Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Get a Real High with an Air Safari; Beautiful Botswana's Glorious Animals Can Best Be Spotted from an Open-Sided Helicopter

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

Get a Real High with an Air Safari; Beautiful Botswana's Glorious Animals Can Best Be Spotted from an Open-Sided Helicopter

Article excerpt

Byline: JAN MASTERS

USED to leaves on the line, not elephants on the airstrip. But as we circled Savute, in northern Botswana, the pilot of our private plane was on the lookout. Sensible, given that once down, with props slowing and red dust settling, I spied one rumply-skinned goliath, munching and moseying in the bushes.

As a safari ingenue, it was my first glimpse-and-gasp moment. And that wide-eyed expression stayed on my face for the entire heart-quickening trip, a surprise in itself as I'd never considered a safari a must-tick box. But since experiencing the raw, rare beauty of Botswana, a southern African country that takes its role as custodian of wildlife seriously, plus the ultracosseting of an Orient-Express safari, I've barely shut up about it.

We explored high-contrast terrains - from Savute's arid, golden grasslands to the drenched, dewy Okavango Delta - not only from 4x4s but also in speedboats, mokoros (canoes) and the newest, most exhilarating mode of game-spotting transport, an open-sided helicopter.

The memories of watching hippos from above, doing their crosschannel paddle and zebra capering through vivid blue water, will stay with me forever. This is safari on all fronts, from all angles; a real multidimensional-deal.

Orient-Express has a trio of camps in Botswana, two-andahalf hours' flying time from Johannesburg. If you hop between all three - Savute Elephant Camp in the Chobe National Park, Khwai River Lodge at the heart of the Moremi Wildlife Reserve and Eagle Island Camp, a hidden, hedonistic hangout in the Okavango Delta - you'll cram your journal with a fair few "seen that, done it" entries.

Being a novice, I was spoilt, a fact I appreciated only after hearing dreary tales of safaris offering convoys, Tarmac roads, and nought but a dung beetle seen for hours.

Undoubtedly, Orient-Express has struck the right wilderness/luxury balance.

Each camp sports a dozen or so "tents", which is like calling Ferraris family runarounds - think four-posters, endless hot water and the chink-chink of champagne glasses. But there's no mobile signal or landlines and the g e n e r a t o r that gently thrubs is switched off at night, replaced by the surround sound of animal grunts, shrieks and snuffles, with the only light beamed from a clear sky's incandescent stars.

What's more, all but elephants can tramp through camp, which is why you dial up a flashlight-toting escort when walking to supper.

Meals combine fine dining with dusty-booted campfire sit-ins.

And it is beautiful. As the Okavango River, fed by Angola's rains, fans out in its hopeless search for the sea, eventually sinking into the sands of the Kalahari Desert, it creates the Okavango Delta, a lush, plush paradise of sapphire lagoons studded with palm-lined emerald islands. …

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