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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.

Daily life in a ‘bush office’

July 4, 2011 2 comments

A few nights in a super-exclusive, eco-friendly tented camp or lodge in the heart of Botswana’s Okavango Delta doesn’t come cheap. But you are guaranteed a once-in-a-lifetime experience and memories you will treasure forever.

Click here to read the full article by Alannah Eames published on July 3, 2011, in The Times of Malta. Sunday edition.

When in the Okavango Delta …

February 27, 2011 4 comments

It's a tough life in the Okavango Delta!

 

Make sure you …

1. Take a flight from Kasane or Maun for a fantastic view of the Delta from above.
2. Hop in a mokoro (dug out canoe ride) ride: Xigera Camp is a great spot for this.
3. Swim in the thermal waters of the Okavango Delta.
4. Enjoy a sundowner on a deserted sandbar, enjoying the fantastic African sunset.
5. Get up close with the leopards around Tubu Tree Camp.
6. “Camp hop” – don’t just stay at one camp. 2-3 nights per camp is perfect. Combine a “grassland” and “water-based” camp for two very different experiences.
7. Spend a night in a hideaway, if you dare.
8. Enjoy a “bush brunch” of bacon and eggs in the middle of the Delta.
9. Talk to the staff and other guests. Part of the fun is sharing your experiences and hearing the “bush” stories, especially around the campfire enjoying the nocturnal bush sounds.
10. Take the chance to explore Southern Africa … you can combine the Okavango Delta with the sand dunes of Namibia, the Victoria Falls of Zimbabwe & Zambia, the teak forests of Hwange National Park in Zimbabwe, the vast elephant herds of Botswana’s Chobe National Park or the rugged beauty of the Cape area in South Africa. Wilderness Safaris have a great network of around 60 top-class, eco-friendly lodges and camps across Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe, Malawi, South Africa, Zambia and the Seychelles. Logistics and coordination can be tricky so it’s often best in Southern Africa to use a safari company to organize accommodation and transport.

“Bye Bye” Okavango Delta!

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Loading up and ready to leave before the next thunderstorm strikes.

If you’re lucky, these guys might show up to wave you off.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the Okavango Delta, and to your favorite camps. Even though we’ve only been there for a week, it feels much longer and we don’t want to leave. The two camps we stayed at – Tubu Tree and Xigera – were extremely homely and well managed; I couldn’t find anything to complain about, even if I tried. 

Spending time in the Delta is a chance to recharge, to reconnect with nature and animals and will leave you reenergized. OK, maybe like me, you had some sleepless nights but you leave injected with a sense of admiration and love for this part of Southern Africa.

But all too soon, it’s off to the airstrip where Joel and our faithful Cessna 208B Grand Caravan are waiting to take us back to Kasane Airport.

Touching down on the tarred runway at Kasane, after a week in the bush (the same airport that we thought was tiny on the way out), feels huge; we haven’t seen a single car or shop, or heard the ringtone of a cellphone, for a week. On one hand, I see “civilization” with fresh eyes, but the other part of me craves the peace and nature of the Delta.  I miss the camps, the animals, the food, the people and our daily game drives. That’s the sign of a true vacation: one you don’t want to end … ever.

“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.

Island hopping in the Okavango Delta

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

"Cruise" control takes on a new meaning in the Delta.

Game drives in the Delta are not like those on the grasslands of the Serengeti or Kruger National Park. We are in a wetland here and we have to get from island to island. There are no bridges or ferries. The solution is the Land Rover which can cross just about everything from marshy land, small forests and one-meter-deep water (or boat). It amazes me how much hardship these “workhorses of the African safari industry” can take.

Getting from A to B, Delta-style.

As we head off to Chief’s Island from Xigera Camp, I’m amused to see that Barobi, our guide, is shoeless. I soon discover why. After we have crossed one of these meter-deep channels, he opens the door of the jeep to let the water out – the floor of the jeep is covered in about 20 centimeters of water. Going through these channels is not for the faint-hearted as you see the water rising up and up and over the bonnet and wonder how much deeper it’s going to get. The thoughts of getting stuck halfway through is not a pleasant thought! But these camp guides are well trained and know exactly what they are doing so you need to sit back, relax and let them do their job.

Back on dry land, something stinks. It’s a hippo. I learn something new today: apparently you can smell a hippo before you see it because these guys stink even though they spend half the day under water. “This one seems to be a little late getting into the water” says Barobi. I look at my watch, it’s 10.00.

We bump along “the main road to Maun” which is a dirt track and a real bone rattler. (Maun is the “capital” of the Delta, and one of its main gateways.) We’re getting what Botswanan-born Lindi calls “an African massage”.

King of the bush: it's a lion's life.

Chief’s Island is well worth the journey. The two male lions we watch for almost an hour are magnificent. They are brothers and, apparently the family ties are strong. “These two brothers are very close. They lick each other’s wounds and take care of each other,” says Barobi. There’s also a lioness but no sign of her, although I wonder if she’s closer than we realize.

Whether you're more into birds, cats, deer or plants ... the Okavango Delta has something for everyone.

If you are into bird watching, Xigera is paradise. If you’re not, you’ll still enjoy watching them, and you need to keep your fingers crossed that you won’t end up in a jeep with some “bird fanatics”. We’re on serious business looking for the lions on Chief’s Island but some of our companions seem more excited about spotting a bee-eater or fish eagle, or, to make my blood pressure rise a few more notches, a “sausage” tree which is probably one of the most common trees in Southern Africa. You will spot these “bird loving” people easily – they have huge binoculars, carry a birdwatching book from the camp and will exclaim “Oh is that the African doo-diddley-doo bird” when they hear a bird at least 100 meters away. You meet some characters on safari in Africa- people from all parts of the planet and all walks of life. That’s what keeps it interesting. You talk to people you would probably never cross paths with back home. Although, saying that I didn’t really understand why a couple at Tubu Tree Camp were so upset that they had only seen leopards and no zebras, usually zebras are the most common animal you can see in Africa, but you’ll be hard pushed to get close-ups of leopards!

Coffee time! Little did we know the two lions were only 100 meters away.

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!

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