Hol­i­day with the hippo and hap­pen­ing

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - One Travel Perfect Day - Ge­or­gia Gow­ing

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.

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