Botswana's Xigera Lodge is a work of art in one of Africa's Seven Wonders
The waterways and islands in the Okavango Delta are a masterpiece, and a perfect backdrop for the ‘living gallery’ that is Xigera Safari Lodge, writes Elizabeth Sleith
A few times a week, a small plane sets out from Maun, Botswana, for the 25-minute zip to an airstrip in Moremi Game Reserve. Even before it comes into view, someone from its destination, Xigera Safari Lodge, must do a final check. Quite often, this task involves a bit of a sprint. There might be hand waving, perhaps a shout, largely to scatter the impala that like to potter on the tarmac. Sometimes it's other animals that have to be shooed. In any case, "Cleared for landing" has a different meaning in the Okovango Delta.
When my plane touches down there, some weeks ago, a small party - the pilot, a chef and I - emerge blinking into the sunlight. Disclaimer: no impala were harmed in the making of this story.
This is my first international trip since lockdown, and my first view in forever of a 360-degree vista: soul-stirring golds, greens and browns, stretching to a horizon interrupted only by foliage, in a sky utterly free of the clutter of concrete. With the breezes and birdsong, in floods the familiar exhilaration of the bush. And yet, as I am about to learn, this is a place like nowhere on Earth.
The story begins 1,600km northwest, in Angola's central highlands. From here, the Kovango River flows down across Namibia's Caprivi Strip and into the Kalahari desert of northern Botswana. Now the Okovango River, it arrives at a tectonic trough, in brief a depression full of cracks that force the water to fan out into a 16,000km2 network of channels, streams and lagoons.
This is the Okavango Delta, the largest inland delta in the world, an oasis for a plethora of plant and animal life amid the thirsty Kalahari - and heaven for human nature lovers. A protected area since 1962, it is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa (others include the Nile River and Mount Kilimanjaro), and a Unesco World Heritage site. To visit is not just to go to the bush, but to arrive in one of the world's most precious natural masterpieces.
THE ART OF DELIGHT
A 10-minute drive from the airstrip is Xigera - "KEE-jirruh" - and this, in many ways, is a masterpiece too.
First, there is the surprise of seeing it: round a bend and across a bridge it waits alongside the twinkling Xigera Channel. All wood and undulating canvas under a canopy of trees, it floats into view as remarkably as a lion might moving through yellow grass, both subtle and splendid.
Then there is the feat of architecture that allows it to be here at all. On two islands on a lagoon, it is in essence a gathering of platforms on adjustable stilts. Its 12 guest suites - all named after a local tree - are reached by bridges from the main lodge. All around, animals come and go so freely that you can't walk home alone in the dark.
Xigera has been here since the mid '80s, but was bought by the Red Carnation Hotels group in 2018. Delayed by lockdown, a massive upgrade was completed in December 2020, and the new Xigera opened in January. Many of the changes have lightened its footprint, with new eco-credentials including a solar-power system that supplies 95% of its needs (1,500 panels make it the biggest privately owned system in Botswana) and a self-contained water treatment plant.
The surprise standout, however, is the art. On any safari experience, the location must be the star, but Xigera pulls off a feat I have never seen anywhere else: making the lodge itself as beautiful and fascinating as its natural surroundings. Every side table, chair, lamp and decorative flourish has a back story, an artist, and a tale behind its conception. Most evoke some feature of the local land and wildlife.
Thanks to a collaboration with Southern Guild gallery in Cape Town, many objects - functional and lovely - have big names behind them. That huge cocoon chair is a human weavers' nest by South African design big-deal Porky Hefer. The twisting benches here and there were made on site during lockdown from fallen trees by wood whisperer Adam Birch, who also trained a Xigera team in his techniques while he was in residence. The protégées' efforts are to be found - in chairs and tables - throughout the lodge.
The beaded place mats you can't keep your fingers off at dinner are all one-of-a-kind pieces from Monkey Biz, an NPO that provides self-employment for more than 450 disadvantaged women in Cape Town.
There's so much, handmade especially for this place, by both rock-star design names and humble artisans.
ON A BED OF LILIES
From this man-made, living museum, guests head out into nature's gallery, on vehicles or guided walks, or to drift the waterways on mekoro (plural) or engined boats. The majority of the Moremi Reserve is seasonal or permanent swamp, with just 30% dry land, so the water offers many avenues of exploration.
My cruise by glass-bottomed, engined boat is a rush, but the mokoro excursion is a waking dream of dawdling through a giant bed of water lilies and papyrus reeds.
The silence is near absolute, save for birdsong and the swishing of guide Eliah Kengalogile's ngashi (Setswana for pole). There are painted reed frogs and dragonflies and long-limbed jacanas, nicknamed Jesus birds for their ability to "walk on water". The water is so clean, Kengalogile says, I could drink it (I don't) and he points out the different types of lilies, so close I can touch them (I do). The white flowers are open now; the closed purple ones will only unfold in moonlight.
