Dereck and Beverley Joubert are the kind of documentary filmmakers who capture footage so startling you swear it must be staged. Surely those lions taking down a buffalo are the product of CGI. Surely that leopard stalking through grass lives in a zoo somewhere, and was baited with treats.
But no: The Jouberts are really that good, which is why they have five Emmy awards, and the World Ecology Award, and were recently inducted into the American Academy of Achievement. It is why they are Explorers-in-Residence for National Geographic, and why their books of photography are beloved bestsellers. Dereck and Beverley Joubert capture images of predators that resonate in some deep instinctual place of the mind.
Their images incite nothing less than awe.
What would it be like to see Botswana – their home – as they do? This is the question that motivates my recent trip to the Okavango Delta, a vast wetland often described, accurately, as one of the natural wonders of Africa.
A few years ago, the Jouberts co-founded a company, Great Plains Conservation, with the mission of using sustainable tourism to safeguard indispensable natural environments. Partnering with governments and local communities, the idea was that Great Plains camps would funnel much-needed funds into social and ecological projects. The camps would generate income and employment for people in need, by leasing land from them and offering service and guide jobs. Furthermore, the camps would help advance campaigns such as Rhinos Without Borders, which aims to protect the critically endangered species from insidious poaching.
The three Great Plains camps dotted within and around the Okavango Delta achieve all this. But they also do something else. They offer a sublimely intimate view of the Botswana landscape as the Jouberts have so memorably seen it.
DUBA PLAINS CAMP
Seen from above, the Okavango Delta looks like a giant patterned tablecloth that has half-rotted with mildew. It is vast, stretching from horizon to horizon, and dramatically different as you move across, despite all being part of the same ecosystem.
Duba Plains borders the Moremi Game Reserve in the north of the Delta. It began life two decades ago as a research camp, and research continues today alongside the tourism on lion prides. The camp is a partnership with the Okavango Community Trust, which represents five communities who have lived in the area for centuries.
This is where Dereck and Beverley shot Relentless Enemies, a documentary about the tense relationship between lions and buffalo. It also happens to be where they fell in love – and where they often live today, in a small, well-equipped camp that looks like a cross between Robinson Crusoe's treehouse and something Ernest Hemingway might find glamorous. The Joubert household is not far from the Duba Expedition Camp, on an island surrounded by slowly inundating floodplains, where the rest of us can dip our toes in the fantasy of living in an African wilderness.
I am woken at 5.30am. There is a smell of fresh cut grass, of rain and dust. A catfish chomps its jaws as it makes a bid for an insect in the air.
Soon enough I am installed on top of a tiered truck, feeling like Cleopatra on the back of her dais. "Anything on the floor?" the driver asks.
He drives us straight into a lake until water rushes over the lip of the door. We emerge, hippo-like, on the other side of the channel.
Duba Plains offers more or less the most spectacular introduction to the Delta possible. As a private concession, some 77,000 acres large, there are no vehicles but the ones belonging to Great Plains. You will not see another tourist poking around the labyrinthine jigsaw of interconnected islands. It becomes, in effect, your own planet during safari: an alien world of lakes and hills dotted with fires that can smolder for months, sending up eerie smoke signals.
Elephants are numerous, as are termite mounds. In fact, the elephant and ant are the keystone species here, equally responsible for shaping the landscape. Many of the islands began life as a termite nest, expanding outwards as they collect sediment. The elephants then come along and carry seeds from place to place like lumbering farmers. All of the non-native palm trees can be attributes to their migrations. Perhaps they wanted the shade. Everything in the Okvango Delta is linked, my driver tells me, as we rumble into another channel. He even calls the aardvark "the minister for housing" – it creates burrows that other animals can then use after it evacuates, including, incredibly, the lion.
Safari can be a peaceful journey, and after a while I slip into a contended trance. As evening descends, a thick fog begins to collect, and red lechwes jump in front of the truck, their silhouettes against the setting sun resembling cutouts in a puppet theatre.
As soon as the plane lands, having transferred me to the remote 320,000-acre Selinda Reserve on the edge of the Delta, rain begins to pour from the heavens. My driver, Stanley, quickly makes it clear that he is fearless. Within an hour we have become so bogged down in mud he has to leverage us out with branches, been mock-charged by an elephant in the middle of a herd, and chased a pack of wild dogs, often called "painted wolves". Whenever things get a little hairy, Stanley smiles even wider, and shouts, "Adventure!"
If Duba was about the beauty and landscape, Selinda brings the natural drama of the Jouberts' documentaries to thrilling life.
When Great Plains took over the Selinda Reserve in 2006, it was decimated: wildlife had been poached relentlessly until there was almost nothing left. It is a testament to the power of tourism conservation that the area now teems with animals, as well as research teams to observe them in their natural habitat.
Selinda Camp sits on the eastern Selinda Spillway, and is orientated to face out over a wide, scenic wetland that seems to stretch into infinity. There is a large pool suspended over the marsh, a games room, and each suite has its own private viewing deck.
Stanley has other plans for my visit, though. Within an hour of arriving, soaked through and covered in dirt, I am greeted with an emergency announcement: A leopard has been discovered. I must go immediately.
