18 November 2015 by Krishna Ghosh
We round-up a recent visit to the game lodges of Botswana's Okavango Delta.
Day 1 Johannesburg
I arrived in Johannesburg and took the Gautrain, a new high-speed train link from the airport to the exclusive, safe northern suburbs and checked in at the Monarch hotel in Rosebank. The Monarch is part of the Mantis group and a great option for an overnight stop in Johannesburg as it's just opposite the Gautrain station.
Day 2 Maun-Sandibe
After taking the train back to OR Tambo International Airport, I met up with the rest of the group (six in total) and checked in for the flight to Maun in northern Botswana. This is when the excitement of our Botswana adventure really started to kick in. Maun is the gateway to northern Botswana and the Okavango Delta, and on arrival at the airport we checked in for a further flight by light aircraft to the Moremi game reserve.
This is where the fun really begins as the safari starts when the low-flying aircraft leaves Maun's airspace and you look down over herds of elephants, and the snaking waterways, tributaries and lily pads that characterise the landscape of the delta. We had to make a second attempt at landing as, just when we were about to touch down, three curious impala had come to welcome us and were blocking the runway. The touchdown in the end however was smooth and we received a warm welcome from our hosts &Beyond.
We were spending five nights in total in Botswana in five different lodges and the first night was to be at &Beyond's Sandibe Okavango Lodge. One thing that makes Botswana so special is its unique water-based activities, as well as the remoteness and excellent game. Some camps are only water based so all safari activities are by boat or ‘mokoro' (dug-out canoe); several are land-based only, while most in the delta are mixed. The mix of water and land activities available at each camp very much depends on the time of year.
In the case of Sandibe, concentrating on land activities only is a good thing as the game is superb and there are fantastic water opportunities elsewhere with which to combine a stay at Sandibe. After a glass of chilled champagne and lunch at the lodge we set off on our first game drive of the trip. We hadn't even left the camp when our driver cut the engine as there was a pack of wild dogs lying in the grass almost in the jeep's path.
Our guide Gee was fantastic, one of the best on our trip. He seemed to understand the right level of interaction with the group and how to gauge what everyone was interested in, finding the perfect balance. We went on to see a family of hyenas, the curious cubs coming right up to the jeep and posing for photographs. After a hearty meal we turned in early to be woken by the best alarm call of the trip at 5am - our guide softly singing a local song to us outside and lightly beating on a drum. &Beyond is renowned for its laid-back style of luxury, fantastic staff and conservation credentials, and is a close partner of Wexas.
Day 3 Sandibe - Duba Plains
After an early morning game drive and breakfast, we made for the airstrip for our Mack Air flight to Duba Plains. This was the only non-&Beyond camp on our itinerary, being owned by Great Plains and famous for its lion and buffalo interaction. Here, unusually, 95% of the hunting done by lion is carried out during daylight hours, which is unheard of elsewhere. Furthermore, their diet primarily consists of buffalo, another anomaly. As buffalo exist in large numbers here the lion have learned over time how to work together to bring them down. The lion in turn have become bigger and stronger than their counterparts in other areas. The camp has a jeep which is used most of the year but there is also a boat for when the water levels are at their highest from May to July. This is when the delta is full of water owing to the rains having made their way down from Angola.
We had heard the lion were active and hadn't eaten for days so we went straight out on a game drive hoping to see some action. It would appear that there had been a recent altercation and the lion hadn't come out of it well as they were literally licking their wounds when we found them. It would appear that the buffalo put up a good fight! The buffalo were close by the whole time and it was clear there would soon be another stand-off after the lion had regained some strength.
Over dinner that night we met Dereck and Beverly Joubert who own the camp and came in to say hello. As well as being great conservationists, Dereck is a filmmaker and Beverly a photographer and between them have produced several films and books on the interaction between the lion and buffalo in the area. Their films include ‘The Last Lions' and ‘Relentless Enemies'.
