Readers Suggestions

I'm enjoying visiting as many of the '1000 Places to See Before You Die' as I can, but I'm aware there must be loads of other fantastic places to visit, that aren't in the book. Please make comments at the end of each posting with your recommendations!

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Part 2 Abu's Camp, Okavango Delta: Number 179 of the 1000 Places to See Before You Die

It was bad enough being led to the single prop Cessna 206 plane- quite another seeing it was the smallest plane on the runway...and another to realise that I'd be bouncing along it in on the way to the remote Abu's Camp on the western part of the Delta. The floods from the Angolan Highlands were expected in a week and so in the interim only the seasonal rains had cast patchy dark green water pans over the scrub of the Delta basin. 40 minutes later we touched down and I was greeted by a cocktail and Jacko who was to be my guide for my stay. He joyfully advised me as we headed into camp that his first task had been to arrive ten minutes before our arrival and clear the runway of game - this boded well for the next three day safari.

Off to Abu's camp

Up there as one of the first and therefore most famous camps in Botswana (the other contender being Jack's Camp in the Kalahari and perhaps Mombo on Chief's Island in the Delta), Abu's Camp was the brainchild of Randall Moore who had a vision of rehabilitating trained African elephants back into the wild and eventually chose a spot in the Western Delta as his base for both a luxury lodge, a research centre, and an elephant riding school. A few km away the sister lodge, Seba had been built, catering more at the family end- or as they say in the Delta- a "classic" camp meaning full capacity was 20 people rather than Abu's at 12 guests.

Now Abu's is not a cheap place to stay. It may not even at certain times of the year be deemed the best based on game viewings standard (Abu/Seba only has the Big 4 and is missing the rhino which only exists at Chief's Island in the middle of the Delta after it was reintroduced there recently) . It probably, on any scale, wont rank as best value, not that that is necessarily a sound measure anyhow. But as Mastercard promises..............some things are priceless!!

Now I've done quite a few safaris in my, a landrover, following another landrover, following another ten landrovers etc..but nothing compares to the Botswanian safari for starters. Huge private concessions (the Abu/Seba camps are on a 500,000 hectares concession) targeting the high value low volume tourists. And, to make it unique amongst the other camps- Abu's was the first and remains the only Botswanian place to provide all safaris on elephant back. Every day, twice a day, you clamber on board an elephant with a mahout and ride out into the Delta! Abu's herd- consisting currently of 4 elephants that guests can ride, a further 2 being trained up and a young baby, have 18 full time people dedicated to their care. Now elephants cant travel very far quickly, so Ab u's camp isaided in their game drives by the guides at Seba who radio in positions of wildlife as they go about the game drives with their guests.

Nothing can describe that moment when I met Cathy , the matriach of Abu's herd who I would ride on my first day. At a whopping 3.8 tonnes, she stood 2.4 metres from her front five toenails to the top of the neck. Add a rounded back, and a saddle, and I sat a good 3 metres off the ground. My mahout demonstrated the "stretch down" command and brought this 51 year old elephant to a gentle kneeling down position whereupon, aided by a junior mahout's knees, I clambered aboard my own little maharini saddle, swung my legs down both sides, and gripped the tops hard as she lumboured back to her feet.

On Cathy

The first ride- a short introduction- was quite a contest between looking at my wonderful elephant (who would have known they had hairs on their trunks and ears and the world's longest eyelashes), the 2 babies following her who couldnt resist rolling around in the water, diving with just their trunks showing and generally getting in the way most of the time, or spend my time looking for wild life. Thankfully my mahout, firmly wedged behind Cathy's ears, took care of the latter leaving me time to watch the interaction between these amazing mammals and marvel at how close we could get to the wildlife without any signs of agitation on either side.

At this juncture, I probably should fess up two things. The first is that I couldn't actually stay at Abu's as they had razed most it to the ground for a complete rebuild and it wont open until April I was staying at the sister lodge Seba a few kilometres away. However in a lovely twist - they allowed us to use the Abu's elephants as if we were Abu's guests. Normally Seba guests only have access to talks by the elephant research people (there are normally about 5 on site doing various projects on the 7 elephants that have been released back into the wild as well as the surrounding wild elephants), and perhaps go and see Abu's herd once.

