“I am the magic ingredient” is written on the back of the chef’s T shirt in the open plan kitchen at Xudum Lodge in the Okavango Delta. Beyond the kitchen, across an expanse of water, is an island where two elephants are tucking into a tree they have just pushed over.
It seems everyone eats well in the Delta. Within minutes of arriving we are relishing a lunch of Malay spiced fish cakes with homemade mayonnaise, fresh salad and the crispiest of French fries. The first meal of an epic culinary experience. But as I ate with relish, I pondered the food miles involved in this meal.
To get to this lunch, we drove 1,200km from Johannesburg to Maun. A half hour flight in a bouncy plane took us to a dusty landing strip. From there we travelled in an open landy for hours through water and across sandy islands. We had been delayed a little as we stopped to watch an elephant shake his brunch from a date palm tree. As he wrapped his trunk around it and shook the tree as if it were a toy, its fruit tumbled down around him. The final leg of our journey was a boat ride along the ‘hippo highway’ following the curving paths the hippos create through the reeds in the delta. So how far had my food travelled?
“We try and source as much as we can of our fresh produce locally,” says Johan van der Merwe, the manager of &Beyond‘s Xudum lodge. I stop feeling too guilty about the food miles on my plate, as he tells me about projects they have initiated with the local communities to grow organic vegetables. However, locally means Maun, where summer temperatures reach 50 degrees Celcius – not ideal for producing sweet, luscious lettuce, therefore much of the food still has to be trucked, boated, flown and driven.
I ask if they couldn’t try growing some herbs and a few vegetables at the lodge but discover it would be impossible. Apart from the fact that every monkey, warthog, elephant and buck would hinder all attempts, the strict Botswana environmental rules would not allow it. Every step possible is taken to ensure that this unique environment remains untouched by the outside world. Even the wet waste from the kitchen is treated with enzymes to ensure a stray tomato seed doesn’t escape and start growing. The logistics of managing a lodge in this isolated and pristine environment are mind boggling.
As we finished our meal another lunch guest arrived – a massive elephant intent on hoovering up berries off the ground in front of the deck where we are eating. The camp is built around a huge jackalberry tree – so named because the fruit is said to be so sweet that even the die hard carnivore jackals will give up their meat-eating ways to munch on it. The huge tusker thought the fruit was pretty good and he rumbled past every day to mop up berries.
After tea and lightly spiced cinnamon cake, we climbed into a Landover with an Italian honeymoon couple. The planned mokoro excursion was delayed by a leopard sighting. We followed him as, in true cat fashion, he climbed and rejected a couple of trees until he found the perfect branch and settled down.
The rangers realised that as we were watching the leopard – he was watching something else. We investigated and found a pride of lion with seven youngsters. Any idea of the mokoro was abandoned as we watched them waking up after napping in the sun all day, with plenty of yawns, licking and playfulness. They finally ambled off, leaving us to salute the setting sun with gin and tonics.
A lantern lit dinner in the boma awaited: butternut soup followed by delicious kudu with a spicy sun-dried apricot chutney. A second Italian honeymoon couple joined us. They had missed the afternoon drive, deciding to have a massage instead. As their friends regaled them in rapid-fire Italian about lions and leopards I hoped the massage had been worth it.
The following morning we set out to try the mokoro again. When our guide asked us if we had any special requests the Italian bride, who had chosen a massage the previous day, sweetly asked if we could go past the leopard first. Our ranger diplomatically handled it and I realised that to be a ranger at an &Beyond lodge requires multiple skills.
Over the next few days they demonstrated their phenomenal knowledge as they identified every bird, tree or animal we asked about. They are incredible trackers, following spoor and understanding the language of the bush intimately. Plus they are mokoro polers, which requires an amazing sense of balance as they poled us through the reeds in traditional canoes.
I asked one ranger what the upright stick in the front of the mokoro was for. “It’s my GPS”, he replied. For a moment I almost believed him, adding ‘speaking stick’ to the list of ranger skills. Turns out the sticks cleared the spider webs away before we paddled through them. Skilled boatmen (and mechanics, having fixed the boat first) and expert all terrain drivers, they took us exploring over and through water, mud and sand, spotting an endless array of birds and animals, from rare lesser jacanas to rolling fat hippos. At the end of each flawless day they would find an idyllic spot for yet another sunset, accompanied by perfect cocktails and snacks.
On our last morning we were with another honeymooning couple – this time from New York. Our game drive was longer than planned because of a mother hyena carrying her cubs, one-by-one in her mouth, to a new home. The honeymooners’ bush plane was leaving earlier than ours and the ranger took a short cut across some shallow water to save time.
But we hit a hollow and despite nimble driving, were soon stuck fast. As the icy water came pouring into the floor of the landie, we climbed up on the back of our seats. A cold wind made the wet rangers’ teeth chatter as they battled in waist-deep water to lever us out. Eventually they radioed for help and another landie came to our rescue. Back on dry land, the two freezing rangers quickly gathered some kindling and in a style that would win them the million in Survivor, they rubbed two sticks together and in no time flat, had a wonderful warm fire burning. Truly, they were the ‘magic ingredient.’
[More images of this fantastic &Beyond experience]