Where Harry met Meghan: a Botswana adventure
Botswana’s mix of evocative landscapes, stunning sunsets and beautiful wild beasts is utterly compelling. Find out why this country is where a royal couple fell in love
Let’s face it: Harry Windsor ruined dating for all men two years ago. After deciding the fleshpots of Kensington and Chelsea weren’t quite good enough for his newfound inamorata, Suits actress Meghan Markle, he pulled something absurdly epic out of the bag when it came to what was only their third date. A five-day trip to Botswana, to be exact. You know the drill: sleeping under the stars; cooing over baby animals; adrenalin-fuelled encounters with lions; etc. If she hadn’t fallen for the multi-millionaire Prince, this was would surely seal the deal. Except for Harry, this was much more than a case of bragging rights and showing off.
They say when you find The One, you just know – and you want to share the most precious parts of your life with them. For Harry, the country of Botswana – located in the south of Africa, and neighbouring Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe – is more than just a place to go on safari: he calls it his second home. He first visited soon after the death of his mother in 1997 – it was the first time the then-13 year old had been to the dark continent, and, much as with Meghan, it was love at first sight.
Sitting, rapt, inside a flat-bottomed skiff as it’s expertly manoeuvred around a small, peaceful stretch of the Zambezi river by my incredibly well-informed guide, Bevan, I can understand why. Along with a handful of fellow travellers, we’re goggling at two African elephants – so called because, yes, they are indeed in Africa, but also because their ears are a similar shape to the continent itself – who are going casually about their business. The big female is searching for reeds under the surface of the water, tugging them up with her trunk then shoving huge quantities placidly into her mouth, while her miniature offspring plays happily close by.
On the river banks ahead of us are at least seven or eight more, a mix of males and females, babies and teenagers. Some are sticking their trunks into the shallows, sucking up muddy water to spray over their backs to cool themselves down, while others pick at leaves from the surrounding acacia trees, or have adorable play-fights. After the mother eats her fill, she walks out of the water, straight past our boat; she’s so close we could almost touch her, blinking quietly from eyes lined with lashes so long, you’d swear they were fake. It’s a primal, and somewhat emotional, encounter; yes, these are magnificent, gentle-looking creatures, but I’m still acutely aware that with one lash of their muscular trunk or kick of their tree-trunk-sized legs, they’d do us some serious damage.
It’s all heady, nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw stuff, emphasised even more when Bevan points out a massive, three metre long crocodile lounging idly on the riverbank. Yeah, it’s not moving right now, enjoying getting its fix of Vitamin D and feeling the sun’s rays on its designer-handbag-quality skin, but if one of us fell into the water it would be game over quicker than you could say ‘it’s lunchtime’. These leathery reptiles can live to over a hundred, and stay underwater for up to an hour at a time, and can overpower a grown man within seconds. You’d have no chance.
The skiff, thankfully, moves on, although Bevan is quick to point yet another deadly threat to mankind: the hippo. I can’t help finding these absurdly-shaped creatures, with their stumpy little legs, rounded snouts and twitchy little ears, rather cute. Hanging out by clumps of rushes towards the centre of the river are several of them; heads partially submerged, they look around periodically, on the alert for any intruders who might be invading their territory. Thankfully we don’t get too close, but their wide jaws (which can stretch open to 180 degrees!) can snap their tusk-like teeth down on a hapless victim with the force of 2,000 pounds per square inch. That, my friend, is enough to bite you in half.
It’s a primal, and somewhat emotional, encounter; yes, these are magnificent, gentle-looking creatures, but I’m still acutely aware that with one lash of their muscular trunk, they’d do us some serious damage
My safari group is currently in the middle of Chobe National Park - the third biggest in Botswana - situated in the northeast of the country. Covering around 4,500 square miles, it’s populated with hundreds of different species, including the Big Five: lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo. And you’re acutely aware you’re on their turf. After spending a couple of hours in the boat, we transfer to a massive four by four, which Bevan pilots around the scorched earth tracks, pointing out even more wildlife as we go.