Now when both resorts are open again shortly, Seba will average about $1200 a day with Abu at US$2500 per day. Which one to pick? I'd have to say Abu's Camp- even though it's actually still in construction but the luxuriousness of a resort that is built in 2011 can not be underestimated. However the obvious reason why I'd pick Abu's is the elephants and the unlimited interaction with them from just hanging out in the boma with them to the twice daily game drives.I was treated by the Seba camp manager to a tour of Abu's in the making so to speak. It looks "luxury" already - sweeping decks, amazing tents all with outdoor baths overlooking the Delta, chesterfields in a library stacked full of books, original artwork to admire, nooks and crannies to tuck into, large pool, gym, wifi etc. The honeymoon tent (view from the deck pictured below) was mind blowing with heated floors, outdoor bath, private plunge pool and a stunning deck overlooking a water hole replete with resident hippos and thousands of white water lillies ( I wouldnt have left that tent so its comforting to know that dinners on your deck can be provided) . 
The Stargazer villa- rentable by the night- was a 2 storey feat of wooden engineering right next door to the elephant enclosure replete with bathrooms and outdoor shower on the ground floor and a massive top storey deck with no walls and one gigantic mosquito net suspended over the deck. It was a pity it was still in construction as sleeping here, with nothing between yourself and the stars, the sounds of the elephants moving around in the night, the grunts of the hippos in the surrounding water interspersed with the call of the hyenas and if you are lucky the roar of a lion would be I imagine one of the most magical experiences possible in the whole of Africa.

Honeymoon Suite in the Making, Abu's Camp
Star Gazing Deck in the making - Abu's Camp
The second thing I should explain is that the price, at either camp, includes charter plane to the camp, all food and drinks, and 2-3 game safaris a day and the most fabulous private tent. Now" tent" Ive decided is a bit of a misnomer in the Delta. My Seba tent was actually an extremely generous 2 bedroom london size apartments- built on stilts with a wooden base and canvas walls. A massive king size bed, armchairs, built in wardrobes, tiles in the bathroom, private wooden deck (mine with a plunge pool), each individually decorated in the style of a Batswanan tribe....are you getting the idea? Tents on the ground these are not!

My "tent", Seba's camp

Plunge pool on my deck, Seba's camp

Reading tent, Seba's camp

But back to the activities......After the first afternoon elephant drive we had aperitives around a camp fire before sitting down to one big dining table- a safari tradition Im told. Dinner was stuffed mushrooms followed by roast lamb and creme caramel. After a few post dinner digestives, I was walked to my lodge by my guide (for safety after all we are in the middle of wild animals) and sat sipping a rather fine glass of red on my wooden deck overlooking a water pan listening to the night sounds. There was the scent of damp vegetation and water in the air lifted by the pungent sweetness of the wild sage that danced in the light breeze on the paths around my tent. Hippos grunted close by as they grazed on the 4 foot high pampass grass, cicadas churped in the trees and in the distance a few bullfrogs started to practice their mating call- perhaps they had heard like us that the annual flood of waters from Angola was due to arrive in the next four days. Hyenas called to the full moon in the distance, while closer to my toes fish gently plopped out of the still dark waters which were only broken by the whiteness of the stairway to the full moon and the green flashes of fire flies as they danced amongst the reeds. Tiny fruit bats performed acrobatics around my head jostling for the best position in the Moriula tree and a male lion roared in the distance while nightjars called to each other across the lagoon. This was Africa- untainted nature, devoid of signs and sounds of human habitation.Just animals going about their business like they had done for thousands of years when man's footprint on the Earth was negligible.

Its a credit to the Botswanan government that they are very strict about the fragile ecosystem of the Delta. No villages are allowed to be created in the Delta so everything is flown in from Maun, no gardens are allowed to be planted, no seeds taken out, all kitchen waste shredded so that monkeys cant inadvertantly eat seed carrying plants and spread them throughout the fertile plains. Anti poaching units are prevalent along with constant inspections by the government to ensure the lodges are following strict guideliness. All buildings, bar the fuel storage areas, have to be built with wood rather than concrete and brick so that they are in effect semi permanent and can be removed in full at the end of the time frame granted on any concession without any permanent marks on the habitation.

