The 50th anniversary of Botswana’s independence is marked by a new film, A United Kingdom. David Oyelowu stars as Sir Seretse Khama, the Oxford-educated king of the Bamangwato tribe who became the country’s first president, and Rosamund Pike plays Ruth Williams, the white Englishwoman he married against the wishes of both his people and the colonial authorities.
This remarkable couple laid the foundations for modern Botswana: a largely peaceful, prosperous democracy (though Seretse’s party and descendants still run the place, and there is a major HIV problem) blessed with diamond reserves and the sort of dramatic landscapes and wildlife that facilitate high-cost, low-volume tourism. The film, directed by Amma Assante, opens with Pike’s Ruth flying into Botswana over the country’s unique Okavango Delta, a beautiful flowering web of waterways. Having visited it in the year I too turned 50, I can tell you the Delta is just as striking at ground level.
Rosamund Pike and David Oyelowu in A United Kingdom
We were staying in two successive resorts run by Sanctuary Retreats: Stanley’s Camp on the Delta, named for the American journalist Henry Stanley who tracked down British explorer David Livingstone, and Chobe Chilwero Lodge, named for the nearby Chobe river, which becomes the Zambezi when it flows through neighbouring Zambia. “Camp” and “Lodge” are too-modest terms, really, for sumptuous complexes amid pristine national parks where almost everything – food, safari drives, “sundowner” drinks in the bush – is laid on, and where the authenticity of the African experience is tempered with levels of service to suit the pickiest American or European.
In Stanley’s, we were at least in a tent, albeit one with foundations, plumbing and an adjacent bar/restaurant with a pool. On our first day our guide, Adam, whisked us off on a bush drive, where we were quickly blown away by the wildlife. Herds of incurious impala! The rump of a retreating hippo! Zebra, giraffe and warthog! Monkeys and baboons! And birdlife that made my previous most exotic holiday, to Australia, feel like a trip to a suburban back garden.
Aerial view of the Okavango Delta
But safaris are competitive, and we soon became jealous of other guests who had seen a lioness and cubs. At least, until we got up close to the three semi-tame elephants who live in the bush with Doug and Sandi Groves, an extraordinary pair who clearly prefer animals to humans. Walking, shaking trunks, and having lunch with the elephants costs extra, but is worth it.
The next day, on another drive, Adam and his fellow guides brought us and two other Landcruisers of guests alongside a leopardess and her mature cub. We followed them for a magical 30 minutes as they lazily, lethally and gracefully ambled down a human-made track. Adam also found a stretch of the delta with just enough water on it to permit a ride in a mokoro canoe to a lagoon where crocs, hippos and elephants basked.
An elephant in Chobe National Park
The nights were beautifully tranquil and clear, the Milky Way plainly visible. We’d turn in early, sedated by barbecued meat and South African wine, and wake early too. We set off for our flight in a tiny plane to Chobe just after dawn, dropping in first on another camp, Chief’s, which is thronged with giraffe, zebra and rhino, and which has recently reopened after refurbishment. Chief’s is properly swanky, a string of huge lodges with their own plunge pools. Tom Felton (aka Draco Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies) stayed here while filming his scenes in A United Kingdom; Harrison Ford has visited, too.
Chobe Chilwero feels almost European or South American by comparison, the cottages airy and hacienda-styled, looking directly down onto the glittering scroll of the river. Here, the excursions are split between water and land, and I could have gone home happy after we saw our first pod of hippos basking and snorting in the shallows, or the lunch on board a flat-bottomed boat with bright, blue-breasted sparrows swooping around the bow.
But then, on a land trip, we passed a young female elephant who trumpeted and made a false charge to warn us away from her young, and a young male “in musth” raging by, crazed by hormones. A necessary corrective to the semi-tame beasts we’d met before, though we were safe at all times. Even when Poniso drove us into the shallows of the Chobe so we could goggle at and photograph a young male lion and four females idling on the shore.
So happy anniversary and congratulations, Botswana, one of the success stories of Africa.
A United Kingdom is in cinemas on 25 November. Watch the trailer: