Island sanctuary aerial

A Chronicle of Island

Island Safari Lodge began its life way, way back in 1972 when Anthony Leonard Graham decided to build a lodge in the bush outside of Maun. What we know about the land Island was built on goes back a little further and this however is not where the story starts.

Peering back through the mists of time, we see from the movies of the time that the world was black and white and that people walked fast and couldn’t talk but had to speak in speech quotes between the scenes, we find ourselves in the early 1930’s.

600km to the south-east was Palapye station and a General Trading store called R A Baileys owned by Charlie Freeman. Charlie has a number of shops scattered all over Bechuanaland and one of them was located in Maun. In fact, it’s still here, near the bus rank in town and is currently the offices of the Ngami Times.

Once a year, Charlie and company would make the arduous trek up to Maun to check out the shop and close up the financial year accounts and then tie this in with a little hunting trip. Charlies favourite campsite was a 3 day trek by ox-wagon up the Thamalekane to an island that became known as Lion Island. As it happens, this is reputed to be where our campsite is currently located.

This vast valley, now filled with fields, cows and donkeys, was once amongst the best Buffalo hunting regions in the north of Bechuanaland and was a favourite place for Charlie to set up camp. Arthur Hyde was the manager for R A Baileys’ Maun Store and rumour has it that he was supposed to wait for Charlie to arrive before going on to set up the camp.

However, something had gone wrong and Charlie had been held up along the way. Communications were not what they are now. We are talking about an era not long after the Mail Runner carrying a letter in a forked stick, and long before Cellular phones, and perhaps even Land Lines.

So, by the time Charlie and company arrived Arthur had already gone on ahead to make camp on the island. This was to be a mistake because he was attacked and killed by a lion at Boro Junction which is only 800 meters from where Island’s Bar and Restaurant now stand.

When Charlie and company arrived at the Camp they were already too late. Arthur was buried in the old Maun cemetery which is located just 100m down a dirt track from the Riley’s Garage forecourt.

If you are at the restaurant now, reading this story, just look up the valley to imagine how wild and pure this valley must have been with herds of buffalo grazing on the flood plains, elephants coming down to drink amongst lechwe, reedbuck and basking hippos. It must have been just out of this world.

It seems that for some time that Charlie’s Camp remained a seldom used hunting camp until in 1959, when June Vendall Clark and husband Robert Kay occupied the plot after having moved there from Rhodesia. June is the author of a couple of books, one of them called “Starlings Laughing”. In this book, she describes the Island on which they settled. It would seem that by this time Bobby Wilmot had already established his home just a few hundred meters downstream from the Kay’s Camp.

June didn’t have a high esteem of Maun, and writes that although Francistown was the utter pits, any resemblance between Maun and a normal human community was fleeting. She describes it as a town consisting mainly of dust, goats, milkweed hedges and flagrantly passionate donkeys.

There was no bank, no bakery, no dress shop, no hairdresser or barber, no cinema, no florist and no railway line, not even a telephone link. There was Riley’s Hotel, a stand of petrol pumps, a burial ground and a surprisingly well-equipped hospital where the staff dealt with a range of Old Testament diseases (the reading of which may not go well with your dinner), including the bubonic plague, rabies, malaria, tuberculosis, sleeping sickness, all the venereal diseases were commoner than the common cold. There was also ringworm, hook worm liver fluke and ophthalmia and to complete the list, leprosy. Sounds like a really dreary place. Living in Maun would be wholly unthinkable.

However her esteem of the region was somewhat more satisfying, and she writes, the glory of Maun was the Thamalekane River and it was on an island upstream and on the opposite side of the river from a village called Matlapanen that she chose to live. There was not a great deal of land, when the river ran low it was joined to the mainland, but when the floods from Angola came in the island was barely 2 miles long and a mile wide. It had a natural clearing in the forest close to the river and well shaded. She describes the area as a shallow valley, where the air was pure and cool, a place of wild blue water hissing through dense riverine forest and still lagoons close lased with the waxy flowers of waterlilies. The water from Angola as clear and sweet, soft as rain and left your skin tinglingly clean.

Moving on from June and fast forwarding to 1972 and the Tony Graham Era. He found a plot of land alongside the Kay’s Camp, as can be seen in the map and preparing all his paperwork and laying the foundations of his camp. Island only became operational in 1973. The first things to be built were the front 3 chalets and part of the Dining Room and Bar Area. Year by year more chalets were built, then some housing and finally the rooms at the back. Yoey Graham, Tony’s wife started the Chicken in the Basket that became a household name in Maun for decades. Even now the 1⁄2 Chicken served by the Bell Frog is a tribute to this dish.

