Their dedication to conserving and restoring Africa’s wilderness and wildlife has put Wilderness firmly on the map for those guests who seek to experience an authentic safari. Founded in 1983 by visionaries Colin Bell and Chris McIntyre, for the past four decades, they have set up over sixty camps in the most far-flung corners of seven African countries, making them leaders in the world of sustainable conservation tourism.
When an invitation arrives to visit three Wilderness camps in the striking African country of Botswana, there is not a moment’s hesitation on my part. My journey commences on a Saturday morning at Cape Town International Airport, where I will be flying directly to Maun Airport with South Africa’s most consistent on-time airline, Airlink. The beautiful Embraer 135 regional jet sporting its new livery is parked on the tarmac, ready to take to the African skies, connecting exciting safarigoers to this amazing gem destination. Once we are airborne, the friendly flight attendant offers a choice of beverages and a delicious meal. Landing ahead of schedule, everyone is eager to get to their lodge as Maun is the getaway to the spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the Okavango Delta.
Wilderness Vumbura Plains
Situated in the Vumbura Plains Wilderness Area in the northern part of the Okavango Delta, Wilderness Vumbura Plains is divided into two camps – Vumbura Plains North and Vumbura Plains South. I am welcomed at the Northern camp by front-of-house manager OT, who has kindly arranged for a quick snack following my late arrival before linking up with field guide Willie for my late afternoon game drive. Completely famished, the freshly prepared sandwich, cheese puffs, braised pineapple, and chocolate muffins have never tasted this good. We meet up with Willie, who proceeds to find a coalition of three male lions having a nap. Behind them, a red lechwe is bounding through the watery channel, hopeful that the lions will have no interest in pursuing him through this squelchy terrain.
Following an extensive refurbishment of both the interiors and exteriors by Reflecting Africa, Wilderness Vumbura Plains reopened in April 2022 with a wonderfully refreshed look. Incorporating elements from the environment with the use of blues and greens in the suites infuses a sense of being amongst the Delta waters. The eye-catching changes in the suites of enlarged underwater photographs by Andrea Crawford adorn the sliding wardrobe doors and newly installed bathroom divider, adding to the feeling of immersion in the watery wonderland of the Okavango.
After a great night’s sleep, I make my way to the main area where breakfast is enjoyed before departing on our game drive. Guests have the choice to either dine prior to heading out or opt for a packed breakfast in the field. Willie proceeds in a northerly direction through mopane woodland, intent on showcasing an array of species that inhabit this wildlife-rich concession. He has discovered leopard footprints and when we see her, she is making her way straight toward us. She is absolutely gorgeous and eventually settles on a cooling patch of mud. Out on the open plains, three young male lions are on the lookout to take respite in a shielded spot, finding shade against the heat of the day on the side of a termite mound.
Arriving at Wilderness Mombo, situated in the northeast corner of Chief’s Island in the Moremi Game Reserve, one is struck by the attention to detail and the brilliant juxtaposition between the lodge and the landscape. General manager Michelle ushers me through to the dining area, where a team of chefs has prepared a delicious lunch of tender beef fillet and a side order of the most delectable French fries, concluded with melt-in-your-mouth vanilla ice cream.
Interiors are by Artichoke Interior Design, with exteriors by Nick Plewman Architects. The eight suites are in prime position for astounding vistas over grassy floodplains, and it’s not a common sight to see wildlife edging closer to camp. A surprise visitor one evening in front of my suite startled me somewhat – a lone elephant making his way to the main area after dark, and all I could make out was his bulky outline and the crackling of dry leaves underneath his feet.
Affectionately referred to as ‘The Place of Plenty’, Wilderness Mombo is revered for exceptional wildlife sightings, and field guide Ollie is at hand to see what he can find. Speaking in his native language to one of the other guides, the anticipation is palpable as we turn the corner and find them – a pack of African Wild Dogs during our late afternoon game drive. There are seven pups and six adults, and the pups are pleading for food, very vocally with loads of yelping amongst the youngsters. A highlight for me is when a young female leopard is found on my last morning, sleeping soundly on the branches of a large jackalberry tree. She opens her eyes momentarily to survey the annoying alarm call made by tree squirrels, oblivious to the fact that she’s the cause of the alarm.
Set amongst fringed islands and tall palm trees, Wilderness Jao is an architectural marvel constructed in a remote part of the Okavango Delta. Conceptualized by high-end architectural design firm Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens, the lodge underwent a complete rebuild in 2019 and even features a museum with artifacts taking guests on a historical journey of the area and its owners. With a fresh and contemporary approach to the sense of Wilderness Jao’s sense of adventure, Silvio and Lesley created a feeling of the unexpected around every corner.
My suite is a haven of tranquility, complete with a dreamy bedroom and my bed draped in a charcoal mosquito net at night. The open-plan suite also houses a bathroom with bath, inside and outside shower, a lounge area, a plunge pool, and a daybed for those occasional siestas. From every angle, there is a view over the channel that runs in front of the camp, ensuring that the ever-present red lechwe and impalas never veer far off, and neither do the buffalo. Birding in this part of the Delta is a twitchers paradise; you hardly have to leave camp but if you do, the bridge to the other side of the marsh can be renamed Kingfisher Bridge – with the regular occurrence of Pied Kingfishers and Woodland Kingfishers, even Striped Kingfishers.
Field guide Cruise briefs me that we will be visiting Hunda Island in search of predatory creatures. We spotted so many species en route – a black-winged stilt, a black-winged kite, Meyer’s parrots, a swamp boubou, a black crake, and a juvenile African Fish Eagle seated adjacent to a large pond, waiting to catch its next meal. As we drive back towards camp, the light catches the unique structure that is known as ‘The Nest’ – a unique bird nest-style pool gazebo on the edge of the surrounding water.
**Views expressed are the author’s own.
How To Get There
Airlink is a privately-owned, independent premier regional airline offering the widest route network and connectivity to more than 45 destinations in 13 countries in Southern Africa and St Helena Island. Experience More – https://www.flyairlink.com/profile/airlink-profile
With more than 60 regional jetliners in the fleet, Airlink has been ranked as South Africa’s most punctual airline, based on its 97% average on-time performance year to date. This is a clear indication of their determination and commitment to remain synonymous with customer centricity, punctuality, service excellence, and reliability.
Travelers can also enjoy the benefit of their intra-continental style business class service on select routes operating our magnificent Embraer E-195 / E-190 / E-170 regional jets. Discover More – https://www.flyairlink.com/profile/airlink-profile#businessclass
Direct scheduled flights from Cape Town and Johannesburg to Maun.
Book direct on www.flyairlink.com, the FlyAirlink app, or your favorite travel agent.