The vibrant sounds and smells of Botswana had been calling me back since I first visited the Okavango Delta area in 2011 – the year after I won Olympic gold in the skeleton at the Vancouver Olympics.
I was in Botswana filming a survival reality TV show, and after it was over I stayed in touch with Robert Barber, one of the guides who had helped train us for the show.
He kept telling me amazing stories of the incredible areas of Botswana that I should come back and visit one day.
And here’s us in Africa: Amy travelled with her fiance Craig on her second visit to Botswana in three years
I couldn’t resist, and three years later he ended up putting together a personalised safari for me and my fiance, Craig.
Rob has been guiding safaris in Botswana and throughout Africa for over ten years.
He and his partner Charlotte Bennett-Diver run Golden Africa and they specialise in getting to the core of why people go on safari, and what they want to experience.
Rob called me one evening and said: ‘Right Amy, I’m taking you on a journey, not a holiday.’
At Maun airport in northern Botswana – the ‘gateway to the Okavango Delta’ – Rob and Charlotte loaded us up in their open-sided game-viewing vehicle.
I switched off my phone and let the journey begin.
Our first destination was Meno A Kwena, in the Kalahari.
This quirky, intimate camp, run by David Dugmore and his son Daniel, sits on top of a 90ft-high cliff, looking down on to the Boteti River at exactly the point where animals come to drink.
Just hanging out up here: Amy encountered local leopards during her grand journey through Botswana
We were greeted by five bull elephants drinking in the river, with a couple of zebras roaming around close by, and a hippo seeming to watch over all of them from the middle of the river.
With a gin and tonic in our hands, we watched a beautiful sunset with the wildlife below.
I never realised how alive the bush of Botswana could really be. As we awoke the next morning to the sounds of birdlife surrounding us, hot water arrived for our brass bucket showers.
These showers are perfectly positioned overlooking the river, giving the most incredible experience of showering while an elephant wanders by 150ft away on the other side of the river.
After a hearty breakfast we were off.
Rob took us out to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, the last remnant of an ancient lake. We arrived at the most incredible setting. As far as the eye could see was endless salt pan.
That night, we slept out under the stars, with a view of the milky way all the way to the horizon.
In the morning, on our way back to Meno A Kwena, I was excited to hear Rob say he could see some meerkats coming out of their burrow. Meerkats take lots of time to warm up in the early sunshine. We spent quite some time watching them slowly emerge to start their day of foraging.
Before leaving Meno A Kwena, Rob took us on a walk with the Khoi San bushmen. The bush is their home, and they gave us a really interesting insight into it.
They showed us how they set traps for food, how they make fire, and some of the interesting ways they entertain themselves.
They have what I can only describe as a fast-paced version of rock, paper, scissors.
We continued our journey to Rob’s favourite area within Botswana, Khwai in the north-eastern Okavango Delta.
A bird’s eye view: Amy and Craig also had close-up glimpses of elephants (and their passengers) in the wild
I vividly remembered Rob mentioning this area three years previously for being a wildlife paradise – and our drive there showed me he was not wrong.
What will always stick in my mind is the magical sight of 12 giraffe silhouettes in the road with the sun setting behind them.
We were staying at Machaba Camp run by Chris Kruger, a veteran of the Botswana safari industry.
It looks like something from the style pages of a glossy magazine, with all the homely warmth of a country manor, and set in the most beautiful surroundings on the Khwai River.
Machaba is also incredibly eco-friendly.
It recycles everything, and has a practically non-existent footprint, while remaining very luxurious – a perfect balance for me.
Machaba is situated among the trees at the edge of Khwai River. There is nothing more peaceful and relaxing than having meals while watching elephants drinking, and nothing more thrilling than watching a male and female leopard wandering along the river bank on the other side.
The wildlife that Rob had raved about in Khwai did not disappoint. During our three nights there we saw a big male lion hunting a large warthog, a beautiful female leopard waking after a day’s sleep, three honey badgers, a pack of wild dogs on the hunt, and a hyena den with five cute youngsters.
