I spent 12 magical days in Botswana exploring four camps in various regions of the Okavango Delta, each with its own personality and extraordinary wildlife adventure. I've written about Chitabe and Vumbura Plains, now it's time for Abu!
Have you ever dreamed of spending quality time with elephants? Then look no further than Abu, where guests are able to interact with the camp's fascinating herd of rescued, orphaned and raised elephants. But be warned: Your dreams may come true, but chances are you'll only want more.
In the middle of a shaded clearing stood Abu's seven remarkable elephants, their big ears gently flapping in the heat, trunks casually picking grass with acute precision. Nearby, handlers dressed in head-to-toe khaki and aviator glasses kept watch. Roaming about was an adorable 1 ½-year-old calf named Warona, a very precocious tyke, whose puppy-like nature belied her chest-high stature. My friends, Johanna and Alexandra and I had just arrived from Vumbura Plains, and we couldn't wait to spend time with the Abu herd.
Wellington, aka Welly, the chief handler, introduced us to the elephants. First was Cathy, the 53-year-old matriarch who would lead our little expedition into the bush, followed by the other adult females, Shireni and Kitmetse (Kitty). Next up were the "kids", Shireni's son, Little Abu, Kitty's daughter, Lorato, and Paseka, an orphan that had been adopted into the herd a few years before after being ravaged by a pack of hyena. Warona, Shireni's little girl, rounded out the lineup.
Cathy, Shireni and Kitty were outfitted with heavily padded saddles that accommodated two guests, one seated behind the other like a toboggan, handlers in front. I was assigned to Kitty and mounted her via a raised platform. Kitty's gait swayed as if we were sitting in a canoe floating on a wake of honey, and as we ambled along, the view from her back offered a whole new perspective of the landscape.
Walking with giants
Walking with the herd was a completely different experience and my favorite way to spend my time with the herd. It's easier for guests to ask questions, take photos and touch the elephants along the way, and I did all three with a vengeance. I became fascinated by details impossible to see from a jeep. I had no idea that an elephant's eyes were brilliant amber or that their skin feels like a supple radial tire covered in sandpaper. When I was walking behind Cathy, her feet reminded me of large sandbags, bulging and retracting, as her weight came down and lifted. Every time I was with the elephants I saw something new that fascinated me.
It was also a kick to watch the relationship between the handlers and their elephants. Whenever Cathy stopped during a walk to feed -- which was all the time -- Big Joe would give her a few minutes to shove in a mouthful or two and then he would say, in his baritone voice, "Move on, Cathy... Cathy, move on." You could see that Cathy heard him, her eyes shifting up ever so slightly, head tilting, but as often as not, she wouldn't move until she'd eaten more. It was clear that "moving on" was a bit of a compromise.
Abu's six luxury tents are located in an exceptionally beautiful area overlooking grassy plains and a hippo-laden lagoon. Each room is a testament to understated luxury that includes a cavernous outdoor tub, indoor and outdoor showers, a writing area and a private deck that looks out on to the water.
The camp organized special excursions that were beautifully executed and a perfect opportunity to get to know the other guests. For example, one night we were taken to a clearing where a living room had been set up for cocktails and a screening of a documentary about Paseka's dramatic arrival to Abu. The grass was decorated with rugs, couches, chairs and lanterns, and as the sun dipped into the horizon, we sipped champagne and snacked on bags of gourmet popcorn.
Return to the wild
Over the years, when elephants have shown signs of wanting to leave the camp, the handlers, in conjunction with the director of Elephants Without Borders and under the guidance of Wild Horizons Wildlife Trust, work to release these elephants back into the bush. For more information on the process, you click here to learn about Abu's wonderful wild herd.
• Camp amenities: Six airy tents that blend beautifully into the environment; a small pool; a library stocked with field guides and African literature; Wi-Fi (the only camp on my trip that had it); gym equipment.
• Camp activities: Elephant walks and rides; game drives; bird watching; motorboat or makoro rides; seasonal catch-and-release fishing; small plane or helicopter tours can also be arranged. You can spend the night under the stars on a deck above the elephant enclosure. (I highly recommend it.)
• In-room amenities: In-room safe; laundry; hair dryer; minibar, indoor and outdoor showers; large outdoor tub; Africology-brand toiletries.
• My guide: Newman. A kind and extremely knowledgeable guide.
• Meals: Dinners are served al fresco at separate tables on the camp's main deck. Dinners tend to be on the formal side (in presentation, not dress), and there is an excellent selection of wine.
