Hajar Ali, founder of Urbane Nomads, a travel company specializing in luxury travel to remote places. Offering trips like hunting on horseback with the Kazakh eagle hunters in Mongolia, diving under the Great Wall of China and kite-skiing in Antarctica. She also runs Travel Like A Humanitarian, which will be launched later this year and is a platform for NGOs to put up their travel-related offerings.
Here is her Diary
I have a few- my favourite cities are Istanbul, Beirut and Buenos Aires. My favourite places include the Burmese Himalayas, Patagonia and the NWFP in Pakistan. For this diary, I’m going to choose one of my more recent trips- to Botswana, via South Africa.
For the purposes of this interview, the Botswana trip would probably be the most suitable. My most recent long-haul trip to Ethiopia, for instance, is very much less about the hotels and shopping than it is about the experience.
Stayed in Jack’s Camp in the Makgadikgadi
At one point voted by Conde Nast Traveler as the best in the world, across all accommodation categories. In the Okavango I’d stayed at &Beyond’s camp- Xarana and Nxabega.
Each property is unique- the &Beyond camps had its signature warm service, with a welcoming singing and dancing welcome and goodbye routine upon your arrival and departure. However, it is your daily interaction with the staff that makes it so memorable. Once I’d asked for a banana milkshake for breakfast (not on the menu) and the staff served it in a stylish martini glass. &Beyond has a wonderful policy of staff empowerment and as I sat down for dinner with one of their lodge managers, the lady, from Zimbabwe, told me how she’d risen through the service ranks at &Beyond to be where she is today.
Jack’s Camp has a very colourful history and equally legendary ‘staff’. I use the word ‘staff’ with brackets as the local Bushmen guides and trackers like Cobra (said to be the most photographed Bushman in the world- there’s a feature of him in an Etro jacket in a fashion magazine), and the local Bushman community come and guide the clients at the camp because they want to. Jack’s Camp has a very good relationship with the Bushman community.
La Residence and Birkenhead House, owned by the glamorous Liz Biden are designed in her signature style, with indulgently large bathrooms the way I like them- – each room being unique and designed around a particular theme.
The food at each of these camps is special- from the exotic meats at the &Beyond properties to the famous Banoffee pies at Jack’s and home-cooked goodness of their soups(I can’t believe I’d lost the recipe for it after it was printed out for me on my request!). La Residence and Birkenhead House has amazing food. I arrived late in the night at Birkenhead House after a 12-hour transfer(including flight delays) from the dusty desert environment in the Makgadikgadi. I almost cried when I saw my welcome platter with mini hamburgers and small sandwiches waiting for me next to my bed as I arrive at midnight. I woke up the next morning to breakfast served almost right by the surf. It was an incredible view to wake up to. At times, you could actually see whales in the sea from where you’re sitting.
The activities in the Okavango would be game drives as well as mokoro trips afforded by the eco-landscape of the Okavango Delta. Jack’s Camp has unique activities that include quad-biking on the pans and visiting the meerkat colony.
Month I was there in November. Luckily for me it coincided with the zebra migration in the Makgadikgadi.
In your suitcase A Tilly hat is a must. I did not bring one and borrowed one at Jack’s Camp. Layers of clothing in anticipation of the drastic change in temperature. Early in the morning I will be all bundled up in double blankets(and a jacket). Once it hits afternoon though, it gets really hot in the Makgadikgadi. By noon to early afternoon, you take respite in your tent, with a wet kikoy around you to deal with the heat of the desert. There’s also the pool at Jack’s Camp, a glamorous and much-photographed pool which is allegedly really cold.
The safari routine is as such: early morning drives, followed by breakfast on your return, washing up after the drive and then lunch before your afternoon nap. You wake up at 3.30pm for afternoon tea followed by a game drive and then dinner since it’s usually dark by the time you get back. And that’s how you get fat on safari, really. I love tea time and the food is incredible and most of the activities, unless you opt for a walking safari, does not require much physical exertion.
Diary Depending on whether you opt for the early morning game drive, your day could start at 4am. The mokoro trips start later. I usually opt for the evening drives and mokoro trip in the morning.
Shopped at On shopping- Jack’s Camp has a good store on site. What caught my eye was the colourful headbands of the Bushmen. The Marine Hotel Hermanus, a Relais y Chateaux, also has good stuff. I’d bought a Panama that offers sun protection. That came very handy in Ethiopia but I also wear it sometimes in Singapore. The recipe book produced by Relais y Chateaux compiling all the recipes from chefs in Relais y Chateaux properties in Africa was a tempting buy but would have added to the kilos on my suitcase.
Dined In I wanted to try Tasting Room while in Cape Town but the waiting list is a month-long! Had dinner with clients who were staying at Delaire Graff at the Asian restaurant. The views are stunning! The food I’d had throughout my stay in South Africa and Botswana was varied but always nothing short of spectacular.
Tips You should decide or have a rough idea on what to expect from the trip during the season that you’re travelling. Makgadikgadi is a very extreme place and there are months where the temperatures drop below zero at night and early mornings. During the time I was there, it was impossible to be outside in the afternoon.
Also, do find out beforehand the activities that would be available as not all activities are available year-round.
Always take instructions from the guides- this can save you from upsetting the sensitivities of the local communities as well as from being bitten by the very cuddly-looking meerkats who turn out to have a pretty devastating bite!
Mode of Travel We took African bush planes to connect around Botswana- probably one of my favourite forms of transportation.