Day 5 & Night 5 – Xakanaxa Camp

Xakanaxa Camp, Moremi Game Reserve

Today I got up late, packed up the vehicle, and drove the 1.5km to the lodge. After all the driving of the previous few days, this was a welcome relief. After driving the floodplain roads the day before and negotiating the network of tracks between Xakanaxa (pronounced Ka-ka-na-ka) and Dead Tree Island I just wanted to sit back and relax today. I entered through the gate of the lodge and into a different world. It was like the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. It was still the same weather, and the views were the same. But it was a different place.

Their view

 “Xakanaxa Camp, which nestles on the edge of Moremi Game Reserve. This reserve is home to an amazing variety of dry and wetland animals. In the late afternoon, you can see buffalo, elephant, kudu and giraffe moving across the flood plains in search of water. Whilst here, you can choose to do your own private game drives or go out with a guide in the lodge’s boat or game vehicle. Both your room and the public rooms overlook the lagoon. You stay in a spacious ensuite safari tent pleasantly situated in the shade of large trees. You will wake to the sound of honking hippos and the cries of the many fish eagles that inhabit this area. The lodge has wonderful views over the marsh and it also has a pool to cool off in. Your stay here is fully inclusive of meals, drinks, park fees and activities.”“Xakanaxa accommodates only 24 guests in twelve classic safari tents on raised platforms set on the banks of the Khwai River, each with a private viewing deck overlooking the Xakanaxa Lagoon. Each tent is tastefully furnished with twin or double beds and en-suite facilities with shower, hand basin and ablution facilities. A water sprinkler system aids cooling in the midday heat.”

“Here the permanent waters of the Okavango embrace the Kalahari thirstland. Ancient riverine forests and open savannah interweave with secret lagoons, serpentine channels and seasonal floodplains to create a habitat of unequalled beauty and abundance.
This biodiversity endows Xakanaxa Camp with a true year round land and water experience. Elephant, Buffalo, Lion, Leopard, Cheetah, Wild Dog, Hyena, Giraffe, Hippo, Sable Antelope, Wildebeest, Kudu, Lechwe, Sitatunga and many more predator and antelope are resident. Most of Botswana’s national bird list of 550 species are resident or migrants, and include Pel’s Fishing Owl and Slaty Egret.

Big game, big birds, big water – Xakanaxa Camp is one of the pioneer safari camps in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. Its prime location on the banks of the Khwai River on the Xakanaxa Lagoon in the heart of the Moremi Game Reserve ensures that it is one of the only safari camps which can provide guests with an authentic year round Okavango Delta land and water safari experience.

As the custodians of one of Botswana’s very first safari camps the owners of Xakanaxa Camp (pronounced Ka-ka-na-ka) have gone to extraordinary lengths to preserve its original African bush camp character whilst providing guests with every comfort.

The stylish main buildings extend into the Khwai River and are set on raised platforms to maximize the views over the surrounding lagoons and islands. Constructed of local timber, reed and thatch they comprise of an elegant lounge containing a small but comprehensive library, dining room, expansive sundeck, plunge pool and sala with day bed as well as a fire-deck set under giant Jackalberry trees. The reception lounge boasts a curio shop and facilities are provided for charging videos, cameras and batteries. The camp operates on generator power but at night all lighting is supplied by gas and paraffin lanterns, giving the camp an authentic African ambience.

Meals are generally taken around the main dining room table where tales of the day’s exciting experiences are recounted and discussed in great detail. ”

Our view

This place was heaven and the loveliest lodge I visited in Botswana. I was greeted by the Wife of another Husband and Wife lodge hosting team. Her name was one of those improbable African names with Dutch or German origin. She was decked out in khaki, all warm smiles. She was the Hostess to the lodge and explained I would meet her husband JC a little later. She was very pleasant and although I was early (it was only 10.30) I was shown around and told to make myself at home – which I readily did.

Again the lodge Host and Hostess were white salt-of-the-earth South Africans, he looking like he’d be very handy with a spanner, she being all wholesome sweetness made out of the same stuff as the cakes baked for High Tea. These Lodge host couples are a breed of their own. Very warm and welcoming to paying guests but definitely have an air of ‘don’t mess me around’ about them.

Clearly these lodges are creating a particular impression, a Bush Experience of unutterable luxury and beauty, polished wood, starched white linen, crystal glasses and silverware, but all very laid back and relaxed, made out of the wood, thatch and animal skins of the area. Dr Livingstone would have felt very at home here.

