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Do it all in two wild weeks…

How often have you dreamt about standing right next to the thundering Victoria Falls, enjoying a sundowner on Cape Town’s stunning Table Mountain, shopping in Johannesburg, gliding in a dugout canoe through the swamps of the Okavango Delta and sleeping in a remote bush tent… but thought it not possible as your budget – and holiday leave – only stretches to two weeks.

Well, it is doable. In January my husband and I explored Southern Africa in 15 days. We spent five days in Cape Town, a weekend in Johannesburg, two days at Victoria Falls and five days in the Okavango Delta, taking in the best of South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan sights and culture.

 

"Do it all in two wild weeks", by Alannah Eames

Click here to read the full article by Alannah Eames in the travel section of the Sunday Times, Malta, July 24, 2011.

“Swimming” in the Okavango Delta

February 24, 2011 Leave a comment

The pristine sandy "beaches" and clean thermal waters of the Delta.

When I talk about swimming in the Okavango Delta, I’m not just referring to the Land Rovers which plunge through bonnet-high water or the hippos who spend most their day submerged, but, yes, literally swimming in the Delta. Everybody swims in the Delta, even the water-loathing lions and sceptical tourists! Who would imagine that you can jump into these swampy waters filled with crocodiles and hippos and where lions, leopards, buffalos and elephants linger not far away. And, even more surprisingly, discover that the Delta’s water is much warmer, and its soft Kalahari sand even whiter, than in Asian or African coastal resorts.

From Land Rover to mokoro to speed boat. Each time, a new experience and a different view of the Delta.

After our adventurous mokoro ride, we opt the next day for a motorboat ride to a sandbar in a sheltered lagoon. These shallow metal boats – with their powerful engines – are perfect for zipping around the maze of waterways and channels in the Okavango Delta. Even though it’s “wet” season, the water’s not as deep as it usually is at this time of the year.  Every so often the engine gives a warning sound that we are getting too close to the underwater reeds or a hidden sandbar.  The cumulus clouds above are mirrored beautifully on the tranquil waters of the lagoon. Birds, especially cormorants and cute pygme geese, skim gracefully along the clean waters of the Delta. We get a lesson about the local plant life. If you ever thought that papyrus was just about ancient Egyptian manuscripts, think again. This reed-like plant is sweet inside and edible; elephants apparently have a sweet tooth as they’re often seen chewing on it.

Papyrus is versatile ... it's also sweet and edible.

Compared to the slow pace of the mokoro, the motorboat trip is more of a thrill ride. Barobi, our guide, seems to be enjoying his time behind the wheel of the boat, steering it around the bends like a Delta-style Schumacher. While the mokoro is slow, relaxing and quiet, this boat is louder, bigger and faster. I guess we’ve woken up every crocodile within a one-kilometer radius.

Finally, we reach our destination – a remote lagoon with crystal-clear waters, white sandy beaches and not an animal in sight. We set up our picnic table and drinks and take a dip. The water is clean, warm and feels untouched by today’s industrialized world. It’s waist-high and you feel the soft Kalahari desert sand below your feet.  When in Rome, do as the Romans do. And when in the Delta, swim, like everyone else!

The perfect swimming pool - clean, warm and not too deep.

Tucked away on an island in the Okavango Delta

February 22, 2011 Leave a comment

"Cast away" in the idyllic Xigera Camp.

There's no water shortages around Xigera Camp.

Xigera Camp, pronounced Keejera (or with a funny-sounding click like the locals say it), is in the heart of the Okavango Delta’s Moremi Game Reserve, nestled in a riverine island criss-crossed by a network of deep channels. It’s a “real” water camp and the minute you land at its small airstrip, you feel pleasantly cast away from the outside world.

If you come to Xigera expecting to see prides of lions and abundant wildlife, don’t. Yes, they are out there somewhere but as it’s a water camp, you’re not going to see them as easily as at other “grassier” camps like Tubu Tree. It’s not rocket science: there is less game here as there is more water and less grass; if there’s less game, there’s less predators. But, if you’re lucky, you might see them swimming as this is the main way for the animals to “island hop” around Xigera. And, of course, being surrounded by water, means you’ll see water-lovers like elephants, hippos and crocodiles.

