Over the past 20 years, Abu Camp has acquired a reputation as the preeminent place to ride on African elephants. Now partly owned by Paul Allen, co- founder of Microsoft, Abu reopened in April 2011, having been completely rebuilt and refurbished.
Set on a 500,000-acre private concession in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, it has just six accommodations. Overlooking a tranquil lagoon and shaded by hardwood trees, the suites are idiosyncratic canvas-and-beam structures that are part tent, part cabin. They are not air-conditioned, but are effectively cooled by ceiling fans. Bleached wooden floors covered by sisal matting, wicker screens, four-poster king-size beds, wingback armchairs, large writing desks, framed black-and-white photography and traditional African sculptures all help to create an exceptionally elegant and relaxing environment. Huge baths provide walk-in showers, twin basins set in black marble, and electric lighting. Glass doors open onto decks with soaking tubs. Although the suites at Abu do not have plunge pools, they do offer attractive sundecks with loungers.
The lavish public areas are contemporary African in style and include a tranquil library and an adjoining communications center. Uniquely for the Okavango, the latter provides a reliable Internet connection, and hence phone calls via Skype. During our visit, the standard of the cuisine was consistently high. In fact, at the end of our stay, the only aspect of the camp that seemed deserving of criticism was the rather lackluster swimming pool.
As at most camps in the Okavango, game- viewing at Abu is by customized safari vehicle or, at the time of the annual flood, by makoro (local dugout canoe). The large game species, including lion and leopard, are relatively common, and the birdlife is prolific. The big difference at Abu is the opportunity to ride on, or walk with, the camp’s trained herd of elephant. And for those who wish to take their Abu experience to its ultimate conclusion, the camp now offers a “Star Bed” overlooking their enclosure. Here, you can sleep high above the ground, disturbed, apparently, only by the snoring of the elephant below.
Tented Suite, from $3,875 for two (all meals, house beverages, scheduled activities, laundry and park fees included). tel. (27) 11-807-1800.
Set on a 320,000-acre private concession in Botswana’s Selinda Reserve, Zarafa Camp overlooks a two-mile-long lagoon teeming with crocodiles and hippos and home to impressive herds of elephant. The camp opened in 2008 and is the brainchild of celebrated filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert. Drawing on decades of experience, they decided to create the perfect safari camp in an ideal location.
The guest lodgings comprise just four magnificent 1,000-square-foot tented suites, each with a private plunge pool. The interiors are divided into three “rooms.” Large living areas come with leather sofas and armchairs, polished wooden floors, Oriental carpets, antique chests and old-fashioned writing desks. Beyond a canvas screen, equally expansive bedrooms feature king-size beds draped with mosquito netting, and gas fireplaces with burnished copper chimneys. Beyond that, baths provide copper- clad tubs and effective indoor showers. The suites have electric lighting, but are not air-conditioned. Overall, they offer exceptional levels of privacy, comfort and style.
The camp’s spacious and atmospheric living and dining areas are housed beneath a steep, coffee- colored canvas roof and are decorated in a French neocolonial style with dark woods, polished leather, framed maps and shelves of hardback books on African history and wildlife. One entire side of the structure opens onto a huge deck that commands a spellbinding view of the lagoon. Meals are mostly taken outside and the standard of the cooking is, in the circumstances, extraordinary. Selinda offers exceptional year-round game-viewing. The local pride numbers 15 lion, but it has a large territory, and a sighting is not guaranteed. A pack of rare wild dog can frequently be tracked down, however, and leopard sightings are relatively common.
Zarafa is an idyllic camp, with delicious food and superior service. And with a maximum of eight guests, it provides a unique and semi-private safari experience.
Tented Suite, from $2,298 for two (all meals, house Beverages, scheduled activities and park fees included). Tel. (27) 11-807-1800.
An hour by light aircraft southeast of the desert outpost of Maun, the vast Makgadikgadi salt pans cover an area larger than Switzerland. Jack’s Camp is located on a low island at the edge of the pans. It is a place of silence and emptiness, overseen by the immense and cloudless Kalahari sky.
Jack’s was founded by the adventurer and filmmaker Ralph Bousfield in memory of his father, a larger-than-life pioneer. The enormous main living and dining tent reflects the men’s shared passion for Africa’s most elemental places. A stuffed lion in a glass case stands guard over a treasure trove of animal skulls, fossils, eggs, spears, arrows, hundreds of books and maps, 19th-century etchings, and framed posters for exhibitions by the artist and photographer Peter Beard. Down the center of the tent, a dining table seats 20 in comfort, and looks as though it might originally have been intended for army officers on some far-flung Victorian campaign. The 10 guest tents share the same nostalgic décor, with four-poster beds, writing desks, antique furniture, brass-bound chests and bookshelves crammed to capacity. However, they are also extremely comfortable, with large electric fans, en suite baths, effective indoor and outdoor showers, and spacious verandas.
A splendid swimming pool is shaded from the desert sun by a flamboyant cotton canopy. Close by, a waterhole has been dug, which, along with elephant, zebra and wildebeest, occasionally attracts a wandering pride of lion. Jack’s Camp is an extremely well-organized place that also offers delicious cuisine. For those of a romantic and adventurous spirit, it cannot be recommended too highly.
Tented Accommodation, from $2,550 for two (all meals and scheduled activities included). Tel. (27) 11-447-1605.
Susan White Mathis, a native of Atlanta, had long been in search of a place to build an African retreat, and after an extensive search, she settled on Madikwe Game Reserve, a 185,000-acre tract of arid bushveld located an hour by light aircraft northwest of Johannesburg. Enclosed by a 95-mile fence, it is home to 66 mammal species, including lion, leopard, cheetah, elephant and wild dog. After a while, however, it became clear that the home she had constructed for herself and her friends could also function as a small, ultra-luxurious game lodge.
Set around a rocky outcrop, Mateya Safari Lodge comprises just five huge air-conditioned suites. These are astonishingly opulent, with four-poster beds, large fireplaces and artwork ranging from tribal sculptures to contemporary African landscape paintings. The marble baths feature soaking tubs positioned to allow a view of passing wildlife, and interconnecting indoor and outdoor showers. From a sun lounger on your private rosewood deck, all you can see is a stretch of tawny grassland extending beyond your infinity-edge pool to a ridge of distant hills.
Public areas at Mateya are equally lavish and include an exceptional library, plus an expansive living area that provides a gallery-like space for White Mathis’ vast collection of African sculpture. A formal dining room is complemented by a wonderful outdoor deck with a view of a waterhole, plus a private dining area in the 8,000-bottle wine cellar. During our stay, the food was uniformly delicious and the service prompt and exceptionally obliging. Facilities at Mateya include a small spa. The wildlife-viewing is well-organized and the game prolific.
Suite, from $1,865 for two (all meals, local beverages, game drives and park fees included). Madikwe Reserve, Molatedi, North West Province. Tel. (27) 14-778-9200.