African Diaries — The Wetland Eden of the Okavango Delta

African Diaries — The Wetland Eden of the Okavango Delta

In the mainly roadless immensity that is Botswana, the landlocked southwest-African country where a sparse 2.3 million population is spread across an area roughly the size of France, adventure usually begins with a bush plane flight into the middle of nowhere.

Okavango Delta sunset.

Now, after over almost two weeks spent exploring the surreal, featureless landscapes of the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans and the barren plains of the Central Kalahari, my next nowhere is the Okavango Delta.





A Natural Wonder of Africa

Bird’s eye view of Delta.

There is no sign of human life below the chartered Cessna – only a patchwork of greens and ochers stitched together by narrow canals, all the way to the hazy midday horizon. The plane drones on for some 30 minutes before the bare ground slash of an airstrip emerges from the exuberant greenery. We are about land.


Zebras appear unconcerned by our presence.

Grey herons abound in the wetlands.

Rated one of the of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, and a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Okavango Delta is considered one of the most pristine oasis in the world. From its origins in the highlands of Angola, the Okavango River travels some 1,900 kilometers (1200 miles) to come fanning out into an intricate system of wetlands that cover some two-million hectares (77,000 square miles) of Kalahari sands before being swallowed by the desert.

One of the largest in-land deltas in the world, the Okavango boasts a unique eco-system that offers a safari experience unlike any other in all of Africa. It is renowned for the outstanding diversity and abundance of fauna that congregates to its waters. For my introduction to this intricate environment, I have trusted andBeyond Botswana for their long established reputation as a  conservation-driven, experiential travel company.



The Place of the Giraffe

The camp’s namesake pays frequent visits.

Today, I am headed for Xnabega (“the place of the giraffe” in Basarwa, the language of the river bushmen), one of andBeyond’s luxury tented camps. But since exceptional rains have recently flooded the camp’s own airstrip, my guide informs me in the course of his greeting that I have landed on a nearby, higher ground one. We now will have to drive a few miles to Nxabega (pronounce Na-ber-rah).

Sturdy tree-trunk bridges straddle the channels.

A few miles’ drive on a remote African bush trail can easily take a couple of hours. Ours does. After a visit to an obviously satiated leopard warily guarding the remains of its impala dinner as we gawk at it through the thicket, we stop for a tailgate picnic lunch. Reedbucks scamper away, red lechwes – indigenous wetlands antelopes – meld into the reeds. The camp’s namesake, a regal bull giraffe, struts across our path. Two hours and a few channel-crossings over narrow tree-trunk bridges later, we pull into the shaded clearing in front of Nxabega’s  main lodge to the warm welcome from the assembled staff.

Xnabega tented suites bring a high level of luxury to the bush.

Set under the lush canopy of massive ebony trees in a remote 8,000 hectare (19,8000 acre) private concession, Nxabega Okavango Tented Camp brings life in the bush to exceptional heights  of luxury. Nine elegantly appointed canvas suites raised on high platforms stretch on either side of the handsome multi-level dining and sitting lodge with burnished teak floors under a lofty thatched roof. Within the expansive space, exotic wood paneling delineate several inviting seating areas decorated in stylish, locally crafted furnishings and artworks, and the sweeping views of the surrounding permanent floodplain and lagoons.

Exceptional Wildlife Experiences

Even huddled high in a tree, this leopard remains vigilant.

These luxury accommodations, further enhanced by outstanding guiding and service are a mere backdrop for the extraordinary wildlife experiences that unfold consistently throughout my stay. My first morning wakeup call comes curtesy of an impressive bull elephant devouring the shrubbery a few feet away from my deck. The high points of a seemingly routine afternoon drive to the nearby boat landing for a sundowner cruise include sightings of a lion on the move and a leopard crouched high in an acacia tree. 

A painted reed frog clings to a reed.

While the customary twice-daily game drives are available, my favorite way to explore the delta is from the water. My fondest memories are from exhilarating boat rides through the watery labyrinth of papyrus-bordered channels and floating islands of water lily pads in bloom. Birds soar as we go by, tiny painted frogs cling their reed perches, and occasionally bulbous eyes emerge from the water, attached to unimpressed hippos unflinchingly asserting their right of way. 

An elephant challenges our presence in the channel.

