!Xigera Lodge, the last stop for my birding tour, is located in the center of the Okavango Delta in northern Botswana. It is the only lodge in an expanse of wetlands rich with birdlife.
At the airstrip, an odd vehicle built for viewing wildlife awaited my group of five and our guide, Terry. On the body of the large Land Rover, three wide and padded seats rose in tiers above the ground. As the vehicle negotiated the primitive track we teetered and waved so high in the air I felt like I was on a parade float.
Due to an unusual wet season, water flooded sections of the road so we could not drive all the way to the lodge. When the driver pulled into a shady spot steps from a boat landing, we grabbed our bags and climbed into a flat bottomed-boat for the next leg.
During the ride, I asked the boatman how to pronounce the name of the lodge. He assured us that if we hadn’t grown up speaking the !Xosa language it would be hopeless for us to wrap our tongues around “!Xigera.” After rather feeble attempts, I had to agree with him. The “!X” represents the tongue pop of the indigenous language of the area. I first heard it years ago when Miriam Makeba became popular. She always told the audience “Click Song” was named by the colonialists who also found her native language a challenge.
We were greeted at the landing by African staff singing a lively song. It reminded me of my visit to Club Med, but this was Africa, and the song was sincere, not corny. After downing the welcoming fruit beverage in the open common room, the lodge host led us to our tents. On the way, he pointed out the bark-stripped trees next to the raised walkway.
“Elephants,” he said. “They like variety in their diet. When they want something, they take it. If leaves look tasty but are beyond their grasp, they just push the tree over.” A number of drying tree-corpses attested to the truth of this statement. “Please do not leave your tents at night without an escort. The animals like to use these walkways and you might bump into something regrettable. Snakes like to curl up next to the posts. The other night, a guest without an escort almost bumped into an elephant standing right next to the walkway.”
I wondered if this warning was just meant to spice up our visit.
POSH stands for Port Out, Starboard Home, used by upper class English passengers in the days of the Raj. When making their cabin reservations for the long passage to India, they wanted to be on the cooler side of the ship. During that trip the port side was in the shade on the way out, thus Port Out, Starboard Home, POSH. The term now refers to over-the-top luxurious. !Xigera was POSH.
One afternoon I watched some new guests arrive, greeted with the same singing we enjoyed. Nothing unusual about them, a German family. On my way back to my tent, I caught myself wondering what kind of people can afford to stay at this kind of place. Why don’t they do something more charitable with their money?
Oops. I am staying here.
I am uncomfortable using expensive lodgings on a birding tour because we get up early and are away most of the day. It just seems a waste of money. I tried to lighten up and delight in my good fortune. The private “moonlight” shower was my favorite feature, though how I was to see the moon was a mystery since the whole unit was in deep shade. And I loved the cozy little bedroom formed by the lowered mosquito net …prepared by the staff, of course.
On a packaged tour, there is no choice of accommodations and if you want to see the fabulous birds of the Okavango Delta, you must stay in a lodge owned by the company that leases most of the Delta’s private game reserves. Their fee gives them exclusive use of the area along with the responsibility for keeping it attractive to tourists, which means conserving the wildlife that draws visitors. You must fly in on one of the company airplanes. On the flight, I got a sense of the enormity of the Okavango Delta, flooded with abundant water when we visited in May. Later, during the dry season, animals migrate from all over southern Africa for the water that remains only in this wetland.
On our first day we found a rarity that some avid birders can miss even if they come several times. In the upper Delta, we had only glimpsed a Pel’s fishing owl as it flew over us. We had a much better view of another on a lofty perch near !Xigera. Adults can reach over two feet in height, and this one was surely full grown. When alarmed, it fluffs its head to appear even larger. The ginger owl we studied was full grown and fluffed and looked enormous. It turned a lazy eye in our direction, aware of us but secure enough at the top of such a tall tree to not fly away. We had plenty of time to study another of those birds few people will ever see.
At !Xigera Lodge, the ten guest tents are near the edge of the water and connected on the inland side by a web of wooden walkways built about four feet off the ground. Animals are free to wander among the tents. At night, we heard hippos grunting as they grazed on the shore. One juvenile hippo spent every night near our walkway, possibly for what safety it offered from the bulls. The extraordinarily high water that season must have been heaven for them.
During the day, the hippo herds hang out in wide spots in the river that winds a broad path through the watery expanse of reeds. On our longest day of water explorations we rounded a bend in the river and spotted the noses, ears and protruding eyes of several of adult hippos. As soon as they saw us, they gently submerged, leaving only ripples. Our boatman slowed the boat. Hippos are one of the most dangerous animals in the delta, and not to be underestimated, especially when they are occupying their favorite bend in the river. Our boat was only a bit longer than an adult hippo, and our combined weight would probably be child’s play for a surfacing “river horse” to overturn.
“Hang on!” the boatman called, and gunned the motor to a speed never again attained during our visit. More drama or was it experience with angry hippos that demanded respect?
That morning we followed tiny water paths into the reeds. On a signal from Terry, our birding guide, the boatman turned off the motor so we could listen for songs. We spotted several hard-to-find marsh species. Of course, all the other wildlife was on display, giraffes, kudus and other ungulates as well as a large monitor lizard.
