Max Anderson visits Chobe National Park, the scene of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton's ill-fated second marriage.
WEDNESDAY 22nd CHOBE
"Having been so drunk yesterday felt terrible in morning and was desperately ill. Went quietly at 9.30[am] to find a double brandy. Asked for Fritz (manager). Reluctantly he opened bar for me and suggested vodka as it wouldn't be so smelly when E had morning kiss. Drank it with very shaking hands."
During most of his adult life, actor Richard Burton filled a diary with love and loathing. But in October 1975 he was to be found scribbling beneath the hot sky of Botswana on the riverside lawns of the Chobe Game Lodge where, for the greater part, he was in more sanguine mood:
"Chobe belongs to E and me. We love each other. It's very simple." Richard Burton
Barely a year after divorcing, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton embarked on a whirlwind two-month reunion. In September 1975 they attended a charity event in Johannesburg before escaping a press pack (excited that it was "on again") by taking a private flight to the two-year-old game lodge in Botswana. For five weeks, they indulged in each other and in their love for African wildlife.
And three things happened that would greatly impact both.
After nearly 40 years, it's fair to say little has changed at Chobe Game Lodge. It's the same slightly stolid two-storey structure built in 1972 by Sol Kerzner, combining Moorish architecture with homage to ancient African civilisations and set high over the magnificent Chobe River.
Thanks to Kerzner's wily politicking it was the only permanent camp in the park; thanks to current park restrictions it's destined to stay that way.
Unlike Kerzner's more infamous Sun City resort fantasy in South Africa, Chobe is surprisingly restrained. The 47 suites, arranged in two terraced wings, are homely spaces with teak beds, damask covers and Victorian sketches of wildlife. The lodge's 100-odd guests gather in an open-sided dining area beside lawns kept trim by warthogs and cooled by river breezes; lavish buffets include exotic African fare such as impala stew and the deliciously soft flesh of the aforementioned warthog.
"No, it hasn't changed a lot," says marketing manager James Wilson, leading me to a fleet of small river boats in front of the lodge. "Obviously it has regular refurbs. In fact, we're upgrading the en suites now. But we keep to its original look and feel."
James invites me on to a craft furnished with snacks and sunset cocktails. "And for most guests, this is what it's all about ..."
The Chobe River braids through great isles of papyrus and lilies. A few stately houseboats lend civility, although the deep guffaws of hippos and black profiles of basking crocs leave no doubts as to its wildness.
The south bank - home to the lodge - is elevated, thick with stands of fever trees and teak. In contrast, the north "bank" is wetland, the watery horizons of Namibia's Caprivi Strip.
The game park is not only beautiful, it's also doolally with game, easily the richest park I've seen during my dozen safaris in southern Africa.
"Went up river with Fritz. Fascinating encounter with bee-eating birds troglodytes. Saw 30-40 elephants": Burton is writing about Kalwizi Valley, a riverbank locale. Our boat idles metres from the "birds troglodytes" - white-fronted Bee-eaters that have their nest holes in a huge bluff of chalk. Squabbling around the chalk cliff are troops of baboons, in turn passively regarded by impalas and kudu. As if an artist has painted them in for background effect, a tower of giraffes pokes from a stand of trees.
Suddenly the bush begins to shake and a herd of two dozen elephants comes charging out, impatient to reach water.
A young male begins trumpeting and sets about chasing the baboons while the herd drinks noisily. Someone invokes "Disney" so unreal is it.
"There's an estimated 40,000 elephants in Chobe," says our boat driver and guide, Lebo. "It's been a safe haven for them since the 1960s and is the highest concentration of African elephants in the world."
THURSDAY 23rd "Went [looking for lion] with [guide] Brian and his wife. Brian and E had seen a great beast last evening in all his glory. E agog with excitement. We searched for two hours with no success but saw everything else ..."
Where Brian fails, our guide succeeds. Lebo is highly accomplished, but most certainly would not have been around for Burton and Taylor: she's one of 14 "Chobe Angels" who exclusively guide the lodge's guests, part of a brilliant initiative to bring women into this male-dominated industry.
The following evening, she swaps the pontoon for a LandCruiser and locates a pride of 15 lionesses and cubs moving in on a buffalo with calf. Alas, the African night is closing fast, so we must return to the safety of the lodge's electric fence.
Outside the gates, we locate a male lion, his black mane silvered by our headlights.
James takes me to see what he calls "Lizzie's suite", the two-room retreat used by the couple. It's at the end of the west wing and easily the most private, with gardens to one side and a sandstone terrace overlooking the river. Here Burton immersed himself in books on the Anglo-Zulu wars and scribbled his thoughts:
"Only [the poet] Manley Hopkins could attempt to catch the magic of this place."
"In 2012 we did a post on our Facebook page about Burton and Taylor," says James as we look over the love nest, dusty from the en suite rebuild. "I got a message from the LearJet pilot who flew the couple into Chobe. He told me the hydraulics failed on approach and he warned the passengers it was going to be a bumpy landing. He said Burton wasn't a great flier ..."
