Our first evening game drive on Botswana's Okavango Delta was, to put it mildly, a bit buggy. So I wasn't surprised when my admittedly insect-averse fellow traveler Patricia Hearst Shaw said she was going to pass on the next morning's open-air vehicle search for wildlife.
I was surprised, however, when I sat down for breakfast the next day and she told me she was checking into helicopters.
"Were there bugs in your room?" I asked, thinking she was planning an escape from Sanctuary Retreats' Baines Camp in the swampy but beautiful wildlife refuge.
"I'm not that spoiled," the publishing heiress declared, laughing. "I want to do a helicopter tour."
As luck would have it, I had followed her cue and decided to skip the morning game drive to catch a little extra sleep and enjoy the camp's pool and breathtaking surroundings. And since the minimum cost of the helicopter was for two, she invited me along.
"It'll be good for your story," she said.
Patricia Hearst Shaw walks hand in hand with local children during a visit to the Zambian village of Nakatindi, a stop on Abercrombie & Kent’s President’s Trip itinerary. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Patricia Hearst Shaw
Indeed, the one-hour flight with Helicopter Horizons was hands down the highlight of the nine-night Abercrombie & Kent President's Trip, which already had and continued to set some pretty high bars.
It's nearly impossible to describe the sheer beauty of the vast delta and the unique perspective a flight in a low-flying helicopter, doors off, affords of the wildlife-packed landscapes that is often referred to as Africa's Eden.
At one point we soared slightly above and behind an eagle, watching elephants, zebras, giraffes, antelopes, hippos, buffaloes, rhinos and more going about their daily routines. Although the more elusive cat populations remained hidden, we had already had and would have plenty more opportunities to see lions and leopards along with the full range of wildlife and birds in Botswana's vast game reserves.
The trip began in Johannesburg, where we spent the first night at the Saxon Hotel Villas and Spa, a 10-acre retreat in the city's quiet, upscale Sandhurst neighborhood where former South African president and Nobel Prize winner Nelson Mandela took sanctuary to complete his autobiography, "Long Walk to Freedom."
From there we were off to Zimbabwe and Zambia, stopping for lunch at the Victoria Falls Hotel, then a walking tour of Victoria Falls. That evening we took the short drive across the border for a two-night stay in Sanctuary's Sussi & Chuma camp of luxurious "tree houses" built into the living canopy of giant ebony trees along the Zambezi River.
The next day began with a helicopter tour of Victoria Falls, followed by a trip to the Zambian village of Nakatindi, one of two villages in the area that Sussi & Chuma works closely with as part of Abercrombie & Kent Philanthropy.
The first project in the village was a well-drilling program funded by A&K's travel agent advisory board members. During our visit they broke ground on a maternity clinic that will offer a safer alternative to home births as well as prenatal services, antiviral medications and education to help prevent the spread of HIV to babies.
Excited village children flocked to us as we walked around, holding our hands and clamoring in particular toward Kirk and Linda Hamilton's three teenagers. Kirk Hamilton said the visit was an important eye-opening experience for his kids, whose only previous travel outside the U.S. had been to Mexico and the Caribbean. Indeed, his oldest daughter, 17-year-old Kathryn, was still talking about it days later, even after several exciting game drives.
The fire pit at Sanctuary Retreats’ five-suite Baines Camp on the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Photo Credit: Jeri Clausing
Dinner was aboard the Royal Livingstone Express, a restored steam train that took us over the Victoria Falls Bridge.
The safari adventures began the next day at Chobe National Park in Botswana and Sanctuary's Chobe Chilwero camp, where we headed out on an evening cruise to watch elephants and crocodiles.
One of the most memorable sightings came the next day when we happened upon a group of dozens of baboons of all ages that were playing, sparring and climbing in and out of the trees to pick fruit. Their antics attracted a herd of impalas, which showed up to graze on the falling leaves.
As we sat back and watched the interactions in awe and amusement, several elephants wandered into the scene, with one of the larger, feisty baboons at one point standing up on his hinds legs and directly facing off with an elephant — until the elephant made it clear who would prevail by grunting and aggressively moving his front legs.
A baboon pool party
After a two-day stop at the Sanctuary Baines Camp in the delta came the grand finale: two days at the Sanctuary Chief's Camp on the prized Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana.
I'm not sure if it was the elephants wandering through the villas; the hippos munching all night in the back lagoon; the baboon party around my private plunge pool; the game drives that included watching lions mating and close-up views of leopards, rhinos, hyenas, zebras, giraffes and elephants; or the just-renovated villas that I liked best about this camp.
But as with the whole trip, the only drawback was trying to find enough time to enjoy both the endless game-watching opportunities and the relaxing luxury of the camps, whose offerings included everything from outdoor bubble baths and hammocks to free laundry service and fine wines and outstanding cuisine.
With the remodel, Chief's Camp now has some of the largest villas in the area, along with all the modern touches, such as multiple types of outlets and USB charging stations; Nespresso machines; private plunge pools and decks; and glass walls that give unfettered views of, and for, the wandering wildlife.
While some of us decided to skip the final morning game drive before the long trip home, there was plenty to see without an early morning wake-up call. I stepped out of the shower that morning to a party of baboons peeping into my cabin, drinking out of my plunge pool and scurrying across the roof.
A few minutes later I heard a loud crash as an elephant felled a tree. And after navigating around three elephants on my way to breakfast, we watched a herd of about a dozen elephants, including a few babies, swim across the pond.
Perhaps Debbie Coutant, a retired software executive and avid photographer who was traveling with her husband, Cary, summed it up best when she said the A&K small-group luxury journey "was supposed to be a trip of a lifetime. Now I think it will be every year."
A&K's Botswana Safari in Style itineraries, which are part of its Luxury Small Group Journeys limited to 16 guests, begin at $9,695 per person, double occupancy, for its remaining 2016 trips, with special offers as low as $6,995 on some 2017 itineraries.