I can hear a great splashing in the reeds just outside my tent, a noise that can be made by only a very big creature. I pull the blinds gingerly aside and look out into the darkness. I see a colossal bulk blocking the reflection of the moonlight on the water – a hippopotamus is mowing down the vegetation in a side-to-side motion with its immense jaws, only a few metres away from where I am standing.
Not that I feel particularly exposed – my tent is no flimsy two-man contraption that will blow over with the lightest breeze or get crushed under an enormous hippo belly. It’s as big as a house, with a king-size double bed, a bathtub made for wallowing, a reclining area and, on the deck outside, a private plunge pool. But, still, such a close encounter with one of Africa’s most dangerous animals sets the pulse racing.
I’m at the Xaranna camp in Botswana’s Okavango Delta – the new frontier in ultimate safari chic. Less known than South Africa or Kenya as a safari destination, the southern African country of Botswana remains an untouched gem. And the Okavango Delta is the jewel in the country’s crown.
A pristine natural environment, the Okavango is the world’s largest inland delta and Africa’s biggest freshwater wetland. The water that fills the 150km-wide delta originates in Angola, from where it travels along the 1,600km-long Okavango River, bringing life to the Kalahari Desert that covers 70 per cent of Botswana.
Although the summer rains fall in Angola in January, they take a month to travel the first 1,000km of the Okavango River, and a further four months to filter through the plants and numerous channels to fill the delta to its maximum width of 150km east to west. The water levels reach their highest between June and August, during Botswana’s dry winter months.
The shimmering wetlands attract one of Africa’s highest concentrations of wildlife, including populations of lion, leopard, Nile crocodile, zebra, kudu, African wild dog, rhinoceros, hyena, African fish eagle, Marabou stork and more than 70 species of fish.
The plethora of wildlife and the primordial, delicate beauty of the place also attract a growing number of international tourists yearning to spend their days ensconced in one of the luxury lodges built on islands in the privately managed concessions in the delta.
The government of Botswana introduced a low-volume, high-cost policy in the 1990s, which protects the country’s wilderness from overcrowding. These lodges, some of which are tented camps like Xaranna and sister property Xudum, offer excellent game-viewing activities and all the comforts of a high-end boutique hotel, with a few exceptions: You will be hard pressed to find a gym and, after around 11pm, when the generators go off, you will be relying on gas lamps or torches.
But the lack of normal city-life trappings is a major part of the Okavango’s charm. At most points in the delta, you are a boat or jeep ride, plus a flight, away from the nearest grocery store. Most lodges operate all-inclusive stays, except for the flight to the delta which usually costs upwards of US$250 (S$320) per person, and, while they do not come cheap – costing anything from US$300 to US$2,700 per person per night – the experience is nothing short of magnificent.
The first glimpse of camp puts all fears of being in the wilderness out of mind. Xaranna, in a palette of soft olive, biscuit and white, with touches of bright green, is feminine, serene and stylish, with a motif of voluptuous white-porcelain hippos running through the design. As the masculine version of Xaranna, Xudum is hip and almost fiercely creative. Here, old tyres and rusty beer cans have been made into side tables, and well-used spades have been warped into chairs.
Xudum’s mascot is the crocodile; rough-hewn wooden carvings line the walkways and decorate tabletops. While Xudum is located on a larger island that stays dry for longer, hence inspiring a more earthy design, Xaranna is usually surrounded by water, and its atmosphere is suitably softer and more cursive.
Despite the different feel of the camps, the delta unites them, and life follows the daily, and annual, ebb and flow of the water. Days usually start with a lavish breakfast on the deck, with perhaps a distant elephant, and certainly kingfishers and other wetland birds, for company.
Then, there are activities that range from a safari by boat or open-air jeep – depending on the level of the water – or a guided walk through the nearby islands to spot giraffes, hyenas, porcupines, wildebeest or, even very occasionally, lions.
The camps’ wildlife guides are an encyclopaedia of knowledge on the animal residents and medicinal plants of the area, and take delight in regaling guests in that warm, fun-loving manner that seems inherent in all Batswana – Botswana citizens are known as Batswana; singular, Motswana – with stories collected from years spent in the bush. It was one of the guides, Kelesedi Leswadula, who alerted us to our most memorable sighting.
“Over there, go under the trees,” he whispered excitedly one morning to the driver as we bumped over the narrow track in our open-air 4×4. “Hear those monkeys – the call they are making means there is a predator about. And the way those impala are looking around and flicking their tails means they are nervous, too.”
We veered off-track into the long grass, heading to a patch of acacia trees. Just as we bounced over a hidden anthill, we saw ahead of us a flock of impala, scattering in flight. Behind one of the bucks, a long and elegant flash of yellow in pursuit: a leopard.
Bounding over the grass in panic, the animal suddenly darted to the left, and the leopard lost its stride, allowing the buck to escape. Giving up, the leopard slowed to a trot, its golden eyes flashing.
“I think our jeep disturbed her,” said Leswadula. “It’s unusual for a leopard to make a mistake like that.”
We celebrated our sighting with breakfast under a nearby Baobab tree, its bark shredded high up on one side by elephants. Steaming hot coffee, and eggs, bacon and sausage freshly fried by our guides, were served with aplomb. On the drive back to camp, we saw a gathering of Marabou storks – one of the world’s biggest and most ugly birds – and a gigantic owl resting in a tree, one amber eye surveying us warily.
The heat of the day usually means that lunch is served back at camp, followed by a few hours for a dip in your private pool, reading in one of the hanging chairs in the airy lounge, or napping in the coolness of your luxury tent. Sunset is best experienced from the low vantage point of a mokoro – a traditional dugout canoe – or sitting back with a refreshing gin and tonic, and hearing the animals come to life as the sun’s strength fades.
Dinner is a special affair, with a glass or two of champagne to start, wine and a glass or two of Amarula liqueur to follow, and the chefs delighting diners with dishes such as a Kalahari truffle cappuccino with homebaked bread, and gemsbok steak with pepper sauce.
The fragrant truffle of the Kalahari desert grows in neighbouring Namibia, and is gaining recognition across fine-dining establishments in southern Africa. After dinner one evening at Xudum, the kitchen staff came out and sang some traditional songs for my travel companion, as it was his birthday.
After a few glasses of single malt under the stars, we headed back to our respective tented palaces, a birthday message spelled out in lilies on my friend’s bed. It is a birthday he is likely to never forget.