On the prowl. Two brothers hang out on Chief's Island.

If you’re hell bent on seeing other wildlife, the staff can arrange a trip for you to neighboring Chief’s Island which has a healthy lion population. We did a record six-hour game drive across and were treated to a pair of male lions lounging under a tree, less than 100 meters from the spot where we’d hopped out of our jeep for our coffee break under a baobab tree.

South African husband and wife team Mike and Anne Marchington have been running Xigera Camp for just over a year. They are veterans on Southern Africa having spent four years in the Delta and over 20 years traveling around Southern Africa. Mike tells us that he even used to jog in the bush, one time trekking right past a pride of lions, “I was so focused on the prints on the ground that I forgot to look out for the lions,” he laughs.

 

Home away from home. The cosy lounge area at Xigera.

The camp is intimate and cosy, just like in the brochures except even better in real life. It’s got ten tented rooms all kitted out with en-suite and an outdoor shower. Think camping, but upmarket camping. It’s down-to-earth enough to blend in with the nature and to satisfy those with a more outdoorsy rustic taste, but comfortable enough to keep those who don’t like roughing it happy. There is always someone to talk to in the open bar-restaurant-cum living room area which feels like being in your own living room as you can help yourself to drinks and snacks whenever you want. The service is great – attentive enough to make you feel special but not too much to make you feel stifled.

Elevated walkways lead to the camp's 10 quaint tents.

There’s also a sandpit where the “newspaper” is read every morning – that means checking the paw prints. Most of them belong to the “resident” hyena who regularly visits at night but who is very “shy”. It amuses me that everyone in Botswana considers hyenas “shy”, while in other parts of Africa they are highly feared. We spot her one evening, wallowing in the shadows less than 70 meters away, while we sit around the camp fire. I’m curious what she wants: is she enjoying our company, is she looking for a free meal, or is she just being nosy? Our two camp managers aren’t bothered at all by her, in fact quite the opposite. They almost get worried if they don’t see her for a few nights in a row. “Knowledge is power so if you know how the animals react, you will be ok,” says Mike.

So, if we happen to come face to face with this hyena on the narrow entrance into the camp, we should basically step back, treat her as a lady and let her go first. She’s alone, maybe that makes a difference. “They’re masters of chaos; once they’re in a pack, they create chaos. Hyenas are very successful hunters; they’re not just the scavengers that people think they are. And they are an important part of the ecosystem as they clean up a lot of the carcasses of animals that have died of natural causes,” explains Mike. I’m starting to feel like I know these huge scary-looking animals personally, and even beginning to admire them.

Wilderness Camps give a new meaning to the word "safari" - besides abundant wildlife, the great homemade food keeps flowing too.

Fully owned by Wilderness Safaris, which has managed (through its dedication to sustainable tourism and good reputation in Southern Africa) to buy some of the best sites and camps in the Delta, Xigera Camp is built on elevated walkways so you don’t need to walk on the ground and reduce the risk of stepping on a snake. After a week in Okavango and Zimbabwe, I haven’t yet seen a single snake. “There are plenty of snakes, but sadly we never see them. We all think a snake will bite us and kill us but we just have little knowledge about them,” says Mike. All too often, we freak out if we see a cobra but it is quite predictable despite the rumors. The black mambo is considered one of the most unpredictable and aggressive snakes in Southern Africa.

After Tubu Tree, where the cats can wander in and out of the camp, Xigera seems very tame. Mike’s comment makes me laugh: “What can an animal do to you – it won’t hop into your tent and eat you.” This seems to be the general consensus in the Delta by the chilled-out staff who live there year-round. It’s us visitors who think that we will be eaten by man-eating lions, attacked by crocodiles or trampled on by an elephant … the minute we spot one!

A “normal” day in the Okavango Delta

February 18, 2011 1 comment

Rush hour on the airstrip. A group of impalas hang out on the sandy runway.

Ask any person what they want to see on their game drive, and 90% will most likely answer “the cats”. “You have to remember that when you go home you won’t see an impala or zebra, apart from in a zoo, maybe,” points out Justin Stevens, one of the camp managers at Tubu Tree.