Tony’s land application sketch plan. If you look carefully you can see Kay’s Camp below Tony’s.

During those early years, what is now our main reception area was the movie-house. Maun folk used to flock to this rudimentary building made predominantly of vented brick walls, with a solid one on the end to serve as a screen all under a thatch roof. Folks armed with a chicken-in-the-basket in one hand and a drink in the other would release their kids to litter the floor before them with pillows and sleeping bags to settle in for the movie.

Tony had a habit of holding up the bar so to speak. He lodged himself in the opening between the bar and the wall and from this vantage point he interacted with his patrons. Apparently sometime in 1988, he encountered a mine engineer who had travelled up from Orapa with his family for a holiday. They may have met a few times before, but this time the conversation found a different path. In the morning the engineer and Tony found themselves to be partners in Island Safaris and we have the pleasure of introducing Philip Michael Potter to our story.

It wasn’t long after this that Phil and Kay and their new family left Orapa for a life in Maun. Phil and Kay were destined to spend many amazing years here at Island Safaris and they continued to inspire patrons to Island for a long time to come. As they got their teeth into things at Island, Tony and Yoey began spending more and more time in Port Alfred. Not too long after this, in 1991 they decided to sell out. Phil and Kay were 10% partners and so were offered the opportunity to buy Island for their own.

The Watsons have a long history in Botswana, and some of this is even in Maun. George Watson was born in what is now called Old Palapye, in 1900. As a young man in his 30’s, he worked for the Bechuanaland Veterinary Corps as a Livestock Inspector and at the time of his marriage to Elizabeth Ralls in 1937 he was based in Maun for a few years. George introduced his niece Daphne Dingle to his good friend Harry Riley of Rileys Hotel and Garage and they too were married in 1937. George and Elizabeth lost their first daughter Joan in Maun in about 1938.

Phil and Kay, got in contact with friends they had made back in the 80’s while based at Morupule Colliery near Serowe, Ray and Norma Watson. Between them they put together a partnership to take over Island Safaris in 1992. Ray and Norma remained on in Serowe and Phil and Kay took over the management of Island.

George and Elizabeth Watson, Rose Kays and baby Phyllis Kays (later Palmer) around 1937.

The next few years were hard for Island Safaris. The river that had been reliable for so long began to dry out more and more each year and by 1997 was all but gone. This put some strain on the business, affecting the aesthetics of the area as well as all the activities offered from Island. Island was awarded Ng32 and in those days had to be re-tendered for 1 year later and lost it. This disastrous and costly exercise added to the strain. Fortunately an opportunity and a solution presented itself with the offer to purchase Sepupa Swamp Stop, a camp situated further up river on the Okavango Panhandle. Slowly but surely, Island gradually migrated the greater part of it’s business and water activities to Sepupa and established the Swamp Stop.

By the time 2003 came about it was obvious that Island Safari Lodge was in need of attention. The financial year had come to it’s inevitable end and the Directors of Island Safaris needed to sit down, review the situation and decide on a way forward that would benefit both the Company and all it’s Directors. A Dinner Meeting was organized at the Sports Bar and, together, with Islands Chartered Accountant, Robin Tilney, the Directors discussed the various options available. The following morning, come decision time, a solution tabled to the Board was duly accepted. The team would need to part ways, Phil and Kay would take on Sepupa Swamp Stop and Ray and Norma would remain with Island.

This, the sad end to what was a wonderful Era.

Island Safaris Game Park and Lodge. The white line showing the 116Ha in July 2020.

Islands next 2 years saw a lot of building and fixing under management and eventually in 2005 we decided to get involved directly in the family business. I had been here for a number of years as a youngster from 1993 to 1997, so knew my way around. Coming back to Island was not so much a learning curve for us. What was difficult was bringing back the business. We were lucky in that in 2005 the river began to come back. We were able to boat for 3 weeks in 2005, 3 months in 2006, 6 months in 2007 and by 2008 we had water all year round.

Over the many years since the 1930’s we have seen the 12km from Maun to Island shrink away from a 3-day ox wagon journey to what is now an air-conditioned 20-minute drive. What was once wilderness has now become human habitation and village until, you drive through our gates into Islands 116ha mini–Game Park. Here you will find what remains of the peace and tranquillity of what this valley used to offer.

We hope you enjoy it. Welcome to Island Safaris.