Birthday Bliss in Botswana
The time it takes our unique and life-sustaining planet to circumnavigate the sun is known as a year. Therefore, when we turn one year older, we have been on a celestial journey that spans 365 days. When we look at it from this perspective, one should certainly cherish the opportunity to be able to spend each day celebrating life on earth. Hence, when your birthday comes around, marking another year on our beautiful planet, it is most definitely a time for celebration! This is best done with the people you love the most, and if you are lucky, in the places that make you feel the most alive. When a good friend and client asked us to create an African experience for her special day, we jumped at the chance. What better way to spend your birthday than surrounded by your family and friends in the middle of one of the most unique places on earth – the Okavango Delta.
It all began many years ago when Chris, Safari Architects co-owner, experienced an intense once-in-a-lifetime sighting of a buffalo kill (trying to describe this sighting would be futile – one can witness the spectacle in a Youtube video on our YouTube channel). He was lucky enough to share this rare sighting with a wonderful family – Aashish, Amrita and their two children, Mira and Nikhil. Hereafter, a lasting friendship was struck and lengthy discussions were initiated for a spectacular return trip in the near future.
The idea finally materialised when Amrita decided that celebrating a very special upcoming birthday in Africa would be the best way to commemorate her 50 laps around the sun!
The trip in question was set to be an unrivalled and incomparable experience for many of the guests who were planning to join Amrita and her family, most of whom had never travelled to Africa before. For a group of 21 travellers, the planning of such a trip does not happen over night…
The journey started in Johannesburg, at AtholPlace Hotel and Villa, where the party of 21 met to familiarise themselves with our guides, chat logistics and discover some of what was in store for them (without spoiling too many surprises). Drinks flowed, laughs were shared, and a delicious dinner was enjoyed together. Everyone gradually became more relaxed, excited and eager. The festivities had officially begun!
Early the next morning, we gathered at Lanseria International Airport where three private Pilatus PC12 NG aircrafts were waiting for us on the runway. With smiles all around and the promise of life-changing experiences just around the corner, we were off to Botswana’s gem, the Okavango Delta, starting at Wilderness Safaris’ Vumbura Plains.
Travelling by private charter to any safari destination in Africa just makes the journey that much more comfortable and convenient. In no time, all three aircrafts had touched down in the Okavango Delta where we were greeted by our long-time friends and trusty local guides Ban, Emang, Lettie and Zee. A surprise “welcome stop” awaited us on the ground and after refuelling our bodies, we headed out into the wilderness towards the lodge. This took a little longer than expected, however no one was complaining as we witnessed a family of spritely elephants entertain us at a small watering hole along the way. For some of the travellers, these were the first wild elephants they had ever laid eyes on – so special!!
Our first game drives were filled with so many animal encounters and incredible interactions that it was hard to keep up! One major highlight was a leopardess (with her two cubs) who had stashed a kill not far from the camp. We visited them a few times throughout our stay, which gave everyone an amazing view of these magnificent cats.
The Vumbura Plains’ concession is extremely unique in that you can experience a multitude of both land and water based activities. We made ample use of this fact and were sure to fully explore the famous waterways and crystal clear channels that make up this amazing Delta ecosystem. This culminated in a small drinks celebration on Phi Phi Island, a beautiful lone isle only accessible by boat.
Another way to explore the smaller and less accessible parts of the Delta is via a traditional mekoro. Once made from entire tree trunks, these dugout canoes are now made from sustainable materials and allow one to drift through the narrow channels and shallow floodplains to many unseen parts of concession. A mekoro ride is also very different from a game drive – you experience the beauty of the Delta in serene silence and total tranquility. In addition, if you are lucky enough, you might even bump into elephants or other elusive creatures on the banks.
One may be envious of the birdlife which can soar high above the ground with unrivalled aerial views of our planet. The best way to try and get some perspective of this lifestyle is by helicopter which were lucky enough to experience – doors off, strapped in and ready to go! Our adrenaline spiked as we glided under the luminous clouds and, much like the birds we envy, we were able to see a spectacular array of wildlife and marvelled at the winding bejewelled waterways that went on for miles and miles below us.
One morning we had a truly unique encounter whilst on a coffee break. The entire group, which was spread over 4 vehicles with a private guide on each vehicle, joined up for a catch up between the morning’s activities, with the last vehicle still viewing an approaching herd of elephants. They quickly decided to dash around them and come join us. What we realised was that we had stopped right by a dry mud wallow and natural salt lick. With instruction and a watchful eye from the local guides, we descended from the vehicles and stood motionless, coffee in hand, while the exquisite herd approached. A few of us sat mere metres away from wild elephants that proceeded to bathe and feed on the salt and mineral sand. All the while they were aware of our presence, but as we were so calm, relaxed and quiet, these extremely perceptive creatures were at complete ease. It was for most, a spiritual experience, even causing a few tears to roll. It was a sight that will certainly remain with us forever.
