Wednesday, June 19, 2024 Jun 19, 2024
83° F Dallas, TX

Africa was never on my bucket list. It always seemed too far, too foreign, too expensive, too difficult, too hot. Then S. Holland Murphy decided to go to Botswana to write a story about Debra Stevens with our staff photographer, Elizabeth Lavin. FOMO got the best of me, and I decided to tag along. You probably don’t know me, but I’ll tell you this: I am not prone to exaggeration. That trip changed my life. 

In large part that was due to spending a week at Elephant Havens, where major donors can reserve one of five well-appointed donor tents and enjoy days and nights at the orphanage with the team and elephant babies, experiencing much of what Holland describes. (Lion tracking excluded.) If you happen to be in the neighborhood, you can also stop in for a visit with Bee, Onks, and their charges for a nominal donation. (Email [email protected] for details.)

But don’t stop there. Up your transformative experience with a side safari just a short prop plane ride north, where you can see grown elephants with their wild babies, happily munching papyrus knee-deep in the wetlands of the Okavanga Delta. Botswana isn’t the cheapest safari option in Africa, but it is the best for seeing elephants. (Plus crocodiles, rhinos, lions, warthogs, baboons, zebras, giraffes, Cape buffalo, and more birds than you can count.) Although the country is landlocked, it contains a vast and unusual inland river delta. There is no bad time of year to go, but in the summer months, when Botswana is dry, the delta fills with rainfall that drains south from Angola and Namibia, and the resulting wetlands become the site of one of the continent’s greatest concentrations of wildlife. (I prefer November, when rates drop.)

One of the most influential safari operators in the region is Great Plains Conservation, a conservation tourism organization founded by wildlife filmmakers Beverly and Dereck Joubert that manages wildlife reserves in Botswana, Kenya, and Zimbabwe. Like Debra, they, too, have a dramatic story. Back in 2017, the Jouberts were shooting a wildlife documentary series for PBS and National Geographic in the Okavanga Delta. On the evening Beverly had planned to surprise her husband with a candlelit dinner for his 61st birthday, the couple instead surprised a wounded Cape buffalo, who quickly attacked. 

Dereck suffered a broken pelvis, while Beverly found herself impaled on one of the buffalo’s horns from her armpit through her chest to her cheek. It would be 18 long hours before the pair could be airlifted to a hospital in Johannesburg for treatment, and it would take five days of operations to treat Beverly’s injuries. But at the end of it all, Beverly said one thing became clear: all of the conservation work the couple had already invested in simply wasn’t enough. There was so much more work to be done.

The couple manages 10 luxe, solar-powered properties in Botswana that help fund the restoration and conservation of both wildlife and habitat as well as education and employment opportunities in local communities. Sitatunga Private Island, where I stayed, is the newest. 

My advice: if you can afford it, spring for the suite. Pack two outfits less than you think you need. Make sure Harold is your chef and Lettie is your guide. Save room for high tea. Insist on one dinner under the baobab tree with the entire staff. Stay up late to catch a glimpse of elephants and hippos just outside your “tent.” Drink Inverroche Fynbos Amber gin with your tonic. Sneak up behind Lettie while he’s enjoying a sundowner and shout, “Mme wee!” (Tell him I sent you.) Pinch yourself. Then plan your return. 

Classic Africa, a Connecticut-based travel agency founded in 1999 by Margaret and Pierre Faber, two Oxford-trained Ph.D.s, works closely with both Elephant Havens and Great Plains Conservation. They will happily find the right safari for you, be it in Botswana or elsewhere, and assist with all arrangements.