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12 Days in Heaven (a.k.a. Botswana), Part 3 -- Abu Camp [PHOTOS]

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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!

Abu Camp
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.

Riding Kitty
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.

The accommodations
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.

Creative thinking
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 details

• 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.

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