Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta – Part Four
After three nights, we left &Beyond’s Nxabega (Nn-begh-hah) for another swath of Botswana’s Okavango Delta. After a two-hour driving safari and pontoon boat ride through winding, reedy ribbons of river, at long last we came upon Xudum (Kuh-doohm), an oasis on the land.
Sweet Georgia Brown, but this place was amazing.
When you start a day watching roadside lions, driving through a shallow stream, then zooming through lagoon-fuls of lily pads, chances are that day’s gonna be a good one. Oh, but wait, there’s more.
When we putt-putted up to the dock at Xudum in our shaded pontoon, we were greeted by a chorus of ululations that brought tears to my eyes, whisked offboard by a crowd of smiling women, then herded gently towards a sparkling lemonade and a second-story observation deck. While we waited there for our camp orientation to begin, we stared goggle-eyed at a family of elephants across the river, shredding tree bark on a forest island.
Soon we were led to our room by our housekeeper, a middle-aged Tswana woman who’d grown up just a few hours’ drive away; to her, sandy soil, lotus and pachyderms are completely routine, and from what I could tell, she found our nature-based giddiness pretty darn adorable. However, she seemed unprepared for our faces when we first saw our suite/house/whatever you call something that’s bigger than a suite or your house. We gaped. Like the way you gape when you suddenly realize you’ve somehow just splurged beyond all recognition.
For the sake of argument, let’s call it 2 ½ stories (one of those stories was a split-level). Gobsmacked at the threshold, we stood stock still, squeezed each other’s hands — and I squeaked like a dog toy. There was a king-size bed draped in gauzy curtains, bordered by a wall of sliding doors that opened almost to the river’s edge. On a side patio was a round, cushy seating area backed by a tall piece of super-funky artwork. Back inside, the sunken, wood-finished bathroom was huge, leading to a gorgeous plunge pool set beside, well, the Okavango.
The sexiest part? The upstairs deck with a lounging bed and wide-angle view of the river, the forest, the swamp, the plains and the wildlife. One morning while Adam slept, I came up here alone to see the peachy-orange sunrise, and wasn’t aware ’til I’d hit the top step that there was a crunching of twigs and leaves, a human hissing, and a measured tension behind me. A 2,000-some-odd-pound male elephant had wandered into the gate-less camp, and several guides were already on alert, trying to shoo him (effectively) back to the main concession. Having emerged from bed without my camera (always a mistake in the African bush), I actually crept back down the outdoor stairs and into the front door, the elephant all of 300 feet from me; I woke Adam, but only in time to see the beastie wander off into the trees, away from the lodge.
Ah, just another morning in Botswana.
The main hub of the lodge is a big, sprawling deck with a store (which has everything from sunscreen to hand-beaded animal sculptures made by a women’s collective in Maun), a kitchen, and an interior-design-y little seating area stocked with coffee table books. There was always someone around this main lodge to help you learn something new: That the Okavango looks like a hand from the air, how many protected areas are in the whole country (which is approximately the size of Texas), or how to make a homemade trap for a with a piece of string, a little fruit and a stick.
In meditations on a theme, chefs in the teaching kitchen will show you how to make just about anything. The food here was delicious, but again, more European than local; there’s something a little weird about eating muesli, yogurt and omelettes in the African bush, but it’s generally the way of things on an &Beyond trip, where just about all the guests are American, European, Australian or South African. The good news is, 1) if you want to try something more local, you have but to ask and 2) the music streaming from an iPod was, during our entire three-day visit, entirely sourced from southern Africa.
Afternoon teas are especially popular for their baked goods, like chocolate chip cookies fresh from the oven. (The squirrels here are particular fans.) Three-course, lingering meals are enjoyed with a view of the river/swamp/forest, amidst the twitter of birds and at night, the clicking and whirring of frogs. Sometimes we heard monkeys screeching in the trees or baboons hooting at the far edge of camp.
One evening, just the two of us, we started out on a sundowner boat ride with our guide, BT, and his brand new scout, who’d just arrived for his first day. After only a few minutes, though, our boat simply died. Our calm, patient guide radioed for another group’s boat to come and fetch us, and we joined an Australian family enjoying a reunion…while BT and his scout had to pole the pontoon back to the lodge in the waning light. It would take them almost an hour, through hippo-traveled waters; they arrived safely, but it still freaks me out to think about it.
On pontoon boat take deux, we got along swimmingly with a family of redheaded Aussies that were half-spread across the world: the dad, an oil surveyor, lived with his wife in Abu Dhabi, while the kids, now grown, were all back in Adelaide. With a cocktail apiece, we all anchored awhile in a wide lagoon to watch the burning sunset and try our hands at fishing; the late 20-something son, Kangol cap on and a beer in one hand, even managed to catch a few.
Returning to Xudum at full-fledged night, we saw Venus glowing orange in the sky — a sure sign we were incredibly far from our own side of the Earth. Y’know, as if the elephants hadn’t already made that clear.
Botswana: Dreaming on the Delta – Part Six