It really is the kind of place where one could fall in love; in love with the country, the light playing on the water, the stars at night, and, crucially, with the person standing beside you.
That, by their own account, is what happened to Prince Harry and his fiancee Meghan Markle in Botswana.
It was here, by the dark blue waters of the Boteti river, that the pair first began to get know each other properly.
The newly engaged couple said in an interview last week that their first proper date was a secret five-day holiday in this landlocked southern African country in August last year.
Harry said: “I managed to persuade her to come and join me in Botswana. We camped out with each other under the stars. She came and joined me for five days out there, which was absolutely fantastic.”
We can now reveal that Harry and Meghan’s romantic hideaway was in the heart of the Okavango Delta, the centre of Botswana’s safari country and sometimes described as Africa’s last Eden.
It was at the $1770-a-night Meno A Kwena tented camp, on the edge of Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, that the couple spent nights “under the stars”, lulled to sleep by the chirping of the yellow fronted sandgrouse and the melancholy call of zebra at the water’s edge. Meno A Kwena (it means teeth of the crocodile) guards its secrecy closely, making it ideal for a prince who, at that stage at least, was reluctant to advertise his new romance.
The camp lies 75 miles east of the town of Maun and to follow in the Prince’s footsteps The Telegraph, London drove for two hours along the well-surfaced A3 national route until traversing scrubland on dirt tracks to reach the camp.
It’s a region Harry knows well. He first came here on the suggestion of Prince Charles, in 1997, to help him cope with the death of his mother. Subsequent trips were for happier reasons, including one in 2007 with Chelsy Davy, his then girlfriend.
Others were very much working visits, acting upon his interest in conservation and the environment, seeing for himself the work of Rhino Conservation Botswana, a charity of which he became patron in January.
According to the project’s founder, Map Ives, Harry gets his hands dirty on rhino monitoring and tagging patrols. “He’s a strong lad,” said Mr Ives. “He is happy to get down on the ground and help fix a tag to a rhinoceros. His understanding is all the greater because of the number of times he’s been to Botswana. He asks questions. He wants to know. Meghan hasn’t been on his rhino visits yet, but we’d love to welcome her here.”
Harry’s own charity, Sentebale, which works to improve the lives of vulnerable young people in southern Africa, has expanded into Botswana, opening an office in the capital Gaborone and strengthening the prince’s ties with the country.
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Only about two thirds of the boys and girls attend secondary school in Botswana. The rest are forced by poverty to drop out, but the hunger for improvement is palpable. Rural children walk many miles to get to school.
There was a sense of excitement in Maun last week when it emerged that Prince Harry had secretly brought his fiancee here.
“Prince Harry was here?” exclaimed Tshepiso Seiphimolo, 23, a waitress at Cappello restaurant, opposite the town’s airport. “It would be great if he came in here with his girlfriend. I would love to serve them. It would be so funny.”
It is likely that Harry and Meghan, after arriving at Maun International Airport from Johannesburg, flew by light plane to a landing strip before making the last leg of the journey to their romantic hideaway in a 4×4 vehicle.
Meno A Kwena is remote, a good six miles from the next safari camp, making it unlikely for the couple to be spotted by camera-wielding tourists.
On arrival, Harry and Meghan would have been greeted by breathtaking views across the Boteti, meandering hundreds of feet below the camp’s dining area, where at night guests gather on canvas seats around a fire for steaks and game stew cooked on open grills.
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After dinner, guests retreat to a spacious lounge under a canvas awning, its wooden walls decorated with black and white photographs, including one of Harry’s grandmother and grandfather on a state to visit to Botswana. Alongside are family portraits of the first leader of the newly independent country, Sir Seretse Khama, and his white, English wife Ruth Williams, whose moving story of love across racial and social divides was told recently in the film A United Kingdom, starring David Oyelowo and Rosamund Pike.
The couple’s son, Ian Khama, born in Surrey in 1953, during the period his father was kept in exile by the British government, is the country’s president.
After a night’s sleep in a handsomely furnished tent, equipped with solar-powered hot and cold running showers and an open terrace offering views of the night sky, guests can choose a day’s safari across the Makgadikgadi Pans, a boat trip along the Boteti, or even a trek through the scrubland.
Local San people offer weekly walks and explain their culture and relationship with the country’s habitat and wildlife. During their interview last week Meghan described how she and Harry had revelled in being able to “take the time to be able to go on long country walks and just talk”.
Tellingly, Meghan broke her usual habit of posting much of her daily routine on social media for five days between Aug 21 and 27, 2016, suggesting these were probably the days she spent in secret with Harry.
Chicos, a host at Meno A Kwena, said: “This is really a very beautiful place. The elephants and zebra come to the water in the evening to drink, right in front of your eyes.”
But he was far more circumspect when asked about Harry and Meghan. “We have lots of guests from many countries,” he said. “English, German, South African. They love it.”
It is the kind of discretion for which Meno A Kwena is renowned and on which guests like Prince Harry rely for that fine balance of not being bothered while still feeling like a normal person.
Its owner, Hennie Rawlinson, would only say: “All information regarding our guests, past present and future is highly confidential.”
Mr Rawlinson is a friend of Colin Bell, one of the old Africa hands who has pioneered responsible safari tourism in the region, where land lease fees paid by camps such as Meno A Kwena go directly towards the local community.
It is part of a vision that aims to reduce the environmental impact of visitors upon the country, while at the same time ensuring a fair share of the revenue that tourism generates goes into the pockets of those who need it.
That is an aim which Meghan Markle, a forthright advocate of equal rights for women, and in particular better access to clean water for all – especially in the poor communities that surround places like Meno A Kwena – would surely endorse.
And with their shared interests in the potential for sustainable development in countries such as his beloved Botswana, it is little wonder that Prince Harry described how he felt “the stars were aligned” when he met Meghan.
In this case the stars in alignment were those above them, in the vast African skies over the Okavango Delta.
The Telegraph, London
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