05/14/2013 01:34 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2013

Twelve Days in Heaven (aka Botswana), Part 2 -- Vumbura Plains Camp [PHOTOS]

I spent 12 magical days in Botswana exploring four camps -- Chitabe, Vumbura Plains, Abu and Mombo -- in various regions of the Okavango Delta. Each had its own personality and exciting wildlife adventure. I started my trip at Chitabe Camp, and now... Vumbura Plains.

It was mid-afternoon, and we (my new friends Johanna and Alexandra and I) were excited to land at Vumbura (pronounced voombura) Plains, in the extreme north of the Okavango Delta, our new home for the next three days. Ban, our guide, loaded our bags into his jeep, and we began our 15-minute journey to the camp. He told us that the golden pack had been spotted on the property and we'd look for it during the afternoon game drive. The golden pack is a group of famous wild dogs, an endangered species that roams that area of the Delta. We were destined to find them, and the sighting would end up being one of the most exhilarating and heart-pounding adventures of my trip.

The Camp
Vumbura Plains was very different from Chitabe, the rustic-luxury tented camp where we'd just spent our first three nights in Botswana. The main building reminded me of a contemporary beachside ranch house. The main meeting area was open and airy, with modern architecture crafted of pale wood and built-in modular couches facing east toward the sunrise. In the center, a large, square sitting area jutted out into the plains, packed with plump, off-white canvas cushions that surrounded a fire pit.

Each room at the camp is a separate thatched roof villa made private by a high wooden wall. A large door with an oversize latch opened onto my private deck with a covered sitting area, a private plunge pool and an outdoor shower, all with a glorious view of the plains. The room itself was sleek and modern with a sunken living room, a groovy white candy-kiss-shaped lamp, a canopied bed the size of a house, and an en suite bathroom. Mosaic tiles decorated the floor of a decadent open-air shower at least 6 feet square with dual shower heads and billowy white drapes that gently floated in the breeze.

One of my favorite sightings of all time: Sandwiched between angry elephants and wild dogs

By 4:30 pm, we'd been watching the dogs sleep for 15 minutes. It took us awhile to find them, spread out in a clump of skinny trees. We were waiting for them to wake and engage in a frenetic "greeting" ceremony of wagging tails, sniffing and wrestling, not unlike the play of puppies, before they went out on their hunt. Out of the blue, we heard the panicked trumpets of elephants, mixed with the sound of small trees being knocked down in a hurry. It was like the scene from Jurassic Park where you could hear the T. rex coming, but you just couldn't see it yet. Suddenly, running in single file, elephants broke through the trees to our right. Two ran right past without as much as a glance in our direction; but the third, visibly surprised to see us, broke from the group and with ears stretched out wide, began waving his head and body, warning us off and rumbling loudly. Behind him, elephant after elephant stampeded past him, trumpeting as if the sky were falling. To say we were wide-eyed with shock is an understatement. Ban sat quietly watching, and we followed suit. The dogs to our left were awake and sat staring at the display without moving. Moments later, our blustery elephant turned and followed the herd. I exhaled with a gasp, unaware that I had been holding my breath the whole time.

Ban casually explained that the elephants were in a breeding herd with babies and they'd probably picked up the scent of the dogs. Within a few seconds the trumpeting began again, followed by more trees crashing. The elephants were coming back.

The golden pack had moved from the left side of our car to the right, sitting in the grass the herd had just trampled. Directly in front of us, 12 feet away at the most, the trees parted and two large tusks appeared, followed by a massive head jerking back briefly in surprise. Warily, the elephant walked toward us and to the left, fixated on our jeep. Within seconds three others joined her, and shoulder-to-shoulder they began to sway and rumble, lifting their trunks in the air and pounding the dirt. My heart was in my throat. Ban whispered, "They aren't interested in us; they are interested in the dogs." That's great, I thought, but we're between the angry elephants and the dogs!

After 30 seconds or so, the first elephant cautiously squeezed between our jeep and the trees to stand directly in front of the dogs, and then she went a little loony. She stomped the ground, threw dirt with her trunk, trumpeted up a storm and pretended to rush the dogs, stopping short a few feet in front of them. (The dogs, by the way, reacted to the elephants like indifferent children being yelled at by their parents.) And just when I thought the dogs' defiance was going to send the pachyderms over the edge, the herd in unison turned and smashed through the trees away from us, once again. Within seconds, our little adrenaline-pumped group was immersed in silence.

Unfortunately during this time, I was too frozen to shoot, convinced that if the elephants heard the click of my camera, I would set them off and they'd rush the jeep, pummeling us into the ground. I kicked myself for hours afterward for not having captured the scene.

The dogs, unlike us, were unfazed. As the trees stopped swaying from the last of the elephants, they immediately started leaping on each other, tails wagging, all sniffs and licks -- the "greeting" had finally begun, and I just had one of the most thrilling experiences of my life.

Camp details
• Camp activities: Day and night game drives in open 4x4 Land Rovers; mokoro rides (a dug-out canoe for two); boating on the waterways; walking safaris; seasonal catch-and-release fishing.
• My guide: Ban. A fantastic guide: He always got us right up close to the animals. Pretty much put us in the lap of a leopard -- in a good way. Not the friendliest guy, but frankly, I didn't need him to be my buddy.
• In-room amenities: In-room safe; laundry; Carolyn Rhys toiletries; hair dryer; large cooler packed with various beverages and, next to it, small glass jars filled with various treats. (I especially loved the wrapped jelly candies.)
• Meals: Meals were slightly more formal than at Chitabe. Though served at feast-type tables, dinners were ordered with a menu, no buffet, and guests were extremely friendly but tended to eat with their own groups.
• Eco-conscious: Keeping the environment top of mind, Vumbura provided aluminum water bottles for guests and plenty of water to keep us hydrated.
• Animals in camp: At night, hippos were very close to my room, chomping the grass below the elevated boardwalk. Elephants grazed near the periphery of camp during the day. A few impala.

I recommend Vumbura Plains for...
• Travelers who want to see amazing wildlife. Though the sighting with the wild dogs and elephants stood out, we also saw leopards, buffalo, lions wildebeest, zebra and a whole lot more.
• Honeymooners will love the expansive private rooms with deck and plunge pool.
• People who prefer more modern accommodations than tents with bush-inspired décor.

Next up, Abu Camp....

For an overall understanding of safaris, types of camps and how to find, please read my general overview here.

Heaven on Earth (aka Botswana) Part 2 - Vumbura Plains