TUESDAY 7th, JOHANNESBURG CHOBE GRASS LANDING "Slight brush with grim reaper. Left suspension, left wheel packed it in. Very rough landing. Guess that we were within 6-8-12 inches from kingdom come."
It was actually Burton and Taylor's second brush with mortality. Two days after arriving on 29th September, they did a side trip to safari in Kruger; Taylor stood in a Land Rover to take photographs, bruising herself badly against the body of the vehicle.
Two days later, she was flown to a Johannesburg hospital to be X-rayed for suspected cracked ribs. No cracks but two spots on lung.
Cancer was eventually ruled out, but it obviously focused Burton's mind. Next night, staying at a friend's house before returning to Chobe, Burton mooted that:
"E and I should get married in Chobe this week. I thought [she] was joking and said so. But E turned out to be serious. Result the latter half of the day a series of ½ joking ½ bitter invective from E. I told her that I was afraid! Literally afraid, at the moment, that marriage might horrifyingly end in divorce."
The rough grass landing brought matters to a head. After writing "being within 6-8-12 inches from kingdom come" Burton adds: "Decided to get married here as soon as possible unless E (or I, for that matter) changes mind."
Three days later, a ceremony was officiated by district commissioner Ambrose Masalila in his office in Kasane, the river-crossing town outside Chobe Park. It was witnessed only by lodge manager Fred ("Fritz") Knoessen and guide Brian Graham. After the 20-minute service, the couple returned to raise champagne glasses on the banks of the Chobe.
FRIDAY 10th "Got shamefully sloshed and despite all my idiocies - nasty too - we are happy as children. We catch our breaths every so often and say with a kind of smiling wonder and delight 'Hey! Do you realize we are actually married?' We must have said it scores of times. I have never been so happy in my life."
Albert Ndereki, 62, was a young gardener when the couple were at Chobe. "I talked to Richard Burton. He used to play his guitar on the terrace - he was a nice man. And he used to tip well! They spent a lot of time in their room; they were very private."
Today Albert oversees a sustainability project that converts food scraps to biogas, filters waste water for the lawns, and grinds bottles to dust, then mixed with cement to make bricks for villagers.
Albert shows me the lumpen besser blocks. "Stronger than cement." They glitter with colours of powdered glass - the bottles returned from the Nyenti bar.
This is where Burton held his vodka "with trembling hands". Today the bar is red, low-lit and dominated by a broad teak counter; tucked into a recess is a monochrome picture of the couple, Taylor in hoop earrings, Burton wearing a queasy grin.
If Burton's Chobe entries are notable for a sort of qualified happiness, they also mark the return of his principal demon. Before his arrival at the park he'd spent August and September abstaining from drink, demonstrating to Taylor that he could reform but also serving some penance for the marathon benders that nearly killed him in 1974.
He fell off the wagon on the wedding day but recovered himself enough to stay sober ... for a week. After that, Chobe marked a sudden and sodden decline.
From the 21st to the 29th, the entries are a cocktail of alcohol and remorse: "Drank enormously and cheated when E wasn't looking . . . Cannot control my hands so cannot write any more ... Having been so drunk yesterday felt terrible in morning and was desperately ill ... Drank a lot. Don't remember anything, if at all ... Drank some more."
The couple flew out three days after this entry. A month later Burton stopped keeping the diary he'd maintained all his life and entered a London clinic to dry out; two months after this he told Taylor he wanted a divorce.
The marriage ended, but the dependence on alcohol did not. Eight years after the Chobe "honeymoon", he died aged 58 from a brain haemorrhage at his home in Celigny, Switzerland.
Burton's Welsh melancholy would have approved of the African thunderheads that gather as the sun sinks into the Chobe and the nightjars sound their haunting cry.
When the blackness presses in, I prefer a table under cheerful lamplight in the dining area, listening to the buzz of guests. A long table of Australians has a birthday girl in its midst, a jolly woman in her later years. When kitchen staff file into the room to sing Happy Birthday, it's a strange hokey sort of version which I wait patiently to end. But on finishing, they sing again, this time a local song filled with rhythm and harmony, cheers and whoops. Then they sing again. And again! They lead her in a procession around the space. They sing half a dozen songs over 20 minutes and it's an electric display of impromptu joy and celebration that sprawls and stomps around the eating area, everyone caught up in something honest and raw that lights up the night.
I look to James, unable to keep the smile of amazement from my face, exuberant at the power of performance. He shrugs. "They do it because they love to do it."
SUNDAY 26th Will doubtless miss Chobe as soon as we get home.
The writer was a guest of Bench International and Chobe Game Lodge. Diary quotes taken from The Richard Burton Diaries, Edited by Chris Williams (Yale).
South African Airways has flights from Sydney and Melbourne to Johannesburg with direct connections to Kasane for about $2200.
This corner of Botswana is ideally combined with a visit to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe (about an hour by road) and Namibia (across the river from the lodge). Bench International has packages that combine all three. Phone 1300-AFRICA or see benchinternational.com.au
Three days/two nights at Chobe Game Lodge costs from $1150 a person twin share, including transfers from Kasane Airport, all meals and local drinks, laundry, all safari activities and national park fees.