The South African safari has long been popular with high-end travelers. But recently other southern African countries, including Botswana, Zambia and Namibia, have built ultra-luxe safari camps and lodges that compete with the world's best. I had visited a decade ago, so I was curious to return last summer and see the progress that had been made. I was astonished.
Where I'd had no choice but to sleep in a self-pitched tent on a rocky desert, I now found luxury eco-lodges with designer furnishings and gin and tonics in crystal glasses. Besides the soul-stirring beauty, the three countries have the advantages of no crowds, no yellow fever, little crime and low malaria rates.
The other laudable news about all these new camps is that they are heavily involved in animal conservation, they engage local communities in their developments and they don't "greenwash" -- meaning, they walk the walk when it comes to caring for the environment.
I booked through Colorado-based tour company Rothschild Safaris ( 405-9463), which gave us a selection of camp choices. We selected the following, many of which are owned by Wilderness Safaris, an African company that owns more than 60 camps in southern Africa. The ones we chose were all-inclusive, meaning all food, most drinks, guided tours and ground transfers are included in the per person price.
Savuti Camp, Linyanti Reserve
Savuti sits above a busy watering hole on the Linyanti Concession, outside Chobe National Park in northern Botswana. Because it is 300,000 acres of private land, you don't see another soul for miles. Savuti has seven tents under vaulted thatched ceilings with rugs, hardwood floors, a writing desk, a dressing room and an enormous bathroom. Built on elevated walkways to lessen the environmental impact, each designer-furnished room has a view of the water hole and the elephants, zebras, jackals and hyenas that congregate there.
The rooms are so private and comfortable that it's tempting to skip a couple of game drives and lounge on the deck, read "Out of Africa" and watch creatures cavort in the watering hole. When you do take a dawn game drive in an open-air Jeep, the staff prepares you for the morning chill with a hot water bottle to hug close under your provided poncho. It's the small details that make all the difference at this camp.
A highlight is taking a walk with Kane, the resident San Bushman. Dressed in an ancestral loincloth and skins, Kane takes guests into the bush on foot, demonstrating how to find water in roots, sneak up on a herd of skittish zebra, hunt with a bow and arrow and make a bird trap out of vines. And because small children cannot go by foot, staff members baby-sit by doing African basket weaving (from local grasses), toy making (from wire and tent canvas) or clay molding (from clay dug up out back).
Savuti Camp: $600 per person, per night; www.wilderness-safaris.com/botswana_linyanti_selinda/savuti_camp/
Abu and Seba Camps, Okavango Delta
Randall Moore, an American animal trainer who worked with elephants destined for zoos and safari parks, decided Africa was where he wanted to be. Years ago, he shipped three elephants back to Africa, finding a home for them in Botswana. Later still, he built a camp in the central Okavango Delta and pioneered elephant-back safaris.
Abu Camp quickly became one of Africa's most famous camps, attracting celebrities and elites who dreamed of riding an elephant through the African bush and returning to French Champagne and a copper bathtub in the evenings. The cost of such a safari? $7,700 per person for a three-night minimum.
But I knew Moore had opened another, more affordable camp nearby. Seba does not include elephant rides, but you can meet and pet the tame herd. And there is abundant wildlife to be seen, even from a Jeep, on Moore's 500,000-acre concession. On a flood plain year-round, the game is plentiful and the Jeep rides through wheel-well-deep water are thrilling.
Although not as luxurious as Abu or Savuti, the tents are spacious and private, the game good and the food excellent. You can experience game- and bird-watching from a mokoro (dugout canoe) silently paddled through the high grasses flooded with water.
Abu Camp: $7,720 per person for three nights; www.abucamp.com. There is also a family villa.
Seba Camp: from $600 per person, per night; www.abucamp.com/Seba%20Camp.htm