That night we all had our own first real animal interaction with the heavy breathing of an elephant on the other side of the tent wall all night, the constant splash of hippo in the water in front and the howl of hyena. When the guide came to collect us in the morning the elephant was feasting on vegetation right outside our tents so the guide had to try and scare the big bull away so we could leave. The camps are all unfenced so the guides must escort you to and from the tents during the hours of darkness.
Day 4 Duba Plains - Nxabega
On the morning game drive the buffalo had moved further away from the camp and the lion had given up. We travelled by jeep for the first half of the game drive, and then the boat picked us up and took us back to the camp. It was then we came across a large pod of hippo, which gradually edged towards our boat. One of the larger hippo then emerged suddenly from the water to show us how big he was, which convinced us that we should perhaps move on.
We also spotted crocodile by the water's edge and lots of colourful birds. After brunch back at camp, we packed and made our way to the airstrip where the light aircraft was waiting to transfer us on the short 20-minute flight to &Beyond's Nxabega Okavango Camp. We were welcomed in true &Beyond fashion at the airstrip by the camp staff who I should really call a choir. They had set up a table with nibbles and strawberry mojitos by the airstrip which we enjoyed as they sung traditional greeting songs.
Then it was off on our transfer to the lodge which was essentially a game drive. Our guide, Bee, had received reports of a leopardess sighting so we agreed we should go and investigate. The young female had killed an impala earlier and was attempting to drag the carcass up a tree, out of the reach of hyena. Bee was explaining that leopard often kill several times even though they have sufficient food from a recent kill, to practice the art when they are young. As if on queue an impala strayed into the path of the now hiding leopard. It was yards away from the leopard when the wind changed, the impala smelled the leopard and the game was over. A loud bark from the impala alerted the rest of the group of the danger and they all scattered. A good start to our stay at Nxabega!
After a hearty lunch we set off by jeep on our evening game drive, then transferred to a boat. After cruising for a while, the channel narrowed and the bends became tighter, until all of a sudden we turned a corner and there was a huge elephant in the water in front of us enjoying an evening dip. He made his way out slowly, all the time looking behind and checking us out. We then made our way into a calm lagoon and stopped to watch the sunset over a gin and tonic which the crew prepared for us. This was a magical moment and brought home how remote the delta region is, and showed the real beauty of Botswana. Another key thing is the light; the light has been commented on by many a photographer visiting Botswana. There appears to be a unique yellow hue to everything, which gradually turns to orange throughout the day, finishing off with a fiery African sunset with a backdrop of tall date palms.
When Bee asked what we would like to see next during the drive back to the camp - after having seen so much game already - we jokingly replied, "honey badger". He said he hadn't seen one in months, and then as if on queue, a honey badger was spotted running away into the darkness. It was after this and then looking up and seeing a shooting star that we realised we had been fairly lucky. To top off the evening, we discovered we weren't being taken back to the camp at all. In fact, &Beyond had excelled themselves again with another of their signature surprises and set up a camp in the middle of the bush - lanterns hanging from a tree, a huge camp fire, champagne and a delicious barbeque. At this point I realised that highlights were becoming pretty standard.
Day 5 Nxabega - Xudum
The next morning after breakfast, our guide told us that the young leopardess's mother had appeared in the night to feed on her daughter's kill. We found it feasting on the impala which it had dragged high up into a tree. There was another tense stand-off this time with a kudu but the leopard retreated back to the tree when it was spotted.
It was then time for our first mokoro experience. Traditionally, bushmen crafted these dug-out canoes by hollowing out a tree trunk but these days they largely use fibreglass. We had all been looking forward to this unique Botswana activity so we jumped in and our guides immediately took us out into the lagoon through the reeds and lily pads. We spotted many birds, including the lilac-breasted roller with its iridescent blue wings and the ubiquitous African jacana, and saw the tiny bell frogs that had been providing the nighttime soundtrack sitting on the reeds.
