A bygone grandeur

MAY 2015 – With its unrivalled blend of bush luxury and exceptional exclusivity, Zarafa Dhow Suites in Botswana’s Selinda Reserve has carved out a niche as one of Africa’s most unforgettable safari getaways.

Peace. It’s something so many of us seek amid the demands of modern-day living. We seek out a simpler world with a slower pace, where there is time to stop and soak up the beauty of our surroundings. To find space to breathe, and reconnect with ourselves, our family, our beloveds. To craft unforgettable memories in a timeless landscape that cares little for clocks or deadlines. That place is Zarafa Dhow Suites.

Pitched on the remote eastern edge of the private Selinda Reserve, Zarafa is only accessible by light aircraft. Cut off from the world by watery channels and hundreds of kilometres of wilderness, it is as far from the madding crowd as you could hope for. But more importantly, it is situated in what is perhaps the finest wilderness region in all of Africa.

The Selinda Reserve, a 129 000-hectare sanctuary in northern Botswana, is perhaps most famous for the remarkable Selinda Spillway, an ancient channel that connects the Okavango Delta with the Linyanti River.

Linyanti and Okavango are both iconic names in the annals of African wilderness destinations, but for those in the know Selinda easily takes its place alongside them. For Selinda is a secretive place, revealing its wonders only to those with the patience and tenacity to venture a little farther from the beaten track, to leave the tourists behind and venture forth with the true safari travellers.

While a handful of other camps in Selinda Reserve offer a superlative wildlife experience, the exclusivity of Zarafa Dhow Suites – booked solely on an exclusive-use basis and sleeping just four adults at a time – promises an entirely unique way to discover this immaculate wilderness.

And perhaps the best place to start is with the destination’s unusual name. On the drive from the airstrip, the Zarafa rangers will no doubt regale you with the story of how the camp came by its curious moniker.

It’s a strange old story involving a giraffe, a dhow and a lengthy journey down the Nile. When the Viceroy of Egypt decided to gift a Nubian giraffe to King Charles X of France in 1826, he quickly found that dhows most certainly weren’t built for giraffes. To accommodate Zarafa – meaning ‘beloved one’ – a hole was cut into the upper deck of the dhow to allow for her slender neck to protrude. A wonderful view for Zarafa, and no doubt the strangest sight ever seen on Africa’s famous waterway.

The billowing canvas roof of Zarafa Dhow Suites may easily call to mind the stately ‘safari’ of the camp’s namesake, but an enigmatic name and a tall tale isn’t the only connection the camp shares with East and North Africa.

Elaborate Zanzibari doors add a touch of spice island exoticism to the richly furnished interiors, while the ox-blood tones of Arabia and East Africa come through in the kilims that add richness and texture to the golden grain of the wooden floors.

Although cut from the same luxurious cloth as the acclaimed Zarafa Camp, the Zarafa Dhow Suites offer a level of exclusivity rarely found in Africa. Home to just two spacious bedrooms and a central lounge area, Zarafa Dhow is entirely set apart from the main camp, with a separate entrance guaranteeing perfect privacy for the handful of guests lucky enough to call Zarafa Dhow home.

This secluded under-canvas escape also boasts its own retinue of staff: a private chef is always on hand to craft whatever your heart desires; while a dedicated guide ensures a superlative wildlife experience whether you prefer a bush walk in the cool light of dawn, or an afternoon boat excursion on the expansive Zibadianja Lagoon. This is, quite simply, your perfectly private slice of wildest Africa.

The two opulent bedrooms are an absolute highlight of the Dhow Suites, with an echo of vintage safaris redolent in the elegant travellers’ trunks and romantic mosquito nets that billow down around the hand-carved four-poster beds swathed in crisp white linen.

There’s an unmistakable emphasis on space here too. Views rush in through floor-to-ceiling windows, while open-plan bathrooms lead effortlessly off each master bedroom, separated by an enormous copper-domed indoor fireplace.

