MY LUXURY TOUR OF THE BEST LODGES IN THE OKAVANGO
By Rory Sheldon
I am sure you have all heard the stories about the most exclusive Okavango lodges and their considerable prices, and I am here to say that they are completely true. There are lodges out there in the depths of the Okavango that can cost in excess of $4000 per person per night. Hell, some of the private villas cost more than of $14,000 a night, and if you aren’t splitting these costs with a small village, that’s a heavy price tag for a safari.
I decided to visit a few of the most exclusive lodges in a bid to help you understand whether they were worth the price tag, but mostly I did it because it was a great excuse to indulge myself in considerable luxury all in the name of award-winning journalism.
Selinda was the first camp I visited on my luxury tour, and even as you fly into their private airstrip in the Selinda concession, there are a few things that immediately stand out. Firstly, the airstrip looks and feels affluent. It’s well-tended, groomed, and well-graded, and there is none of this bouncing-around-shit when you land. As the wheels kissed the ground, I could tell I had arrived on a well-loved airstrip.
They even have a Bedouin styled tent decked out with lavish armchairs on the side of the runway. I’m guessing this serves as some kind of departure lounge. Whatever the case, it’s impressive, especially as I’m generally accustomed to sitting on a tree stump on the side of a pot holed airstrip waiting for a plane to arrive.
Then the guide pulls up in a fancy new land cruiser with gold plated doors and hands me a lavish black canteen with my name printed on the side. Nicce. I was beginning to feel appreciated. The vehicle even had its own fridge. Not a coolbox, but a proper fridge. I had a perishing thirst following my short flight from Maun, so I decided to hydrate myself with some champagne before we set off on a game drive towards camp.
And I’m glad I did. The Clicquot cut the edge off my childlike wonder at the lavishness of the experience, and by the time we rolled into camp I was feeling sufficiently self-entitled to not be blown away by all the extravagance. Two giant elephant skulls with golden tusks tower beside the leadwood entrance doors that lead into one of the most picturesque Okavango decks in the Delta. Towering thatch ceilings open out to a 290-degree view over the Selinda spillway. You can’t invent this shit. The view alone is probably worth the price of a one-night stay.
I was then led off to my suite by the delightful camp manager. ‘Suite’, it’s actually quite galling that they call it that. It’s more like some archaic safari penthouse on steroids. Something birthed out of some clearly deranged, yet beautiful mind. The floors are made of leadwood train sleepers and the decoration…, hell, the whole place was ornately decorated with the type of finery that could only have been crafted by Hephaestus himself. But it was when I saw the size of the giant copper bathtub that I finally began to understand the ease with which I could accept my new life as a Saudi Prince.
I requested some amuse-bouche from my private chef and then climbed into my private pool with some more champagne. I had some game viewing to do, and that shit was all happening from the privacy of my suite. A group of elephants wandered a few meters in front of my vista before a pack of Wild Dogs rocked up. I was a little pissed that I’d left my telephoto lens at home but didn’t worry for long as I soon realized that each of the three suites comes equipped with a Canon 5D mark IV and a 400mm lens. Sweet. You have to leave the camera behind when you leave, but you’re welcome to take the memory card with you. Bargain.
Later that day I went out on a game drive with my private guide.
I was a little upset we didn’t see a pangolin, but I guess not even top dollar guarantees you awesome game sightings. Instead, I had to make do with a migrating herd of buffalo, an aardvark burrowing for cucumber, a few lions lounging around, and finally a couple of cheetahs chasing down an impala for supper. I’m from Botswana, and even though I’ve seen a lot of this stuff before, I was considerably impressed.
I got back to Selinda Camp in the early evening and spent some time selecting an excellent vintage from their well-stocked wine cellar before taking my seat on the walkway overlooking the spillway to enjoy my seven-course tasting menu dinner under the stars. It was surreal and yet the staff made it feel flawless. Well played Selinda. Well played.
