By Bert Duplessis, Fish Eagle Safaris
Kathleen and I are just back from our recent Africa trip, which included Cape Town, Grootbos (great white shark diving), Victoria Falls, Northern Botswana and ending with a couple of days at Earth Lodge in the Sabi Sand Reserve in South Africa. We travelled with our good friends the Davidsons from Austin. It was their first trip to Africa.
As before, Northern Botswana and particularly the Okavango Delta, made for a fun and very diverse experience: we watched, learned, photographed, listened, cruised, fished and relaxed, often several of these at the same time.
Lagoon Camp lived up to prior billing as ‘the’ wild dog camp in N. Botswana. We twice bumped into a pack of nearly 30 dogs, watching them feed on an impala and observing their strict but amiable social structure, with the pups eating first, then the alpha dogs and finally the others. Another highlight there was a large herd of buffalo, several small breeding herds of elephant and a couple of sightings of the rarely seen roan antelope. The area was clearly suffering from drought and we often spent an hour or more just driving on very bumpy, very sandy roads with little to no signs of life around. Clearly most of the animals were concentrated around the wetter areas while some – the bulk of the elephants – had already dispersed even though no substantial rain had fallen. We had a very good night time leopard sighting here too, and really enjoyed a cruise on the Kwando River on Lagoon Camp’s customized pontoon boat. Tried our hand at fishing but to no avail, it really turned out to be more of an extended cocktail hour cruise than anything else.
The new rooms at Lagoon Camp are huge and quite cool, even during a heat wave which we experienced while there, with temperatures well over 100F. The high ceiling and powerful fan combine with great effect, keeping the bedroom area remarkably comfortable. If I had any criticism about the rooms it has to do with the design; the large area behind the bed – where the bathroom would have been in a regular tent setup – is mostly wasted. It would have been better to bring the bed back another few feet. Also the outdoor (front) porch is essentially useless without some sort of cover; even a large safari umbrella will provide some shade and make it a more inviting area to sit and relax and experience an ‘Africa moment’. Also it is rather odd that the toilet looks out directly towards the indoor shower.
The food at Lagoon Camp was perfectly fine and well-prepared; dinners consisting of meat and two veggies with very good freshly baked bread, salads and plenty of pretty good house wine! Unfortunately the chef mis-interpreted my long brief about vegan food options, somehow figuring that all I needed was a stir-fry of veggies, every time. Not quite: next time I hope they will have some sadza, beans or other legumes, a few whole grains and even some tofu on the menu.
I hope that Lagoon Camp will phase out the last few Uri game drive vehicles soon. They are very mobile and can get into thickets and bush much more effectively than any of the other vehicles (Landcruisers or Landrovers) but the negatives of cramped seating and just two rows of seats far outweigh the positives. On almost every game drive at Lagoon Camp we had 6 people in our vehicle which means that 2 persons are stuck in the dreaded middle seat. Really not acceptable.
Nxabega and Xudum Camps
We also spent some time at two Okavango Delta camps – Nxabega and Xudum – both operated by AndBeyond – and they were charming in their own way. The accommodation at Nxabega is nothing fancy – fairly basic tents – but the main area and the camp itself are amongst the nicest we have seen in Botswana. So much wildlife in and around camp; great staff, good food, and the best overall guide on the entire trip – Moffat. He is just such a charming person, always smiling and with lots of little jokes and funny comments. Really a pleasure to have him around.
There was also plenty of wildlife in the Nxabega area, particularly in the large areas which had recently been burnt in what clearly was a massive wildfire. The emerging vegetation is starting to attract lots of plains game including zebra, wildebeest, tsessebe, impala (of course) with good numbers of elephant and some buffalo to be seen as well. We also enjoyed a great sighting of a young male leopard that obligingly climbed into a tree. He is apparently known for playing with the cushions in camp, from time to time. Hopefully when they are not being used by guests.
