When I finished Prince Harry’s memoir, Spare, my takeaway was not how ghastly the British press and the Palace are but how much I yearned to go on a Botswanian safari.
In the summer of 2016, Harry and Meghan had their third date at the rustic-upscale Meno-a-Kwena camp, in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, sleeping in a canvas-sided suite. Preferring a hotel endorsed by actual Hollywood royalty, I elected to visit the Chobe Game Lodge, where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton wed for the second time. The ensuing news coverage was what first put Botswana on the jet-set map. Today, tourism is second only to diamonds when it comes to the southern-African nation’s economy. Incidentally, Taylor was a glamorous advocate for both.
This year, the Chobe Game Lodge celebrates its 50th birthday. It was built in the Moorish style by the South African hotel magnate Sol Kerzner, who went on to found Atlantis Resorts and One & Only resorts, and who died in 2020. Kerzner had befriended Burton, and it was at the businessman’s invitation that the recently re-engaged duo arrived in Chobe National Park in October 1975. “That’s where I would like to be mated again,” Taylor had written in a love letter. “In the bush, around our kind.”
Along with the raw beauty of the sandy plains and their wildlife, and the crimson sunrises and sunsets, the pair enjoyed being untroubled by paparazzi and gawkers. Even if the papers had known where they were staying and what they were doing, I don’t fancy the paps’ chances in that setting.
The Burtons’ nuptials took place on the banks of the Chobe River, staring across to Namibia. The trees along the waterfront were less dense in 1975, and the lodge itself was two-thirds the size it is today, but among the constants then and now are the 10-foot Nile crocodiles that can be spied from one’s breakfast table. Dangerous beasts are all around, in fact. A buffet dinner can be interrupted by an invading honey badger. A fence like a badminton net surrounds the property to keep elephants from trashing the elevated wooden boardwalks, but nothing else.
“About five to fifteen baboons surrounded our suite,” remembered Burton. “It was a phenomenon never seen before. It would of course occur when Elizabeth was here … Quite scary.” A Tswana tribesman performed the stars’ wedding ceremony, and it was “witnessed by one or two hippos” who emerged from the river, Taylor recalled. Once they’d said “I do” again, and exchanged ivory wedding rings purchased in a mud-hut shop for $40, they piled into a waiting Range Rover and began their safari honeymoon.
Chobe Game Lodge now offers 44 guest rooms, of which the Burtons’ cozy honeymoon suite is one, with a terrace, outdoor dining table, and plunge pool overlooking the spot where the actors tied the knot. It remains the only permanent accommodation inside the 4,500-square-mile Chobe National Park, which boasts the largest population of elephants in Africa, with an estimated 120,000. I spot hundreds just during the half-hour ride in from the Kasane airport (which also serves Victoria Falls—we’re at the crossroads of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe).
Over three days, exploring via electric Land Rover and river boat, I see plentiful hippos, zebras, giraffes, crocs, scores of bird species (such as the African fish eagle, the lilac-breasted roller, and the national bird, the kori bustard), and several lion prides.
In addition to ticking off wildlife in a spotting book that the lodge provides for each guest, I took note of collective nouns of which I wasn’t aware, proffered by our guide, Elly Shanganya: a “twist” of kudu (due to the deer-like animal’s corkscrew antlers); a “crash” of rhinos; a “bloat” of hippos; and, my joint favorites, an “obstinacy” of buffalo and an “implausibility” of wildebeests.
Elly is from Mmadinari, on Botswana’s eastern edge, and she was a pastry chef before becoming a Chobe Game Lodge guide in 2015—her sister sponsored her training, knowing Elly’s passion for wildlife. She is one of the 20 “Chobe Angels,” believed to be the sole all-female safari-guiding team on the continent. This was initiated as part of a wider brief by the hotel’s owner to empower Botswanians through tourism and help secure the future protection of wild areas.
“Every day we see something different,” says Elly. “We never get bored of the animals.” Though she adds that it wasn’t easy at first for these pioneering women: “Living in the bush, having to change a flat tire. There were men who were saying we can’t handle the job. We just proved to them we can do this job very well, and still maintain our family. There are [still] few female guides, but more and more companies are starting to hire them. We [now] get a lot of respect.”
Kerzner abandoned the lodge two years after Burton and Taylor’s visit, due to the Rhodesian Bush War, but it reopened in 1984 under the ownership of Jonathan Gibson, a Botswana-based Brit and former chartered accountant, whose Desert & Delta Safaris company still owns the lodge today. It’s one of nine properties in the company’s portfolio, including one I travel on to called Leroo La Tau, a short distance downstream from Harry and Meghan’s former digs, where huge “dazzles” of zebras gather along the Boteti River.
The Burtons’ second marriage lasted just nine months, but half a century on from its opening, in 1973, the Chobe Game Lodge still conjures magic and adventurous escape. In the bar, where the couple would drink late into the night before shuffling pink-eyed toward their 5:30 A.M. game drives, hangs a photo of Dickie and Liz looking their happiest and most relaxed. They’d found a place to heal old wounds, if only temporarily.
Adam Hay-Nicholls is the author of Charles Leclerc: A Biography and Smoke & Mirrors: Cars, Photography and Dreams of the Open Road