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In the world of travel, copious amounts of cash and potentially hair-raising adventures don’t always go hand in hand. Of course, it’s possible to fund a Richard Branson–style balloon odyssey, if you’re so inclined, or pay thousands of dollars for a hellish greenhorn ascent up Mount Everest. But if you want to get away from it all at the drop of a hat, and if you’re seeking a little bit of adventure (but not too much) and are willing to spend some money to find it, here’s a better idea. Hop a plane to Johannesburg and then another one going north to the Republic of Botswana. After that, you can take any number of bush planes to any number of remote camps, where, for a hefty fee, you’ll find yourself riding out on safari atop a large elephant, or careening across the vast salt pans of the Kalahari desert on an ATV, or splashing helter-skelter through the great Okavango Delta on horseback, among herds of zebra and startled giraffes.
On my first day in Botswana, I remember, I looked out the little bush-plane window in a jet-lag daze and watched a herd of elephants cut silvery wakes through the delta water. They looked like distant ocean liners on a deep-green sea, and when we landed, the pilot had to buzz the airstrip a couple of times to clear all the wildlife away.
For years, Kenya and Tanzania had a monopoly on these kinds of Out of Africa moments. But in the past decade, Botswana has eclipsed the classic East Africa destinations to become the continent’s adventure capital, a merry playground for thrill-seeking, well-heeled tourists from around the globe. It’s the richest country per capita in Africa (thanks to large diamond deposits), and one of the most sparsely populated. It has vast deserts (the Kalahari), multitudinous wildlife, and storied tribesmen (the Kalahari Bushmen). Like East Africa in the old days, Botswana has even become a minor literary sensation, serving as the backdrop for books like Norman Rush’s Mortals and Mating, and Alexander McCall Smith’s The Kalahari Typing School for Men. “It’s what Kenya used to be,” one South African told me. “You can still get lost in Botswana, you can still get scared a little.”
These words rattled around in my brain as the lead rider briefed us at the African Horseback Safaris camp, deep in Okavango bush. “If your horse gets a fright,” she said in a fluting Knightsbridge accent, “just cling like a monkey.” So cling like a monkey I did as we went cantering down hippo trails, through herds of zebra, impala, and giraffes. Cantering, actually, is a relative term. My horse, Rocky, and I also walked a lot, and watched as the other swashbucklers (elegant Euro diplomats, horse-riding flight attendants from Middleburg, Virginia) in our group went off on spirited charges, kicking up great plumes of spray.
The delta, in the northwest corner of the country, is more of a floodplain than a marsh, so the water, which spreads down from the Okavango River and the mountains of Angola, is rinsed and consistently clear. There are islands in the delta, but they’re pocked with animal burrows, so the hard riding is done in the shallow water, and when you fall, one of the guides told me, the sensation is not unpleasant, like tripping from a pair of water skis into a vast country lake.
I never did fall off Rocky, and after a few more days of gingerly chasing elephants and giraffes, I caught a plane south, into the Kalahari itself, to San Camp, a line of tall white tents set up, Bedouin-style, on the edge of the great Makgadikgadi salt pans. The camp’s proprietor was the son of a famous Tanzanian white hunter, and we dined, that evening, in the grand safari tradition, on a proper English dinner (lamb chops, if I recall) and bottles of the finest claret, in a mess tent decorated with a Persian throw rug and family heirlooms made of Sheffield silver. My own tent was set up next to a teak patio, with a canvas bucket shower out back hung decorously from a pole, and after I’d scrubbed myself clean the next morning and bolted down a nourishing British breakfast of sausages and eggs, we drove out into the flat, baking desert on our ATVs, trailing tall rooster tails of dust.
During the long day’s ride, we inspected fossilized hippo bones and fields of broken flamingo eggs (the pans fill with water in the spring, and birds go there to breed) and gleaming glass beads traded by slavers from Venice centuries ago. In the evening, we camped on an island of orange rocks covered in ancient baobab trees. We drank single-malt whiskey under the stars, then bedded down on thick mattresses made up with feather pillows and fresh pressed sheets. In the morning, we rode off again, over the salt pans. We traveled in caravan, and stopped occasionally to snap pictures of the flat, whitewashed landscape. We ran around in crazy circles and yelled off into the blue, blue African sky, feeling less like tourists, it occurred to me much later, than like astronauts on the moon.
The most lavish way to see the Okavango delta is on the back of an elephant (elephantbacksafaris.com; five-night trips, from $8,800). African Horseback Safaris (aardvarksafaris.com) offers three-day horseback trips from $1,200. To arrange other adventure trips in Botswana, as well as accommodations at San Camp in the Kalahari, contact Explore, Inc. (888-596-6377; email@example.com).