Abu Camp, Botswana
Room type: Tented Room
Duration: 13th > 15th February, 2018
Booked with: Dorsia Travel
What was by now already routine became muscle memory: get to an airstrip, get on a plane just about big enough for a 5-a-side football team, land, get collected by our guide, make the journey from the airstrip to the camp via jeep. We left Vumbura Plains and within 20 minutes of low-level flying that wiped out a few giraffes with pre-existing heart conditions, we found ourselves on the Abu airstrip.
Joe, the man, the legend, a 30 year veteran of Abu, was waiting to collect us. He would be our guide, and he would bring riches to our eyes. The journey time from the airstrip to the camp was barely 15 minutes – half of Kings Pool and Vumbura, so it was not long before we were greeted by the singing troupe of staff.
After the pleasantries, there were more waivers than smiles; billion dollar business deals are completed faster and with less paperwork. To add to the bureaucracy, Abu managed to be the only camp that failed to have any of our preferences, so asked for them all to be written down. 18 hours of form filling later and we were ready for the camp tour by the strangely nervous GM – clearly a big fan of my blog.
Abu is one of only two camps that Wilderness do not actually own in Botswana (Jao being the other) and instead manage and market. It is owned by Paul Allen, ye of Microsoft fame and explorer of oceans.
It was clear that Paul was in no rush to lose his money, as was emphasised by the number of waivers we had to sign. He wasn’t liable for anything, especially giving a shit – indeed, there a special waiver just to validate we agree he doesn’t. It even had to be signed in blood, just to really stress the point. Yet I already forgave him, as this was the first and only Wilderness camp that had Internet. And not just in the room, but everywhere. All that useless information and misinformation from Russia available at our finger tips once again; I could be both educated and ignorant simultaneously. Except it rarely worked, and when it did, it was very, very slow. Initially Google would not even load, until we spoke to management, who spoke to a man about a dog, who somehow managed to do something.
It probably was not helped by the fact that everywhere we looked, staff seemed to be on their computers. Indeed, the Library acted as a staff canteen. With only 1 other guest during our first day, and only us on the second – I suppose they felt it was more theirs than ours. At times we felt a little bit spoilt that everything was setup for our benefit, so they only helped reduce those concerns.
As for the camp, it’s situated in the Okavango Delta and has a modern, colonial feel. There are flies everywhere and almost no mosquitos. But who cares? The Internet was – kinda – here!
Abu is a renegade, it doesn’t play by the rules.
We were in room #1, at the furthest end on the west side of the camp. It offered the best straight-from-bed viewing of any lodge, with the lake directly in front of the property giving primetime viewing to hippos, eagles and buffalos. The sounds at night would have been usable in any number of x-rated movies. Mombo may have offered more sightings, but it could not compete with the view. The nature-at-your-doorstep appeal was enhanced with the outside bath tub, plunge pool and deck, all facing straight onto the lake. They even went one step above: nature-in-your-face, the latest version of virtual reality, called “reality”, achieved by not having any mosquito nets around the bed. In this version you will enjoy the real sensation of being bitten, all without having to put on some pesky headset. The itches even last for days – incredible tech.
I liked the room. It was the standard open plan routine, that all Wilderness lodges (excluding Mombo) follow. A small indoor seating area; bedroom; indoor shower; outdoor shower; desk, outdoor seating and plunge pool. The light colours and natural light made it feel more modern, even if it took a colonial look – a coincidence as I felt very much under the rule of Paul Allen. He clearly forgot that it is better to be loved than feared, as he went full blown dictator on us with his desire to ensure his personal wealth didn’t drop below the humiliating figure of $20bn.
First of all, the fans did not work. Just as a reminder to those who are not meteorologists in Botswana, but this is Summer, where even if it is the rainy season, 30C is considered a cool day. If it drops below 29C, you’ll likely see huskies running around, igloos emerging from nowhere and a derelict ice cream truck, where once a booming industry was. After maintenance turned up, he explained that the fans were not working in any of the other lodges too, due to heavy rain. Nice one, Paul. Great effort. Clap fucking clap.
