Holiday with the hippo and happening
NOT every safari lodge can boast a hippo in its gardening crew. Xugana Island Lodge in Botswana is one of the oldest permanent lodges in the water world of the Okavango Delta. Cassidy, Xugana’s resident hippo, shuffles out of the lagoon most nights to graze around the waterfront cottages. Staff joke that Cassidy used to visit uninvited, so they gave up and offered him a job mowing the lawns’’. But having a three-tonne staff member with an unpredictable temperament has its drawbacks. Hippos kill more people than any other animal in Africa, and once darkness falls, there is always the possibility Cassidy could be out on the tiles. No one walks alone at Xugana, and guests are accompanied everywhere at night by a staff member armed with a large torch and hand-held siren.
This part of the delta is a network of channels and lagoons dotted with islands. Animals such as hippos, elephants, Cape buffaloes, giraffes, crocodiles, warthogs, antelopes, lions and leopards are all common, and bird life is abundant. Floating rafts of papyrus are fringed with water lilies, which have flowers that turn from white to a pure blue. The water is a mirror for the sky.
The only way to reach Xugana is by light plane. At the island airstrip, lodge manager Keesi waits for us with a tinnie to make the trip along the winding channels that lead to the lodge. Keesi is not his real name, he explains, as we climb into the flatbottomed boat, but it is a convenient nickname. As a San Bushman, his real name is a complex string of tongue-clicks. He tells us his real name translates as
one alone’’ because all but a few of his family were dead before he was born.
Keesi guns the outboard and we whip along the narrow waterways, with tall papyrus stalks slapping the boat’s rails and our faces. The channel finally opens on to a wide lagoon and on the far side we can see the lodge’s tiny wharf.
Xugana is the ultimate in peace and quiet. Mobile phones don’t work and there are no television or internet connections. The only communication with the outside world is by radio, and the closest town is more than an hour away by air.
The lodge offers eight comfortable mesasas , each sleeping two and overlooking the lagoon. These reed-walled, thatch-roofed cottages are cool, with no need for air-conditioning: meshed windows and doors are open to the night breeze. Each mesasa has a private deck with creaking leather directors’ chairs and rails for lazy foot-propping.
But apart from the civilised afternoon siesta, guests are unlikely to spend much time in their cottages during waking hours. The lodge’s heart is its main deck. Thatched bomas, or open-sided huts, serve as a bar and wet-weather dining room, but most meals are served in the tree-roofed al fresco area. Palms tower overhead and neatly stitched weaverbird nests hang from low fronds.
During the day, iridescent starlings collect crumbs under the table and red-eyed doves coo from high branches. At dusk, a fire is lit in front of the bar and guests and staff gather to share the day’s adventures.
This companionable evening habit sets Xugana apart from many other Botswanan lodges, where the employees are expected to maintain a rigid separation from the guests. Xugana’s warm and friendly team is one of its great assets: the managers, waiting staff and guides make sure that even solitary travellers have company and conversation.
The food is excellent and abundant. Four meals are served every day, in the style of the oldfashioned African hunting lodges, and traditional drums call guests to the table. The room tariff covers every aspect of the stay, including food, drinks and activities such as exhilarating game walks on nearby Palm Island and boat trips to a lagoon frequented by dozens of hippos.
The sundowner drinks served on the water are a daily highlight, letting guests watch the spectacular sunsets with a G&T or a frosty Windhoek beer in hand. And that’s definitely not a bad way to start an African evening.