05/01/2013 08:42 am ET Updated Jul 01, 2013

Twelve Days in Heaven (aka Botswana), Part 1 -- Chitabe Camp [PHOTOS]

Botswana is a magical land of lush plains, staggeringly beautiful sunsets and wildlife that will blow your mind. Over 12 days I explored four camps, in various regions of the Okavango Delta, each with their own personality: Chitabe, Vumbura Plains, Abu and Mombo. Whether you're a world traveler or a part-time adventurer, you may want to add these to your bucket list.

First up: Chitabe

"Don't worry," Ebs, my guide, said as he started the jeep. "He'll be here when we get back." I stared up at the cat, not sure I wanted to take the chance he'd leave before we returned. Nestled in the crook of a large tree about 20 feet up lay a male leopard, eyes closed, his tail hanging endlessly down the trunk. He didn't seem as if he would be going anywhere.

I'd finally made it to the Okavango Delta after 22 hours and three planes -- the last one resembling a smart car with wings. Ebs had just picked me up at Chitabe's landing strip when he spotted the leopard, and as we headed toward camp I remember thinking that if my first sighting was such a typically elusive animal, it might be a good omen for the rest of my stay. As it turns out, it was.

When we arrived at the camp, staff members greeted us with large smiles and enthusiastic waves. Reflexively, I returned the greeting, embracing the welcome like a warm puppy. A woman offered me a chilled towel (a refreshing treat that would be repeated throughout the trip) to wipe away the mix of dust and sweat I'd picked up on my journey. After a few moments of gracious small talk, I was escorted to the main area where I would be advised of the camp's rules* and then on to my tent to freshen up. My adventure had officially begun.

Chitabe is located in the southeast section of the Okavango Delta. The small camp features eight large, Meru-style tents anchored by a central thatched meeting area where guests dine, relax and enjoy swapping stories around a knotted tree trunk that doubles as a bar. Raised boardwalks weave through the trees, connecting each tent to the main building.

My tent was a large, charming studio cloaked in deep-green canvas over permanent fixtures such as planked floors, an en suite bathroom and indoor and outdoor showers. Black and white accents gave the décor a sophisticated air, but overall the room was delightfully cozy. The comfy, queen-size bed was canopied, and at night a wispy mosquito netting was draped around it. Outside, a large deck overlooked the tall grassy plains of acid green and yellow grass -- colors so vivid they almost seemed artificially enhanced.

Game Drives
Around 4:30 pm, after meeting my jeep mates, a honeymooning couple from the Northwest, we set out on my first official game drive and, for me, the now infamous tree. Just as Ebs had promised, we found the leopard still perched on high, the rays of the setting sun streaking across his face. As if he'd been waiting for us to arrive, he yawned and then climbed down the trunk only a few feet from our position, causing us city folk to hold our breaths. With a sideways glance, he gracefully strolled past us and moved into the high grass, stopping to clean himself as if we weren't sitting awestruck only 30 feet away. After an hour of watching this magnificent creature roam the bush, the light left the sky and we left him, all high fives and excitement and looking forward to sharing our sighting with the other guests.

Over the next three days, we saw some amazing wildlife. One morning we followed two male lions over half a mile as they tracked the rest of their pride. When the pride was in sight, the females and cubs bounded over, nuzzling their bodies against the males in greeting. Another time, we watched hippos fight, wide-mouthed and ferocious, for dominance. We laughed as a troop of baboons played with each other with uncanny human behaviors and mannerisms that belied their primate status, and witnessed dozens of screeching vultures scavenge the carcass of an unfortunate Impala.

During each morning game drive, we stopped in some gorgeous location to enjoy a light snack and a spot of tea. At night, we gathered with the other guests and indulged in a bush tradition called a "sundowner," where we would add wine or champagne to the equation and relax as we chatted and watched the sunset.

That special something
Back in camp, Chitabe's casual vibe encouraged mixing and spirited conversation between guests and staff alike. The guides were on hand to answer the 4 million wildlife questions that popped into my head at any given moment. Meals were served buffet-style, and we ate at a single large feast table. As a solo traveler, it was a delightful way to enjoy the company of others without feeling like an intruder. Of all the camps on my journey, Chitabe inspired the most camaraderie. It was that inspiring atmosphere that helped me to foster a friendship with two other guests, Johanna and Alexandra, longtime friends whose itinerary nearly matched mine. As luck would have it, I would continue on with my journey to Vurumba Plains and Abu with these two adventurous ladies.

Camp details
• Camp activities/amenities: Day and night game drives. Walking safaris upon request. Bird-watching. Small pool. Curio shop.
• My guide: Ebs (pronounced Eebs)
• In-room amenities: Safe; fee laundry service (except for undies; liquid detergent is available in the room for a little DIY); shampoo and conditioner (not a fan, bring your own eco-friendly supply); and bath gel.
• Eco-conscious: Keeping the environment top of mind, Chitabe and my other camps provided aluminum water bottles for guests and plenty of water to keep us hydrated.
• Animals in camp: During my stay, I saw very few animals in camp, but every day is different in the bush.
• Recommendations: Bring a travel-size power strip if you want to charge multiple devices at once. There's only a couple of outlets in the room.
• FYI: Hairdryers in your room no-no here because they drain too much on the camp's generator. If you don't have a drip-dry do, you might want to pack a scrunchie or a baseball cap. If desperate, the staff can provide a hairdryer to use in their training room.

I recommend Chitabe for...
• Solo travelers. It's a great place to enjoy the bush and meet new people.
• People who feel more at home with casual luxury than opulence.
• Travelers who prefer small, intimate properties rather than larger facilities with more guests.

Next up, Vurumba Plains....

*Interested in learning more about safaris? Please read my general overview here.

Heaven on Earth (a.k.a. Botswana) - Part 1: Chitabe Camp