After a few hours of maintenance doing electric stuff, it was back working. Yet it was only a matter of time before we got to experience why it stopped working in the first place, as the entire room ended up flooding during heavy rain and said rain was dripping straight from the fans. I don’t think for your $6,000/n you should expect your personal belongings to be at risk of water damage, but maybe my standards have become unreasonably high. Even with the fan on, the room was far too hot and with no AC, it was left to using a standing fan to cool down my sweltering, mosquito-ridden corpse. Only that fan sounded like I had someone learning how to drum next to my face.
There was clear wear and tear everywhere to be seen, made all the cliche by flickering lights. That’s the last thing I need – a goddamn elephant ghost haunting my room. None of the light switches ever made sense as to what they did, so maybe I was just pushing them wrong. At least during your moments of peacetime you can enjoy the pictures of the elephants and the complimentary hat and bag, useful for emptying the frequently restocked free minibar. Just don’t walk outside for a drink, as your deck may be as unkept as ours.
The frequent excuse was that this was off-peak and they were doing maintenance, but how is it that you can go during the one time of year where you need it well maintained, then end up in a product not suited to dealing with it?
- Indoor / outdoor dining areas
- Indoor lounge
- Library – yet seemed to be dedicated for staff meetings
- Star Bed Experience – naturally this was closed during our stay due to refurbishment .
Spa / Gym
There is a gym.
There is no spa, but massages can be done in your room. I hate to rain on their parade, but it wasn’t that good.
The crux of Abu Camp is around the elephants. It’s basically a retirement ground for elephants from within circuses and the like across the world, where they can come be in the wild, but still be looked after. It sounds rather nice, and the fact that some of the elephants have just decided to walk off one day and be free makes it sound even nicer. Let’s hope it’s all true and I’m not going to read some story involving drug tracking, elephants and the CIA one day.
Unfortunately for us, Elephant waking had been banned by the government for the last month, which followed the ban last year on riding them. It’s never a good sign when the government bans something, but I did not either hear or see an elephant endorse this ban, so I can only assume they want their walking-with-guests rights restored immediately, or strike is imminent. Furthermore, a little baby elephant was born on the 20th January, so the herd are as protective as an armed toddler in a candy store.
Being able to see the elephants, interact with them and feed them is magical. More magical was this being an incredibly quiet time of year for Abu, with only one other guest present on our first day, then just us, followed by not a single guest for 9 days. It really meant everything was for us. Afternoon tea sat besides the elephants is an unforgettable experience, and the immense knowledge of the elephant handlers brings impressive knowledge and makes it feel very safe.
When not saving the world by feeding one elephant at a time, we were exploring the surrounding areas and had the best viewing of any camp. Even though we were in a private vehicle, Abu only has a maximum of 4 seats, not 6 like every other camp except Mombo. Better still, it is peak for game viewing, and in our short stint, we saw 7 hyaenas and baby on the hunt. Under any normal circumstances we would have followed them, but leopards were spotted (terrible pun, but I’m leaving it) playing with each other, so off we dashed. Later that evening, the son went unsuccessfully hunting porcupine, which we got to witness. Then a beautiful wild dog showed up, with an impala’s head in his mouth.
Real portion sizes, some excellent dishes and a breakfast spread fit for 18 kings. Plus all their servants. It truly was a freak of nature, especially when you consider it was for 2 people. As with other Wilderness camps, it’s the same structure of a menu containing only 2 starters and mains, but at Abu Camp the lunch only offered 8 mains. Naturally one of those mains I ordered, only to be told it was out of stock. I also discovered a new found love of coconut water, so I’m sure that will keep me alive until I’m at least 32.
Let’s just get the pleasantries out of the way: our guide was a delight; a gentleman who had the warm charm of your grandad, the familiarity of a long-lost friend and none of the creepiness of that uncle you’re forced to see once a year. Due to having been here since the camp opened, over 30 years ago, he had such impressive knowledge of everything. I doubt Stephen Hawking, having now spent several weeks chatting to god, would know as much as Joe did.
Everyone else was friendly and pleasant, even going as far as bringing additional desserts for us without asking, and including turndown gifts that mentioned the elephants we met that day.
But that is as far as my kindness goes, as I experienced one of the most unprofessional moments in my entire travel career (yes, mum, I’m calling it a career!) at Abu Camp.