Spot me if you can: Leopards are elusive, but there will always be chances to see them on a break in Botswana
The next stop in our journey was a real treat for me. Rob wanted to take me back to near where we had been filming three years ago.
This time I was going to be horse riding at the quite wonderful African Horseback Safaris camp, Macatoo, where they have 48 of the best looked-after horses I have ever seen.
Rides at Macatoo are more adventurous in the mornings than the afternoons, and we took the opportunity to get some speed up in the open floodplains.
It is quite incredible to approach buffalo, giraffe, elephants and zebra (my favourites!) on horseback.
Macatoo is set in a beautiful area right in the heart of the Okavango Delta, and is only accessible by light aircraft or helicopter.
While I was riding, Rob took Craig off for game-drives, boat cruises or fishing. Every meal was taken out under the beautiful African starry night sky, and all the staff were so welcoming and friendly.
We really felt at home here and were very sad to leave.
From Macatoo, we flew off to Kasane in the very north of Botswana and then crossed the mighty Zambezi to reach the final destination in our journey, Livingstone, on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls.
On our first morning in our very spacious room at Sussi & Chuma lodge, upstream of Victoria Falls, we woke up to the sounds of the Zambezi River.
After so much activity and travelling, I was looking forward to a relaxing morning. I went off for a spa treatment overlooking the river and fell asleep in no time.
I was ready for this.
And here’s me doing the day job: Amy won gold in the skeleton at the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver
And it was heavenly.
Rob surprised us at lunchtime with a trip into Livingstone, and before we knew it we were being whisked off in a helicopter for a scenic flight over Victoria Falls.
It is very easy to see from that perspective why it is one of the seven natural wonders of the world.
It is breathtaking.
The date happened to be Friday the 13th, and a full moon was due.
Late in the afternoon, Rob took us for a walk around the falls and, after exploring for some time, we were surprised to find a small table set up with snacks and champagne.
We sipped and nibbled away as the moon rose in the east behind a small cloud bank and created the amazing effect of a rainbow in the spray of Victoria Falls.
It was surreal and amazing all at the same time.
Back at Sussi & Chuma we were waited on like royalty. The food was spectacular in taste and presentation. The staff set up a private dinner for us at the edge of the Zambezi River with a fireplace and yet more champagne.
We ate to the sounds of hippos grunting in the distance, the flowing water and the crackling of the fire. It was wonderful.
On our last full day, Rob took us to Livingstone Island which sits at the very top of the falls.
Here we had a very traditional brunch of eggs Benedict and tea, while being a matter of feet away from the edge of the waterfall.
Key knowledge: Amy had a demonstration of local skills – including how to make fire – from Khoi San bushmen
Victoria Falls are a mile wide and Livingstone Island sits about halfway along the top.
We were guided to the edge of the falls and given the most incredible view over the brink, looking the 360ft down into the gorge.
There is so much spray that there are rainbows all over the place. Before we left Botswana, we headed into the Mosi-Oa-Tunya National Park for a walk to find rhinos.
This didn’t take long as the park is very small and rangers follow the rhino around 24 hours a day, to protect them from poachers.
Being so close to such a huge animal on foot, was both exciting and terrifying all at once.
We saw seven different rhino, including one very cute baby with its mother.
It was also heartening to know that I was contributing in a small way to the value of the rhino as a tourist attraction, rather than as a medicine.
Rob and Charlotte had introduced us to a different way of taking a holiday. Our trip to Botswana was, in fact, not just a holiday but a journey full of experiences.
We will go back on safari to Africa again one day, because I know I will have to feed the piece of my soul that Africa has claimed.
Travel Facts: Plan your own expedition into the Botswana bush
Golden Africa (www.golden-africa.com) offers four-star safaris – starting from £2,995 per person for eight nights. A twelve-night safari – staying three nights each at Meno A Kwena, Machaba, African Horseback Safaris and Sussi & Chuma – costs from £6,495 per person, including internal transfers and fully inclusive accommodation.
Virgin Atlantic (www.virginatlantic.com, 0844 2092 770) offers return flights from Heathrow to Johannesburg from £814.
Onward return flights to Maun with South African Airways (www.flysaa.com) cost from £316.