However as idyllic as it is to stay as a guest in these places, I was under no illusion that to run a place like this would be easy, and the logistics and issues of power, fuel, electricity, water, and manpower, create a magical tourist experience but which doesn’t impact on the environment and the very things that have drawn the tourists there in the first place, must be a lot to handle. There was something about this Host and Hostess that made me wonder if paradise had another side.

As soon as I had arrived and been shown around I went straight into brunch where I quickly established everyone else there was American. I was greeted by someone who at first I thought must be JC, our host, because he was asking the table of ladies how their morning had gone and what they had seen on their game drive. It turned out this was Ben, just a fellow guest, but someone who felt the need to also be our Host all the same. He was harmless enough and at least he was making an effort. What dazzled me was how he was dressed head-to-toe in day-glow white, like he’d stepped out of a detergent advert or was auditioning to play the role of God in a film. When he smiled I half expected to see the starburst glint of sunlight off of his equally very white teeth. Clearly, he wasn’t doing a self-drive camping trip around the bush. 

I drooled over things like hot coffee in a pot and food just there and not having to be shaken out of the depths of sand-covered boxes. The brunch was magnificent, cooked meats, omelette, eggs however you wanted them, sausage, bacon, cereals, fruit juices, fish and vegetable tarts, all laid out. I spent a good ten minutes just taking this all in, savouring it.

After brunch I went to explore the lodge. It was exquisite. The natural decking was interwoven with the trees and branches that seemed to assemble themselves at points into thatched covered areas. One formed a bar, the other the dining area, a veranda that overhung the lagoon, and a ‘circle of friends’ fireplace. At the other end the wooden walkway extended to what must have been the most exquisite swimming pool I have ever seen in my life.

I am still 10 years old at heart and the sight of an outdoor swimming pool to someone who largely grew up in the North of England is still impossibly exotic and wonderful. I had a short spell living in Texas, USA around the age of 10, which confirmed to my 10 year old mind that the best thing in the world is indeed swimming underwater in an outdoor pool in a sunny place. This lodge’s pool was set into decking overlooking the lagoon. Water started in the pool and seemed to go on into the lagoon. There was a thatched raised area where you could recline back on what felt like the most comfortable sofa in the world.

The bar area was an open thatched wooden structure where you could help yourself to teas, coffees, mineral water and soft drinks as well as a wide range of cold alcoholic drinks in the fridge and wine throughout the day. Ed and I helped ourselves to some soft drinks and an afternoon cold beer. The hot water for the tea and coffee is in an iron kettle which keeps warm sitting on a long-burning fire on the deck. But the most notable thing about the bar area was the furniture. Rich, sumptuous, colonial, leathers and herd animal skins, dark polished wood and the wooden deck floor covered in beautiful fine carpets, it was stunning. I wanted to make the most of this luxury so I think I sat on every sofa in there like I was playing musical chairs.

I spent a blissful afternoon dipping in the pool or dangling my feet in it. It was a bit nippy, I think the English Channel is warmer, and they didn’t have any lard to cover yourself with here, so I came out blue. I also made the most of the wonderful little library where they had a range of books explaining the natural history of this incredible place, about the animals and how the delta came to be formed. I lounged around reading these books, and enjoying the beverages. Helping yourself to a cup of tea or coffee in itself was lovely: pouring hot water from the cast iron kettle which was kept hot over the fire – just like the coffee we’d made in our campsite that morning – except wonderfully grit free.

The room was available from 1pm. It was to me the height of luxury, a green canvas ‘meru’ tent with a fine blue-green mesh and a polished dark wooden decked veranda overlooking the lagoon. It was furnished with exquisite dark wood furniture, zebra skins and duck-egg blue and pale lilac silks. The bathroom at the back was thrillingly open to the elements, so going to the loo felt like an authentic bush wee, just not so close to the ground. The shower was hot and powerful and I took enormous pleasure standing under it letting it massage my shoulders and wash all the grit and grime of the bush camping from the previous few days away. It was completely private and idyllic.

At 3pm there was a calling to tea. This is a ritual in every lodge, and is part of following in the footsteps of Dr Livingstone. There was a lovely choice of cakes and biscuits. I took a great hunk of banana cake and got chatting to our Hostess.

