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Watching an impala be torn to shreds, then sitting as still as a corpse so as to avoid becoming one yourself, might not be how you’d usually spend a holiday. Then again, there’s very little that’s run-of-the-mill about Botswana’s Chobe National Park. 

Home to the world’s largest concentration of elephants, the park lies in the north of the country, on the border with Namibia, and is home to some 80,000 of the endangered animal. For the first part of my trip, I’d come to stay at Sanctuary Retreats’ Chobe Chilwero camp, set on the banks of the Chobe River. 

In the first day alone, I’d seen lions resting in the shade of a tree, a herd of elephants wander within touching distance of our truck, a family of baboons carefully grooming one another, and a territorial crocodile chase a baby hippo away from its nest (the hippo escaped, just).

Today, it’s barely 7am, and my guide, Cavin, has unearthed a young leopard, following its tracks to a bush where it could barely be spotted (if you’ll pardon the pun). A dead impala, killed the day before, lays in a neighbouring bush, waiting to be devoured.

“Let’s wait here,” says Cavin, as we gawp from the safety of our safari vehicle. “I’m sure it will come out to have its breakfast.” Sure enough, half an hour later, the leopard prowls over to the impala and begins tearing into its carcass, turning around occasionally to show us an impressive array of teeth, in case we might have our own designs on its morning meal.

The jaw-dropping amount of wildlife in this national park means that you’re almost certain to see big cats, herds of elephants and a family of rhino, seemingly unaware they are being watched, both on game drives in the national park and boat trips on the Chobe River (as well as lodges in Botswana, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Namibia, Sanctuary Retreats, with whom I’m travelling, operates six river cruise ships).

chobe chilwero

Image: Chobe Chilwero Lodge

Back at Chobe Chilwero, you can enjoy a ‘spafari’ in the hotel’s treetop spa, which offers locally-inspired treatments such as a de-stressing African heated stone massage, which uses mineral-rich volcanic basalt rocks and shea butter, and an African potato anti-ageing body experience, in which a warm African potato and marula wrap detoxes and hydrates. I can assure you that a few moments of contact with volcanic basalt rocks will be enough to put you in an unimaginably deep sleep.

The rooms and views are as spectacular as the wildlife, but it’s the attention to detail that make this sanctuary so special. Housekeeping staff appear three times a day, folding towels into the shapes of animals, while a waitress went to the length of printing out a recipe so that I could attempt to recreate a cocktail at home, with limited success.

Safaris have a reputation for being hard to get to. Expensive flights followed by long, dusty drives. Chobe Chilwero is just 10 minutes from Kasane Airport. Close to the border with Zambia, it also provides the opportunity to leapfrog to another Sanctuary Retreats’ property, the Sussi & Chuma camp, which is just an hour-and-a-half drive away. 

Set on the Zambezi River within the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park, Sussi & Chuma (named after Dr David Livingstone’s faithful friends, Sussi and Chuma) is just as luxurious as its Botswanan sister lodge, with 12 gorgeous guest rooms set in treehouses connected by wooden walkways. The setting may be rustic, nestled between Jackalberry trees, but that doesn’t mean you need to go without 21st-century conveniences, including high-speed Wi-Fi and USB ports. The meals are superb, and there’s a spa and a terrace from which to enjoy the magnificent sunsets, cocktail in hand.

chobe chilwero safari

Image: Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma

The national park is one of the smallest in Zambia, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be short of adventures. The lodge offers a host of hair-raising activities, including game drives, walking safaris, cruises and canoeing, or fishing on the Zambezi. You can also take a tour of the local village to see the community projects the lodge is involved with, including meeting women who turn old glass bottles into gorgeous jewellery. 

There are no lions or leopards at Mosi-Oa-Tunya, but there are elephants, crocodiles and rhino, the last of which are watched over 24/7 to protect them from poachers. Our guide walked us to where the rhinos were snoozing in the midday sun.

Another huge draw for visitors to Zambia, of course, is Victoria Falls, often cited as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. The thundering waterfall and its otherworldly mist can be seen either from the Zambian side or the Zimbabwean side. The lodge can organise tours, which include all visa formalities should you wish to see the cascading water from every angle. 

In the space of a week, I’d seen all of the so-called Big Five – lions, leopards, elephants, rhino and buffalo – and, truth be told, could hardly recognise myself in the mirror. Despite seven days of 5.30am starts, the person reflected back at me looked refreshed, invigorated, fully awake. A week in the animal kingdom can do that to you, apparently. Well, a week in animal kingdom with daily spa appointments, anyway. 

Prices at Sanctuary Chobe Chilwero start from £370 per person per night based on two people sharing on a minimum four-night stay. Prices at Sanctuary Sussi & Chuma start from approximately £425 per person per night based on two people sharing on a minimum four-night stay. Visit sanctuaryretreats.com

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