• Animals in camp: A bunch of beautiful birds, impala and hippos and at night.
I recommend Abu Camp for...
• Travelers who want to indulge in a wildlife fantasy by spending some quality time physically interacting with elephants.
• Honeymooners who love romantic settings, alfresco dinners and luxurious rooms.
• People who want a different kind of safari experience.
Next up, Mombo Camp....
For a general understanding of what to expect on a safari and how to book your perfect trip, please read my overview here.
Two seconds after this shot was taken, Ms. Paseka here almost grabbed my camera. Elephants are very curious and I think she thought it might be tasty. I thought it was hilarious. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
One of the other guests riding Kitty on a morning saunter through the Delta. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
Cathy, the herd's matriarch, lifts her trunk overhead indicating that she would like a treat. Why you ask? Because she saw that I was taking photos of her and she felt she deserved a little payment. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
On our first trek into the bush I decided to ride instead of walk. This shot was taken from the back of Kitimetse or Kitty. She was a slow one and her gait felt like we were in a canoe floating on a wake of honey. Kitty is due to give birth in 2014 and the camp can't wait to welcome the new calf into the herd. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
One of the extraordinary benefits to staying at Abu is for shots like this. I was standing inches away from Cathy, the herd's matriarch, who floored me with her beautiful amber eyes. And who wouldn't die for lashes like that? ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
My tent at Abu. To the right is also a private deck that looks out on to the lagoon. In addition to that huge tub, there were also indoor and outdoor showers and a lovely desk and writing area. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
The main deck at Abu overlooking the plains and the lagoon beyond that. Meals are served here al fresco when you are in camp. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
My first meeting with Cathy and baby Warona. I couldn't have been happier. Here you can see how Cathy's tusks are slightly uneven due to her "argument" with Kitty. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
We'd all just said goodbye to the Abu herd after a lovely morning walk. The camp staff poled us across the river in mokoros and then we had a lovely bush breakfast on the opposite bank. Across from us we could see Little Abu (on the left) and Paseka graze in the tall grass. It was sublime. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
Enter caption for this slideKitty grazes in a field near Abu camp. If you look closely you can see that Kitty has a hole in her ear. It seems that Cathy and Kitty, while herd mates, are not particularly close. One day, years ago, during a rather serious altercation, Cathy knocked Kitty down and pierced her ear with her tusk, breaking it in the process. Now Cathy has uneven tusks. To keep things safe and calm, Kitty stays at the back of the line while in the bush and at night they sleep in different areas of the elephant enclosure. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
Movie night! Or more correctly, documentary night. A lovely setting for a few cocktails, some gourmet popcorn and a heartwarming documentary about Paseka. When she was just a little calf she was orphaned and attacked by hyena. The camp handlers came upon her bloody and terrified. Though the camp dealt with some heart wrenching circumstances that almost kept them from being able to help her, in the end little Paseka was adopted by the herd. Yay! ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
After our evening ride the first night we stopped in the bush to have sundowners, an African tradition of having cocktails under the stars as the sun sets. That's Cathy and baby Warona with my friends Johanna and Alexandra on top. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
Warona nurses while Shireni grazes. Normally, a female is extremely protective of her young, but Shireni knows that guests and handlers alike can come close and are not threats to her or Warona's safety. That being said, guests always had to ask a handler for permission and an escort when approaching the elephants. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
Shireni with Warona, Little Abu, Lorato, Paseka and Kitty in the rear. Today, all the guests chose to walk so the handlers rode the elephants bareback. Routine is a big priority at Abu. It keeps the elephants content and everyone else safe. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
Another magical opportunity to snap some closeups of an elephant that I would never get the chance otherwise if not at Abu. Elephant feet mesmerized me a bit. They were like big gray sandbags that silently bulged and retracted each time an ellie took a step. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
Warona would often trot around the guests looking to play. However, her size makes it important not to engage with her too much as she is inclined to butt a human in the same way she may another elephant. It's all in fun and kind of sweet actually, but when she's the size of a smart car it's better not to encourage bad habits. Welly, the camps chief handler is letting me know that Warona is headed my way. I'm ready! ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
At first I was a bit concerned when I saw Warona wedge herself between these two trees. I thought she might get stuck. Then I realized that she was cleverly scratching both sides of her tummy at once. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
Shireni, just a big beautiful elephant, stops grazing to let me snap this photo after a morning walk. ©Susan Portnoy “The Insatiable Traveler”
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