We then enjoyed a huge delicious brunch before heading back to the airstrip for our short flight to the next camp - &Beyond's Xudum Okavango Lodge. Xudum and Xaranna are sister camps sharing the same concession, so you would generally choose one or the other for a two- or three-night stay. These two camps are at a more premium level, Xudum being more traditional with dark woods and Xaranna more contemporary. We were met at the airstrip and transferred to the water's edge where we met a boat for a further 45-minute transfer to the lodge. The views en-route were picture-postcard perfect; sun reflecting on the water and lily pads, while elephants gazed at us only half-interested as we cruised past. Again, we were met by the &Beyond ‘choir' on arrival; we commented that the harmonious renditions must be part of an obviously rigorous training programme and a requirement of the job!
We were first of all introduced to the interactive kitchen at Xudum and several guests were busy baking some muffins, which makes for an interesting alternative to the siesta that a lot of guests like to enjoy after an early start.
On the game drive we followed a wild dog which was clearly distressed as it had lost its family members. That evening's sunset was a typical African scene - bright red glow with a giraffe and its baby on the horizon. Dinner back at the lodge was the option of a deliciously rich kudu stew or bream. Back at the room a freshly poured hot bath scattered with petals was awaiting me and it was lights out soon after.
Day 6 Xudum - Xaranna
We had a relatively late start to the day and went on a mokoro safari at 7am. At one point we hit land and did a bit of walking while some red lechwe watched us from the distance. While some safari destinations are simply about viewing game from jeeps, one of the fantastic things about Botswana is the sheer variety of activities on offer; you could be on a jeep, then a boat, then a mokoro and then have the option of bush walking. On the way back to the camp, &Beyond pulled it out of the bag again. We spotted a rubber ring, half-hidden among the reeds in the middle of the lagoon, and inside was a large ice bucket, four bottles of champagne, six glasses and a bunch of flowers. This was the earliest we had started on the bubbly all week but no one was complaining.
Then it was time to make our way to our last camp on the trip - &Beyond's Xaranna Okavango Delta Lodge. As the lodges are close by and share the same airstrip, no flight is required, just a leisurely boat ride through the waterways of the delta. We arrived and were serenaded once again before meeting our guide, Mot, who informed us that he wanted to show us something on another island. So we took the short boat ride across the channel to find they had set up an amazing bush lunch of steak kebabs and quiche.
We then checked into our rooms which were absolutely gorgeous, all whites, pinks and greens. The suites at both Xudum and Xaranna have their own private pools and although I hadn't tried my pool at Xudum, I decided to give this one a go. The water was very cold (it was winter after all) but I imagine the pools would make for a very welcome respite from the heat in summer.
We then set off to visit the six newly arrived rhino &Beyond have just relocated from Phinda Private Game Reserve - which they own in Kwazulu-Natal, South Africa - to this part of the delta to reintroduce the species to the area. They were locked in a boma and the team were waiting for the water levels to rise to make it safe to release them. They will track them from a microchip placed in their horns and hope that they will mate in the near future and there will once again be rhino in this part of Botswana. The government of Botswana has now brought in a hunting ban so this is an exciting development and part of ongoing conservation work by &Beyond.
The guides are very flexible and talk to guests to find out what activities they would prefer to do. For our afternoon activity we chose fishing, a first for me but very relaxing and a great way to feel at one with the delta. One of the girls on the trip managed to catch three fish in the space of five minutes, much to the annoyance of the ‘experienced' anglers in the group. After sunset, we returned to the lodge to sit in front of the roaring fire and enjoy an aperitif while listening to the sounds of the bush before dinner.
Day 7 - Xaranna - Maun
After a short boat ride across the lagoon while the sun rose through the early morning mist, it was time to experience a bush walk. Our guide took us through the bush in single file, pointing out the various animal tracks that had been left during the night. We saw some kudu in the distance and some fresh leopard tracks on the way back to the camp.
After breakfast we said a fond farewell to staff at Xaranna before we were picked up and taken back to the airstrip by boat, then jeep for our flight back to Maun then connecting flight to Johannesburg.
It was a magical safari and I now understand why Botswana is so special and at the top of most people's lists for an African safari. It has excellent game in natural, remote surroundings, and not only were the staff fantastic in every way but Botswanian people were some of the warmest and friendliest I've ever met.
We didn't even get to Chobe or the Kalahari so I will be back!