Within minutes she was explaining that the good times in Botswana were coming to an end and she and JC were emigrating to Australia at the end of the year. She seemed to be bursting to tell her story. Apparently Botswana have a 2012 (or 2016) policy where every currently white run lodge or business will be run by Batswana locals. Which is admirable and tremendous in principle but only if its not colour-based and forcing whites out. She spoke of whites who have run businesses in Botswana for 30 years who are coming to have work permits renewed and the Botswana government are refusing to renew them. Echoes of Magabe are alarming long-serving whites who are starting to feel pushed. If perfectly good businesses and the economy were being taken over by people who as yet had not got the experience or training in the skills then there is not a proper handover in place and the country will be at terrible risk. For this couple it was game over. She was enormously frustrated and spoke very clearly in front of the people she employed about how (in her view) lazy they were and trying to get any of them to do a days’ work was impossible, and she complained about how many requests for a day off work she had had to sign off that week. “How can I run a business like this if they are always requesting time off work.” But the reality is that if those people don’t have their own vehicle, they have to take time off work to catch a lift to take a sick relative to the nearest town, which is Maun, which is a day’s drive. Her expectations didn’t seem to match the every day reality her employees were having to struggle with. There was a gap. But there was also a distinct lack of sympathy or empathy for her employees. Or maybe she’d just stopped trying. Everywhere I looked everyone seemed to be working extremely hard and taking great pride in their work, and this lodge was utterly wonderful. The conversation left me feeling sad and wondering if the paradise that is Botswana, like so many of its animals, is under threat. Botswana has one of the highest HIV problems in the world. With a population under threat from this illness the combination of that and someone who could come into power to take advantage of it with wicked politics would be a disaster. Botswana to me felt suddenly very fragile and vulnerable. The Batswana people are so warm and friendly and it has managed one of the best democracies to operate in Africa. But just because it has been great doesn’t mean it always will be.

Perhaps the frustration our Hostess clearly felt in time turns to exasperation which in time turns to disappointment and slides into cynicism. Maybe that’s why people end up accepting. Perhaps people feel overwhelmed or the size of the task ahead feels too great. Maybe it feels like trying to dam a flood using a sieve there are just too many issues to fight on too many fronts. Maybe all that makes you feel exhausted and worn down and it beats you and you give up. Someone said once the worst thing about naïve people like me is that I come to places like this with a hopeful optimistic outlook, I pop in, and I dish out my optimism, but actually its counter-productive and idiotic. I’m sure you could find many ways to criticise this given my brief glimpse and no doubt enormous ignorance. The abject poverty of so many of the population and the fact that HIV has the highest number of victims here are enormous problems. However from what I saw in cases later in our trip, like Nata Lodge, I believe Botswana has real reasons for real hope.

At 3pm I went on a game drive that returned to the camp about half an hour after sunset. The drive was an amazing experience, it was wonderful to be driven and not to have to worry about getting lost. I sat back covered in our woolen blankets, again savouring every moment of being spoiled and cosseted in this Bush Experience caccoon.

We went back out towards Dead Tree Island and came across an amazing herd of elephants. A tiny baby who could only have been a couple of months old decided to defend its herd and did several mock charges, coming right up to us. Even when it was so tiny and so defenceless having something as big as yourself trumpeting and charging at you was still something that made me gulp. The guide kept a careful eye on the matriarch and only when she started to flap her ears did we make a rapid get away. We passed a young couple who were self-driving just as I had been, and we waved and smiled at them, tomorrow we’d be back in their shoes. They stopped behind us to watch the same elephants. Our engines were all turned off as we watched these majestic creatures walk through the woodland. I felt very humble and again had that apologetic feeling of ‘I’m sorry for intruding on your space.”