Xigera's guides are all local Batswana, chosen for their knowledge of the wilderness and their ability to share it. This is as true of Kengalogile as it is of Salani Gambule, my escort on many a drive. Gambule, in fact, is from a Botswana royal family and cut his teeth as a guide at - of all places - Disney's Animal Kingdom in Florida, US, in 2010.
I think it must be a relief to be back where he grew up. His company is a mix of traditional knowledge, geology lessons and personal memories. He talks about the wetlands, why there are no stones, and how the islands start as tiny termite mounds, growing gradually through sediment deposits until vegetation can take root.
"Xigera", I've heard, means pied kingfisher. Actually it is the word for the moment when the bird, hunting, hits the water. The way Gambule says it, the K includes a click of the tongue.
At one point, he leaps from the vehicle to pluck two tiny white pom-poms from a plant - the seeds of the heartleaf sida. Latching them to his eyelashes, he blinks comically; this was a favourite childhood game.
He teaches me to polish my teeth with a piece of red star-apple bark, which I chew on absentmindedly as he explains how the water changes with the seasons, how the grasses are now "putting on their winter coats". There are tracking tips. Impala are good pointers for other wildlife when they make a particular warning sound. "The impala are alarming," Gambule says.
These nervous herds are not the only ones who like the airstrip. Often there are lions there too, lounging under a wooden shelter. Technically it's for the game vehicles, but a good swathe of shade on a hot day is prime real estate.
By a baobab, Gambule shares a San legend that explains its roots-in-the-sky look: when God made it, it accidentally landed upside down. There are only two left in the 45km2 Xigera concession - they are soft and nutritious, and the elephants have eaten them.
THE MAGICAL TREEHOUSE
There is a third, though, which will never be eaten. The Baobab Treehouse, about 1km from the main lodge, is both a private hideout and a giant art installation. Inspired by a Pierneef painting and executed by architect Anton de Kock, outside it resembles the beloved "tree of life". Inside, on three levels reaching 10m high, it is the ultimate romantic sleepout - with a bathroom, a covered bedroom and an open deck on top. For me, it's a magical spot for a sundowner stop.
NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM
Back at the lodge after a day's outing, the cleverly curated echoes of nature swim even more clearly into view. The gigantic lily-sculpture fireplace, dramatic in itself, now also sparks a happy memory, picked up playfully by lily-shaped candle holders on the tables. All were made by Bronze Age in Cape Town, which is also to thank for a poignant delight in my suite: pouring a final drink from the world's most beautiful minibar. The Cape Town foundry inlaid its doors with an etching of a jackalberry tree. I am, of course, in the Jackalberry Suite (each suite's bar bears the appropriate tree).
On the morning of my exit, back on the plane, I press my nose against the window for a last look. The lions are lolling in the garage again, and barely cast a lazy eye as we taxi by. It's almost midday and hot, and trouble is unlikely. Still, it tickles me to notice that no one chases the cats.
PLAN YOUR TRIP
The lodge: Xigera allows a maximum occupancy of 24 guests in private suites overlooking the splendid Okavango flood plains. Each suite is individually and magnificently decorated. Amenities include private outdoor decks with showers, copper baths and views for days. Children aged 12 years and over are welcome.
What else it has: A swimming pool, spa and gym. WiFi is available in the suites and library.
The food: Executive chef Ziyaad Brown emphasises fresh, local ingredients and dishes inspired by the delta, unfussy but creative and so beautifully presented they are also art. All personal preferences and dietary requirements can be catered for. House wines are from Xigera's sister vineyard Bouchard Finlayson in SA.
Activities included in the rate: Boat and mokoro excursions, game drives and walks, photographic safaris, scheduled yoga and meditation classes, seasonal catch-and-release fishing.
Optional extras: Spa products and treatments, scenic helicopter excusions.
Covid requirements: A negative PCR test within 72 hours of arrival in Botswana, and another one before entry to the airport. This sounds like a drag but in fact was well organised and painless (promise!) and all done in about 20 minutes. Xigera facilitates the PCR test required for return to SA at the lodge (at extra cost).
SPECIAL SADC RESIDENTS' OFFER:
Stay three nights at Xigera Safari Lodge priced from R62,580 per person sharing. The package includes:
• Return flights from Johannesburg to Maun on Airlink plus airline levies
• Return airport-to-lodge transfers in a light aircraft
• Accommodation in a luxury suite (184m2) with private deck and outdoor gazebo
• All meals, plus non-alcoholic and selected alcoholic beverages
• Boat and mokoro excursions, game drives and walks, photographic safaris, scheduled yoga and meditation classes, seasonal catch-and-release fishing
• Daily laundry service
• Accommodation taxes, tourism levies and park fees
This offer is valid for stays from now until October 31. Book by July 31 to qualify.
• Sleith was a guest of Red Carnations Xigera Safari Lodge