Mobile safaris are all about going back to basics and getting up close and personal with the African bush. Forget the gold taps, the roll-top baths, the private plunge pools of luxury safari lodges; this is Africa as it should be.
Camilla in our Africa team recently travelled to Botswana to experience Uncharted Africa’s mobile safaris in the Okavango Delta and find out more about what makes a mobile safari experience so special.
I had no idea what to expect as our plane bumped and juddered over the dusty airstrip in a remote part of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. I’ve visited Africa twice a year for the last six years, each time returning with different memories, altered ways of seeing things. I’ve driven through the white sands of Namibia’s Etosha National Park, explored the lush Luangwa Valley looking for leopard, even sat and sunbathed on the pristine beaches of Mozambique. But Botswana was totally different.
As we disembarked from the plane, our guide stepped forward to meet us. I’d heard a lot about Ralph Bousfield. He was the only son of the legendary Jack, survivor of six plane crashes and victim of the seventh. Jack’s name is famous across the world as one of Botswana’s old pioneers, the original vagabond who arrived in the outpost town of Maun to find his future. On being told that due south was “miles and miles of bloody Africa” he got in his landrover and drove straight towards it. In the vastness of the Makgadikgadi Pans, he created Jack’s Camp and San Camp – now exclusive and intimate safari camps frequented by the most highbrow of visitors. After his untimely death, Ralph continued in his father’s footsteps.
Stepping out of the plane, I expected to see a grizzled safari guide – perhaps with a knife at his belt, a crocodile tooth necklace, maybe copper bangles jangling at his wrists. I’d been told he was the best guide in Botswana, maybe even in the whole of Africa. Instead, a shaggy-haired, white-jeaned, ray-banned vogue model approached us. Ralph! Not the safari guide I’d expected, this chap was in a whole different league, and proved it almost before we’d driven off the airstrip.
A family of baboon were hanging around, slouching in trees, the youngsters snickering with each other. Before we knew it an hour had passed, and we were still mesmerised. Ralph made us see the extraordinary in the everyday, weaving stories around fact, keeping us all transfixed – a family of baboon which we could so easily have driven past became one of the most fascinating sightings.
We headed onward to our mobile camp, where we were to spend the next three nights, being guided by Ralph. The camp was simple, rustic…and sublime. The tents all set around the main camp fire, and dinners under the stars.
Our tents were quirky, furnished with little touches here and there – a compass that Jack had used, a box in our room with his initials, everything had memories and felt authentic. Meals were served on proper china, and there was not a tin cup in sight, everything had a touch of history to it. This was safari – old style. Karen Blixen would have been proud.
Our days were spent exploring the area – and soon we learned that Ralph does not do timings. A three hour game drive would end up taking all day, and we didn’t mind or even notice the time passing.
We spent two hours watching zebra, Ralph explaining that, in typical Mills and Boon fashion, that the two fighting were a future son-in-law and the alpha male – and the fight was for the hand in marriage of one of the young fillies. Romance in the bush!
One of the most exciting sighting happened at dusk where at one point we had a leopard strolling through the undergrowth on one side of the truck and a pair of alpha males stalking a herd of red lechwe on the other.
Ralph’s enthusiasm spilled over into the whole group – his fascination with the world around him, despite no doubt having seen it many times before, was infectious. There was no feeling of “been there, done that” with him – from the smallest sighting we got the feeling that he genuinely loves it and is surprised each day.
One of our most memorable experiences was our night flycamping on the island. On comfortable cots set up under billowing white mosquito nets, we slept beneath the stars, the sounds of the African night serenading us.
We woke in the morning to the smell of freshly brewing coffee, prepared old-style over the camp fire, served with delicious freshly made bread baked in a traditional camp oven.
Later that day we stripped off and bathed in the clear waters of the Delta – so clear that crocodiles were no threat at all – and wonderfully cool and refreshing! We ate a delicious picnic lunch sitting at a camp table, our feet buried in the wet Okavango sand.
Our spirits were lifted driving back to the airstrip when we came across a long line of elephants crossing the flood plain. It felt almost like a farewell committee sending us off!
Our three days with Ralph were a revelation – never before have I met a guide with such enthusiasm, such passion for the wilds of Africa – and who was able to impart this with such vigour that even now my memories are fresh in my mind. He may command a price tag, but I cannot recommend him highly enough. Even for the most experienced safari-goer, Ralph will make you see things totally differently, and the memories you take home with you will last a lifetime.