There's one on every trip: the experience that got away. The tour you couldn't fit in, the restaurant that was fully booked, the hotel that was closed for renovations. On this particular African safari, it was sleeping under the stars in South Africa's Madikwe game reserve. My husband and I had fantasised about it for months but had, foolishly, booked this special Luxury Escapes experience for our last night. By late afternoon, smutty clouds had rushed over the sky. By early evening rain was sifting down, each drop making that muslin-shrouded, candlelit bed in the bush an increasingly distant dream.
We'd certainly started our safari with the right approach. Straight off our third plane in 30 hours, we plonked our bags down at the luxurious Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma treehouse lodge in Zambia and immediately jumped into a safari truck. Within minutes we were spotting wet-eyed impala and giraffe grazing the treetops, the red dust swirling around our vehicle. Soon after, we were stepping carefully through the bush with an armed local guide towards two southern white rhinos, snoozing and farting under some trees. We heard about their success story – how, from numbers as low as 50 left in the wild in the early 1990s, this sub-species has increased to roughly 20,000 today, becoming the most populous of all the rhino species.
As humans, it seems, we're most alive in the presence of what is beautiful. By the time we were standing at the banks of the Zambezi nursing glasses of crisp white wine and watching the setting sun fall onto the water like gold bars, the world felt brand new. Without the constant distractions of texts and emails and Instagram notifications, we were wide open and as curious as kids.
This childlike sense of wonder was, of course, only enhanced by waking up in our treehouse the next morning. We emerged onto our balcony with views over the rushing Zambezi, sipped tea and prepared for our next adventure: whizzing over Victoria Falls, the world's largest stretch of falling water, in a helicopter. An experience only outdone by walking across the Knife Edge Bridge where, directly opposite the falls, we stood and felt the force of 625 million litres of water pouring over the cliffs each minute vibrate inside us. We emerged soaked to the bone, but with hearts full of earth praise.
There's nowhere on the planet where wildlife puts on a greater show, however, than Botswana. By day three of our safari we had crossed the Zambezi, leaving Zambia behind for the undisputed king of African safari. Our first destination was Chobe National Park in the country's north-east, home to the world's largest remaining population of elephants and another glamorous Sanctuary lodge, Chobe Chilwero. All washed terracotta walls, raw wood finishes, gauzy mosquito nets and African tribal sculptures, a place peeled straight from a Peter Beard artwork, with panoramic views across the floodplains to Namibia.
As our time in Chobe stretched on, our minds continued to be pulled further away from everyday life as the bush took over. An afternoon game drive through the two-million-acre park made the "real world" seem particularly distant. There was a bachelor party of impala, the young male antelopes play-fighting in preparation for mating season. There was the black heron we watched on the floodplain, as it repeatedly swept its glossy wings over its head like a cape. There was the breeding herd of elephants, their four babies delighting us as they scuffled playfully in the dust. When the sky turned pink, the moreish African liqueur Amarula was poured, the moon rose and the air filled with dragonflies. As we zoomed back to the lodge, there on the path in front of us appeared a female lion, calmly lapping a puddle. Proof that in the African bush, the possibility of discovery lies hidden around every corner.
The downside of this, of course, is that it made it near impossible to simply stay put and enjoy the extraordinary camps and lodges our Luxury Escapes itinerary had us staying in. It took my husband and I an entire week of racing around like cheetahs on speed to finally sit back, relax and indulge in the greatest of safari luxuries: DNA, or Do Nothing At All. By this point in our journey, we'd flown roughly 200 kilometres southwest to Botswana's Okavango Delta. We found ourselves ensconced in the recently refurbished Stanley's Camp, a classic safari camp where just eight luxury tents are set on a private 260,000-acre concession. Exhausted and bush-bashed as we were, after a sunrise game walk where termite mounds rose from the ground like gigantic crooked fingers and the scent of wild basil and sage filled the air, we spent the rest of the day vegetating. We flopped by the kidney-shaped pool overlooking the lush plains, occasionally dipping our bodies into the water. We ordered cocktails from the bar tent, a chic new addition to the lodge following the recent renovation, while we processed all the preposterous things we'd seen so far. We napped under the ceiling fans in our tent and, later, indulged in a four-course meal under the stars, nothing but the tinkling frogs and crackling fire as our soundtrack.
As exciting as safari can be, it's the chance to get up close to the animals that every safari-goer dreams of. The following morning, we headed out to meet an extraordinary couple named Doug and Sandi Groves, who have been parenting an elephant named Jabu for the past 29 years. Ever since rescuing Jabu from a culling operation in South Africa, Doug and Sandi have looked after him and another younger elephant named Marula, out in the bush, as a tight family of four. Two hours melted away as we walked with Jabu and Marula in the early light. We got to briefly hold their trunks and stroke their thick, wrinkled skin, and heard about the devastating effect the ivory trade has had on the African elephant population, costing the continent 20,000 to 30,000 elephants a year. At one point I looked directly into Jabu's enormous white-rimmed eyes and felt like I could see the whole universe.
That afternoon, as we were being pushed through the thick, still waters of the delta on a traditional mokoro dugout canoe, I could still see those eyes. Out there in the wilderness, without the constant distractions of my regular life, I noticed I could actually hold things in my mind for longer than a few seconds.
By the time we reached South Africa's Madikwe reserve a few days later, by a six-seater plane flown low over the floodplains, my day's usual soundtrack of beeps and alerts were a distant memory. On a morning game drive our guide Trevor – a young Zimbabwean who had never had a Facebook or Instagram account and didn't even have an email address – continued our instruction on the forgotten luxuries of looking and listening. Parking our Jeep just metres away from a pair of cheetah feeding on a zebra, he told us to simply watch and listen. The cheetah's blood-smeared faces and the terrible sound of cracking bones are still clear as a midsummer's sky in my mind as I write this, two months later.
As our 11 days in the African wilderness drew to a close, even though that final experience of sleeping under the stars had eluded us, we'd gained something we hadn't expected. The ability to see the world properly again, without all the noise.
Nina Karnikowski travelled as a guest of Luxury Escapes.
FIVE OTHER LUXURY SAFARI EXPERIENCES
1. HAVE A ROYAL HAND AND FOOT CEREMONY
Unwind with this muscle-melting spa treatment post-game drive at the only full day spa on Botswana's safari circuit, in the treetop treatment room at Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero.
2. TAKE A PHOTOGRAPHIC CRUISE
Set sail on the Chobe river on a safari boat with 360-degree swivel seats and camera mounts, so you'll never miss a wildlife moment.
3. DINE IN AN AFRICAN CELLAR
Book a candlelit dinner in the wine cellar of Sanctuary's Makanyane safari lodge, surrounded by stone walls heaving with bottles of South Africa's finest.
4. SAFARI AFTER DARK
Meet Africa's nocturnal residents, while wrapped in a warm blanket and with a glass of wine in hand on a night safari drive. They're only available in private game reserves, so nab the opportunity when you can.
5. SLEEP UNDER THE STARS
Experience a romantic night in the African bush, surrounded by lanterns in Sanctuary Makanyane lodge's private star-view hide.
Qantas flies from Sydney to Johannesburg, then South African Airways connects to Livingstone. See qantas.com
Luxury Escapes offers an 11-night small group safari taking in Zambia, Botswana and South Africa, including luxury accommodation with Sanctuary Retreats, all meals and beverages, the Flight of the Angels helicopter ride over Victoria Falls, a Walking with Elephants experience and more, from $8499 a person. See luxuryescapes.com