Africa's top game show

Jeremy Atiyah sips gin and tonic at sundown in Botswana's swish wildlife parks but misses out on the big adventure

Botswana, a country twice the size of Britain with fewer than a million citizens, reminds me of a very exclusive club. The Monaco of Africa perhaps. Half of the country is untamed wilderness. Flying above it you see tiny elephants and buffalo ambling through the Mopane trees. It is the ultimate game-viewing paradise.

As you would expect, tourism in Botswana means tiny, ultra-luxury camps in the middle of the Okavango Delta, where wealthy customers are flown in and out on chartered light aircraft. It means, say, eight tourists being catered for by a couple of dozen staff in a 1,000 square-mile park. It is where a semblance of adventure comes face-to-face with gin-and-tonics at sundown and a choice of wines for dinner. Unlike parts of East Africa, where the savannah resembles an off-piste driver training centre, Botswana, and to a lesser extent Zimbabwe, are determined to keep their safari holidays exclusive. And expensive.

To this end, Botswana has divided its wilderness up into gigantic concession areas. If you are a safari company and you hope to win a concession, you have to show commitment to Botswana's prized exclusivity. You want to build a high-rise hotel with a guitar-shaped swimming pool and an open- air night-club? Sorry. You need to demonstrate that you can make a living from erecting a tented camp in an area the size of Luxembourg.

I am not sure whether "tent" has a definition in Bostwanan law. The accommodations during my recent trip to Kings Pool and Little Vumbura were fondly referred to as tents, though they had more in common with luxury villas. Yes, they had canvas walls and net windows. But they also had floors of varnished wood, verandahs, electric ceiling fans, lights and fully functioning en- suite bathrooms. Meanwhile at Matusadona Lodge in Zimbabwe I stayed on a floating lodge on Lake Kariba, access to which was by private canoe. Fair enough of course. If people are paying pounds 200 a night they will expect more than a ground sheet to sleep on.

They will also expect to get their money's worth of wild animals. And this is where conservation comes in. The government of Botswana has learnt that game-viewing goes hand- in-hand with game management. No animals would mean no tourists.

Chris Greathead, who manages the Kings Pool concession by the Linyanti River on the border with Namibia, told me about battles with poachers. "Until 1993 this was a bad area for commercial poaching," he said. "There used to be a lot of black and white rhino here; now they have all been wiped out. The gangs had tricks for evading detection. One group of ivory poachers used to cover their tracks by wearing elephant-feet sandals. But now we have about 30 guys from the Botswana Defence Force patrolling our concession, and there is very little poaching."

Some of the concessions have small populations of people as well as wild animals living on them. In these community concessions, the local villagers form a trust and put the animal-viewing or -hunting rights out to tender themselves (hunting rights are very exclusive and very, very expensive. People like retired generals from the US military will come to Botswana to "Shoot An Elephant"). Preferred bids come from safari companies that provide money for building schools and clinics in the villages, and jobs for local people.

The upshot of the community concession system is that animals - formerly regarded as a danger and a nuisance - are seen by the villagers as their most valuable asset. It would be hard to expect people to care about animal conservation otherwise.

Rumours occasionally spread out of Botswana that the government wants to abandon wildlife and turn the wilderness of the Okavango Delta into a giant cattle ranch instead. The long-term, on-going project of controlling the tsetse fly is feared to be a step in this direction, as are the fences which have been erected to separate cattle from the wild buffalo.

But Chris Greathead told me that these fears were fading. "The authorities in Botswana now are genuinely passionate about wildlife conservation. Controlling the tsetse fly is not necessarily about preparing the ground for cattle. It is something we need to do anyway, to make this environment bearable for tourists. The beef-selling agreement with the EU has been a problem, but that is about to end and I think the fences are going to come down."

From what I could see, the local people would hope so too. The Okavango Delta is the ecological pride and joy of this blessed and exclusive country. Climatically, it should be a desert. But in fact it is kept miraculously watered by the annual flooding of the Okavango River, which is in turn dependent on rains in distant Angola.

The traditional means of getting around the delta has been in a makoro, or dug-out canoe. Today in camps like Little Vumbura, tourists are poled about in fibre-glass versions of the same (which do not require the cutting down of trees). When I arrived I was soon being taken through avenues of tall papyrus, looking for kingfishers, baby crocodiles, technicolour frogs and water snakes. Hacking channels through the reeds and papyrus, once the work of local fishermen, is now done by safari camp owners to provide access for tourists.

My local guide, named Pray, turned out to be involved in running the community concession in which Little Vumbura was located. He spoke near- perfect English; listening to him I felt like I was looking through a window to another age of mankind. Today he discusses putting safari-rights out to tender but until he was 10 years old he had never encountered an industrially manufactured product. For clothes he wore an animal-skin loin-cloth. When he was ill he chewed the leaves of the fever tree. His house was made from common reeds, his baskets and mats of papyrus fibres were dyed purple and orange and brown using the roots and bark of the magic gaari tree. All he knew, he told me, were things he could pick up around him.

Standing in the back of my makoro, he gestured at the vegetation around us. Anyone for lunch? Blue water lilies on the water surface hid edible pods like artichokes underneath. On dry land, the African ebony tree produced edible berries. Then there was the marula - an extremely sour citrus fruit, used to ferment into the local hooch. Even the sap of the papyrus, which contains glucose, could be eaten like an ice-cream lolly (I tried it, peeling away the green skin like a banana and chewing on the soft, bland insides which had a texture like an extremely floury apple). Afterwards Pray gave me a twig of the toothbrush tree to chew on.

With such abundance who needed anything else? Pray explained that one day a shopkeeper had come to his village and started selling items

like toothpaste and plastic sandals

and bottled oil, taking for payment not money (there was none) but woven baskets. It had been his first glimpse of the outside world. Twelve years later, he went to school in the city to learn the skills of a professional guide. His tuition fees - inevitably - were paid for by profits made from poaching.

What a fascinating story. So fascinating that I decided I would like to visit Pray's village. Forget game-drives, forget elephants, forget even gin-and-tonics at sunset. I just needed a jeep to get me to the village, three hours' drive away. Was that not possible? Sorry, said the camp manager, but no car was available. He might just as well have reminded me that Botswana was like all exclusive clubs. Tourism has its rules. Visiting the local villages is not what one does.

AFRICA

GETTING THERE

Jeremy Atiyah travelled as a guest of Wildlife Worldwide (tel: 0181-667 9158). A six-night package staying for two nights in each of the luxury safari camps of Matusadona, Kings Pool and Little Vumbura costs from pounds 2,295 per person, including return flights, full board and all alcoholic drinks.

The jumping off points for safari holidays in either Botswana and Zimbabwe are usually Maun or Victoria Falls, generally via Johannesburg. Return flights to Victoria Falls via Madrid on Iberia cost pounds 568 including tax. Call Trailfinders (tel: 0171-938 3939).

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