Whether you’re entranced by the shimmering saltpans of the Makgadikgadi National Park, or enchanted by the verdant landscapes and bountiful animal life of the Okavango Delta, Botswana is a destination that should be top of any safari-lover’s bucket-list.
But there’s a catch: it’s expensive. Botswana has long pursued a high-value low-impact tourism model, which means fewer visitors paying more for their stay. In some cases, a lot more.
However, Natural Selection, a collection of owner-operated lodges that launched in 2017, is aiming to make Botswana more accessible for travellers from the continent, with the newly launched Natural Selection Explorers Program. The program offers a unique opportunity to discover the untamed corners of Botswana with discounted rates and special offers available when becoming a Natural Selection Explorer.
Though Natural Selection may be a new face on the safari block, the four founders have deep roots in the South African safari industry and boast decades of experience in both conservation and luxury eco-tourism.
Each of the Natural Selection properties operates in partnership with the lodge owners, ensuring authentic hands-on hospitality in camp. And though there’s no shortage of creature comforts, there’s also a welcome lack of ostentatious luxury.
“It’s going back to the essence of an African safari,” says co-founder Dave van Smeerdijk. “It’s a conscious step back from unnecessary ‘bells and whistles’, and instead embracing a simpler, more authentic, approach to being on safari. It’s about the experience of being in the bush, about the game, and about the quality of guiding.”
Perhaps the most memorable time to visit is during the enigmatic ‘Green Season’ (January to March), when the annual rains deliver brief yet dramatic thunderstorms, and the Delta landscape is transformed into a watery wonderland. Down in the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan, grass shoots push through the dry earth and the antelope are abundant. Predators follow in hot pursuit, and a once-barren desert throngs with life. It’s a remarkable time to visit.
The nine lodges in the Natural Selection portfolio are divided between these two sought-after corners of Botswana: the Makgadikgadi National Park, and the Okavango Delta. A selection of properties in each region allows travellers to choose their preferred lodge based on budget and personal taste, while offering the same unrivalled access to two of Africa’s great wilderness areas.
Across Africa, few camps deserve the moniker ‘iconic’ as much as Jack’s Camp, in the Makgadikgadi. First established by explorer Jack Bousfield in the 1960s, over the decades the camp has grown and evolved into one of the ‘must-visit’ camps in on the continent.
Perched on the edge of the shimmering Makgadikgadi saltpans, Jack’s Camp is one of just three camps sharing nearly half-a-million hectares of protected wilderness. Here, it’s the Green Season that draws savvy safari-travellers: from January to April, Jack’s Camp offers a front-row seat to the remarkable annual migration of wildebeest and zebra across the plains. Just 10 Bedouin-style tents are spread out beneath rustling molokwane palms; the four-poster beds and Persian rugs offering understated opulence and a taste of the golden years of African safaris.
While Jack’s Camp evokes a sense of yesteryear African adventure, nearby San Camp is all about indulgence; of the impossibly romantic camp and the evocative empty space. Here, tranquility comes standard.
With just seven guest tents, San Camp (open seasonally, April to October) offers enviable exclusivity, whether it’s dining al fresco – San Camp has a well-deserved reputation for gourmet dining – under glittering skies, or exploring the surrounding saltpans by quad-bike or game vehicle. Meeting the resident meerkats, a cheeky and inquisitive bunch, is another highlight.
Completing the saltpan trilogy is Camp Kalahari, a relaxed camp that is easy on the eye and the pocket. Pitched between the palms trees and acacia trees are 11 Meeru-style tents, each boasting al-fresco showers and private en-suite bathrooms. With the camp fully fenced it’s also ideal for families, and children of all ages are welcomed. While the luxury dial is turned down a notch, there’s no shortage of desert adventure: days are packed with quad-bike excursions, horse-back riding, game drives and fascinating interpretive walks with the local Zu/’hoasi Bushmen.
The Makgadikgadi is a long way from just about anywhere, and a stop at Planet Baobabon your way home is always good idea. This colourful and quirky camp draws its inspiration from local villages, from the vibrant murals to the clusters of thatched huts. It also boasts the largest pool in the Kalahari; ideal for washing away the dust after a day of saltpan adventures.
Between the saltpans and the Delta lies another gem of the Botswana wilderness: Meno a Kwena, an impossibly romantic camp where star-ratings are swopped for stylish simplicity. This is where Prince Harry brought Meghan Markle – now the Duchess of Sussex – for her birthday, so the swoon-factor is hard to beat.