I soon discover that there is no better way to enjoy the sunset than sitting low on the water in a mokoro (flat dug-out canoe commonly used to navigate the Okavango waterways) – expertly stirred by my ever cheerful guide. There, with  giraffes strutting in the distance and the occasional elephant wading across our path, I spend many contented moments taking in jewel-bright kingfishers darting in and out of the reeds, and iridescent dragon flies hovering about, as the blood orange sun dip into the lagoon


A breeding herd of elephants marches by my tent.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Air Botswana and Airlink operate scheduled flights from Johannesburg to Maun. From there, it is a short flight by light aircraft to the Nxabega Okavango Safari Camp airstrip, where andBeyond staff welcome the guests. A 15-minute drive in an open safari vehicle completes the journey to the Camp.
  • andBeyond Africais one of Africa’s leading luxury safari company, with exceptional lodges and camps in Africa’s most breathtaking wilderness locations.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Xnabega, Okavango Delta

Into Botswana’s Kalahari Desert

Into Botswana’s Kalahari Desert

The pilot of the four-seater Cessna meets me at the small Maun airport, Botswana’s gateway into the country for all safari-goers. Most of them are greeted there by bright young people in the crisp kaki uniform of the handful of safari companies that operate in the lush, waterlogged world of the Okavango Delta. My turn will come, but not today. I am headed into the sun-baked emptiness of the Kalahari, the great desert that covers about 70 percent of this landlocked southern African country roughly the size of France.

Magic in the Makgadikgadi

Botswana-Kalahari. Jack's Camp.

Jack’s Camp entrance reveals a world of unexpected luxury.

The plane drones on for an hour over a flat, featureless terrain all the way to the milky blue horizon. This is the Makgadikgaki, one of the largest salt pans in the world (4,600 square miles – or and area of 12 000 square kilometers). Then the barren eternity is interrupted by an improbable line of fan palm trees. As we get closer, acacia also materialise, then large green canvas tents. “Jack’s Camp,” my pilot volunteers as he begins his approach toward the oasis’ dusty landing strip. I am handed over to my awaiting guide and one short rocky ride later we stop in front of a sprawling tented pavilion that has me questioning whether I haven’t just stepped into a mirage!

Botswana - Kalahari. Guest Tent.

My tent, Number One, is decorated with antiques.

The polished teak floor is covered with mellow oriental carpets. Inviting lounges flow into each other, decorated in a safari style that harks back to the opulence of bygone era. There is a library, a bar with an antique pool table and a well-stocked drinks chest, a dining room with a long mahogany table that can easily seat a dozen. The walls are lined with natural history drawings, century-old photographs and engravings of long ago safari scenes. Display cases are filled with museum-quality local artifacts. My own tent is decorated in the same vein, including the bathroom where all the features and the washbasin are antique copper buffed to a flawless shine.

But what of the safari?

Botswana - Kalahari. Meerkats/

Meerkats emerge from their burrows in the early morning.

Jack’s Camp’s surreal luxury setting, with service to match, is only the beginning. The activities are adapted to the experience of desert life. Sunrise finds me silently waiting for a community of meerkats to emerge from their multiple burrows. Although wild, these gregarious squirrel-sized mongooses are sufficiently habituated to humans that they are unconcerned by my presence. I am able to closely observe their young at play and their rituals as they set out on their daily foraging for insects, fruit and lizards.

Botswana - Kalahari Baobab

Chapman’s Baobab is estimated to be 4,000 years old.

Botswana - Kalahari Bushman.

Cobra is a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder.

I marvel at the daily sight of hundreds of zebras and wildebeests arriving from the Boteti River to the west on their yearly migration to the pans. I have the pleasure to walk with Cobra, a Zu/’hoasi bushman elder, member of one of the oldest cultures on the planet, who shows me the plants and foraging methods that ensured the survival of his ancestors for millennia. I gape at the sight of the Chapman’s baobab, a giant with a seven-pillar trunk 85 feet (25 meters) in diameter, the largest and oldest baobab in Africa (estimated to be close to 4,000 years old). Nineteenth century explorer David Livingstone initials can still be seen, carved upon its rock-like bark. I have my first ever sighting of an aardvark, this particularly rare and elusive nocturnal animal.

Riding into the sunset

Botswana - Kalahari sunset.

Sunset in the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.

The most unforgettable experience of my visit to Jack’s Camp is a sunset ride deep into the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. Our guide leads our small caravan of quad bikes (their balloon tires only skim the fragile crusty surface where heavier vehicles would sink) to what is truly the middle of nowhere. The copper sun slides from the cloudless sky behind the gleaming line of the horizon. With the rising moon, the surface of the Pan turns ghostly white. I lay down on my back on the warm salt crust and stare up. In this otherworldly space, unchanged for millennia, my eyes fill with countless stars, and my ears with a silence so deep I can hear my own heartbeat.

Good to know

  • Jack’s Camp is the flagship property of Uncharted Africa  a safari company founded in 1993 and managed by Ralph Bousfield, a naturalist and conservation expert who comes from a long line of African pioneers and adventurers. His own father Jack, after whom the camp is named was a legendary African hunter and safari operator.
  • To contact Unchartered Africa, E-mail:
  • Jack’s Camp is decorated mainly with original family antiques.

Location, location, location!

Makgadikgaki Salt Pans, Botswana.