Getting close up and personal with Tubu Tree's "local" leopards.

But going on safari is about much more than seeing the cats, it’s about experiencing the bugs at dinner, seeing the birdlife, sitting around a campfire listing to the bush noises, having a sundowner under a Marula tree watching an African sunset. But most of all, it’s about enjoying being at one with Mother Nature without the hassle and curses of modern day life – cellphones, internet, Facebook, traffic jams, office politics, stress and daily agendas. Every day in the bush animals fight for survival, for food, to protect their young. They have much more important things to worry about than about how they look in the mirror, having the latest car or iPhone, following a rigid daily routine that’s about as flexible as an iron rod, or about what people think of them.

A safari is so much more than seeing animals, it's also about experiencing "moments" like its magnificent sunsets.

Of course, every person on safari in Africa wants to see the “Big Five” – that’s the lion, leopard, elephant, buffalo and rhino – and tick them off their list.  On this trip to Africa, I learned there’s also an “Ugly Five” (the unattractive hyena, vulture, wildebeest, warthog and marabou) and the “Secret Seven”, a mainly nocturnal collection of the serval, African wild cat, porcupine, civet, spotted genet, pangolin and aardvark.

If you’ve got a leopard obsession, Tubu Tree Camp, on the Jao Concession, in Okavango, has one of the best leopard populations around. According to Johnny Mowanji, our guide, ten “non-shy” leopards have already been identified in the camp’s vicinity, making it one of the best places for leopard viewing, but this can change.“We’ve seen territorial battles and leopards are always coming and going,” he says. On the down side, because there are so many leopards, there are less lions. There was a pride of lions in the concession but as they had recently had cubs they were keeping a low profile.

No hyenas under our tent today, just this perky baboon.

According to the two camp managers, no day at Tubu Tree is ever the same. They have been “held hostage” in their tent for an hour and a half while two lions mated outside their door. And it’s not uncommon for leopards to drink out of the bird bowl at the foot of the reception area. The staff take it all in their stride but do confess to being “a little scared when lions come into the camp.” Interestingly, the Botswanans are terrified of geckos, who they believe have evil eyes, like snakes. These harmless fly- and spider-eating creatures often end up dead in the staff quarters.

By my second day in the bush, I’m confident enough to hop in and out of the truck. Johnny has assured us that as long as we stay close to the jeep or tent we are not part of the food chain. They don’t associate a jeep or tent with food, but wander around in the dark when the predators are hunting and then you might find it’s a different story.

Setting up the Bush Brunch. Visitors welcome!

After our morning game drive, we’re surprised by a “Bush Brunch”, set up under a fig tree close to the camp. The staff have laid a tablecloth and buffet and are enthusiastically frying sausages and omelettes. Well, I think, if the animals haven’t already heard the pots and pans and the banging as the table and chairs are put in place, surely, they’ll be interested in our bacon and eggs. By the time we’re finished, an hour later, we haven’t had a single four-legged visitors.

Anyone for bacon and eggs?

I’m still amazed by the lack of animal attacks on tourists in Botswana and the “non-aggressive” nature of the animals compared to their counterparts in Kenya and South Africa, for example. “It’s all about respecting the animals,” we are told several times at the camp.

A two or three-night stay per camp in the Okvango Delta is perfect. Two, from my experience at Tubu Tree, was too short as we were so busy with our game drives and activities that we didn’t have time to just hang out at the camp and relax. I would have loved a day to sit by the cute little pool, reading a book … but most importantly, instead of going out to look for the animals, to sit back and let them come to visit us in the camp.

The quaint pool area at Tubu Tree Camp, perfectly positioned for relaxed game view spotting.

If Tubu Tree Camp is not wild enough for you, there is a “hideaway” about a 10-minute drive away from the camp. It’s basically a few wooden steps leading up a tree trunk to a wooden platform. Many people book it in the search of adventure but chicken out when they see it.

 

 

 

 

It's your choice at Tubu: this super-comfortable tent ...

 

 

 

... or this adventurous "hideaway", 10 minutes from the camp?

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