That evening we were treated to some traditional entertainment, whereby the local culture of Botswana was explained to us through a story, via dance and song. We all joined in and got very festive, allowing Africa to shed our inhibitions so that we could fully immerse ourselves within the culture and the tribe itself. After more story telling we enjoyed evening cocktails around the fire, underneath the speckled Botswana sky.
The last day at Vumbura Plains was spent exploring, with the group going in different directions. Amongst the final sightings was another pack of elusive wild dogs, a regal leopard and a large buffalo herd. What the group didn’t know was that we had planned to rendezvous at a secret location, one where we could sit in the waters of the Okavango and watch the sun sink beneath the horizon. With drinks in hand, a roaring fire and lanterns all around us, we frolicked in the waters, laughed and had an all round amazing afternoon. There was tons of festive fun – a game of skim ball with the kids and even some brave individuals who jumped in for a swim!
We bid Vumbura Plains goodbye and journeyed on to Sanctuary retreats Chiefs’s Camp, which was to be home for the next three nights. Chief’s Island sits, geographically, almost completely at the centre the Okavango Delta, meaning it boasts a multitude of habitats which makes the island one of the top wildlife viewing destinations in this area. There is the chance to see Black and White Rhino, a unique experience as they have recently been part of a project to re-introduce rhino back into Botswana. Wildlife viewing aside, the camp itself is stunning! We settled in, freshened up and prepared for our afternoon safari.
After having had really successful game viewing at Vumbura Plains, we had our sights set on a few species that we were missing. Rhino were top of the list, as well as cheetah and male lions. One morning, very soon after we had left for the morning dirve, we were immediately rewarded with a sighting of three male lions who had killed a young buffalo, merely 1km from camp.
That afternoon we were spoilt with sightings of giraffe, elephant, stunning antelope and a very large herd of buffalo. After a few drinks in the bush, we headed home for dinner and a foosball tournament, which took preference over dinner and the bar. Having sole use of both camps allowed us to have extreme flexibility in any activity or request we may have had, and the lodges could not have been more accommodating.
We were still determined to find rhino, so when we came across the fresh tracks of a “crash” close to camp we really made an effort to find them. After half an hour or so, one of the vehicles sent a message over the radio: they had found four Rhino! and we were all in close range. On our swift drive into the area, each vehicle had the joy of looking up to the skies and we were all overwhelmed by the double rainbow in front of a turquoise blue sky. Scenes like this are straight out of story books and dreams, but here it was right in front of us! Due to the persecution which the rhinos are currently facing, and the miracle of the project that brought them here, we felt extremely privileged to see them thriving out on the plains!
The elusive cheetah was still only a distant hope and so we continued the search. Unfortunately, we had no luck after scouring the vast plains, however, we did find a golden and glittering cheetah, resting atop a busy table boasting an array of drinks, a fondue and few heavenly treats on the side. Spending the rest of the afternoon here was such a treat, the group relaxed and we spent this precious time taking it all in. Later that night, we had a delicious dinner under the silver stars in the Chief’s Camp boma.
A misty morning brought about some magical photographic opportunities, with buffalo and elephant close to camp. But as we were determined to find cheetah, again, we were off on a mission. One of the vehicles was lucky enough to find fresh male leopard tracks which they tracked for an hour or so, and were eventually rewarded when a troop of baboons found the leopard for us. After they chased him up a tree, we were then treated to something very special – the whole troop trapped the large male know as “blue eyes” up in the branches for about two hours. Every now and then the troop would explode in excitement and harass the male which, to their dismay, only warranted a few calm snarls from him. The whole scene was hilarious, the young baboons kept forgetting about the leopard between harassment episodes, and would freak out when they saw him and remembered he was up there! Mass howling and hooting was the soundtrack to our morning.
How do you bring to an end such a special adventure with your loved ones? Well, a bush dinner under the stars with traditional African performers just for you, with great company, sumptuous cuisine and shared laughs are certainly one of the ways to do it! The Chief’s Camp staff really went out of their way to produce an amazing experience for us. It was truly a night to remember and an incredible way to celebrate Amrita’s 50th birthday party!
After all the planning, organising and anticipation, the safari was a roaring success! What a magical week in Botswana. As the saying goes “all good things come to an end” however, the memories will live on forever! Once this beautiful planet has circled the sun again in another 365 days, we will look back with elated hearts and remember a birthday celebrated in true African style. Happy birthday, Amrita – here’s to many more!
The Safari Architects Team