Dispatch | Botswana

Space as the only real luxury

Visiting Botswana was something that had been on Will Jones’s mind for a while. It is, he says ‘one of the destinations I know less well but have always been impressed by both its ecological diversity and the quality of its operators’. The thought of returning recurring, intermittently and primarily triggered by an invitation from private guide Simon Byron. Together with his wife Laura, Will hosted Conde Nast Traveller at the adventure camp in the Delta, Kweene Trails.

I first visited Simon with my father and Hannah Rayner in 2017, where we camped in the delta on a water and boat-based adventure. We had hoped to cross the Okavango on a trans-delta journey but the waters were too low. Instead, we opted to set up camp in two different areas connected by boat. I was the first to spot a leopard from the boat, just lying on a branch. I’ve never forgotten it, possibly because Simon playacted being jealous. He was highly amusing and it was yet another example of his hugely likeable character, and why he is such a sought-after guide.

Among friends

Fast forward three years and Simon has opened Kweene Trails, an adventure camp set on the Abu concession at the western end of the Okavango Delta. The boats are gone but the mainland adventure remains intact and, dare I say it, even more exciting than before. Simon and his team have evolved in glorious style. Now set at the southern end of the Abu concession, Simon operates on a concession bordering the village lands. The land he has available to traverse is awesome and at scale, but not without the challenges incumbent on a land operator with village considerations.The journey was to start with the Kweene Trails bush camp and end with the luxury of a seven-star lodge. I was with my old friend Andrew McCarthy, who was writing for Conde Nast Traveller. This was our 4th adventure together having covered Mozambique, Sudan and Ethiopia together. We turned out to be good friends. Also with us was Andrew’s 9-year-old son, Rowan, and my wife Laura, who joined us in the capacity of wilderness and expedition medic.

Being in it

We landed in Maun and were quickly whisked to our helicopter flight to Kweene. You are immediately struck by the beauty of the delta and I couldn’t help compare it to the vast swamps of the Sudd that I had just flown from. The only obvious difference is the prescience of a fence and the knowledge that the delta is well-developed. Having said that, the magic and charm of the water-logged soft Kalahari sands is never-ending.On landing in a remote pan in front of a grove of trees, one is immediately struck by the simplicity of Kweene Trails, in the most exciting and scintillating of ways. Adventure and vulnerability await. The proximity to nature is unavoidable. You are ‘in it’ for the duration of your stay. We spent four nights following Simon on foot and in vehicles, based out of the simple luxury (which is of course the best) of Kweene.

When thinking about what stands out is his method of listening and using the sounds of nature to guide you to nature. Chattering squirrels, disrupted vervet sounds, barking kudu – all telltale signs of predator and prey in continual tussle. We spent an hour or two tracking leopard and caught only glimpses, but the sweet drop of nectar tastes so much better than the tub of ice cream. Earned in the effort to find them, they linger in the imagination. Complex, illusive, hard to get, they’re special.

Real luxury

Not dissimilar to the leopard, Kweene is also complex when seen through the lens of the standard definition of luxury. The beds on the floor, the standing room only tent, the hole in the ground, the shower bucket. It’s not obvious. It’s not opulent. For anyone looking, however, for the distilled essence of luxury, then look no further than Simon and his right-hand man Ace. What they offer is a cerebral luxury that is hard to define, and is not what the average luxury seeker might have in mind: it is the luxury of space and being initiated into that space by the knowledge, storytelling, and standards of men and women for whom it is home. You might arrive thinking ‘what is this’ and ‘get me out of here’, but I guarantee you won’t want to leave at the end.

When one truly appreciates space, connectivity with nature, and the calibre of guides that host you, then you have arrived: you appreciate, to beat an old drum, space as the new luxury. The byproduct – the appreciation – of the process of engaging deeply with everything Simon and his team have to offer is understanding the real meaning of luxury. The truth of this especially hit home when we ended our trip in a 7-star lodge. We slept in large beds and bathed in large bathtubs. We saw a beautiful male leopard metres from our vehicle, calm and unbothered. We ate beautiful food. But I think, after what we’d just been through, we all felt bothered. A nagging sensation that this style of luxury is too easy, too removed, too curated. There was no edge to push back against, and it left us formless. Here, the luxury was not a by-product of our efforts and our willingness to let go. On the contrary, it was front and centre, and nothing like where we had just come from. In the end, the challenge of Kweene’s proximity to nature and cerebral luxury gave us shape and meaning. Journeys by Design champions this style of independent operator who stands out in an increasingly crowded, over-fed, commercialised, and commoditised Okavango – and safari Africa more broadly – space.

For more on arranging travel to Botswana, please do get in touch with Will.

All images courtesy Will Jones

The trip’s helicopter transfers and adventures were facilitated by the excellent Heli Horizons.

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