The real reason Harry’s taking Meghan ‘home’
Africa is the one place on earth where Prince Harry can be truly himself. He describes Botswana as his ‘second home’, but this magical country is even more than that — it is his haven, his safe harbour.
Of all his family, he wears his ‘royalness’ the most lightly, and in Botswana he can cast it off altogether. He is not a prince under African skies. He is just Harry.
That, I believe, is the real significance of this holiday with his girlfriend, the American actress Meghan Markle.
Harry has many friends in Botswana, who value him as a human being rather than a walking status symbol
He may well have already made up his mind to ask Meghan to marry him, but it would be a mistake to assume this is bound to happen (pictured in Botswana in 2010)
Since photographers spotted them walking across the airport in Botswana last week, loaded with baggage, his arm protectively around her and with the most affectionate of smiles as he gazed at her, the bookies have been offering odds on whether Harry would propose over the next few days.
But they are missing the point.
This is the best opportunity Harry will ever have to show Meghan the real man behind the royal persona, with the weight of public attention and duties removed from his shoulders.
I hope she will adore what she sees. As the Princess of Wales’s biographer, I watched Harry growing up from the day his mother presented him to the world from the steps of St Mary’s Hospital, Paddington, in 1984.
And as I discovered when researching Harry’s biography, at 33 he has matured into a sweet, kind, thoughtful, generous and a genuinely nice man. He never pulls rank, and is not remotely stiff or awkward. And it seems obvious to me that he’s very much in love with Meghan.
Since their relationship was revealed last October, he has calmed down noticeably. I think he’s partying less often, and has a more grown-up air about him.
He may well have already made up his mind to ask Meghan to marry him, but it would be a mistake to assume this is bound to happen, just because his older brother William chose Africa as the backdrop for his own proposal to Kate, seven years ago.
Most ordinary Africans don’t care that he is a prince. It’s irrelevant to them. He has the freedom to be a normal person here. And that is priceless (pictured during a previous trip with former girlfriend Chelsy Davy)
The spot that William picked is perhaps the most romantic place on the planet — Lake Rutundu in Kenya, as far from the royal hubbub as anyone could go.
Kenya has deep resonances for the royals: it was here, after all, that the young Princess Elizabeth heard of the death of her father, George VI. From that moment, she was Queen.
But none of that will have influenced Harry’s decision to take Meghan to Botswana. I doubt that he gave a moment’s thought to the past — or what his brother did.
The couple have simply gone to the one place he can be properly free.
There are aspects of his life that I know he has found stifling and oppressive. But in Africa, which he first visited nearly 20 years ago — in fact just months after the death of his mother, Diana — life is unimaginably different. Our Royal Family is quite simply unimportant to most people there. Their lives and culture are so far removed from the intense atmosphere of the palaces in Britain.
Harry has many friends in Botswana, who value him as a human being rather than a walking status symbol.
They will protect him and his privacy fiercely. Even better than that, most ordinary Africans don’t care that he is a prince. It’s irrelevant to them.
He has the freedom to be a normal person here. And that is priceless.
I know Harry has planned this trip for months. He originally hoped to introduce Meghan to some of his favourite places on this vast continent in January, though they had to settle for a trip to see the Northern Lights in Norway — impressive, but not really what he wanted.
Zimbabwean-born Chelsy Davy — his first serious relationship which lasted on and off for seven years — joined him on a houseboat called the African Queen for his birthday celebrations the following year
She is no African novice, having visited Rwanda as part of her humanitarian work. That is undoubtedly an asset on this trip. And the couple already have so much in common that I know they will revel in each other’s company throughout.
In particular, they are both serious about protecting wildlife from poachers: Harry is a patron of Rhino Conservation Botswana, and Meghan is besotted with elephants.
You don’t have to be a seasoned royal-watcher to have guessed that a safari will be first on their must-do list.
I suspect Harry has already mapped out the itinerary to the last detail: he was in southern Africa last month, for a low-profile visit linked to his conservation work, and he took time off to do some private travelling. Now we know why.
Their safari is likely to include at least one night camping in the bush, an unforgettable experience. There’s no light pollution on the savannah, and at night you look up to see a sky blazing with stars . . . so close that it feels as though you could reach up a hand and stir the Milky Way.
Since their relationship was revealed last October, he has calmed down noticeably. I think he’s partying less often, and has a more grown-up air about him
And if Harry does pick this moment to pop the question to Meghan, it’s hard to imagine that he will be rebuffed.
But that is not a foregone conclusion. I’ll say it again, Harry thinks of Botswana as his home. He said so explicitly this year: ‘I am incredibly fortunate to be able to call it my second home.’
And it’s natural for a man getting to know his girlfriend to take her home.
I know Harry has planned this trip for months. He originally hoped to introduce Meghan to some of his favourite places on this vast continent in January, though they had to settle for a trip to see the Northern Lights in Norway — impressive, but not really what he wanted
In the nine months since their affair became public, Harry and Meghan have had precious little time together — she’s a busy actress with a home in Toronto, while his duties take him round the world.
Perhaps if he wasn’t the world’s most eligible bachelor — one who has made it clear he wants to settle down and have a family — this holiday would seem much less significant.
Because we shouldn’t forget that Harry has taken three previous girlfriends to Botswana, starting with Sky Sports news presenter Natalie Pinkham, as early as 2004, when he was just 20.
Zimbabwean-born Chelsy Davy — his first serious relationship which lasted on and off for seven years — joined him on a houseboat called the African Queen for his birthday celebrations the following year. And Cressida Bonas, whom he went out with for two years, went on safari there with him a few years later.
What is notable is that Harry appears to have put a lot of thought into ensuring that his trip with Meghan is different — they will explore other parts of the country, and enjoy experiences that are new to both of them.
Both love walking and riding, and will be looking for adventure — with a lake boat trip planned, spotting hippos and crocodiles.
What is different about this relationship is Meghan’s ease with Harry’s fame. She’s a 36-year-old actress, has a starring role on one of America’s most popular TV shows, Suits, and is comfortable with celebrity attention — unlike both Cressida and Chelsy, who made no secret of how much it frightened and disturbed them.
It would be unreasonable to expect the Press to ignore Meghan, but that’s where her showbiz experience is invaluable.
The Queen pictured at Gaborone Airport in Botswana during a Royal tour of North Africa in 1979
I confess I’m a huge fan of Suits. I’ve lapped up every episode, and Meghan is mesmerising on screen. And there’s another side to her, just as important — she is highly intelligent and strongminded.
As her interview in Pride magazine made plain, she is not afraid to speak her mind on important issues such as the racial prejudice she has faced in Hollywood and she’s incredibly proud of her African-American heritage.
From the outside, they seem perfectly suited. Those sweet pictures we’ve seen this weekend show two people relaxed and apparently in love, as they set out on a dream holiday.
It’s important that they don’t act impetuously, though. This is why they have to be allowed the freedom to really be themselves, in private. Africa is the one place on earth that can offer that.
PENNY JUNOR is the author of Prince Harry: Brother, Soldier, Son (Hodder & Stoughton, £8.99).