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You'll never forget; IT MAY BE AFRICA'S MOST EXPENSIVE SAFARI SPOT, BUT IT IS STILL POSSIBLE TO ENJOY BOTSWANA'S JOYS ON A BUDGET. SARAH MARSHALL VISITS TWO CAMPS, INCLUDING ONE WHERE HARRY WOOED MEGHAN.

Byline: SARAH MARSHALL

IT'S predicted we'll be gleaning most of our nutrients from creepy-crawlies in the future. A sustainable food source, it makes environmental sense - but I'd draw the line at scorpions.

Dangling a whip-tailed critter above his tongue, I wonder if San Bushman, Xuma, has a death wish.

Yet as he lowers the menacing creature into his mouth, pinching the stinger as a safeguard, it surrenders into a pancake-flat slumber.

In Botswana's November heat, cooling human saliva, it turns out, is a sedative.

Belonging to a formerly nomadic tribe from the western part of the country, on the border with Namibia, Xuma and his family are camped temporarily in the grounds of Meno a Kwena camp on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

Set in the sand and surrounded by arid plains and brittle vegetation, it feels a million miles from civilisation. Truth be told, we're only a 90-minute drive from the airport in capital city Maun, and this is one of the few safari camps in Botswana connected by tarmac - partly explaining why it's often incorporated into more affordable itineraries.

Prince Harry chose this location to woo Meghan Markle, when he took a "huge leap" and whisked her away for a romantic birthday break in August 2017. It's proof that Africa's most expensive safari destination can be explored on a (relative) budget, while still enjoying a holiday fit for royalty.

Old scraps of parachutes and sepia-tone photos in the dining area reveal Meno a Kwena's long history; it was built at a time when there were no roads in this area, and Harry, who's friendly with the owners, has been visiting for 20 years.

More recently, it's been welcomed into the Natural Selection portfolio, a conservation-led company coowned by Wilderness Safaris founder Colin Bell, with a focus on getting to the heart of Africa.

Currently, they offer camps in Botswana and Namibia, mostly from PS360 per night - a fraction of what competitors charge in the same luxury league.

Everyone associates Botswana with the Okavango Delta, an inland network of swamps that swells and evaporates depending on rainfall, providing a healthy playground for Africa's most iconic species. So it's hard to believe 70% of the country is actually made up of semi-arid savannah and desert, a landscape of increasing intrigue to outsiders.

Former hunter-gatherers, the San Bushmen have come here to share their culture with tourists, staying at Meno for three months at a time before returning home and rotating with another group.

Their dress is minimal, fitting for this climate. Both men and women wear beaded headbands crowned with an ostrich feather to detect wind direction. Around their waists are dried antelope skins, stretched and dyed red for camouflage.

Meghan and Harry famously found romance under the Kalahari's stars, but during my visit, when the rains are due to break, mobile camps aren't operational. Travelling off season is vital to keeping prices down.

No matter. Sandy pathways leading to nine canvas walled rooms perched above the wending Boteti River and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park are similarly embraced by nature. It's a far - and welcome - cry from the numerous hermetically sealed five-star lodges often found in Botswana.

Dry for almost 20 years, the Boteti is now flowing again, although it's supplemented by a waterhole in the riverbed below Meno. A vital source of water, it attracts thousands of zebras during their dry season migration, along with opportunistic feline predators.

Animals are usually drawn to the river as the day heats up, meaning game drives start later at 8am and making Meno arguably the only safari camp in Africa where you can justify a lie-in.

Although it's possible to armchair-safari from the camp, where a fire burning from dawn until dusk doubles as an open-air kitchen, we drive for an hour along the park boundary, crossing the river on a simple ferry - it's essentially a raft and an outboard motor - to reach the entrance gate.

Extending 3,900 square kilometers, the park encompasses sparkling salt pans and clusters of curvy baobab trees, but we concentrate our efforts in two per cent of the land, an area of thorny acacia bushes and riverbanks.

Botswana is renowned for its elephant population - a favourite animal of Meghan's - and we see large herds ploughing through a haze of dust into the water.

Greeting each other with curious, outstretched trunks, they play like excitable children at a water park, clambering on shoulders to give friends a dunking. It's joyful to watch.

Despite its more challenging access, the heart of the Okavango Delta is one of Botswana's deserving highlights - and although it's home to some of the country's most expensive lodges, there are some more affordable options too.

Another member of the Natural Selection stable, Hyena Pan is located in the Khwai Private Reserve, forming a bridge between the Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park - both world-class wildlife destinations.

Creating almost ecclesiastical vaults, a canopy of columnar mopane trees shades the homely eight-tent camp. A scenic waterhole extends directly from the foot of the dining area, welcoming a parade of thirsty elephants throughout the day.

A former hunting concession, wildlife is still adapting to this area and most of the action happens a slightly annoying 45-minute journey away. The rewards though are worth it: a pride of lions closing in on red lechwe along waterways, stealthy ground hornbills plucking rodents from the long grass, and a young male leopard basking at sunset.

Long journeys aren't always necessary, though. A five-minute drive from the camp - via a stop to observe a thriving metropolis of beetles in a dung ball - we spend several hours in an underground hide. It's a favourite watering hole for elephants.

Pitched at eye-level with these enormous wrinkled, plodding feet, it's a novel perspective.

Footsteps are betrayed by vibrations rippling through the earth.

Hidden from view, we're a privileged audience to Attenborough-style scenes of animal behaviour; squabbles over whose trunk hogs the water pump have all the amusement of playground tussles. And there's not a single other person for miles.

For me, it's these crowd-free connections with nature that define real luxury. Not even a prince and his glamorous fiancee could put a price on that.

NEED TO KNOW | SARAH MARSHALL travelled as a guest of Natural Selection, which offers a sevennight, all-inclusive safari from PS2,700 per person, staying at Meno a Kwena and Hyena Pan.

| South African Airways fly to Botswana from London Heathrow via Johannesburg from approx PS1,000 return. See flysaa.com

CAPTION(S):

Harry and Meghan had their first romantic break in Botswana

L-R: San Bushmen at Meno a Kwena camp and a leopard in the Khwai Reserve

An elephant viewed from the underground hide at Hyena Pan

Zebras and elephants are drawn down to watering holes by the heat, creating photo opportunities
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:Evening Gazette (Middlesbrough, England)
Geographic Code:6BOTS
Date:Apr 7, 2018
Words:1137
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