MAY 2015 – Selinda Reserve in northern Botswana is one of Africa’s great wildlife spaces. At its heart is Selinda Camp, offering guests luxurious lodging on the banks of an ancient waterway that links the Okavango Delta with the Linyanti wetlands, receiving water from both.
The white tip of a tail is all that’s visible at first. Bush is obscuring the sighting, but a few minutes of patience quickly pays off when a wild dog gets to its feet and points its nose in the air. It’s ‘sniffing’ the bush telegraph, establishing which animals are in the area.
Dinner is on the dog’s mind, and a small antelope will be enough to feed the family. Before long, there are six dogs on their feet, and rallying around preparing to hunt. They seem to have appeared out of thin air. The alpha male will decide when they leave on the hunt and which direction they follow; he’s large and in charge of the whole pack.
Within minutes, the dogs are off, taking long strides as if warming up for the chase which they’ll run in relays – with a final ambush to secure their meal. They’re just too agile and fast to follow in a vehicle, but seeing these rare canines up close is enchanting enough.
The private 130 000-hectare Selinda Reserve has the Linyanti on its eastern border and the Kwando to the north – all renowned as exceptional game viewing areas and sharing similar habitat and species to Selinda. There is an important distinction though: the Selinda Spillway connects the Linyanti River system to the Okavango, though the spillway is usually dry. However, when the channels connect the game density to be found in Selinda is hard to match. The area is simply teeming with wildlife and a visit here at any time of year will yield great sightings and experiences.
Regardless of the spillway though, Selinda has plenty to offer and game viewing is considered excellent throughout the year. Rain dictates the movement of the herds, however, which follow grazing; and birding is particularly good in the early part of the year.
The Selinda Canoe Trail is a more adventurous activity option and runs from late May to early August every year, getting guests close to nature and offering unique wildlife encounters from water level. Canoeists overnight en route in fly camps of small dome tents.
Selinda Camp – with just nine tented suites, including a family suite – rests on the banks of the eastern Selinda Spillway, arguably surrounded by some of the most spectacular and pristine wilderness left on earth. This spillway is an ancient waterway that actually flows in two directions, in so doing linking the far reaches of the iconic Okavango Delta in the south with the Linyanti wetlands in the west – and curiously receiving water from both. In this thirstland, water is life for beast and bird.
Yet, Selinda Camp started with a dream. Five men in their fifties and with considerable experience in Africa between them, had an idea. So they pooled their resources, took action and created Great Plains Conservation, of which Selinda Camp is a part. It was spearheaded by National Geographic photographers and filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert, who explain that they wanted to find the right formula of conservation, communities and commerce that would make a lasting, sustainable difference to the world’s iconic wildlife and wildernesses. “Over the years we have witnessed the steady degradation of these natural treasures in spite of considerable efforts to protect them. Species are being taken to the brink of extinction and habitats are being wiped out through poaching, hunting, mining, pollution and human development, use and abuse. As human populations explode, these rare places, and the diversity of life they support, are valued less not more. They are protected less, not more.”
The innovative Great Plains model takes stressed and threatened environments, surrounds them with compassionate protection and intelligent, sustainable management, and funds them with sensitive, low-volume, low-impact tourism. Communities are an intrinsic part of this model and benefit directly from it. The final piece in the picture is the guests who pay to visit the camps and in so doing become agents of this positive change.
Says Dereck, the company’s chairman, “Great Plains is first and foremost a conservation organisation that uses eco tourism as a tool to sustain conservation programmes. We have coined the term ‘conservation tourism’ for what we do, which entails quality led tourism experiences that are environmentally sound and make the conservation of the area viable and sustainable – without any negative influence on the land.”
This ethos is exactly what Selinda Camp embodies as it sits lightly on the earth. Its structures are built from locally procured timber and thatch and all its electricity is generated by the sun. Vegetable waste is recycled into methane and then used for cooking through its bio-gas facility, while other solid waste is transported to Maun so that nothing is burnt or buried on the reserve itself.
Despite this emphasis on low-impact living, the suites at Selinda are magnificent. Dark wooden furniture and floors, vintage travel trunks that serve as tables and hand-woven cotton kelims add a warm, romantic luxury. Colours are muted earth tones with splashes of deep red; fabrics are textured and pure; light streams in everywhere through the large tent windows and door. Mosquito nets fully draped at night ensure a cocoon for peaceful sleep – as do the in-suite massages on offer.
The main lodge building is open sided and built on a raised wooden deck that gives views over a seemingly endless floodplain. Pull thatch lends it an ethereal air and ensures it blends seamlessly into its surroundings.
There’s a sense of timelessness in the design, which subtly honours the four elements. The splashes of blue in the décor and the welcome swimming pool echo the ancient watercourse of the Selinda Spillway; air is depicted through the billowing silk curtains in the main lounge; home-grown meals prepared with flair and love pay tribute to the earth; while the dancing flames of the evening fires complete the natural collection brought to life here.
Great Plains currently operates safaris across one million acres in Africa, all of it in iconic wildlife areas. What’s unique is that shareholders have all agreed never to take a dividend from the company but to recycle all profits into the business or the Great Plains Foundation, which supports various projects. In Botswana the most topical of these is Rhinos Without Borders, a partnership to move 100 rhinos from the highest poaching zones in South Africa to the safe sanctuary of Botswana. The first batch of rhino have already landed safely in Botswana and will be protected by dedicated anti-poaching teams.
Game drives, guided walks and boat trips on the spillway yield memorable wildlife sightings, from lion and leopard to zebra, antelope and vast herds of buffalo. It’s also one of the few areas in which you can still spot packs of the endangered African wild dog. But seeing a massive herd of elephant strolling silently into a crimson sunset has got to be one of the most emotive… The scene is emphatically African; thoroughly timeless. Something that has to be experienced in person – preferably in the wilds of Selinda.