Countless books have been written about them while classic movies have been painting glamorous pictures of African safaris for years. A once-in-a-lifetime experience for most people, a safari introduces you to new cultures, pushes the boundaries of your comfort zone and drops you into a surreal landscape that transports you back in time, to an era when animals ruled the land.
An amazing experience to be sure, but how do you choose your destination, and more importantly, who do you trust to give you that experience in a responsible way that is doing more good than harm?
Given their longstanding commitment to sustainability (they developed an Ecotourism Certification System for tourism businesses), Botswana is the ideal country for a safari experience. With a government policy that is focused on low-impact, high-value tourism, the number of visitors is limited, creating a sense of exclusivity while roaming on game drives. With much of the land uninhabited and wetlands teeming with wildlife, the lack of fences or physical borders gives safaris a genuine feel with uninterrupted access to nature.
When planning your trip, Belmond is a reputable leader in luxurious, yet responsible safaris. With a global portfolio, the company is known for its long history of restoring and preserving historic buildings and heritage sites that form an integral part of a destination’s cultural identity. With a ‘Think Global, Act Local’ ethos, Belmond supports more than 300 global projects designed to support, improve and preserve the local communities and environments where they have a footprint. In Botswana, they have made their mark with three unique safari resorts that were created with authenticity and sustainability top of mind.
Belmond Eagle Island Lodge and Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge offer very different experiences, yet when combined together, they have the potential to create the bucket list safari of your dreams. In the heart of the Okavango Delta, Eagle Island Lodge is, naturally, a water focused safari. Integral to Botswana’s history, the lodge was originally built in the early 1900s for intrepid explorers on the delta. Situated on a private island, twelve deluxe tented rooms each with their own plunge pool and terrace, were decorated by local artisans with local materials and fabrics like canvas and leather, and overlook the expansive wetlands where wildlife wander.
The lodge was rebuilt in 2016 using local reclaimed timber and thatch for roof coverings. A solar power system generates all power for the lodge, all lighting is LED-based and gas-fired hot water heaters were replaced by thermodynamic geysers. Drinking water is pumped directly from the Kavango River, treated and then stored in water coolers around the lodge where guests are encouraged to fill reusable bottles directly.
When it comes to activities, an afternoon cruise through the delta in a mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe, is an intimate experience where you have the opportunity to connect with a local guide who can share their passion for the bush, offering insight into the local fish, flowers and animals feasting on the reeds. More importantly, you have the chance to hear firsthand how your tourism dollars are positively impacting the local communities who likely wouldn’t have many other employment options if it weren’t for the safari resorts.
“Botswana is a jewel in the crown of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Travel & Tourism sector” Gloria Guevara, World Travel and Tourism Council President & CEO
According to the World Travel and Tourism Council (WTTC), Botswana tourism now accounts for one in seven dollars of the country’s economy. “Botswana is a jewel in the crown of Sub-Saharan Africa’s Travel & Tourism sector,” said Gloria Guevara, WTTC President & CEO. In WTTC’s annual review of the economic impact and social importance of the sector, Botswana’s Travel & Tourism economy grew 3.4% to exceed $2.5 billion in 2018, and supports nearly nine percent of total employment.
On a game drive at Eagle Island Lodge, it’s common to find zebras, giraffes, buffalos, wildebeests, springboks and even rhinos roaming freely. One of the more exhilarating experiences they offer however, is a helicopter ride over the plains. That’s where you will spot pods of hippos swimming and soaking in the inaccessible lakes and shallow lagoons of the delta.
Preserving the essence of what makes Botswana so special was paramount to Belmond’s philosophy when designing their lodges. A third of Africa’s elephant population is in Botswana, highly concentrated in Chobe National Park, which made it the ideal location for Savute Elephant Lodge.
Despite a controversial lift on a five-year hunting ban of elephants, the majestic creatures still have a daily presence around the watering hole at the lodge, allowing guests to observe them from either a viewing hide, the pool deck or from their private terrace.
The socially conscious design of the chic lodge ensures minimal impact on the natural habitat to the point that if ever dismantled, everything can be removed and would leave the landscape completely untouched. A very light footprint was used as all buildings were constructed on timber-based platforms with canvas sides and base structures were refurbished using existing Zimbabwe teak decking and reclaimed gum poles.
Twelve luxurious tents extend from the heart of the lodge, overlooking the watering hole where elephants congregate in their natural habitat. The spacious accommodations are flooded with natural light, anchored by a romantic four-poster bed and complemented by thoughtful turndown touches like local folk tales and handmade jewellery typical of the region.
Similar to Eagle Island Lodge, Savute Elephant Lodge also operates off the grid due to its solar power system. A first of its kind in Botswana, a bio-digester was installed to treat kitchen waste, processing five tons per month of kitchen food waste, cardboard, paper and other biodegradable products. It turns the waste into compost, which is bagged and transported out of Chobe National Park and used in community-based farming projects.
Breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in the dining room and on the terrace with a front-row view of the elephants frolicking in the water, a scene that never gets old. A fibreglass swimming pool is the jewel of the resort, the perfect place to relax in the midday sun, in between activities. Adrenalin pumping game drives yield encounters with lions, while sundowners in the bush are relaxed and indulgent affairs where time stands still.
Perhaps one of the most special experiences at the lodge is the Boma dinner, an ancient African tradition. Guests gather for dinner around a campfire while an energetic choir proudly sings and performs traditional dances as the chef prepares a buffet of barbecued meats and local delicacies. A candlelit affair, the evening often ends with everyone dancing and sharing tales of the day, letting the outside world slip away.
In short, a safari in Botswana will leave you awestruck and in turn, you can rest assured that your tourism dollars will leave layers of impact among the locals who are passionate about preserving their heritage and sustaining the natural habitat of their land.
About the author – Michelle Martin:Ms Martin is the Founder and CEO of Travara, a purpose-driven travel and lifestyle platform for the modern, socially conscious global citizen. Follow @DiscoverTravara. At heart, she’s a storyteller, an avid traveller and a social entrepreneur-always planning her next trip and thinking of ways to leave this world better than she found it. Passionate about international development, she has spent time working with female farmers in Ghana; building a community centre in a Brazilian favela; and bringing mobile ultrasounds to pregnant women living in the rural Atlas mountains of Morocco. Her writing covers travel, social impact, sustainable tourism and business, and has been published in outlets such as Entrepreneur, Newsweek and Vogue.