In the heart of Botswana’s north lies an Eden landscape: the Okavango Delta. A labyrinth of rivulets, flooded wetlands and isolated archipelagos, this unique habitat is awash with the poignant palette of an Impressionist masterpiece. Against this dramatic backdrop, bathed in the glow of the rising and setting of the red African sun, wild animals congregate in their tens of thousands. The ideal perch from which to appreciate it all is Xigera Safari Lodge in the Okavango Delta’s Moremi Game Reserve. Anticipating the lodge’s opening in 2020, here we profile the beauteous basin, tour through its immense ecosystems and look at what establishes a Xigera safari at the apex of ecotourism.
An ever-changing landscape
No two days in the Okavango are the same. Fed by run-off from the Angolan highlands to the north, it’s the climax of a river system thousands of kilometres long. As the waters flood in, they swirl slowly through the Delta’s many islets before eventually evaporating—with only two per cent ever reaching tiny Lake Ngami to the south. The result is an ecosystem ever in flux. It’s this mercurial nature that makes the Delta so mesmerising.
“I’m addicted to the changing of the seasons,” Xigera’s General Manager Mike Myers tells us. “The ebb and flow of water levels and the changing colours of the habitat mean I never have one time I find the most beautiful.” Mike speaks of the Delta with a long-found lyricism, both nostalgic for the landscapes that have passed and expectant for all those yet to form. A veteran of the Okavango for almost 40 years, he narrates its rhapsodic rhythms:
“The year starts in the Okavango with rain. The habitat is lush and green, with the rain lifting the water levels before the annual flood arrives in mid to late March. The air gets drier, the days cooler in late summer, and the habitat loses its lush green look as winter sets in. May sees the arrival of the first cold winter fronts. As the air is cleared of dust and haze, the light becomes crystal clear and beautiful for photography. At the same time, the flood waters begin to pour in, reaching a peak in July. The flood period is a wonderfully picturesque time in the Delta and certainly one of the best times to see it.
By August, however, the floods start to subside and things become drier. The arid months thin out the habitat and thereby improve visibility, while nearby wildlife comes to the Okavango to drink and feed during the drought. This continues until December—another incredible time in the Delta—when the first rains fall and leave a crop of green grass in their wake. Impala and warthogs have their young and there’s high predator activity around this time. Then it starts all over again.”
An unrivalled collection of safaris
The seasonal cycle brings an immense variety of wildlife to the Okavango. Over 400 species of birds, 150 species of mammals and reptiles and 80 species of fish call the Delta home at some point in the year. With the ebb and flow of water levels, every season in the Okavango sees a unique assemblage of creatures, all of which interact with the landscape in different ways. As the floods set in, large animals move away from the Delta to graze in less submerged territory, leaving the Delta to the smaller and aquatic creatures. At this time, activity on the water’s surface—and below it—is at its most active. As the larger animals return, competition sets in and predator activity on the land rises.
To cater to this rise and fall of seasonal environments, Xigera has developed an incredible collection of safaris. “The variety of experiences split between the water and land is spectacular. I think it’s this that gives Xigera an edge,” Mike tells us. “In addition, there’s the privacy. When the wildebeest cross the Mara river in Tanzania, there can be 100 plus safari vehicles lined up on the bank. Ngorongoro Crater is beautiful, but again the number of vehicles is daunting. The same can be said for the Kruger National Park. What makes the Okavango special is the quality of wildness. Every time you go out, you really don’t know what you’re going to see.”
Nothing quite captures the incredible beauty of the Okavango like a mokoro safari, especially during the flooded months. The mokoro is a traditionally crafted dugout vessel, serenely and silently propelled by a poleman-cum-guide at the stern. Sitting low in the water offers a rare encounter with the immense scale of the Delta’s foliage. The towering reeds flanking the canals disguise even the loftiest baobab until it’s almost adjacent, while the small rustles and slight movements of the dense riverside flora hint at the imminent crossing of larger wildlife.
These are some of the most intimate of all wildlife encounters, the lack of purring engines and other safari vehicles allowing you to linger transfixed and undistracted in the moment. As the reeds part ahead, anticipation overwhelms. The latticed green and browns of foliage begin to break, and a swathe of colour emerges from the undergrowth: perhaps the clementine chestnut of a migratory giraffe, the pied stripes of a zebra or the tanned grey of a tusked matriarch. Reed rustles give way to the splashes of a languorous, wading pace as the animal crosses, slowly coming into full view. Time rarely sits so still.
