Camp Reviews: Jao Concession At The Okavango Delta, Botswana

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Accomodations, Advice, Africa, Review, Safaris in Botswana, Story

The Jao Concession is situated in the north-western area of the Okavango Delta, just below the pan handle, whilst the Moremi Game Reserve forms the eastern boundary. Some 60,000 hectares in size, with maximum guest occupancy of 48 people, it encompasses deep blue channels, lagoons, emerald-green floodplains and palm islands.

To the north and east of Jao, the narrow water channels cut their way through a system of papyrus and reed beds. The area is said to have Botswana’s highest concentration of lions as well as a wide diversity of birdlife. Lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog, buffalo and elephant are all found in this area, as well as good concentrations of wattled crane, saddle-billed storks, slaty egrets etc.

All of the camps offer a variety of activities including game drives, walks and night drives. Boating and mokoro trips are a popular exciting, and to some a more adventurous way of game viewing.

Kwetsani

IMG_5198Kwetsani is a small and fairly luxurious safari camp set on a long narrow island in the Jao Concession. It blends seamlessly into its surroundings and its activities are primarily water-based.

Kwetsani’s thatched main area has a spacious lounge with comfy leather sofas and various wood, cane and leather armchairs, all with soft cushions. The dining area features one long wooden table for sociable gatherings at mealtimes, while the well-stocked bar, which encompasses a jackalberry tree, also has a ‘help-yourself’ fridge – ideal when there isn’t a staff member around. There’s also a curio shop and the standard quirky ‘loo with a view’.

Steps from the main area lead down to a boma with a firepit, where evening drinks are often taken and where a weekly traditional evening meal takes place.
Views from the large open deck to the front stretch east across the Delta floodplains. Charmaine, one of the managers, even boasted of an incident when clients watched a live show of a group of lions attempting to take down a cape buffalo from the comforts of the deck. There is also a viewing scope for spying the animals, including large herds of red lechwe, which often wander in front of camp.

Kwetsani Camp has five ‘tree-house’ chalets nestled amongst palm, mangosteen and fig trees, all linked by wooden walkways. Spacious, stylish, and built high up on stilts for lovely views of the surrounding area, each has a thatched roof and is of pole-and-canvas construction.

All the chalets have a couple of chairs and a table on their verandas, most of which incorporate trees into their design. Entering via french doors you’ll find twin/king-sized beds with bedside tables under a single mosquito net, a couple of comfortable armchairs, and a coffee table with wildlife magazines and information on the camp. There’s also a tea and coffee station, a writing table with a lamp, a standing fan and a selection of International adaptors. 

A wooden headboard acts as a divider between the bedroom and the bathroom behind. Here, a large mirror spans his and hers washbasins set on a long wooden tabletop, lit by ostrich-eggshell lamps. A door leads to an indoor shower, and another to the toilet, while to the side of the wooden veranda there’s an outdoor shower.

The terrain in this area changes dramatically from season to season due to the flood levels, which determine what safari activities are available at Kwetsani Camp. These usually include day and night game drives on nearby Hunda Island (the concession’s main permanently ‘dry’ area, and the focus for game viewing), and trips by mokoro and motorboat.

We travelled to Kwetsani via helicopter which could be slightly more expensive than via airplane but definitely much more convenient. The Jao airstrip from Kwetsani is about 1 ½ hour drive away during dry season or 40min via boat when the area is flooded From March to September. We landed on an impromptu helipad and it just took us about 20min to arrive at camp. The helicopter is also a nice tour and serves as a variation in mode of transport to and from camps.

IMG_5201Our tree-house was a welcome change in terms of elevated scenery. It felt much safer as compared to being placed by the open plains or in the midst of the bush and waking up to the sound of birds chirping was definitely a song to the ears. The perspective from our rooms was also much grander in scale as we could view as far as we could see. What we didn’t expect though was the fact that Tent #1, the furthest to the main lounge was perched in the same residence as the baboons. We were literally sleeping with a family, with the alpha male snoring a symphony the whole night and waking up to some toddlers fighting over a leaf in the early morning.

The camp is only ideal for adults, as the high walkways are not safely covered on the sides. It will be horrifying for families with children to walk about freely. The camp grounds is also small given the limited no of rooms so guests have to be considerate of everyone’s desire for peace & quiet.

The advantage of Kwetsani as a small camp is the quality bonding of the guests – even with the camp managers as they freely open up with their life stories.

Kwetsani is a good value camp. It’s a classic camp that’s strategically located in the very heart of the concession. As the manager pointed out their location in a displayed map, they are in between Jao Camp and Hunda Island which gives them maximum opportunity to travel around both areas. Note: Jao and Jacana game drives usually need to travel 1-2hours from camp to go to areas with active wildlife that is closer to Kwetsani. Furthermore, the camp itself is a good variation from the other camps as accommodations provide a different experience and they enjoy both land and seasonal water-based activities.

Jacana

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Jacana Camp is a fairly small camp built on a little island amidst the large open floodplains of the Jao Flats. The Okavango’s levels fluctuate throughout the year but Jacana is usually completely surrounded by water, giving it a true island feeling. This also means that water-based activities can generally be offered year-round.

