wildlife we could find at sunset. We were incredibly lucky to spot a leopard – something many visitors track unsuccessfully for days. We watched the leopard for an hour until he began to move, weaving in the direction from which we came. Our guide drove circuitously to position us on the other side of his path and the leopard walked right up to our open vehicle. It was a powerful moment to have this stunning creature look me in the face from just a few yards away.
I’m generally comfortable in nature and appreciate an open window to enjoy the sounds of a Missouri early-fall evening. This was a whole different level. A howling hyena made its way through camp the first night, and, in the morning, we discovered that a creature, most likely a honey badger, tried to pry the lids from open bottles at the bar. On the following night I learned that a snorting hippopotamus is approximately as loud as a freight-train. Despite the warm water bottle provided during turndown and a large, comfortable bed, these were not the most restful nights. Nevertheless, they were worth it.
After rising early for a hearty campsite version of the Full English Breakfast, we set off in search of more wildlife. We encountered elephants, giraffes, zebra, impala, warthogs, waterbuck, hippos, crocodiles, kudu, buffalo, baboons, monkeys and a variety of birds, but the sighting of the day was a pride of lions. Another highlight was a photo cruise where, on one side of the small boat we had a swimming elephant and on the other side a crocodile with an impala in its mouth. I never imagined we would see so much wildlife, experience the animals at such close range or that I would find them so awe-inspiring and beautiful.
I have seen nearly all of these animals at zoos, but encountering them in their natural habitat is completely different. The leopard was gorgeous and stealthy as it carefully monitored movement and sound undetectable to me. A stampede of elephants is a powerful sight to behold. The baboons are endlessly entertaining, but not as cute as the little velvet monkey who jumped into our vehicle. We saw plenty of giraffes, but it may be the massive skeleton of one felled the week prior I will most remember. Threats are removed for sedentary zoo-dwellers, but the circle of life is always on display in the wild.
andBeyond’s portfolio offers a variety of nature-focused luxury lodging across Africa. Chobe Under Canvas offers the same standard of full-service hospitality (I believe there were nine staff for just myself and one other American couple), but, due to its mobile nature and limited footprint, this may be andBeyond’s most rudimentary lodging option. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t have traded the campfire meals for fine-dining, our bumpy rides through the bush for an afternoon at the spa, or the cacophony of nocturnal sounds for a better night’s sleep. I did all of that – ate amazing food, enjoyed massages and slept deeply – during the rest of the trip. I’m so thankful my safari experience included staying inside the park at a campsite rather than making day trips through the park from an outside lodge. And as far as camping goes, this is about as pampered as it gets.
Another safari would undoubtedly deliver its own memories, but safaris are journeys to be created rather than sights to be replicated. Each is unique. I rarely call anything ‘once-in-a-lifetime’, but these days in Chobe were truly special and some of my favorites in all of my travels.