Then we heard the car behind us, the self-drive couple, try to start up their engine on their vehicle but failing. Our guide commented ‘uh-oh, engine trouble’ and reversed over to them. Their car was dead. It wouldn’t start. It was exactly like our vehicle and I felt the ground fall out from under them. I felt so sorry for them. We waited for the elephants to move on, and then got out and tried to push start their Landy. Nothing. We tried again. Nothing. At which point our guide started to look a bit distracted and impatient, like he wanted to get a move on with our game drive. The guide’s concern for his customers to have the best possible experience was admirable, but this couple’s safety had to come before our game-viewing experience. We were not going to leave this poor couple stuck in the bush in the middle of this place on their own with the light fading. So, we insisted they leave their vehicle and grab a lift with us to the lodge. At which point it became terribly clear how ill-prepared they were. They had no GPS unit so couldn’t take a reading of where we were, and the guide could only roughly point at the map to say where we were ‘somewhere near number 9’. They also didn’t have a spare jerry can of fuel, so they could have easily run out of fuel or had a faulty fuel gauge to get the same result and not have any back-up. They also didn’t have a satellite phone. They climbed into the back of the game drive vehicle with us. At which point our guide reached into the back and pulled out a glass, ice, lemon, and made gin and tonic for me. The couple turned out to be a young girl who I think was South African and he was an English man who had been living in Cape Town for 7 years. They seemed remarkably calm given their only transport and accommodation was being left behind in an indistinct spot in the middle of the wilderness. As we bumped along, trying to keep the gin and tonic and ice in my glass, our guide suddenly got very excited and without any warning we veered off of the road and into the bush. When I say into the bush, I mean it, we literally drove over whole shrubs, at which point I became clear what these Landrovers are really capable of – amazing things. I then witnessed one of the most magical moments of the trip. A leopard was going out on its evening prowl. Slender but powerful, smaller than a lion, with the most exquisite rosette markings on shiny, sleek fur, and incredible X-Ray-like green eyes. We drove very slowly past it, and it didn’t give us a second look, it was as if we had just popped down a worm hole into a different time or parallel dimension, and we were invisible to this amazing creature. He was within our arms’ reach. He slipped away into the bush as quickly as he’d appeared. What’s more I’d been so excited I hadn’t noticed when I took my photos of him that my flash wasn’t working, so the best photo I got was this one. There is something somehow appropriate however that this most private, shy and elusive animal should walk right past us but still evade being properly captured on film.Our guide then went back onto the ‘road’ and took us to some lions, a magnificent male, and again he took us to within just a few feet of this huge, powerful predator. I sipped the last of my gin and tonic and inhaled what I could of the best game drive of my life. The guide had been amazing, he really did know where to find the animals, and he had got us closer to them than we’d ever have dared to have got when we were driving ourselves. It had been breathtaking and exciting and hugely rewarding. And the blankets and G&T were cherries on a very fantastic cake. So then sat back happy in the glow and said to the guide to take the couple back to the lodge. Then things went very strange indeed.To my amazement he radioed through this request back to the lodge, and I heard the distinct voice of our host JC, who clearly instructed the guide: “no, take them to the campsite and drop them off there.” Bearing in mind they had no vehicle, no accommodation, everything was back where they had left it, this man was telling his employee to drop these people off to whatever fate awaited them on a possibly empty campsite with no shelter or protection with wild animals such as lions walking through. I was shocked. I knew if I were in this couple’s shoes how I’d be reacting right now, and to their credit they were quite relaxed. However given they had traveled to this place with no GPS and no spare jerry can of fuel, I took their cool, calm and collected appearance as naivety rather than being especially stoical. They were buggered but just didn’t seem to realize quite how much.We insisted that the guide take them back to the lodge with us. At which point the guide, clearly in fear of his job, said only if we explained to JC this was at our request and to take responsibility for it. I reassured the guide I would have no qualms in telling JC we had insisted on bringing the couple back to the lodge with us. Once we got back to the lodge we introduced the couple to JC and the wife, where I tried to explain to the wife the plight of the couple and to explain they needed help. Their reluctance was staggering and our Hostess was bleating about self-driver campers who are always coming by the lodge thinking they can always ask for this and that. She had clearly forgotten who we were, and she said anyway she couldn’t help them even if she wanted to because she doesn’t have the license to sell them fuel or whatever they need. I was unimpressed. So much for the antipodean image of help your fellow bushman because what goes around comes around and one day you might be in their shoes and need help! This was every man for himself. We were not going to go to bed and leave these people to be kicked out by JC and this hostess, we stuck around until JC had agreed to go back into the bush with a mechanic to look at their vehicle and help them.

I don’t know what happened to them after that, I just hope that they got sorted and in future they carry extra fuel and a GPS unit with them. I felt really sorry that JC’s wife was so embittered and frustrated by her time there that she couldn’t hear the plea of someone who had clearly needed her help. I wish them luck in Australia, but I’m still shocked that unless I had really put my foot down that poor couple would have been abandoned to god only knows what fate in the bush that night and JC and his wife would have gone to bed with a clear conscience about that. I am absolutely certain that if anyone was found in such a life-threatening situation in the UK they wouldn’t be simply left to their fate as they would have been there, and left by people who were perfectly equipped and able to help them, but just too cynical or brow-beaten or mean to be bothered to do anything about that. In England we’re known for our compassion and our charitable nature. Here clearly things were very different. For me it was a real eye-opener: forget all the warm smiles and happy-clappy welcomes, the singing welcoming committee, all suddenly seemed a very false veneer and the reality is when it comes down to it if you have a problem you sort it out yourself, you really are on your own out there and a helping hand is not offered to those in need.
Pre-dinner cocktails were served on the fire-deck before going in to dinner. I found myself sitting at the kids table, all the other adults seemed to be on another table. I looked around and wondered what these children thought of where they were now, aged from around 8 through to mid teens, all American, all experiencing what must be one of life’s ultimate traveling experiences.