It did not start off on the right foot, when they were the only camp to ask me of any food allergies. Every other property knew them, and every other property told me they were passed on from previous properties and head office, so either Abu didn’t bother checking, or the rest of the world collapsed around them and let them down. Upon arriving and filling out their form of allergies, you needn’t guess what they ended up serving in several dishes to me. I even asked multiple times for one dish, as the waiter did not seem sure of himself. They even sent out someone else to take the order, and it still came out wrong. 3 seems to be the magic number until they can manage something, as we too had to ask 3 times for our ceiling fan to be fixed. Initially we were told just to use the ground fan instead, which I should remind you sounded like a spaceship taking off, yet after further pushing they eventually came and did it.
But I will save the best for last. A moment in hospitality history that deserves an entire film dedicated to it: I shall call it Forrest Grump.
Whilst having a rather average massage in our room, from a masseur who turned up late, the heavens opened and the lords wrath was set upon us with the benevolence expected of a man that requires constant admiration and wasn’t getting it. It started pouring at lighting fast speed – just without the lightning – and within seconds my massage went from a nice stroll in the countryside to Platoon. Our room began to look like a bunker. It was the least relaxing end to a massage I’ve ever had since Batshit Barry mistakingly thought I was asking for a happy ending.
At this stage we got on the radio and called for someone to come help, yet no one answered. Several attempts later and still silence. Not even those cicada could be bothered to respond. It was left for the masseur, who was not exactly Captain America, and ourselves, to try and zip up the tent to stop it completely flooding. She had absolutely no clue, so we did it ourselves – me, initially running around in my undies and with a towel. Sorry for imprinting that image in your mind. Yet already the room was completely flooded. Worse of all, even when everything was completely zipped up, the rain still got in. The masseur left to try and find someone to help, and we were left there by ourselves to relax in our newly formed swamp.
Let’s go through the monumentous failures:
- Staff not being prepared. The weather forecast said it would rain, so why not have our room prepared accordingly?
- The tent is just that – a tent, so the walls are not solid and need closing. The masseur was not trained properly to deal with closing the tents. It wasn’t rocket science, but the masseur, a full-time employee of the property, was trying to lower the blinds – not massively helpful.
- No one answering the radio. What would have happened in an emergency? The only thing that is meant to keep us safe completely failed.
- No one coming to check up on us. There were no other guests at the resort at the time, so what were the staff doing?
- When the rain stopped, the only person to bother to come was maintenance who did nothing as we had already done it, and the masseur – where was the GM or management or anyone? We had to ask for them, rather than them coming to see us.
The GM was 4 months into her job, and already seemed nervous prior to this. I don’t think this made it any easier on her. Not a surprise, as it was one of the worst customer service experiences I’ve ever had. All they had to do in the end was apologise, and it took us chasing them to come and see us for something even resembling that.
We departed with some posters of elephants on our 5 minute journey to the helicopter pad. To the GMs credit, she at least did not hide after the issues, and was around at all times thereafter, including our departure. Others would have made all attempts to avoid us. I know I would have.
Peak in most of the camps is very easy to pinpoint, but at Abu it will entirely depend on what you’re after. The majority of activities are water based, and that is only possible during the floods of May-June. However, due to all the flooding, your chances of seeing claws and paws diminishes greatly.
- Internet – sometimes – in a Wilderness lodge. What a treat.
- Superb food
- Service – particularly management
- Poorly maintained room, resulting in a flooded room
- Elephant experience
- Brilliant game viewing
If you told me that Mombo was owned by Paul Allen I would believe you, but instead it’s Abu, a place mid-refurb in need of yet another refurb. Shame on you, Paul. Paul clearly spent as much time and effort on the building materials as he did on Microsoft.
As much as these problems exist, I absolutely loved Abu Camp. With all these safari camps, if I have a great guide, get to see what I want, enjoy the food and have luxury-for-safari-standards accommodation and facilities I’m happy. Abu catastrophically failed in service, and providing the most basic of things: a waterproof room. Yet I cannot help but remember all the joy I had in the experiences they offered.
Strangely, I would return, but not without some high guarantees. Maybe I’m intoxicated from all the elephant dung and I’m not of sound mind. It sure doesn’t sound like me.
I, and you, should just hope my complaints cause a change in this magical camp.