Simpsons-style, cartoon-like clouds are hanging in a cornflower-blue sky, as we drive slowly through the bush. We regularly catch flashes of colour, as lilac-breasted rollers or turquoise-feathered kingfishers take to the skies, while Bevan has to slow the jeep down several times to avoid running over the funny, plump little guineafowl, distinctive by their black bodies covered in white dots, with a blue head and red beak, as they scuttle ahead of the vehicle without realizing they could just turn left or right to get out of its way. But it’s the four legged creatures which elicit the most ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’; elegant, horse-like zebra, trotting slowly through the undergrowth accompanied by stumpy-legged, hairy little warthogs; lumbering giraffes, their uneven gait taking them from tree to tree, where they stand, chewing, before getting bored and moving to the next one; glossy-coated impala, the females twitching their shiny black Bambi noses in the air as our jeep passes by; or hulking big buffalo, their hook-shaped horns sitting on top of their heads, attached by a mass of bone which looks like a barrister’s wig.
It’s intoxicating stuff. And when we stop for a sundowner – gin and tonics all round – the sunsets are even more impressive. People say that African skies are huge, and they are; you can gaze for miles and only see the horizon, with nothing to obstruct your view. And when the sun slowly starts to sink, it turns the sky blazing orange, then lilac, then purple, until everything goes an inky, velvety black, and the stars start twinkling in the cloudless sky. The romance factor cranks up to eleven as I get back to my ‘hut’, one of only eight at the Ngoma Safari Lodge, located just outside the Park.
The view from my terrace looks out over a vast floodplain; on the far side is Namibia. On the deck is a small plunge pool, referred to jokingly by jovial South African manager Jarryd as a ‘cuddle puddle’; it’s just big enough for two people to dip in. Inside, my room is decorated plainly but elegantly in dark wood with cream-coloured walls, has voluminous white mosquito nets draped over the bed and an outdoor shower, giving it an atmospheric, Out of Africa feel. I don’t have a Harry of my own with me, but trust me, this kind of set up would guarantee me being putty in his hands.
If you’re looking for a different way to get your pulse – or that of your companion – racing, spend a couple of days in nearby Zimbabwe. Just a two-hour drive away is the town of Victoria Falls, named for one of the biggest, most powerful sets of waterfalls in the world. They’re one of the Seven Wonders of the Natural World, a thundering rush of water around spanning a 1,700m gulch, and 108m at their highest point. Brought to global recognition by Scottish missionary and explorer, David Livingstone, in the mid-19th century, he learned that the local tribespeople called it Mosi-oa-Tunya – or 'The Smoke That Thunders'.
I don’t have a Harry of my own with me, but trust me, this kind of set up would guarantee me being putty in his hands
The name is perfectly apt; as we approach it by car from stylish resort, the Victoria Falls Safari Club, what looks like a vast, thick cloud is rising up from the ground to join the others in the sky above. You can see them one of two ways; both are thrilling. There’s a walking route that skirts along the opposite side, with fifteen or so different viewpoints to stop at and take in their magnificence. Of course, part of the fun is getting soaked; even though we’re standing several hundred metres away, the spray, blown by the direction of the wind, acts like a sudden rain shower, drenching us all to screams of glee.
I suspect Harry would prefer the second way, from the air, by helicopter (in fact he would probably pilot it himself). As we pass over what looks like a giant gash in the earth, water endlessly pouring over the top of it, I get a different sense of scale and the ferocity of the gushing water. Moments like these took my breath away the whole time I was in Africa; and it’s no wonder that, after being presented with a beautiful diamond sourced from Botswana itself, Meghan said, simply, ‘yes’.
A suite at the Ngoma Safari Lodge starts from £401pp per night, including all meals, game drives, and activities. To book, visit africaalbidatourism.com.
A club room at Victoria Falls Safari Lodge starts from £176pp per night, including breakfast, afternoon tea and sundowners.
Ethiopian Airways flies to Victoria Falls from London via Addis Abbaba from £611 return via ethiopianairlines.com.