Price Tag: $3050 per person per night during high season, $4500 if you’re traveling alone (but we can do you a better deal).
Is it worth it: Hell yes! If you’ve got the cash to drop on something special, then this is one of those experiences’ worth having. Everything about the place is built to facilitate a love for wildlife in an exclusive and lavish way. It’s completely over the top. And guess what. Sometimes that’s okay.
However, if you’re like me and the rest of the 99%, then it’s probably a little out of your price range. Not to worry though. There are some special deals available, particularly if you travel outside of high season but you need to talk to the right people.
The next camp on my luxury tour of the Okavango was Zarafa Camp. With a slightly sore head I set out for the hour or so drive it takes to reach Selinda’s sister camp. Zarafa is located on the other side of the Spillway in a Jackalberry and Leadwood forest. It’s distinctive. It’s got the same décor as Selinda, but it’s also both wilder and more eccentric at the same time.
There were elephants everywhere, and I soon realized that my guide’s insistence on walking me back and forth between my suite and the main area was more a matter of necessity for my safety than luxury.
I took a rest in my incredible suite to find some novel type of new age air-conditioning unit had been built into the bed. I’m not entirely sure what type of engineering was involved, but the experience of lying on an ornate king size bed on a hot summer’s day in Botswana while icy air flows over you was an experience that rather effectively put me to sleep. This pissed me off when I woke up as I realized that I’d lost a couple of hours of my limited time to live like a prince. Time was of the essence, and I needed to put it into action. I had to think strategically, and that type of thinking is facilitated with help from an 18-year-old Glenmorangie single malt. Luckily my suite was equipped with just such a bottle, and after a mid afternoon tumbler or two on the rocks (again enjoyed in my private pool with elephant visitors), I hailed my guide for a game drive before giving the chef a warning about how impressed I expected to be at dinner that evening.
The game drive was another complete hit. Again, no pangolin, but I was impressed with a tussle we witnessed between a gangly bunch of crocodiles and a leopard. The crocks had wandered inland and snatched an impala from a leopard before he had the chance to drag it up a tree. I’ve never seen crocks so far from the water, nor have I ever seen them move so quickly on land. It was unsettling. But a good type of unsettling; that weird realization that the natural world is still full of surprises.
Back at Zarafa the chef had taken my warning to heart and prepared some kind of outrageous hors d’oeuvres that tested both the limits of creativity and common sense. Artichoke and swan flavoured smoked filled cucumber molecular gelatin balls, or some such madness. It was a culinary ménage à trois on some new kind of gastronomic level. I had put this chef to the test and the crazy bastard had passed it in style.
I went to bed a happy guest. And I did not wake up until 5 am when I heard a commotion on the footpath leading out of my suite. It sounded feral and intense, like a mildly deranged psychopathic llama slowly feeding a squirrel into a blender (I may have still been dreaming). I dragged my half-asleep ass outside and less than a meter from my front door, a lone impala looked desperately up at me before its entire digestive system fell to the ground. This was confusing. I took a step forward and was still trying to work out just what the fuck was going on when a pack of Wild Dogs rushed past me to begin some carnage binge eating. A couple of them actually brushed past my leg on the rush over to the impala buffet. It was madness, and I was right in the middle of it. Hell fire, what an experience. Even once I had retreated back into the suite, I was still too close to get a good shot with a telephoto lens. I had to switch to a wide angle. The camp managers later told me that Wild Dog kills occasionally happen in that camp. Crazy cool. I’m still wordless.
Price Tag: $3050 per person per night during high season, $4500 if you’re traveling alone (but we can do you a better deal).
Is it worth it: Definitely! Especially if you’re into wildlife. It’s a still a hefty price to pay, but in all honesty, I’ve never had a similar experience before. The Wild Dog interaction was incredible. Again, there are cheaper deals to be found at this camp if you speak to the right people.