I was joined at last by two late-comer adults who took the only available chairs left, which happened to be next to me. Dining in lodges is very much a group thing. And this time it was a delight because this couple were smashing. He was called Mark and had been the Chief Marketing Office for Singular Wireless, we learned. He and they had parted company so he was taking the rare opportunity to take a decent length holiday which meant they could travel further than the usual American 10 day trip would allow. He still looked a kid, barely 40, with a beautiful wife. Moreover they were self-deprecating and appreciative of how lucky they were. They made jokes about being Yanks and had an awareness that maybe they were not the most popular nation in the world right now. This simple self-awareness was very refreshing and I warmed to them instantly. We exchanged stories of what we had seen and where we had been. They were doing a fly-in trip with their boys, getting the boys to write a journal of their experience so they could appreciate it and remember it. This wasn’t Africa World to those boys, and they understood they were privileged and very lucky to be there. Mark was also honest, and didn’t talk with the usual macho rubbish, he talked about ‘just starting to relax’ because going to a place like that with their children is potentially going out of their comfort zones, and at least he was willing to suggest that, rather than pretend anything else. All around a great family and a breath of fresh air. They oo’d and ahh’d in all the right places at my self-drive story, but somehow when they said: “you’re brave” tonight I began to think for the first time “no, just naïve” – the experience of the young couple that day had really made me realise how very reassuring it was to be traveling with a company like Safari Drive who would be there to back you up if there was any trouble.

Afterwards I’d have liked to have had a look through the electronic telescope which was set up on the deck to look at the stars. It was an amazing piece of equipment. Unfortunately Ben (the Man in White who had changed this evening to something Cashmere in White and this time was joined by his equally white-enshrouded wife and children) also wanted to use the telescope, or at least his children did. All four or five of them came over like a white cloud of cotton and cashmere and before I knew it I had been distracted by some small talk with the parents while the children took over the telescope, so that was the end of the star-gazing. What really gaulled me was that I’d clearly been struggling to use the damn thing, and Ben informed us they had one of these things at home, so I’d assumed he was going to show me how to use it. But apparently not. Don’t get me wrong, they were a very nice family and totally harmless, just also totally oblivious and assuming that they get whatever they want first without having to do things like wait their turn. Ben expressed appropriate levels of admiration for our self-drive experience and said how much he and his wife would love to do something like that. His wife declined to comment. I felt Ben’s feelings were well intended and he was a nice enough bloke, but his wardrobe would need to be somehow less white if he wanted to do a self-drive camping trip around this place and I wasn’t convinced he’d be OK with that.

The lodge had been utterly exquisite and charming and relaxing and everything we had hoped it would be. Plus it had given us some interesting insights into a side of Botswana that I am sure the lodge owners normally wouldn’t have wanted us tourists to see. But what did JC and his wife care, they were shipping out at the end of the year having got what they wanted and leaving Botswana to whatever fate lies ahead.

I had asked JC for some advice about our journey the next day to Chobe, whether he would take the Marsh Road or the Sandridge road. Our trip book from Safari Drive had been lacking in driving directions, but it had given one very clear instruction: DON’T TAKE THE MARSH ROAD. This echoed the thoughts of our first Host. However our guide books and research all said to avoid the Sandridge Road in the dry season because of what had grown in our minds to be the Killer Suck-Self-Drivers-to-Certain-Death-Sand. And the couple we’d rescued from disaster the night before had come from there and had driven the Marsh Road and told us it was much better/ easier than the roads around Moremi! JC however said he’d take the Sandridge Road, so that decided it for us. Advice of the couple who had no back-up, no GPS, no spare fuel, and who broke down in the bush, or the handy-looking man in charge of this place? Sandridge it was to be. He said goodnight with a parting tip: “When driving in sand whatever you do just keep moving, its all about keeping moving, whatever you do don’t stop. If you stop, you’re stuck.”

As I said good-night to people there was a bit of a commotion: an adult female hippo and her baby calf was in the camp. These animals are known to be deadly and kill humans every year, precisely in this scenario, startling a mother with her calf and then inadvertently being between them and the water which is their point of escape. They passed on, but it was a timely reminder that even here in the cosseted comfort of the lodge, you must be as vigilant as if you were out on the campsite around the corner.

 

 

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