I had the marvelous pleasure of visiting Botswana again after a 6 year absence – and boy, did it not disappoint! My gracious hosts, the Belmond Safaris team, are perhaps most well-known for their beautifully run Mount Nelson Hotel in Cape Town.
My first stop was Eagle Island Lodge in the Okavango Delta – renowned by the well-traveled as a water wonderland, where you can experience the most exhilarating river safaris. The water levels are a bit low this year which means many lodges have had to temporarily hold back on their water safaris and river cruises for motorboats.
Thankfully, Eagle Island is still offering their magical mokoro trips. Mokoros are dug-out canoes where your poler steers you gently and quietly along the fascinating, richly inhabited waterways. On our flight to Eagle Island, we spotted a trickle of water running down a parched riverbed below us – and one of the staff members on board nearly burst into tears he was so happy! The region desperately needs this life-giving water.
Eagle Island embodies that truly authentic safari experience that everyone daydreams about. Nestled on the banks of the Boro River, I was woken in the mornings by the dramatic cries of soaring fish eagles, and happily wallowing hippos grunting just a few yards away.
Even as I made my way to the sun-drenched breakfast room, the fresh elephant dung along the pathway was exciting evidence of these nocturnal visitors. Imagine: lumbering giants quietly exploring the camp while you sleep blissfully unaware…
This is Africa – no fences, no walls –
just you and the vast, spectacularly untamed wilderness inviting you to explore her.
And explore we did! At Eagle Island, you can be part of as many as 5 adventure activities each day. Early one morning (as soon as the caffeine kicked deliciously in) we set off on a game drive where we disembarked from the safari vehicle and struck out into the wild on foot for an impressively informative bush-walk.
Abandoning a lunchtime feast, some of the guests took to the air on a thrilling helicopter flight! (Eagle Island has a helicopter permanently stationed at the lodge, providing the most breathtaking aerial views – an especial delight for wildlife photographers.)
One afternoon, a small group of us visited the welcoming and industrious village of Xaxaba. Such an eye-opening experience! Visitors are often invited into a villager’s home where you feel what their day-to-day lives are like. It was very special — especially because every care has been taken to prevent it from experienced as a ‘tourist attraction’ so there’s no uncomfortable disconnection or sense of inquisitive invasion. It is absolutely awe-inspiring to see how this humble community has retained their important traditions and unique identity whilst embracing the ever-evolving changes that come with modern life.
With a population of just 300 people, there were only a few women and children around during our visit. This really is a very authentic experience and there is no ‘show’ put on or dancing for visitors. Most of the men were out fishing or collecting firewood, while the women were making handicrafts or preparing the next family meal. A number of the villagers are employed at Eagle Island, and Belmond supports the village in terms of their water and electricity needs, as well as providing a mobile clinic that visits the area once a month.
Once back at the lodge, we settled down for a deliciously decadent high tea before heading out for our mokoro expedition! (There’s certainly plenty to keep everyone busy – unless, of course, you’d much rather relax in the cool solitude of your room, soaking up the glorious view?)
Our mokoro paddler was called Lovers (many of the local people get their names from the first thing the mother sees after the baby is born) and he had a seemingly bottomless pocket of superb stories to share. Having grown up in the area, he has been paddling since he was just 9 years old – making for a smooth ride and riverlife expert! His family were farmers and he explained that the mokoros provided the only mode of transportation to the islands where the produce was cultivated. “It took many attempts, and many splashings before I got it right!” And he’s been exploring the waterways ever since – and now takes us along for the most stupendous ride.
Secluded within the remote private concession, there are no other safari vehicles to disrupt the exclusivity of Eagle Island.
Over and above the plenteous zebra, giraffe, buffalo, hippo, elephant and all sorts of antelope who call the conservancy home, we stopped to let our fascination overtake us as we watched a playful pride of lions – and, amazingly, several rare rhino.
One of my favorite sightings was of a hyena family. At first, we could only see the mother when we stopped the vehicle to find out what she was up to. Moments later, and rather unceremoniously, three little heads popped out from a nearby den! Incurably curious, the three little cubs clambered – all cute and clumsy – to discover what they were missing out on. Our guide said they were no more than 3 months old. It was incredible to watch their determined sniff-sleuthing of our vehicle, rubbing up against it – whilst mom kept a watchful eye.
The rooms are exquisitely decorated and luxuriously spacious. The beds are covered with soft veils of mosquito netting (pure romantic safari nostalgia!) and the rooms possess everything you could possibly need: from USB charging stations and hairdryers, to inside and outside showers – not to mention, fully stocked minibars. Of course, there is excellent air-conditioning: an absolute essential during the summer months.
Perhaps what I adored most about my room, was having my very own plunge-pool set into the wooden deck, with picture-perfect views of the river beyond. The loungers were so comfortable that I succumbed promptly into a deep snooze one lazy afternoon!
Eating was always a feast: wholesome, nourishing and unpretentiously yummy. Dinners ended with us heading down to the aptly named Fish Eagle Bar which sits right at the water’s edge, where we would drink in the symphony of the bush sounds, accompanied by the tinkling of ice in our nightcaps.
While it seems like everyone only talks about the wildlife on safari, for me it was the people and the special human interactions I had at Eagle Island that really touched me. Our ranger, OT, was truly outstanding – and endlessly patient with our million questions. The staff team were a delight: kind, friendly and who all seemed genuinely happy to be there. (This is something I’ve discovered is the golden thread that connects all the Belmond lodges throughout Africa.) As you interact with each person, you learn that the juniors in the team have been there for 8 to 10 faithful years! Belmond is definitely doing something right.