The Okavango’s broader floodplains are also accessible by mokoro. By water, the most remote and undisturbed parts of the Delta can be accessed. No roads or paths are in sight, save for the tell-tale trails of brushed-over grass, suede-like in the wake of migratory herds. “There is nothing more wonderful than gliding over the floodplains of the Okavango almost completely silently, looking out at lechwe (a variety of antelope) and the wide range of birds—that is my favourite of all Okavango safaris,” Mike tell us. These are some of the Delta’s most picturesque vistas: the low-lying, hyacinth-blue sky reflected in the surface of floodwaters—only to be broken into a myriad star-like droplets as a herd of lechwe gallops through.
The game drive is the quintessential mode of African safari, and it is alive and well in the Delta. At Xigera, purpose-built 4x4s plunge along flooded roads and cruise across plains of swaying grass. Via Jeep, the extent of the Okavango’s ecosystems can be observed, from the semi-submerged to the terra firma of large islands. With the expansion of habitat comes an increase in sightings, especially when the foliage is sparser towards the end of the year.
Animals roam from island to island in their quest for food: herbivores first, among them Cape buffalo, lechwe, the extraordinarily rare sitatunga and the endangered white rhino. And following them come the predators: cackling hyena, arboreal leopards, stalking lions and excited packs of roving wild dogs.
Since moving to the Okavango full-time several years ago, Mike has been privileged to see some extraordinary scenes whilst on drives: “On a wet day in February 2003, I was watching a battle between two fully grown male lions. One had just accomplished a move worthy of professional wrestling by biting into the back of his enormous, 600lb rival and flicking him over his back. As his adversary landed with a thud, I got a call to say that a python had killed a young kudu antelope.
It’s hard to imagine I would leave such an amazing lion sighting, but kudu is uncannily large prey for a python, something so unique I had to see it. I watched until dark and then went back first thing in the morning. I was worried that hyenas might smell the stomach contents of the young kudu that had been squeezed out, but I arrived to see the huge python moving off slowly under a croton tree to begin digesting its giant meal.”
Another occasion saw Mike in the right place just at the right time. “I was standing in the back of a pickup as a group of vervet monkeys ran across our path. The alpha male—at the back—stopped just in front of us to stand up. Just at that moment, a sudden movement to my right caught my eye. I could only see the tips of a martial eagle’s wings as it plummeted in a full dive towards the unsuspecting monkey. The monkey never saw it coming. The eagle spread its wings at the last moment and hit the monkey with full force on the head with both talons, before flying off with its quarry dangling underneath.”
Mike’s stories showcase just a few of the vignettes the Okavango game drives reveal. Another option on land is the walking safari, ideal for birdwatching. Taking place just outside the Delta’s protected Moremi Game Reserve, it’s a complete immersion in the African bush. On foot, you’re witness to the surrounding wilderness in a way no other safari experience quite allows. Here, not just the sights, but the sounds and smells of the wild are more noticeable than ever. Things missed from a Jeep become more noticeable, especially the dazzling plumage of southern Africa’s birds, tucked neatly behind branch and leaf. From the purpuric ultramarine coat of the malachite kingfisher and the obsidian eyes of the Pel’s fishing owl to the staccato plod of the lesser jacana, the Okavango walking safari is one of the best ways to take in Africa’s beautiful birdlife.
The Xigera Safari Lodge experience
At the western edge of Moremi Game Reserve, Xigera is set on redefining the safari experience. Encompassing just 12 suites, the lodge has been designed to impact the environment as little as possible, even altering construction plans to preserve single trees. In the heart of the wilderness, the lodge has breath-taking views over the surrounding floodplains—from the unique vantage point offered by the accommodation to the river-facing swimming pool. Yet, unlike traditional safari camps which operate a regimented schedule, Xigera is committed to offering guests as much or as little flexibility as they desire. There is always an early safari departure offer, but for guests who would like to luxuriate in the beauteous surroundings of the lodge, later departures can be arranged. Additionally, guests who would like to combine meals with safaris can dine al fresco in the bush rather than returning to the lodge restaurant. Xigera offers guests total immersion into the Okavango bush at whatever pace they desire.
Red Carnation Hotels’ Xigera Safari Lodge opens in 2020. Be one of the first to experience this incredible immersion into an unspoiled African wildlife destination.