Day 2, slightly stiff from 2 hours with my legs hanging either side of Cathy as well as a late night from star gazing in my plunge pool, we rose for a 6am breakfast . The oranges and reds of dawn had given way to blue skies and a searing heat. by the time we were back on the elephants for the 7am early morning game drive. This time I was on Shirene- without doubt a greedy elephant!! Elephants only digest about 40% of what they eat and so to support such bulk they constantly moved through the vegetation tearing up clumps of grass and munching them without breaking a step nor failing to grab the next morsel ready to be eaten as soon as they had finished the first. They added back to the vegetation by becoming a veritable mobile fertilising machine. 

On the back of Shirene

The mahouts largely worked in silence, urging on the elephants when needed in order to move quickly to the ultimate position, or utilising apparently universal elephant commands such as "come here" (which turns the elephant left) and "get over"(which turns it right). I wonder whether Randall realised when he was training the first herd of elephants that teaching them "left" and "right" was perhaps not a great idea when you had a guest on board and wanted to point them out something and the mahout said "see to your left a lion" and so the elephant started walking left..."and then to your right some impala" and so the elephant turned right. At some stage sooner or later the elephant is just going to sit right down and say "my mahout is missing some marbles". Elephants by the way have the ability to learn more than 2000 commands- all of Abu's herd could raise their trunks and kiss me , shake their ears, rumble to us, lift their trunk, stand on two legs, hold their ears out- and its reward for doing it on command was to have a handful of horse pellets thrown into its mouth by the mahoot.

Two mahouts ready for warning shots if wild elephants came along

Gently swaying in my saddle as this beast ambled out of the boma and into the surrounding water plains, I could not but feel a moment of superiority as I gazed down on the noses of a few juvenile crocodiles basking in the cool muddied waters. Cresting a corner we then waded into a pond and spent an enjoyable 20 minutes looking down from our great height on a family group of hippos including a tiny baby a mere 5 metres away who were completely unconcerned about the elephants. 

To the wildlife- we were just an elephant- rather than an elephant with a person on the back, which enabled us to literally walk right up to game. Such close encounters with the likes of impala, kudu, warthog, buffalo, hippo, crocodile, hyena, giraffe and zebras- all of which were encountered on Day 2, was enough to bring even the most seasoned safari person to speechless silence.

impala and zebras

Day three was another two game drives on the elephants - this time I was on the smaller Gika and we took them to their mud baths. It was so cute watching these massive elephants get down on the ground and roll around in the mud, the little babies sqealing with delight, then it was down to the task of covering themselves with dry sand to further cake their bodies.


Baby Abu as unconcerned about the close proximity of the lone male buffalo as we were

Jacko my guide preparing pimms at sunset
 After returning to the camp for lunch we went out to ride them again in the afternoon- all now a rather ghostly grey from the sand- for a leisurely two hour amble through the bush back to Abu's camp. After that pimms on the delta before a return to camp for dinner- tuna mousse with salmon, roast chicken and tarte tatin was followed by a night drive to find the elusive leopard. Sadly it was not to be but we did get to watch a hippo graze on the banks and bush babies nimbly fly from branch to branch.

Visiting the places in the 1000 places to see before you die has meant seeing some incredible sights, visiting some amazing countries and staying in some fabulous places, yet I have to say that, while Abu's camp will no doubt be the height of 5 star luxury - and Seba's is one of the few that cater to families- the experience of such intimate interaction with Abu's herd of elephants is up there in the top two best experiences Ive had so far in this book. The other being the polar bears in churchill.

Cathy and I doing a photo shoot....until she starts looking for treats

Both very different but i have to say- Abu's wins hands down! The sun is always shining, sitting on an elephant a few metres away from the most dangerous animal in Africa the hippo and being completely safe was mindblowing, the incredible hospitality of the Seba camp managers and the ability to see so many wildlife with the assistance of fabulous guides........this is the place so far in the book Id say "number 1"...even though for me its number 179 of the 1000 places Ive seen in the book.

and then gently nudges me out of the way when she cant find any!

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