DECEMBER 2014 – Set in one of the most iconic wildlife areas of the Okavango Delta, with a river running through it, Machaba Camp epitomises old-world luxury and charm. The magnificent tented camp offers guests an authentic African safari experience, while ensuring minimal impact on the pristine surrounding environment.
A long time ago three close friends had a dream. In 2012 that dream grew wings, and in early 2013 it took flight as Machaba Camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Alistair Rankin and Murray Collins have been friends since they were seven years old; Chris Hatshe joined the trio 20 years ago when Alistair had his first job as a ranger in Botswana. They’re a formidable group with a wealth of local knowledge that immediately sets them apart from the crowd.
Machaba is the Setswana word for the sycamore fig tree, also called the tree of life in Botswana because of its abundant fruit. It’s also a fitting symbol for Machaba Camp, already a favourite destination in the delta. Immediately on opening, it was invited into the Classic Safaris portfolio – the only camp in Botswana to be incorporated – and in its first 18 months, it was nominated for five prestigious awards, including ‘Botswana’s Leading Tented Safari Camp’ in the 2013 World Travel Awards.
“It’s a wonderful success story,” says Managing Director Alistair modestly, “and the growth has been natural and organic. The camp has been filled with guests wanting an authentic, unobtrusive bush experience in this game-rich area. There is always an incredible wildlife intensity around Machaba Camp and it’s active and engaging throughout the year, so this is a great drawcard.”
The 10 tented suites that are Machaba Camp thread along the treeline that fringes the languid Khwai River. Camp views are across the majestic Moremi Game Reserve of eastern Okavango, proclaimed a protected area by the visionary widow of Chief Moremi III back in 1963. It was the first reserve in Africa to be proclaimed by local people, and it remains the only officially protected area in the Okavango Delta. Not only is Moremi coveted by safari visitors and wildlife lovers, but it’s of supreme importance for conservation, scientific and environmental reasons, too. And Machaba Camp is right there.
“We wanted a camp that is simple but luxurious,” continues Alistair, “and which at the same time echoes the era of the 1950s African explorers. No, there are no pith helmets or gramophones to be found here, but it does look like the camp can be quickly dismantled and moved as if you were on an old African safari. While that feeling may not appeal to everyone, for us it is offering guests an authentic African bush experience. We also want people to hear the lions roar from their tents, without air-conditioners muffling the sound. We want them to experience real Africa, but in full luxury.”
Machaba treads lightly, even though its 10 luxury tents are large and spacious, with living areas and verandas overlooking the river, en‑suite bathrooms and romantic outdoor showers. Two tents are even bigger than the rest and serve as family suites (children of all ages are welcome at the camp) that can be zipped into two private rooms if desired.
Décor throughout is cool and creamy, in canvas, raffia, linen and mohair. Colours are soothingly neutral with a single pop of colour in the floor rug grounding each suite. Furnishings and appointments are all inspired by the colonial era, but spaces – which are splashed in sunlight all day – are purposely kept uncluttered and relaxing.
The abundant year-round sunshine in the Okavango is also harvested by Machaba to run a thoroughly green, eco-friendly lodge. A solar farm supplies 90% of all the lodge’s energy requirements and a small, silent, ecopack generator is run for just an hour each day for high-draw appliances. “But our aim is definitely to go completely off the grid as soon as possible,” confirms Alistair. “That is a goal that we are all driven to achieve.”
Since it opened, Machaba Camp has run a grey-water system, too. Grey water is purified in an extensive five-stage filtration process and then sprinkled back onto the earth, where it greens the area behind the lodge, while at the same time replenishing the underground water table. The philosophy is to take as little as possible and return as much as possible to the earth – water included.
Drinking water is provided in Machaba-labelled, BPA-free-plastic water bottles that are reusable and recyclable. So Machaba Camp’s water ‘footprint’, though surrounded by the Okavango Delta, is minimal.
“The uniqueness of the Okavango is that it’s in full flood when the rest of Botswana is bone dry,” explains Alistair, “so it’s a huge attraction for wildlife, which then concentrates in the delta. Then when the summer rains come from December to March, the herds move into the surrounding mopane woodlands and disperse. The concentration drops a little but the diversity remains. That is why the Khwai River area is one of the best game viewing places in Botswana, because there is always game there.”
Game viewing is by vehicle, on traditional dugout canoes or ‘mokoro’ on the quiet backwaters of the delta, or on foot accompanied by an armed ranger. Guests are encouraged to experience all three, because each offers a completely different vantage point.
Mokoro trips are a gentle float in the stream as you watch wildlife go about its business. Elephants may even cross in front of you, unperturbed at your presence. Depending on the season and the height of the grass, bush walks allow personal, close encounters with wildlife at ground level, while game drives offer elevated and aerial perspectives on the surrounding environment. Night drives are also offered and reveal a completely different facet of the African bush with a whole new variety of nocturnal animals to see.
Then again, you don’t even need to leave Machaba Camp to enjoy incredible wildlife sightings. From your tent, you can look out over the river and watch huge herds of elephant, a variety of antelope and plentiful predators moving along the river through the day.
Eight leopard are resident in the area and two packs of African wild dogs also
live close to the camp. One pack has denned for a decade just 10 minutes’ drive from Machaba Camp. Plus the Khwai River is full of hippos and the bird life is spectacular.
“Having guided for 20 years, I don’t like rushing around,” admits Alistair. “So when I have a chance, I’ll drive down the track along the river. I take four hours to drive three kilometres because the wildlife and bird life is so phenomenal. “You’ll see 50 species before you know it, saddle-billed storks fishing in front of you, black egrets hunting, prolific game, hippos, crocs and elephant. Then you’ll hear an impala barking, and when you go and have a look, there’ll be a leopard or a lion. The wildlife here is interactive – an impala will try and swim the river, wild dogs will chase a leopard up a tree; there’s an ongoing pulse of life. The proximity of the river and it’s attraction for wildlife has a lot to do with it.”
Wildlife lovers, yes. But Alistair, Chris and Murray are dream weavers too. Their dream was born out of a lifelong love for the Okavango and a driving desire to create “a little piece of heaven here for others to also enjoy”.
“What we want more than anything is to fulfil people’s dreams,” muses Alistair. “For many guests, visiting here is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and we want to ensure it’s completely unforgettable. As a small, independent and owner-run camp, we can focus on details and personal touches. It should feel like coming home to guests, with unfettered luxury, excellent food and outstanding service. It’s really quite simple.” The trio’s combined passion for the bush and realising dreams guarantee just that.