Soon enough I'm seated next to a woman clutching her Prada handbag – and a safety rail. Stanley uses the "all terrain" vehicle to its maximum capabilities as he trails a leopard that appears to have recently eaten and is now either returning home to her cubs or taking us on a wild goose chase. Stanley swings around, circles the leopard, follows through trees and over rocks, trailing like paparazzi. The Prada lady laughs as her body bounces around the vehicle. But eventually the cat disappears, making Stanley furious. He seems to take it as a personal slight.
"We must not give up," he insists.
Eventually the truck decides otherwise. We park at a hippo-invested waterhole so Stanley can pour water on the overheated radiator.
To become a guide in Botswana requires extensive training at a government-run institution. Stanley, who spent years studying, can hold forth on an astonishing array of topics, from cloud formations to the birthing process of hippos. The native animal of Botswana is a zebra, he tells us, because the first president married a white English woman. In other words, the stripes of the zebra represent racial harmony in the independent nation.
The next moment, he is pointing at some vultures sitting high in a fever tree and explaining how to read them as a sign. We race to the base of the tree and find a pride of lions feasting on a dead erdu. Stanley, excited, gets the truck so close I can see the flies crawling on the corpse. After he kills the engine, he opens a box and offers me my own afternoon snack.
We watch for a while as the lion cubs tumble about. But then Stanley whistles, turning around to look at me. "She changed her behaviour," he says, gesturing at the largest lioness. "Your shirt is red. She is stalking you." He sounds delighted.
Zarafa is driving distance from Selinda, but light years from everything else in terms of spectacle.
Built on the edge of the Zibadianja Lagoon, the location of Zarafa is not random. Years ago, the story goes, Dereck and Beverley set up camp here after a long day of filming their dramatic interactions with animals, and they immediately became besotted with an ebony tree overhead. This tree now sits in the middle of the camp, which has grown up around it.
Zarafa shows just how magical a night in the Botswana bush can actually be – and how far the conservation ethic can be taken without compromising its basic principles. There are only four "tented villas" in the camp, but each one is an extraordinary blend of eco-friendly construction and sublime comfort. Floors, for example, are recycled railroad sleepers. Much of the furniture is made from Indonesian mahogany rescued after the 2005 tsunami. The Jouberts designed the camp themselves and they've attempted to reduce its eco footprint to the size of a flea.
Not that you notice while actually staying there. My "villa" is more spacious and comfortable than my apartment at home, and it offers no less than four ways of bathing: a copper shower, a copper bathtub, a private plunge pool and an outdoor shower if I feel the need to put on a show for the local wildlife (perhaps after raiding the fully stocked bar). There is a lounge room, and above the bed a strange air-conditioning device that circulates air like a waterfall. Electricity, I should mention, comes from an on-site solar farm.
While at Zarafa, I go out several times on safari, including a walk with a man who carries a giant rifle as though I'm a head of state in need of a bodyguard. But the attraction here is the camp itself, and the strange sensation that comes with laying between expensive sheets as an elephant pokes around your window.
Great Plains covers the full spectrum of experience, from mud-splattering thrills to luxury so fine it makes many urban hotels look like the pits. As I travel back to Maun, saying goodbye to Botswana, I feel only even more envy for the Jouberts. What a life.
FIVE TIPS FOR GOING ON SAFARI
Safari is a meditative activity that involves a considerable amount of aimless wandering as your driver searches for animals. Just as interesting is the landscape, and the guides are knowledgeable about it as well. Ask questions about everything.
USE A CHECKLIST
Like a game of bingo, most safari camps will give you a comprehensive list of all the mammals, birds, reptiles and insects you may happen to see. Keeping track is surprisingly useful as a learning exercise, and a memento of just how much you actually see beyond the Big Five.
DON'T GET OUT OF THE VEHICLE
As recent news reports of lion maulings prove, the guides are not joking when they say that keeping your body in the vehicle can be a matter of life and death.
GET OUT OF THE VEHICLE
Ask to go on a walking safari, and definitively have a sundowner out in the animal reserve. As long as the experts are there to make sure everything is safe, there is a great deal more to do than touring about in a truck.
ENJOY THE CAMP
Staff will assume you want to go out on safari multiple times a day. Don't be afraid to skip an afternoon to relax and take advantage of the beautiful facilities.
South Africa Airways offers flights from all major Australian cities to Maun, in Botswana, via Johannesburg. From Maun, small light planes offer easy access to the safari camps. It is important to note that the small planes have luggage restrictions, including no hard cases. See flysaa.com
Bench Africa offer four-day itineraries to either Duba Expedition Camp, Selinda Camp or Zarafa.
Four days at Duba starts from $6690 per person twin share, including five-star accommodation, all meals and drinks, air transfers from Maun, and game viewing activities. Four days at Selinda starts from $5395 per person twin share. Four days at Zarafa, one of the most luxurious camps in the country, starts from $8940 per person twin share.
Trips combining multiple camps can also be arranged. See benchafrica.com.au or call 1300 237 422.
Lance Richardson travelled as a guest of Bench Africa.