Dramatic hardwood pillars frame the glorious copper shower, the water disappearing like rivulets of the Spillway through the wooden floor below. To one side, with superlative views out across the bushveld, a polished brass slipper bath simply begs for languid evenings soaking away the dust and adventure of a day in Africa. Don’t be surprised if you find the bath drawn and a bottle of champagne on ice when you return from your afternoon game excursion.

Bedroom suites spill out onto a spacious wooden deck shaded by an enormous tree, offering up spectacular views of the game-rich Zibadianja Lagoon. A plunge-pool takes the edge off searing Botswana afternoons, with sun loungers providing the perfect spot for a lazy day watching the wilderness wander by. Elephant and buffalo often parade within metres of the deck; meaning even days spent relaxing in camp offer up a front-row seat to the best game-viewing Botswana has to offer.

Come evening, as the sun sets beyond the placid waters of the lagoon, the hurricane lanterns are lit and dinner is served beneath the stars. No effort is spared here, with white linen napery and crystal glasses ensuring an entirely decadent dining experience.

While the bedroom suites and spacious deck are a highlight, it’s in the airy lounge that the ghosts of vintage safaris are most keenly felt. A giant leather Chesterfield looks out over the lagoon; a fine place to settle in with a bird book and pair of binoculars. Dramatic imagery of local wildlife offers inspiration and a reminder of what is to come, while a small library of African literature will tempt you to delve deeper into the history of this corner of the continent. Elegant woven rugs add a touch of homeliness to the billowing canvas roof and endless views, while a cosy traveller’s table invites guests to spend languid hours trading tales from a day of adventure. Wooden trunks that the likes of Livingstone, Selous and Hemingway might have used sit to one side, a poignant reminder that the allure of Africa has long brought travellers here to journey through Selinda’s untouched wilderness.

Throughout the camp the emphasis is on elegant simplicity and reviving the romance of the golden era of African safaris. An era when time travelled as slowly as the elephants meandering through the forests of jackalberry and mangosteens a stone’s throw beyond the canvas walls. An era when the modern world was yet to intrude on our deep connection to the wilderness. For aside from the irresistible luxury of the camp, that wilderness is the prime attraction of Zarafa Dhow Suites.

Selinda’s famous spillway may be one of the best wildlife destinations in Africa, but the Zibadianja Lagoon is equally renowned for the vast herds of elephant and buffalo that gather here, particularly in the dry season when it is the most important water source for miles around. Pods of hippo defend their territory and crocodiles cruise the channels in search of unwary prey. It’s a microcosm of Selinda, offering incredible game viewing on the doorstep of Zarafa Dhow Suites. When water levels allow, your private guide will take you out on the water aboard the playfully named HES Zib.

Throughout the year though, morning and afternoon game viewing can be enjoyed on a private open-air 4×4 vehicle, with your expert guide bringing the bushveld to life.

For the energetic, guided walks offer an unforgettable close-up view of Selinda Reserve, and a chance to delve deeper into the remarkable ecosystem of this corner of Botswana.

Zarafa Dhow itself forms part of that ecosystem, and enormous effort has been put into minimising the camp’s environmental impact. The Dhow Suites are constructed with a light ‘footprint’ on the surrounding bush, with a cutting-edge solar farm providing eco-friendly power throughout the day. Ultraviolet filtration of borehole water has eliminated the need for bottled water, while perhaps the most exciting innovation is the decision to run the camp’s fleet of game vehicles on a blend of eco-friendly biodiesel.

Taken as a whole, it transforms Zarafa Dhow Suites into one of the ‘greenest’ safari camps in Africa, as well as perhaps the most exclusive.

And in that exclusivity lies what so many travellers come in search of: that sense of peace, and a deep connection to one of the most memorable wilderness destinations in Africa. The early explorers may well have marvelled at the untold luxuries on offer at Zarafa Dhow Suites – and they would most certainly have tipped their dusty leather hats to its remarkable location and deep respect for the wilderness it calls home.

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