Africa on the Orient Express

This article originally appeared in Nuvo Magazine

Two elephants Botswana

It was night in the Botswana bush and everything seemed hyper real: the blackout sky was crammed full of stereophonically bright stars, and our open jeep swayed like a camel on the sand path that served as a road. The daytime palette of lion-coloured savannah punctuated with acacia trees had morphed into ghostly green, and the sounds gave eerie hints of invisible bird and animal life.

An elephant nonchalantly crossed in front of our jeep – was it real? To the left, we could make out hippos standing by a marshy pond. “The dark bulky animals are much more dangerous than people think,” our guide was telling us when we stumbled upon a jaw-dropping sight: lions, lots of them, sprawled out just ahead.

“It was touch and go for awhile,” I said a few days later, expansively recounting the event over a fine local Pinotage, a South African blend of Pinot Noir and Hermitage wines. “All these lions were blocking our path; we couldn’t just shoo them away so we had to veer left, and we woke them from their sleep. There were branches in our way, and worse, there were the hippos. We had to fjord the river in the jeep….”

Giraffes in Botswana

The lions were there all right, but they did little more than raise an eyebrow before going back to their snoring. (My deepest fear was of cat allergies – what if lions had dander) Fjording the river? My safari mates grinned at the tall tale. We were in the perfect place to tell safari stories – the brocade and chintz covered couches in the spacious lobby at the Mt. Nelson, Africa’s oldest and most renowned hotel. We had flown to Capetown after our safari in neighbouring Botswana, where peace reigns and animals roam free.

Decades ago, we might have arrived at the hotel in pith helmets, high boots and shotguns. Add to that steamer trunks and valets, for this, after all, was the Orient Express.

It’s a company run by an epicure who made his fortune in shipping containers and who keeps collecting hotels, and other “experiences”. UK-based James Sherwood’s train collection includes the signature Orient Express trains, which he bought in l977. The Venice Simplon-Orient Express runs from London to Venice and from Paris to Istanbul, carrying passengers who take seriously the advice in the brochure that “you can never be overdressed on the Orient Express”.

There are other trains: in the UK, the British Pullman and the Royal Scotsman. The Orient Express East train runs through Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia. And to push the envelope on early 20th century colonial exotica, a Road to Mandalay river boat makes its stops in Burma. These journeys offer high-end elegance combined with culture and history. The magnificent Cipriani in Venice gives you an idea of the sort of hotels Sherwood collects. And as a sign of respect, they all keep their own names.

Elephants in Botswana

Who would want to change the name of the Mt. Nelson? Soon after the Capetown hostelry opened l899, it became the city’s grand hotel. The lobby buzzed with talk of the impending Boer War, British military celebrities mingled with mining magnates, and a young journalist named Winston Churchill hung out there while he covered the war.

In Johannesburg, the Hotel Westcliff is a more recent addition to the Orient Express collection, but it offers the same grand style as the Mt. Nelson Although it’s relatively new, the Westcliff, has been shaped by history. It opened in l998, four years after Nelson Mandela became South Africa’s first democratically-elected President. The country was starting to draw tourists, but the city of Johannesburg was considered almost as dangerous as a war zone. In the last few years, that has started to change – people have been hired to patrol the streets, a Victorian women’s prison has become a museum, and factories have been turned into lofts and media centers. There’s a vibrant fashion, design and restaurant scene, and an eclectic but unmistakably African aesthetic that uses everything from animal prints to bead curtains to baggy jeans from the township of Soweto (township tourism is thriving). It’s sassy and color-blind, and offers a vision of a promising new South Africa.

But it won’t happen overnight. In the meantime, the Westcliff is secure to the max, resting high above the city in a neighborhood of mansions built with gold mining fortunes. In the distance, you can hear a lion’s roar from the nearby zoo. Which is fitting, for this Johannesburg hotel is intended to be a sybaritic stop on the way to an animal safari.

At the Orient Express safari seminar, we get our schedule – up at 5:30 for the early morning game drives- and learn about Botswana, which is located in the middle of Southern Africa. The Orient Express’ three safari camps are all in Botswana, which is the size of Texas and has a population of under 1.7 million people. Each camp is in a different ecosystem and all of them follow strict environmental guidelines.

The next day a private plane waits to take us from Johannesburg to Botswana. Wait is the key word – battle-scarred frequent flyers will appreciate an airplane adjusting to their schedule, and we have the rare luxury of being late. The spiffy 7-seater plane has wood paneling and leather seats with plenty of room and a hamper full of sandwiches and drinks for the three-hour trip. The thrill is heightened as the plane begins its descent to a clearing in a field, and there, among the sparse trees is an elephant. Welcome to the elephant capital of Africa. Over 80,000 of them live in the 10,000 square kilometer Chobe National Park. In the northern part of the park, a rugged, semi-arid wilderness, is the 5000 sq km Savute area, where we will be staying. This is prime wildlife territory. Zebras migrate through here, and you can see the endangered wild dog, as well as cheetah and other animals. But the amazing number of elephants living out their natural lives is what makes this place a mecca for elephant seekers.

The Savute Elephant Camp is situated on the banks of now dry Savute channel. It’s a mystery – it flows for several decades and then suddenly stops, sometimes for 80 years. The camp includes a dozen tents that on the inside look and feel like boutique hotel rooms. Each one has a deck with a hammock. They’re clustered around a main building, roofed but without walls. It’s a combination dining room, lounge and meeting place. Everywhere in the camp local materials are used – wood, straw, stone; even the chandelier is made of ostrich eggs.

Savute Elephant Camp
Rustic chic, Savute Elephant Camp

The colours are tan, sand, ecru, just like the land. The hut-like tents and the lounge on stilts fit into this wilderness. What a horror to see a sprawling luxury resort and golf course. There are no concrete foundations, all the better to be able to pull up stakes in case the l5 year lease is not renewed by the government (no land can be sold in conservation areas). The harmony of the lion- coloured land and the lovely, African-style furnishings inspires a kind of nostalgia for some kind of better, unruined past. It’s the feeling of being in sepia photograph.

Within view of the camp is a watering hole, where elephants drink, wash, push each other to get at the water and exchange greetings with their trunks. Even the heaviest elephant walks silently, as if the sound has been turned off. Males walk away alone, females arrive with their little ones. Female elephants live communally – aunts care for their sisters’ offspring, while the males, from adolescence onward, are on their own. The younger ones do not even know who their fathers are, and try to attract a male mentor by showing off. So much is going on, it’s tempting to just sit on the deck and watch.

Savute Guide
Onx, environmentalist at Savute camp showing elephant foot

But there are other animals to see. At 6:30 am, we take off in the open jeep. Our guide, scrutinizing the animal tracks, easily finds zebra, gazelle and giraffe. This is not a big zoo, it’s the unfenced wild, one of the best places in Africa to see animals. But nature left alone can be nature at its most ruthless, as we find, driving close to an unexpected sight: a dozen young lions are chomping at an elephant, lying on its side, its legs as lifeless as felled trees.. Lions have been known to kill elephants elsewhere in Africa, but it’s an opportunistic event – a weak male traveling solo is attacked by a group of lions. Savute is the only place where it happens every year, in the dry season, when the lions’ usual prey have gone elsewhere in search of water..

Soon it will be time to leave, and the familiar plane will await.. But first, on our last night in Botswana, that primeval experience of the night drive and the sleeping lions.

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