Last on the list was Jao Camp. I was excited about visiting this lodge as a refurbishment in 2019 had allegedly completely transformed the camp into something stylish and secretive. Rumors around the safari community were rife about its new extravagance and eccentric touches. It sounded like my kind of place, so I hoped back into a Cessna and flew over. Located on the other side of the delta in the heart of the Jao concession, the camp is one of the oldest and better-known lodges in the Okavango. But the rebuild. Good God. They really went to town on this one.
Walking into the entrance of Jao is like being invited into the secret lair of an eccentric mad safari scientist. The skeleton of a giraffe towers above you like some psychedelic museum exhibit, and there is a whole bunch of other crazy shit on display. A Steam punk curved staircase ascends around the giraffe to an upper floor filled with antique maps, a vaulted library, and a well-stocked wine cellar. This was clearly my kind of place. It made me feel cunning and powerful, and like any crazed idea birthed in this room had potential. And this was only the entrance.
The rest of the lodge was just as excessive. The main area is raised on a steel pillars and looks over a flood plain from a height of about 20 meters. Crazy viewing platforms bleed out at angles, large and ornate windowpanes decorate the dining area, and the main bar area looks like it was designed by a genius and half crazed architect with an inferiority complex. It towers above with a seriously compelling wooden carved lattice structure. It also goes without saying that this is an incredibly well stocked bar and I immediately put the barmen to test by requesting a gin and tonic the likes of which had never been drank before in Botswana. And it was amazing. Gin imported from some obscure Gypsy group living on a fjord in Norway, Syrian pomegranate seeds, and some homemade tonic lovingly crafted from rosemary extract and unicorn tears.
I was then led to the suite which was pretty over the top as I had expected. The insane air-conditioned king-size bed looking over a flood plain adjoined to a lounge area with private pool and an insanely elegant bathroom .
However, one the main attractions turned out to be the main pool area which is housed under some weird lattice structure which looks like an upside-down swallow nest. They call is the Beaver’s Nest I believe. It’s pretty peculiar and quite handsomely striking at the same time, and as it’s situated in the middle of the floodplain, you literately have a 320-degree view all around you.
I went out on an early evening game drive and we surprised a lioness carrying her cubs across a plain. All very cool. The guide was knowledgeable, but game viewing in the concession is not as incredible as other areas in the Delta. It’s still pretty intense though.
The food that evening was fantastic, and I was beginning to feel rather accustomed to tasting menus.
Price Tag: $2940 per person per night during high season, $3800 if you’re traveling alone (but we can do you a better deal).
Is it worth it: It’s slightly cheaper than Selinda and Zarafa, and also cheaper than other Wilderness Safaris premier camps such as Abu and Mombo. However, it has its own marked style and safari signature. It’s a great option for a family safari as it has everything on offer and includes a stunning spa area, a complete gym, and activities for the kids. Probably not as good for serious wildlife enthusiasts as other camps, but it has so much else going on for it. This is an excellent entry level luxury camp. Some seriously good safari foreplay. It’ll blow your mind and leave you wanting more.
Sadly, my lust for safari luxury has not yet been satiated, and this trip only left me craving for more. I suppose this is potentially the gravest danger of visiting one of the top tier luxury camps in the Okavango. You always want to return. It’s like being upgraded to Business Class. It’s so great that you swear you’ll never fly economy again, only to find that reality is a complete downer.
So, I’m not going to knock these luxury lodges and whine about them being over the top and too excessive. They’re amazing, and if you can afford them, do it. You will not be disappointed.
From my side, I genuinely hope that I’ve been able to provide some clarity. If you need a hand selecting your luxury lodge, give me a shout. In the meantime, I plan on visiting the newly refurbished Xigera Camp to see what all the fuss is about. If the rumors are true, they’ve taken Xigera to a whole new level to the extent that it now eclipses every other luxury safari experience in Africa. If you’d like me to visit Xigera, share this post. Or don’t. Whatever. I’m going to go and see it anyway (#xigerainvitemeplease). My quest to bring you the best of African safari luxury has only just begun.