Jacana Camp’s main area is a double-storey building with the main lounge area and open bar at the lower deck and the dining area on the upper deck. A few stances to the side of the main building is a small plunge pool with lounge chairs and a fire pit to hang out and chat about the day’s adventures. There is also a curio shop and another quirky rendition of a “loo with a view”.

Although there are six fairly spacious tented chalets at Jacana Camp, they accept a maximum of ten guests at any one time. Constructed on wooden decks, each has a small balcony overlooking the scenic floodplains. Sliding doors open into the main bedroom area, where a large bed beneath a walk-in mosquito net and cooling ceiling fan makes the most of the view. To one side are two comfortable chairs and to the other, a writing desk with camp information and a few magazines.

Another sliding door at the back leads to the open-plan, en-suite bathroom. Ceramic double basins are set into a wooden surface beneath an interestingly designed metal-framed mirror. Separated to some extent by head-height wooden poles are the indoor shower and flushing loo. Outside, leading off the veranda, is a double outdoor shower with stunning views!  There is one suite that’s usually considered the honeymoon suite that has a copper bath by the outdoor shower as well.

IMG_4704The rich birdlife surrounding the camp is the highlight for the guests here. Species we’ve spotted include wattled crane, slaty egret, saddle-billed stork and rufus-bellied heron. Birding enthusiasts should keep an eye out for Pel’s fishing owl, which are known to nest on a nearby island.

Activities offered are usually water based: boat trips, Mokoro and fishing. Day game drives are usually offered in the Jao area when the waters have receded, generally from around September until about April. Night drives are not generally an option because it’s usually necessary to boat into camp, and they won’t run the boats at night for safety reasons.

This authentic Delta camp is a good variation vs. big-game watching. It stands out for its stunning location, excellent birdlife and informal, tropical air. Jacana Camp makes a particularly tranquil place to end a safari, or when used in the middle of a trip, as a welcome break from all the bumpy adventures of being on the road. It opens the guests’ appreciation for other forms of wildlife rather than just focusing on the common list to tick off. It elevates you to a higher form of safari learning.

Jao

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Jao Camp is surrounded by open seasonal floodplains dotted with small islands. With a fusion style of Balinese and African décor, Jao is an imposing and luxurious camp which sprawls over roughly a kilometre among tall shady leadwood, African wild mangosteen and ebony trees. Jao Camp is one of the original ‘premier’ camps of Botswana, designed to make it a cut above most others. Yet despite it’s opulence and grandeur, and its sometimes rather ‘stiff’ feel on arrival, the very friendly team here create a relaxed and informal atmosphere.

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Jao’s central area is arranged over two levels. The lower level features an intimate and tucked away sitting area, a small library, a richly stocked curio shop and an innovative natural wine cellar.

This opens out onto a large deck surrounding the firepit decorated with quite probably the biggest wind chimes we’ve seen. From here, wooden walkways lead to not one but two separate plunge pools. 

From this lower level, a large polished rosewood staircase leads to the upper deck, incorporating a large bar and lounge to one side and a dining area to the other. A winding wooden walkway, about 3m off the ground, connects to Jao’s nine luxury suites, which are spread out on either side of the main building

Built of canvas and thatch, the extensive suites are tastefully decorated and very well appointed. Running the length of each suite is an outside deck with a hammock and some chairs. If the weather is good – and you’re feeling a little adventurous –the camp can organise a sleep-out in your own private sala at the end of the deck: a thatched sleeping area which would make a great spot for an afternoon siesta.

Inside each of Jao’s suites is a sitting area with a comfy sofa and chair, a large wooden table with sherry and glasses, a writing desk, and a minibar/fridge as well as a tea- and coffee-making station. The twin beds sit under a four-poster mosquito net with a built in air-cooling system.  The rooms have wooden doors with mosquito gauze which can be opened to maximize the view of the floodplains.

The en-suite bathroom is separated from the rest of the suite by a wooden partition, which doubles as a wardrobe. The addition of a roll-down reed blind means that the bathroom can effectively be closed off for additional privacy. Behind the freestanding washstand with two basins is an old-fashioned claw-foot bathtub – quite unusual for a Botswanan safari camp. A separate flushing toilet is accessed through a sliding door. The suites have both indoor and outdoor showers.

 Separate from the central area and along a shady walkway, is the dedicated wellbeing Jao Spa – #1 spa in Botswana. It’s a welcome feature to the camp especially for ladies who would like to pamper themselves while their husbands leave for a day of game drive or fishing. Or for some intimate couple’s spa therapy sessions that can end with a romantic dinner set up within the spa grounds. There is also a small gym with a rowing machine, stationary bike, cross trainer, yoga mats, exercise ball and free weights.

Game drives are usually conducted in Hunda Island where the experience will be more productive. It takes about 1 – 1 ½ hours to get there so morning game drives can be in a rush or you can opt to stay out the whole day which also includes a nice bush brunch / lunch. Water based activities are conveniently located around camp.   Noteworthy is the opportunity to sleep-out on a platform in the ‘bush’, a pretty rustic experience which puts you close to nature. Accessible when water levels are low enough (generally from September to May), it is a wonderful contrast to a night in the suites, but it is not for everyone! It is advisable to book this in advance, preferably if you have a three-night stay at Jao.

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