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overview shot of an outdoor lantern lit dining area near a body of water in Botswana

It was a coincidence that I spent my 50th birthday on safari in Botswana. I knew that it was also a cliché. But I didn’t care.

For my 40th, I had been intentional. I had something to prove. And so, I spent nine beautiful days and eight utterly miserable nights climbing Kilimanjaro. I’m endlessly grateful that I did it, but I’m never doing such a challenge again. My thing has been proven.

Ten years later, an opportunity presented itself for me to visit Botswana, a country that had long been on my wish list for its high-value, low-impact tourism policies, its ultra-luxe camps, its wildlife population, and its water-based safari offerings. I briefly rolled my eyes at myself for accepting an invitation to be so epically pampered in such a cinematic location on the milestone birthday.

three giraffes and three zebras in a meadow in botswana
Courtesy of Desert & Delta Safaris

But I was also entering the glorious, no-fucks-given stage of middle age, and I decided to lean into it. Again, my thing had been proven. And of course, I was grateful. Botswana is one of the best safari destinations in the world.

The trip was an invitation to dive deep into the conservation, social empowerment, history, feminist choices, and sustainability initiatives of Desert & Delta Safaris. The company operates camps and lodges across Botswana and is notable for quite a few reasons. Its parent company, Chobe Holdings Limited, is a Botswanan-owned company that’s listed on the national stock exchange, and virtually all of its employees, including senior management, are Botswanan. The managing director started as a bartender at one of the company’s lodges.

a bed with a white canopy at chobe game lodge in botswana
Courtesy of Desert & Delta Safaris

At its flagship property, Chobe Game Lodge, the safari boat and jeeps have been converted to electric vehicles (and charged primarily with solar power), and the entire guiding staff is female. By another happy coincidence, I spent my birthday itself at Chobe Game Lodge, which had celebrated its own 50th birthday just a week earlier. The president of the country had been in attendance at the festivities. 

Here’s the uncomfortable moment when I acknowledge that a lodge with 50 years of existence is considered “historic,” “pioneering,” “venerated,” and an “inspiration” to countless others. (I should be so lucky as to have people say such things about me.) It doesn’t exactly square with my occasional self-perception of being somewhere around the 31st year of my 20s.

aerial shot of a boat in water facing four elephants in botswana
Courtesy of Desert & Delta Safaris

But in hotel years, 50 is old. It’s longevity and staying power. And Chobe Game Lodge has been a venerated pioneer throughout its history. It’s the only permanent game lodge within the famous Chobe National Park, and it’s one of few properties in the region with direct access to the Chobe River.

Although it’s larger and more substantial than most other accommodations in the country, it maintains the highest eco-grading from the Botswana Tourism Board. It opened in 1973 with 44 rooms (accommodating up to 96 guests) built on land in resort-style blocks. It doesn’t even pretend to be a tented camp — there’s no canvas wall in sight — and it’s refreshingly free of colonial frippery. And it wears its age well (something else I hope one might say about me). The rooms and large public spaces have an earthy feel but with vivid patterns, woven rugs, zigzag cushions, and some bright colors here and there. The dining terrace, with its close connection to nature, needed no improvements. Elsewhere, a number of renovations over the years have ensured that it feels timeless rather than dated. At the same time, it’s full of history, having hosted the British royal family and the second wedding and honeymoon of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. Perhaps wisely, given current feelings about royal families, more attention is paid to the Elizabeth Taylor chapter of that history, who visited twice in the early 1970s.

savute safari lodge guest room with a balcony in botswana
Courtesy of Desert & Delta Safaris

But beyond the celebrities, what Desert & Delta wants you to appreciate is the history of the team that makes Chobe Game Lodge worth celebrating today. A coffee table book from a few years ago spotlights some of the long-serving staffers. Among them is Albert Ndereki. He was part of the construction crew that built the lodge in 1971. Almost 50 years later, he was still with the lodge, working as an environmental educator and leading back-of-house tours that show off the hotel’s sustainability initiatives. He watched Botswana evolve from a simple and wild country to a premier safari destination, and he watched Richard Burton serenade Elizabeth Taylor in their private suite. He later saw the couple make a donation to expand the small local hospital.

And yes, Liz was in love, Albert was in work boots, and I was in diapers. But I was alive in the 1970s. And so, everything was celebrated. I missed the hotel’s birthday party, but the staff made my own day memorable. (Clearly, they have plenty of practice: during my short stay, another guest celebrated a milestone birthday and a couple marked a big anniversary, and all of us got completely different songs and cakes.) Given the luxury, ease, and rhythm of days on safari, it’s a bit difficult to tell where “just another Tuesday at Chobe” ends and birthday celebrations begin. The pastries are already laid out before sunrise, and the mimosas are offered at breakfast every day. Laundry is done and linens are pressed. The lodge staff always dotes, and the naturalist guides are always patient in their wildlife excitement.

sitting room area in one of the suites at chobe game lodge in botswana
Courtesy of Desert & Delta Safaris

Perhaps it was a coincidence that I was the one pulled up to dance at lunchtime when the staff came out to sing and dance and whoop and jump. Their joy was infectious in any case, and I got into the spirit, learning the steps and leaping along as I bounded into the fourth decade of my 20s.

The evening, though, felt like it was properly mine. A chocolate cake came out at the end of the night’s dinner, my name written in delicate frosting. There was more singing. The smiles felt genuine and the life of the lodge and all its participants — the past 50 years, the next 50 years, and beyond — felt like it was all incredibly worth celebrating.

Featured image courtesy of Desert & Delta Safaris