Probably our best outing from Nxabega was a fishing trip into the permanent delta. We traveled about 20 minutes on an aluminum skiff through a winding channel – kept open mostly by hippo – until we reached the edge of the Boro channel. It was a superb spot with a large lagoon to our right, a huge drifting reed island on our left, and a line of papyrus in the distance. We were close to a heronry with several Purple Herons flying in and out – I got lucky capturing one of them in flight. But it was really all about the fishing. We had barely anchored along the reeds when the first beautiful green nembwe grabbed my Mepps spinner. For the next 90 minutes there was barely a dull moment with practically every second or third cast delivering a strike. The most amazing thing was not the beautiful setting or the superb fishing; it was the fact that there was not even one other boat within sight or hearing distance. Just us, the delta, the sky and the crystal clear water all around.
Xudum is a deluxe Okavango Delta Camp with very large split-level rooms: an air-conditioned bedroom, sunken bathroom with tub and indoor as well as outdoor shower, private plunge pool and an elevated deck for some great views over the Delta. On our day of departure a big herd of elephants were strolling right through camp – it would have been great to observe them from the deck. The expansive communal area includes a dining room, lounge/bar and open interactive kitchen, where guests are invited to participate in food preparation and cooking demonstrations. As it happened there was a professional chef present in camp for the duration of our stay, with a result that the food at Xudum was by far the best we enjoyed on the entire trip, and that says a lot, considering that we spent time at Ellerman House and Grootbos which both pride themselves on the quality of their cuisine. The range of vegan items on the item was impressive and the one was more delicious than the other, all the way from soup to veggies to legumes, tofu, lentils and beyond. For once somebody actually took note of my specific preferences, so other than the more elaborate recipes there was plain old ‘pap’ (a local version of polenta) with appropriate side dishes available both nights.
A fishing outing from Xudum was just as exciting as the previous one at Nxabega, with four of us landing a good haul of mostly three-spot tilapia as well as a few catfish and several African pike. Things almost got too exciting when we were charged by a hippo. This solitary individual had apparently just recently been ejected from his pod, and resented the sudden intrusion of our little vessel into his large pond. So without any warning signs, he stewed over it for about 5 minutes and then came straight at us, underwater, kicking up a massive ‘bow wave’ in the process. Fortunately our guide Isaiah kept his cool, starting the outboard motor without a fuss and steering a safe course to the right of the approaching behemoth.
The game-viewing at Xudum was a bit on the quiet side, although we did have some very good views of a young female leopard on the drive into camp. Xudum would be a good choice as an Okavango Delta water camp, but this is not the place to come to if you are in search of big game only. The beautiful environment and range of activities which include mokoro outings, boating and game drives certainly makes it a worthwhile destination though. The same is true of its sister camp Xaranna which if anything has an even more attractive lounge and dining room area, with large, attractive tented rooms.
Transfers to Nxabega and Xudum
Prospective visitors should be sure to check on the duration of transfers into both Nxabega and Xudum; when we were there in early November the airstrips at both of the lodges were unserviceable which necessitated very lengthy road transfers (almost 3 hours in the case of Nxabega and about half that much for Xudum) from and back to Pom Pom airstrip. This was unfortunately not mentioned to us prior to traveling, so it came as a rather rude surprise. Both camps made a special effort to break up the long transfer with a picnic stop en route, which did help. Even so we were pretty exhausted after the very long and very bumpy transfer from Nxabega to Xudum which consisted of a long drive to Pom Pom, then another 45 minutes or so to Xaranna, from there about 20 minutes by boat through the Delta (which was fun and easy) followed by another 45 minutes to Xudum Lodge. At certain times of the year much of the transfer to Xudum can be done by boat, but not when the water in the Okavango Delta is low.
As far as I am able to tell the situation with the airstrips at Nxabega and Xudum is unlikely to change for at least the next 12 months or so; it takes forever to obtain permission to build a new airstrip and to get earth-moving equipment into and out of the area is a near impossible task even in the dry season.
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