The call of the wild

Looking out over the waters of the Zibadianja Lagoon, which rise and fall in tune with the seasons of the Okavango Delta, Zarafa Camp is a jewel of eco-luxury and exclusivity in a magical land teeming with wildlife. The sense of being the only explorer in the world is one of many privileges awaiting visitors to this beautiful private reserve in Botswana.

May 2015

Living life in the wild and experiencing the thrills of Africa needn’t mean letting go of luxuries. While Beverly and Dereck Joubert (owners of Zarafa Camp with their partners in Great Plains Conservation), have spent many years following lions through the wilderness areas of Africa, sleeping in their vehicle or camping under a sheltering ebony tree in single-minded pursuit of their award-winning documentary films and photography, they don’t expect similar sacrifices from their guests. On the contrary, Zarafa has been designed as one of the most luxurious and exclusive tented camps in Botswana, pampering its guests with exceptional comfort. In fact, Zarafa and the nearby Zarafa Dhow Suites are the only Relais & Chateaux properties in the country.

From the moment guests push open the heavy wooden Lamu doors to their huge canopied tent – one of only four on the banks of the Zibadianja Lagoon – it’s evident that this isn’t camping; more a sumptuous home from home.

The spacious lounge exudes timeless warmth, from the deep leather sofa to the thoughtful desk and rich Persian rugs. Peek into the leather safari trunks to discover Swarovski binoculars and the latest Canon SLR camera complete with two lenses so that you can capture all those safari highlights like a professional wildlife photographer. At the end of your stay, a DVD of all your images is yours to take home.

Committed to minimising the camp’s footprint for their innovative vision of conservation tourism, the Jouberts sourced all the timber for the wooden decks and floors from 100-year-old railway sleepers reclaimed from abandoned Zambian railways, and commissioned furniture from Indonesian craftsmen using hardwoods washed up after the 2005 tsunami.

A canvas curtain arch leads to the bedroom where a comfortable king-sized bed is swathed in netting and fitted with a unique cooling system for summer. There’s also a ceiling fan, though the tents are kept naturally cool by the shade of the tall trees under which they sit, as well as the insulation offered by double-sided canvas and the breezes that flow through the open netted sides.

Burnished metal is the theme in the spacious en-suite bathroom. Here a gorgeous brass tub takes centre stage at the window overlooking the lagoon, double copper basins sit on a reclaimed teak stand, there’s an open shower with brass taps and, best of all in winter, a copper-hooded gas fireplace warms bedroom and bathroom.

With their low-impact design and netted windows open to the elements, the suites have the air of blending into the landscape, as an elephant strolls past the deck, dips her trunk into the plunge pool and wanders on. For what a landscape it is. Set on the far eastern edge of the private 130 000-hectare Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana, the camp overlooks the floodplains of the Zibadianja Lagoon, fed by the Okavango Delta and the source of the Savute Channel. It’s an area where game abounds, attracted by the plentiful water, and both the tented suites and the main area are raised on decks to take full advantage of the sights.

The sounds of the African night, hippos grunting and grazing, a Pel’s fishing owl softly purring, the distant roar of a lion are all that lull your sleep at night – without the hum of a generator or other jarring reminders of civilisation. The camp’s structure is uncompromisingly green, with an impressive solar farm that meets all its electricity needs (including plug points and hair dryers in the suites), a UV filtration system that supplies the camp’s drinking water, a bio-gas plant that recycles waste into cooking gas, and safari vehicles that run on a mix of vegetable oil and diesel.

Exclusivity and spontaneity go hand in hand at Zarafa. With only eight guests and two safari vehicles – custom built for photography with fold-down screens and raised roof – there is a huge amount of flexibility for each day’s programme. While the traditional early morning and late afternoon safari drives are the best times for the most varied wildlife sightings of elephant, leopard, lion, buffalo, zebra and giraffe, as well as rarer species such as the African wild dog, cheetah, roan and sable antelope, there are no time limits.

On numerous occasions Chef Katherine has packed up one of her superb three-course dinners and despatched it to a far corner of the reserve, where guests are so involved in a lion hunt or following a pack of wild dogs that they can’t tear themselves away, even with the allure of an elegant candlelit dinner awaiting them back at camp. So dinner comes to them and is served with equal panache under the stars as the hunt continues.

On another evening, guests may be in the mood for leisurely sundowners floating out on the lagoon on HES Zib, the camp’s pontoon boat, perhaps watching the colony of rare African skimmers swooping over the surface of the calm waters, or observing elephants and hippos in the shallows.

But besides all the luxurious appointments, indulgent massages, exhilarating outdoor showers and fabulous food, what sets Zarafa apart is genuine connection with the wild. The love and understanding that Dereck and Beverly Joubert have for the land and the animals comes across in the staff, whether it is the experienced guide passing on professional photography tips and helping guests with light and angles for the perfect shot, or the passionate stories of wildlife shared by staff at mealtimes. There is a real sense of deep involvement and commitment to the conservation of this unforgettable wilderness, a passion for sharing it with generous hospitality and conveying to guests the sense, in Beverly Joubert’s words, that “Zarafa is your home and that you are the only explorer in the world”.

Kit Heathcock

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