The nine classically-styled tents gaze out from their rocky eyrie, making Meno a Kwena ideal for an armchair safari: settle in on your private verandah and marvel at the game flocking to the waters of the Boteti River below.
But if it’s water you’re after you should head north, to the Okavango Delta.
This iconic inland delta is one of just two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Botswana, and flying above this watery Eden it’s not hard to see why. Game-rich grasslands fill the gaps between tendrils of river, herds of game splash across the shallow channels, while lala palm trees stand proudly on their own castaway islands.
It’s on one such island that you’ll find Mapula Lodge, a remarkable lodge set in a vast private concession that stretches across nearly 90 0000 hectares of pristine wilderness. Accompanied by some of the best guides in the business, guests spend their days here discovering the Delta’s snaking channels, glassy lagoons and islands teeming with wildlife. This is the Okavango at its unfiltered finest.
And the camp itself? The Bousfield family – of Jack’s camp fame – are a dab hand at wilderness luxury, and the nine canvas-and-thatch tented suites are brimming with vintage safari-chic. Between game activities you’re spoilt for choice: take a dip in the pool, or settle in with a book at the sunken lounge overlooking a hippo-filled lagoon.
On the Delta’s eastern reaches, Sable Alley is a prime example of Natural Selection’s commitment to sustainable eco-tourism. Situated in the Khwai Private Reserve, bordering the famous Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park, Sable Alley opened in early-2017 as a joint-venture partnership with the surrounding community, ensuring both economic upliftment and the long-term conservation of this remarkable habitat.
At Sable Alley a dozen spacious safari tents overlook a permanent lagoon, home to a resident pod of hippo, with a sense of Afro-chic décor infused across the suites and public spaces.
While discovering the watery channels is a daily highlight, with sundowner speedboat safaris and guided trips on mokoro dugout canoes, there’s no shortage of magic away from the water. The expansive Khwai Private Reserve offers one of the most diverse ecosystems in northern Botswana. Everything from riverine woodland to savannah grasslands supports a fantastic diversity of life, including packs of wild dog, shy cheetah and elusive leopard. And, of course, the graceful sable antelope.
Sable Alley shares the Khwai Private Reserve with another hideaway: Hyena Pan. Here just eight tents, each brimming with charm and stylish simplicity, are pitched beneath towering mopane trees on the banks of a permanent watercourse.
While antelope and predators are the stars at Sable Alley, at Hyena Pan it’s the pachyderms that will get your pulse racing: the neighbouring Chobe National Park is home to up to 10 000 elephant, and close-up encounters are assured. This camp is also a dream destination for photographers, with a ground-level hide offering an entirely unique perspective on the wildlife of Botswana.
The same goes for the memorable Skybeds, which can be booked in conjunction with a stay at Sable Alley or Hyena Pan. These remarkable sleeping platforms – set a reassuring five metres off the ground – offer a memorable night out beneath the stars. Each three-level Skybed offers a sumptuous double bed decked out in fine linen, private bathroom facilities… and a ranger on hand if the night noises get a little close for comfort.
As at Sable Alley and many other Natural Selection camps, Hyena Pan is entirely solar-powered: it’s all part of the Natural Selection ethos of pairing conservation and sustainable eco-tourism.
While Natural Selection operates some of the most remarkable lodges Botswana has to offer, it’s a passion for conservation that forms the heart of the business.
“We believe that conservation-minded eco-tourism can be a powerful force in protecting Africa’s last remaining wild places,” adds Van Smeerdijk.
To that end, Natural Selection channels 1.5 percent of its annual revenue – revenue, not profit – to selected conservation projects across southern Africa.
This includes the Makgadikgadi Conservation Initiative, where Natural Selection has partnered with Round River Conservation Studies to protect and expand the ancient migration routes that stretch from northern Botswana to the Makgadikgadi National Park and the Kalahari Desert.
In the Khwai area, there’s a partnership with the Botswana Predator Conservation Trust to advance scientific research into the area’s leopard populations in a bid to avoid human-predator conflicts in the future.
It’s about conserving these lands for the future, while making them accessible to conservation-minded tourism today. Long the preserve of well-heeled international travellers, the introduction of affordable residents’ rates puts these iconic corners of southern Africa within reach of the dedicated safari-lover. That bucket-list is about to get shorter.
*Natural Selection Safaris has created 'The Natural Selection Explorers Program', a unique membership program available exclusively to African Residents. Being a member of the Explorers program grants access to year round preferential rates and special offers that are available to all permanent residents of all African countries. Proof of permanent residency/citizenship is required to join the Explorers program.