I have been watching a pride of nine lions slowly waking up from their siesta. The adolescent siblings playfully nudge one another. One stretches against a log, reminding me of my dog back home, almost prompting me to hop out of the open-sided Land Rover and get closer. But then I catch a glimpse of a paw the size of my head, with claws so sharp they could slice through mosquito netting with no effort at all, and I’m reminded that this is Botswana’s Moremi Game Reserve, home to a rich array of wildlife like bush elephants, leopards, plains zebra, giraffe—and I am just a guest here.
It’s also difficult not to think about where I’ll be sleeping that night: underneath a barely-there mosquito net on an island that the reserve grants private use of for the Barclay Stenner mobile safari camp—the conclusion of a nine-day trip through a slice of Southern Africa with Rothschild Safaris. Owner and operator Leora Rothschild had worked with me on every detail of the trip—including this final night when I would sleep on a futon on the ground, outside under the stars; evidence of the pride she takes in shaping bespoke itineraries that stay true to the destination. From an electric few nights in Cape Town to getting up close with wildlife in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, here’s how we pulled it off.
Days 1 - 3
We arrive in Cape Town, where our home for the next three nights is the Silo Hotel—the stunning Thomas Heatherwick-designed property taking up the upper levels of the Zeitz MOCAA museum, which boasts the largest collection of contemporary African art in the world. My two-story room is light-filled, with eclectic furniture and decor that tie together to create a vibrant yet comfortable atmosphere (the soaking tub didn’t hurt, either). After a breakfast of freshly baked pastries, chili-fried eggs, and a tea service, came a tour in a vintage motorcycle sidecar to get me orientated, and I find myself zooming past the fragrant umdakane trees, along the curvy roads leading to Table Mountain. The wind in my face wakes up my jet-lagged body as I look toward the city, over vineyards, and to the sea. Later, while sampling spirits at Hope Distillery, I spark a conversation with co-owner Leigh Lisk about the Okavango Delta and what I may expect. He urges me to take another sip of the excellent grape-based gin and focus on embracing the adventures of Cape Town—sound advice as I think about the African penguins I saw earlier that day among the sparkling granite slabs and impossibly blue Atlantic Ocean.
Days 4 - 6
Flying over an enormous bushfire on the way to Duba Plains Camp is the first of many reminders that this vast ecosystem is not something to take lightly. It’s a harsh environment, in the heart of the Okavango Delta, where survival is king—a reality that sticks with me even during my time on the camp’s private 33,000-acre boundary with its luxurious permanent basecamp of five tents, each with their own dedicated safari guide. Behind my tent’s solid wood doors, flown in from Bali, lie regal, brass canopy beds that look out onto the outdoor private dipping pool and covered gazebo; the bathroom houses a copper tub and outdoor shower. The comfort here is almost enough to let my guard down, until Carlos, my guide, reminds me that I can’t leave my tent at night without an escort due to wildlife activity.
The next day, Carlos and I are joined by conservationist Map Ives. We watch as a pack of African wild dogs hunt a kudu during a chilly, pink-hued sunrise. With astonishing speed, the pack scarfs it down, while warthogs, vultures, and jackals wait in the periphery for the scraps. Ives says during the natural lesson: “Ninety eight percent of animals go extinct. Ask ‘why does this one still survive in 2023?’, and it will tell you.” He goes on to explain how each animal we are witnessing has specific adaptations to survive in this unforgiving environment, pointing them out trait by trait. I am floored by how up close and personal I am to this environment, and then remember there is more to come.
Days 7 - 9
For the final leg of my trip, I helicopter over the Delta to meet up with John Barclay and James Stenner and venture into the Moremi Game Reserve to begin our mobile safari. Over a dinner of chicken Kiev at the Barclay and Stenner camp the night before, the duo assuage any nerves I have by reassuring me that all dangerous bush animals see the mosquito netting as solid as a brick wall. In contrast to our upcoming night in the wilderness, our home for the rest of the day comes with a covered lounging area stocked with afternoon tea handmade by a Maun local, shady spots for yoga or reading, and private octagonal sleeping tents with king size beds, fans, electricity, and full ensuite bathrooms with pull showers. True luxury after driving four hours into the game reserve.
It’s all part of a move to open up reserves like this to more travelers. Most traditional safari camps only have access to certain boundaries for wildlife viewing, making them more congested and at liberty to migratory patterns. The perk of a mobile safari is that operators like Barclay and Stenner can set up camp nearer to where animals are spending their time on any given week—and leave without a trace.
That night, as I crawl into my mosquito-net tent and reach to extinguish my lantern, I feel almost one with the natural world. I drift off to sleep peacefully listening to the occasional groans, grunts, and thundering roars of hippos and the neverending screeching of insects. My last thought, not of the danger outside, but of wanting to stay in this moment forever.
For more information on how Leora Rothschild and her team can help you plan your own safari, head to rothschildsafaris.com.
Originally Appeared on Condé Nast Traveler