Above and beyond

In a conservation area almost double the size of the UK is a raised sanctuary for mind, body and soul

The day started with a bang – and not in a good way. It was more like a wallop, really, followed by a series of screeches and then whooshing; something falling through the branches. An awful sound, however you describe it, but who’d have imagined murder?

Each morning at Nambwa Tented Lodge, during a first cup of coffee, a shifty-eyed vervet monkey would visit, snooping along the wooden deck, peering into my room to assess its chances of sneaking in undetected. Each morning, though, I’d be watching this reconnaissance manoeuvre from my bed, with a direct view over the tips of my toes, through the open doorway and into the wilderness beyond. I’d hiss and clap my hands and the duly chastened monkey would scarper away, presumably to pester a neighbour.

On that fateful morning, there was no visiting monkey but, instead, a commotion in the high branches – the piercing shrieks of creatures fighting. Then, that terrible whoosh, a plop and a thunk as the small grey monkey hit the deck and bounced over the edge, its lifeless body landing on the ground, metres below.

It was the troop’s alpha male, apparently, and he’d been attacked, whether for food or a female or as part of some other show of dominance or an ancient spat. In the fight, he’d been sent plummeting, his tiny corpse eventually taken in the night by a leopard.

Murderous monkeys aside, Nambwa could not have been more blissful. Even if it was not the silent kind of bliss. All through the night, there were ceaseless noises – lions roaring in the distance, the mad laughter of hyenas that came into camp at night and hippos padding about down below in search of grass to feed on.

The night air perpetually alive with the primordial chorusing of frogs, insects and hooting owls. And, before the sun became a glimmer behind the line of trees and low-rise hills at the far edge of the floodplain, raucous birds demanded that the day begin.

Each morning, I’d listen to this cacophony and then watch as antelopes and warthogs traipsed towards the waterhole in front of Nambwa’s boma, positioned so that you feel as though you’re floating above the plains below.

High Expectations

The lodge is like a safari rendition of something out of *Avatar*, almost entirely raised on stilts, like a high-rise village with interconnecting boardwalks meandering between its turreted tented suites. These suites sprawl between the branches of majestic trees that loom like leafy sentinels along the edge of the floodplain.

The elevated design is primarily to accommodate the wildlife – elephants in huge numbers frequent the lodge, and the height of the platforms means they can move through unimpeded. For guests, it means you can be tucking into breakfast or sundowners while elephant herds bustle underfoot.

“We can have up to 300, sometimes 400 elephants inside camp from July through to the beginning of November, when the first raindrops fall,” says Tinolla Rodgers, who created the camp with her late husband, Dusty Rodgers, who was something of a local legend with close ties to the local community, which owns the Mayuni Conservancy on which the lodge stands.

The conservancy is part of Bwabwata National Park, its 6,274 km² bounded by the Okavango and Kwando rivers, Angola to the north and Botswana just south. It stretches 40 km north to south and 190 km west to east along what was formerly known as the Caprivi Strip, now the Zambezi Region.

As you drive through this far-flung, wedge-shaped part of Namibia – along the main road between Rundu and Katima Mulilo – you’re aware of a place lost in time. Through the car window, you’ll see homesteads enfolded by grass fences, cows and goats ambling roadside, and occasional signs warning of elephants that might, one presumes, cross the highway at any moment. Tinolla calls it Namibia’s “forgotten region” – almost tragically overlooked, perhaps because there are so few humans. “People still walk with buckets on their heads to fetch water,” she said. “They still live in mud huts, and it’s very poor.”

But the land is rich with life. Cut through with rivers and floodplains, the Bwabwata savannah is visually similar to the Okavango Delta, with abundant game and astonishing birding, and yet, it remains comparatively unknown – its accommodation price tags significantly lower.

Voyage Venture

It is known among more adventurous travelers – the sort who explore in overland trucks, who carry their own tents and supplies and water in hardy 4x4s. For such travelers, Tinolla also operates Nambwa Campsite, a collection of slick group-size camping grounds with designer shower stalls and solar-generated electricity.

Instead of opulence and ostentatiousness, Nambwa’s brimming with laid-back luxury and warm service. The home-from-home atmosphere combines with a healthy respect for the environment. The whole place feels as though it’s landed lightly upon the earth, its interior design echoing this connection, too, with its neutral palette and homey arrangements of sofas and rugs and chandeliers, locally carved elephant sculptures, mokoros cut in half as display pieces, maps up on the wall, and everywhere the knobbly, reptilian bark-skin of ancient trees and pendulous sausage-fruit pods dangling from the boughs of gigantic Kigelias. No wonder the elephants love it.

Few things could be more relaxing than a slow, meandering cruise on Nambwa’s double-decker boat. From the lodge, it is a short walk to the edge of the river, one of the Kwando’s tributaries, which snakes and weaves through a vast wetland labyrinth.

All around us, this watery oasis pulses with life. Red lechwes bounce through the reeds like African reindeer, crocodiles lounge on sandy banks, openbill storks resembling miniature pterodactyls skim the skyline overhead. Cormorants swoop down, hippos surface between the water lilies, and dozens of weavers’ nests dangle from the branches slouching along the water’s edge.

There is no agenda other than to find a suitable sundowner spot, which is ultimately chosen for us by a pod of 70-or-so hippos that we find sprawled across the waterway, bringing the cruise to a halt. We sip our G&Ts and watch in awe as these enormous water babies wallow and cavort and yawn as they spread their dung around with their tiny, propeller-like tails. Occasionally, a voluptuous male will bare its gigantic jaws at another or mock charge a rival in a display of territorial bravado.

Then, without warning, the entire pod starts up a chorus of hysterical guffaws, a big hippo-language symphony that means something, but who knows what? To us, it is vintage African bush, the pure sound of miracle and wonder. A more blissful noise I could not imagine…

Text and photography | Keith Bain

For more information or to book a stay, go to africanmonarchlodges.com

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