It began with a question: are there any African wildlife destinations left where you won’t be surrounded by a pack of 4X4s at every sighting and be confronted by manicured luxury lodges around each corner? I must admit I had my doubts before I gritted my teeth and went on a winter camping safari to a remote slice of the Kalahari. I wanted the wilderness but I also wanted to be comfortable.
I don’t know about you but when I think ‘camping’, I think ‘chiropractor’. After years of bad nights and burnt baked beans I have come to expect the worst when it comes to camping safaris. Imagine my surprise then when I arrived in Botswana's Nxai Pan National Park to an extravagantly laid dining table and a smiling welcoming committee in full voice.
“Welcome to the Kalahari!” they sang and no sight was more welcoming than my spacious tent boasting a bed, table, lamp and private bathroom. “I could get used to this,” I thought as I eased into bed on the first night, flinching momentarily as my feet connected unexpectedly with the furry hot water bottle under the covers.
But first I had to get there. I was a guest of Wilderness Safaris and had been met at Maun airport by Brookes, our immensely affable guide. After a few hours on the main Maun-Nata road, he suddenly turned onto a beat-up old sand track that led north into apparent emptiness. It’s an innocuous-looking road, deeply scored with ruts, and chances are you won’t see another soul on it – two-legged anyway.
It wasn't long, however, before the Kalahari began to reveal its wildlife. Antelope materialised out of the shimmering haze, astonished-looking giraffe stared at us (what are you doing here they seemed to say) and spoor on the road revealed the presence of a male lion, his enormous paw prints showing the moment he broke into a run (hunting? fighting? chasing people?). “Oh yes, there are lots of lions here,” grinned Brookes, “they are very big in this part of Botswana."
'Nxai' rhymes with ‘sky’, of which there is plenty in this pancake-flat land, where Botswana's northern savannahs meet the thorny Kalahari scrub. This mix of habitats means that Nxai Pan – itself a grass-covered plain studded with tree islands - is home to an eclectic range of animals. Water-dependent elephant, zebra and impala rub shoulders with semi-desert specialists like springbok, giraffe and gemsbok. And setting out at dawn under a salmon-pink sky we quickly found out why the grass-munchers seemed twitchy: Nxai Pan sports a rogue’s gallery of large and toothy predators.
We spotted lions soon enough – big, muscular females moving silently and with deadly intent through the short golden grass. No sooner had they melted into the thickets than the athletic form of a cheetah, and then another, slid across the pan scanning the horizon for something weak and defenceless.
Something fitting that description soon turned up – for the lions anyway. A young giraffe had drawn Life's short straw and had been caught by the big cats. As they fed, circling black-backed jackals jostled each other on the periphery and later we saw a rare brown hyena lurking in the background, waiting its turn as nearby trees loaded up with vultures.
Great game viewing is one thing but what about hot showers? I needn't have worried: we would return to camp after game drives to the smell of baking bread and fresh coffee. Ice-cold drinks, smoky-hot showers and gourmet meals materialised out of thin air. I'd been lucky enough to stay at several of Botswana's top lodges previously and was struck by the fact that you could be super-comfortable without the brick and mortar.
It is, however, the solitude that is most striking. We spent three nights at Nxai Pan and saw only one other visitor. The silence is at times humbling – a blanketing fog of empty sound, broken only by the occasional sobbing contralto of a jackal.
“And that’s how we want to keep it!” exclaimed Brookes on our last night as we sipped a refined South African red by the fire. “The fewer people who come here, the better the wilderness experience”. And leaning back in my chair, looking up at a hushed, painted night sky as my glass was tactfully refilled - yes, just a drop thanks - I found it a sentiment hard to disagree with.