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Easy road to paradise

4 October 2016

Since he’s downed most of his proverbial publishing tools after nearly 50 years in the game, Jannie Herbst has had plenty of spare time on his hands. So he decided to go on a trip to the Okavango Delta.

I am having travel withdrawal  symptoms. Now that I have taken a back seat when it comes to day-to-day running of Leisure Wheels, I have time on my hands. I’ve been in the publishing game (newspapers and magazines) for 48 years, and regarded flitting round South Africa and beyond on regular assignments one of the perks of the job.

Now that I am a man of leisure, cabin fever has set in, and in one of my restless moods, suggested to the missus that we hit the road. Destination: somewhere we had not been before. We decided on the road on the western side of the Okavango Panhandle in Botswana. This enters Namibia in the Caprivi Strip, now renamed the Zambezi Region – a name so unromantic. Botswana is regarded as one of the locations for the pukka African bush experience and because of this, many people who do not own a 4×4 believe that the place is a destination non grata. Not so.

There are many places that one can visit in any 4×2 vehicle and still have a taste of the true African bush experience. Our chosen route was exactly that. Our first overnight stop was at a new lodge, Khwee Sands, in Letlhakane. The lodge is hidden in a run-down part of the town, but is safe and can be recommended if gourmet food is not a priority. Rooms are luxurious with DStv and minibar. We had an acceptable chicken chow mein at 90 pula (about R120) and the breakfast wasn’t bad either. Cost for accommodation per night per person sharing (including breakfast) was 400 pula (R530). Wi-Fi is free.

The town is familiar to adventurers travelling to Kubu Island as the last place you can stock up on fuel and provisions. Travel distance from Randburg via the Groblersbrug border post is 770km. Next stop was Drotsky’s Cabins just outside Shakawe, another 800km via Maun, and on the edge of the mighty Okavango. Jan and Eileen Drotsky arrived here 32 years ago and started one of the first lodges in Botswana.

They also started a luxury tented camp further down the river. Xaro Lodge is where we were booked and is now owned and managed by their son, Donovan, and his wife Yolande. You leave your vehicle at Drotsky’s Cabins and a 30-minute boat ride takes you to Xaro Lodge. We were surprised when Donovan himself arrived to transport us. Once you’re on the water you’re overwhelmed by that special feeling of being isolated with nature and the wild. Amid the splendour of water lilies and papyrus beds in crystal clear water, Donovan would deviate now and then to get closer to crocodiles or hippo. Some carmine bee-eaters nesting in the riverbank were also a colourful sight.

Donovan says if you’re a birder, this region needs to be on your bucket list. You quickly get an idea of just how many species of bird inhabit the area. Later, while enjoying a sundowner on the patio of our luxury en suite tent, we were entertained by a noisy pied kingfisher enjoying his dinner. Some skimmers were also busy against the background of a magnificent sunset. I counted 16 different bird calls happening more or less at the same time. And true to the nature of a bird paradise next to water, we were woken up in the morning by the glorious sound of a fish eagle’s cry.

There are nine luxury tents at Xaro, set in beautiful gardens with a swimming pool, a lounge area, and bar and dining area with a huge table that can seat 18 guests at a time. After a few drinks around the fire, dinner was served and the food, prepared by Vicar, the cook, was delicious. We started with stuffed green peppers followed by excellent crumbed beef with hot veg and three salads. Brandy and date pudding was the grand finale.  A few after-dinner Jägermeisters were called for but after listening to boring stories by German tourists, we strolled back to our tent. No danger of falling prey to scavengers or the like as there aren’t any here – but we were warned to be careful of hippo and to stay away from the water’s edge.

The Jägermeisters probably had something to do with sleep coming quickly to us in our cosy tent under the large jackalberry tree. But I was woken up by the unmistakable sound of a hippo grazing outside the tent. A quick peep with a flashlight confirmed the presence of the beast, but I was soon aware of another strange sound. It sounded like somebody blowing short bursts on an Aboriginal didgeridoo – I just could not work it out. Donavan put me out of my misery at breakfast. He explained it was a cry of the Pel’s fishing-owl – one of the bird species people from all over the world hope to spot. The interesting thing about this bird is that the juvenile has a completely different cry. A long haunting howl that reminds one of a peacock’s call.

“And do you know what?” said Donavan. “We have never disappointed a birder. If they are after a Pel’s fishing-owl we will find one.” Apart from specialising in birding sorties, Xaro also offers boat trips for fishing and sunset cruises. Cost per person sharing per day (all meals) is 1 060 pula (R1 385). All too soon we were heading back to Drotsky’s to continue our journey to Namibia, with the next destination the luxurious Divava Okavango Resort (more about that next time). Ah, nothing like a dose of the African bush to take care of cabin fever.

Oh, and you might be interested to know that apart from a short one-kilometre gravel connection to Drotsky’s, this first leg of the trip was all on tar.