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Destinations: Botswana, Desert & Delta Safaris

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The call of the wild


Botswana has some of the world’s most picturesque scenes and wildlife a-plenty. Now, if only we could go there…


L ockdown is getting tedious now. If we’re being really honest it was never a bundle of sunshine but, as we head towards the first anniversary of our incarceration, thoughts turn to where (and when) we might jet off to when we’re released from the four walls of 2020 and now 2021.

As I write this on a Sunday in mid-February the wind is howling outside, blowing the snow horizontally over the roads leading to my village. My neighbours – those who have the intestinal fortitude to attempt to reach the shops – are getting stuck left and right in drifts and the newspapers haven’t arrived. The barometer isn’t looking promising and the temperature hasn’t climbed into positive digits in weeks.

But there’s always coffee and there are always dreams.

I have been offered the chance to (p)review a number of destinations in the last twelve months with the understanding that a full review will take place once we all emerge, blinking, into the light to take stock of the emotional, physical and psychological carnage that has been left behind by the coronavirus.

It’s a bittersweet task that I have been set – I get to transport myself mentally into the sunshine (and these destinations are always in the sun) and soothe the psyche of the woes of 2020 but, by the same token, it only takes a brief glimpse out of my study window to see the reality of the present.

Anyway, the first of these transports of delight is provided by the Desert and Delta Safaris company based in the heart of Botswana. From humble beginnings, this company’s portfolio now comprises eight historic and iconic lodges and camps. It was in 1980 that Jessie Neil, a frequent visitor to the Okavango Delta, decided to invest in Botswana tourism.

Neil was a wealthy Californian who had been visiting for seven years at that point and, having fallen in love with the country, she applied for a licence to build her own lodge in the Delta. The application was successful and she was granted a lease on Nxaragha Island, which is situated about ten kilometres south of Xugana, and the foundations were sunk for what was to become Camp Okavango.


From humble beginnings, this company’s portfolio now comprises eight historic and iconic lodges and camps


Two years later an additional lease was granted at Xakanaxa in the Moremi Game Reserve from which sprang Camp Moremi, on similar lines to its parent. Bringing the two camps under one umbrella gave birth to Desert & Delta Safaris.

Meanwhile, two friends, and business partners – Jonathan Gibson and Ian Green – were also considering tiptoeing into Botswana’s safari industry. They entered negotiations to buy Southern Sun’s Chobe Game Lodge which had been closed since Zimbabwe’s hostilities and eventually purchased it in 1983 to be opened the following year by Sir Ketumile Masire, the then-president of Botswana.

In 1985 the Sun International Group spotted the potential of Chobe Game Lodge and bought a 50% shareholding. Green decided to pursue other business interests in South African and sold his shares to Gibson who formed Chobe Holdings Ltd in 1989 and acquired the Sun International shares.

The increased commercialisation of safari tourism and the proliferation of lodges was of concern to Jessie Neil at Desert & Delta Safaris. She made the painful decision to leave the Botswana safari industry and, in 1992, Chobe Holdings bought her out. A period of refurbishment and extensions over the subsequent years added improvements to the original camps as we well as adding Savute Safari Lodge, Chobe Savannah Lodge, Xugana Island Lodge, Leroo La Tau and Camp Xakanaxa.

In 2014, Chobe Game Lodge revolutionised the Botswana safari industry by converting and introducing the first electric game drive vehicle and safari boat. As I write this, fully half of the company’s fleet of game drive vehicles are electric and all the boats are solar powered and electric.


A period of refurbishment and extensions over the subsequent years added improvements to the original camps as we well as adding Savute Safari Lodge, Chobe Savannah Lodge, Xugana Island Lodge, Leroo La Tau and Camp Xakanaxa


Desert & Delta Safaris has broken other new ground too. Apart from operating under a self-imposed ‘CARES’ philosophy whereby they invest in developing human potential and protect the natural heritage of Botswana, they actively aim to promote equality within the workplace – something that has historically been very limited in the country.

Through intensive training the company has educated and mentored Botswanans to give them the necessary skills to become camp managers. Since 2014, all the camps are exclusively managed by Botswana citizens. Further to creating more employment opportunities for their citizens though, Desert & Delta Safaris have actively promoted gender equality in the workplace. The current camp management group now has a 50% female representation and, wonderfully, Chobe Game Lodge has Africa’s first all-female safari guiding team.

So, as you might imagine, there was plenty to talk about when I sat down to chat with Andrew Flatt, Desert & Delta’s marketing manager.

