If you’re considering booking a safari in the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s amazing nature wonderland, while also staying in comfort and luxury, read on! Expat Living’s LARA SAGE reviews two luxury lodges in the transient watery landscape that are teeming with wildlife – the architectural marvel that is Jao, and decadent Mombo.
Conservation and hospitality company Wilderness (formerly Wilderness Safari) operates over 60 lodges and camps across eight African countries. Among them, are lodges in Botswana’s famed Okavango.
One of those, Wilderness Jao, opened in 1999 but has more recently had a complete revamp. The results are awe-inspiring! The astounding installation of a giraffe skeleton in the library is one photo-worthy highlight. And the woven iconic bird nest structure at the swimming pool is another. It hovers just above the ebb and flow of delta water that arrives and then recedes again each year.
In fact, the entire lodge is elevated, creating a bird’s eye view of the meandering river below, where wildlife passes through, grazing and drinking. The new sustainable lodge was refurbished using synthetic materials that look like palm fronds for roofing, and with long-lasting supports and fire-retardant thatching. The design allows light into the buildings and panoramic views out. Slender sticks bound together create the awnings and dappled shade, effective in the heat of summer.
The luxury lodge is shaded by ebony trees (known as jackalberry trees), sycamore figs, leadwood and marula trees. Marula fruit is a yellow bulb housing a tart, white pulp that’s popular among wildlife. It’s also used to make a silky local liqueur, Amarula Cream. Fermented and distilled marula fruit is blended with cream and sugar to make a sweet, butterscotch-flavoured drink.
In keeping with the sustainable nature of the makeover at Jao, the original carved rosewood has been used in the library and spa. No material goes to waste! The original balustrade and large wide steps have been incorporated along the elevated walkways to the guest suites.
Magnificently roomy suites
These double-volume suites are huge to say the least – colossal might be a better word! They each include an indoor table with stone slab kitchenette for in-room dining. The ample living room is adorned with mesh and reed-like cords, wall coverings of grass materials, and furnishings adorned with leather straps. The oval shape of the lily pad is echoed in the ottoman, the carpets and the plunge pool. Pendant hanging lights are a striking artistic feature as is the leather hide chandelier that imitates the palm fronds found in the region. The unobstructed façade of the room captures the panoramic landscape beyond.
In the gold and green glow of late afternoon light, I lulled myself into a calm trance while rocking on the swinging circular chair on our private deck. The gentle motion and nature’s background sounds of beetles, birds and soft wind through leaves subdues you and makes you one with the outside world. An oversized bed leads to an open-plan bathroom with oval mirrors mounted on waterlily-shaped vanities and bathtub, and a choice of indoor and outdoor showers. Cool air enters the room through a state-of-the-art cooling system for summer. And there’s a pellet fireplace for nippy nights in winter.
Jao is a place for pensive contemplation and relaxation. It’s best enjoyed with leisurely time to while away the days overlooking the waterways or in the museum-like library filled with books on flora and fauna, and a wall dedicated to light-hearted photos from this historical family camp’s transformation and renovation.
When to visit
Water creeps daily into the Okavango Delta, gradually encroaching on dry plains and filling the flat vista. Around late May or early June, it reaches the area around Jao, transforming this riverside lodge into a watery one. This changes the safari experience from four-wheel driving to boating. All year round, though, you can enjoy gliding along in a mekoro (dugout canoe) that epitomises a trip to Botswana.
Wilderness Mombo is aptly referred to as “the place of plenty”. It captures the wanderlust of the colonial African adventurer, but with a gob-smackingly impressive décor. The latter includes a copper bathtub and room-divider that shines light through grass stencil cuttings onto a lavish suite.
This land camp on the Okavango’s famed Chief’s Island is decadent and indulgent – and the wildlife sightings are remarkable. A luxury safari here offers an exotic option for a milestone celebration, a proposal or a honeymoon; you can enjoy a lantern-lit nature setting for sundowners, a harvest-style Bush breakfast on a river bank, and scrumptious meals in the main restaurant with wine pairings suggested by the in-house sommelier – all this following a taste of the barman’s signature tipple after returning from a game drive!
The conical topped tents of Mombo echo the termite mounds of the region. These firm, raised areas of earth become islands when the water rises; birds drop seeds on them and then trees grows on these tiny islands, offering a habitat for all sorts of creatures.
At Mombo, elevated walkways link the guest area to widely spread suites. These boardwalks offer a place of safety, rising up and down sporadically to allow corridors for different animals to pass below.
The décor of this luxury lodge has the quintessential trimmings of a pioneer camp but with cutting-edge modern finishes, private plunge pools, and trendy linen fabric prints and light fittings embellishing the rooms.
An elephant birth!
Our highly qualified guide drove us to some phenomenal wildlife sightings, all the time identifying signals and sounds as clues – from an alarmed bird to the crunch of branches. Once, he followed the unusual trumpeting of an elephant in the distance, leading us to the unforgettable sight of an elephant calf being born. Another elephant – in the role of midwife – stood by the mother, kicking up dust to hide the sight, preventing predators from snatching the newborn after its 22-month gestation. Then, as if telepathically, a nearby feeding herd of seven or so elephants emerged to form a shield of mammoth bodies between our safari vehicle and the birthing elephant.
After half an hour, the baby was gently nudged onto its wobbly legs. Then, to our surprise, a full herd of 30 or more arrived from the thicket, trumpeting in greeting and celebration. The newborn was guided along softly by its mother’s trunk, while it floundered in ungainly fashion. Then, the herd ambled away with the tiny new baby, disappearing into the vegetation silently – as the mighty elephant so inexplicably does, despite its size.
Landscape and wildlife
We were at Mombo soon after a grassland fire had passed through. New shoots could be seen, indicative of nature’s ability to regenerate. The delta is a land of contrasts. As the season grows drier, the water creeps in. When we visited in late May, waters were pooling slowly into sandy roads, offering a feast of snails for open-billed storks.
The land masses soon became life-sustaining mini eco-systems for animals that must cross the water channels as they rise. I hadn’t considered the trepidation of giraffes making this crossing until I watched a herd do so cautiously, with the very real danger of slipping into a deep channel. (A group of giraffes is aptly called a “tower” or a “journey” – they thrive on the acacia trees in this area.) There’s also a healthy warthog and hyena population here and countless predators.
Every safari offers unique and personal experiences. Mine included not just the elephant birth, but a ferocious honey badger running headfirst into a pack of endangered African wild dogs, snarling and lurching with teeth bared! I also saw a sneaky and slender mongoose brazenly stealing meat from under a sleeping lion’s nose, and the reunion of a leopard cub with its mother as she returned from marking her territory (the scent is surprisingly reminiscent of butter popcorn!).
As the Wilderness slogan espouses: “Discover Earth’s Ultimate Untamed Places”. The untamed element here is invigorating, and the word ultimate says everything else!
In the wet season, Jao is surrounded with water but Mombo is not. A great way to experience the delta’s wildlife is to stay in both. First-time safari travellers would be best starting with a landed camp, teeming with wildlife and big game viewing opportunities. Next, move on to the more languid pace of a reflective water camp
For more valuable safari advice, contact Lara, EL’s own Africa travel specialist, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article on safaris in the Okavango Delta, Botswana, first appeared in the November 2023 edition of Expat Living. You can purchase the latest issue or subscribe so you never miss a copy!
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