Later that day we turned toward one of the many islands. I wondered how our boatman knew where he was, but realized that the unique silhouettes of the islands and their vegetation are reference points for the boatmen, all of whom grew up on the delta.
A table covered with delicacies from the lodge awaited us. Two staff had approached from another direction, set up the table and chairs and unpacked the coolers. They had also prepared the other necessity after a morning boat ride: the toilet. From our lunch site, one of the staff took us along a short but winding trail to a large and scenic opening. At the rear stood a box with a toilet seat on top. Planted over a freshly dug hole, it was a luxury for us. We usually squatted behind a convenient bush.
While enjoying our meal, we watched the activity on the next island, a quarter of a mile away. A large elephant and a few smaller ones splashed along the shore while a herd of giraffes browsed the acacias. There were no cats to be seen. When the water is high, they follow their prey to distant grazing areas with more food.
During an afternoon break, I was considering a vigorous walk. By day, we were free to walk the ramps with caution, the only exercise possible since we were not allowed to walk on the ground without an escort. Before I could get my shoes laced, deep, angry growls and high squeals broke the silence. Not far away some youngster was being taught a lesson. Mmmm. Maybe I’ll wait for that walk. When I heard scampering on the wooden deck, I peeked around the side of my tent. A young baboon, tail raised, was running along the main concourse. Several smaller ones followed in what looked like a panicky flight but they were not pursued. Their departure from the combat zone seemed to settle the dispute and the afternoon quiet resumed.
The tents were not your heavy, hot canvas monsters once popular for family camping. The lower half was a wood floor and short wall, topped by a light fabric tent with screened windows to let in the daytime air and privacy flaps for the night. From my veranda I had an excellent view of the surrounding water and animals that might pass. My king-sized bed was crowned by a frame that held a clean, white walk-in mosquito net. Past the bed and a short wall, sinks, closets and tables awaited my use. Toiletries supplied were of the best quality and a bit too fragrant. At the rear, curved privacy walls enclosed the toilet and indoor shower. Beyond was the door to the moon shower.
My first night I was unable to bathe until after dark, and I wanted to use the moon shower out the back door. As I was enjoying the lovely cascade of warm water, a baboon roar rent the night. I studied the thin stick barrier between me and the jungle. The sticks extended only inches above my head and seemed rather flimsy as a deterrent for anything but prying eyes. I decided I was finished showering.
One of our afternoon opportunities was to be poled into the grassy wilderness in a mokoro, the small dugout used by the locals. Two of us per boat sat on short beach chairs provided for our comfort. The person doing the poling stood in the back and pushed on a long pole, moving the boat forward. It looked easy,but I did not feel secure just sitting in the bottom of the wobbly boat. I knew if I had even attempted to stand, I would have lost my balance. After a short while the scorching sun sent us back to the lodge and shade.
On our last night, after being delivered to my tent sated with a delicious dinner, I heard thrashing near Terry’s tent two over from mine. Thrash, thrash, crack, crash. An enormous and strong animal worked on a tree or bush, beating the leaves back and forth; maybe an elephant. It didn’t sound like something the lodge could have arranged, though I always wonder about that.
I turned out my tent lights and peered into the dark night. No change in the noises so I returned to my preparations for the night. As I brushed my teeth, the sound became more like sploosh, sploosh, a slow and watery slogging. Dousing the lights again, I crept cautiously outside. Thirty feet to my left, one of my birding friends was on his veranda, shining his tiny flashlight toward the edge of the water in front. I could just make out a curved, white tusk bobbing in time with the sloshing. My eyes adjusted and the black silhouette of a huge elephant emerged in the starlight. He was knee deep and kicking up waves ahead of him.
Swish, plonk. Swish, plonk. He stepped out of the water to browse. Grabbing leaves and twigs with his trunk, he stuffed them into his mouth. After pausing for a few minutes at the more delectable bushes, he ambled on to the next. Taking only a little from each bush would allow the plant to live, I thought. It was better than knocking them over, which is probably what he had been doing to some innocent tree moments before.
In and out of the water for his progressive dinner, he came abreast of my tent. I dared to turn on my flashlight. The stronger beam verified that this elephant was huge. I considered what we had been told, that it was unlikely any animal would notice our tents. To them it was just an uninteresting lump because it did not look like food. I eyed the veranda rail. It would not offer much resistance to anything. Behind me, even the glass door of the tent would not stop him if trees fall victim. The elephant moved to some tasty-looking shrubbery closer to me. That tusk gleamed. I didn’t want to test the uninteresting lump theory so I turned off my light and watched his shadow at work.
After having a fine munch on my bushes, the elephant splashed his way toward the next tent, leaving me to imagine what might have happened.
Terry has lived in Africa most of his life and the next day he said that the night-visiting elephant was one of the biggest he had seen in years of African birding. Fine, but if the elephant had even looked me in the eye and flapped his ears a few times, it might have made a better story.
Our stay at !Xigera provided sightings of fabulous birds. !Xigera was certainly a place to remember but not one I would have considered to visit myself. The experience was memorable in so many ways, including being POSH.