How did Desert & Delta grow to be one of the most successful safari operators in Africa?

'Desert & Delta Safaris has been in operation for 40 years this year. We are successful because we established camps and lodges in key regions around Northern Botswana over the past four decades in some of the most prolific National Parks and Game Reserves. We have always maintained a level-headed approach, offering solid luxury experiences at steadily reasonable prices.

'We have always remained true to our people. We are a company run by citizens, for the empowerment of citizens. For 40 years we have delivered memorable and authentic safari experiences in some of the most sought-after wildlife destinations Africa has to offer, with warm and real local hospitality. We endeavour to create an environment where everyone in the company has the opportunity to learn, grow and achieve.'


The current camp management group now has a 50% female representation and, wonderfully, Chobe Game Lodge has Africa’s first all-female safari guiding team


What makes Botswana the prime safari and wildlife destination?

'The combination of different areas, offering experiences of different eco system and landscapes, all within an area that is very quickly and easily connected makes Botswana a very desirable destination. In addition to this the high value, low volume approach that means guests experience Botswana in a much more exclusive and remote manner than other destinations.

'Botswana is also renowned for its conservation efforts and very healthy populations of wildlife. Large varieties of species can be seen and generally speaking the wildlife in Botswana is more relaxed. The country boasts the longest continuous democracy in Africa and is considered the most stable governed country, meaning Botswana is a safe and welcoming destination.'

Was gender equality in the workplace always the intention or was it a happy accident that came about because of exceptional female staff?

'The intention was always to empower. As a company started by a strong woman, we have always recognised and valued the contribution of the women of Desert & Delta Safaris and so naturally, responsibility was given to women and positions of influence and power were equally shared.

'Over our four decades of operation, we have also recognised that remote camps and lodges are perfectly suited to female management. Some advantages of female management are that they are more detail focused within their tasks, more empathetic, offer a sense of calamity and assurance (some travellers need time to adjust to the safari lifestyle), are fantastic hosts and are more pragmatic in their approach.

'We have also found that with the increase in solo female travellers or groups of friends travelling together, having strong female management makes them feel more relaxed and at home.

'Women are generally also decision makers in the home when it comes to things such as holidays, so our approach to empowerment makes us a more desirable safari option.'


As a company started by a strong woman, we have always recognised and valued the contribution of the women of Desert & Delta Safaris and so naturally, responsibility was given to women and positions of influence and power were equally shared


How has Desert & Delta achieved gender equality in the workplace?

'Identify, create, implement. We first had to identify injustices in the tourism industry relating to equal opportunities. We then had to create an environment in which fair and equal opportunities were given to women. The process of implementing this core value into the everyday operation of the organisation led to our overwhelming success in empowering women into senior positions within Desert & Delta Safaris.'

What impact has the CARES Philosophy had on local communities?

'One of the pillars of the CARES Philosophy focuses on the community, the Desert & Delta Safaris community. Every one of us in the company has a family, friends and a network of people who rely on or are linked to our successes and failures. By providing meaningful opportunities and investment in tourism, these communities are furthered. We provide a platform from which our people can dream, grow and achieve. This effect long began to trickle down into our employees’ personal lives and into their communities, showing that tourism can be a vehicle for change.'

How will the CARES movement evolve in the future?

'Our plan is to continue to place the emphasis on our CARES pillars, ultimately put the power in the hands of every employee to succeed in their own right and within the framework of Desert & Delta Safaris. There is no limit to where any one individual can grow and there is no limit to the support given to those who choose to succeed. Our goal is to provide meaningful opportunities to the citizens of Botswana through tourism, using the CARES Philosophy as the vehicle by which we achieve this.'

Desert & Delta really is admirable as an entity in the world. It would be easy to try and maximise the return on such wonderful properties but that would actually be the way to shorten their lifespan and do wider damage to the community. Their holistic approach is one that I wish more companies would emulate.

If the global pandemic has taught us one thing, surely, it’s that we all suffer the same way and that striving to lift up one among us benefits everybody. Botswana feels pretty damn far away at the moment as we can’t travel but I look forward to seeing the camps when we’re allowed to look beyond our immediate horizons.

The wind continues to howl here and the sideways snow doesn't abate. The coffee gets cold almost before it reaches my lips but sustenance is maintained by the thoughts of sunnier times and the chance to witness the magnificence of nature at its finest. I would really like to see a lion that's not in a zoo.

For more information go to: Desert & Delta Safaris

Words: TG

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