Okavango Delta Lodge

WORDS Lynette Botha PRODUCTION Annemarie Meintjes PHOTOS Dook

A recent refurb has breathed new life into Jao Camp, a luxury safari camp located on a private island in the middle of the Okavango.

An elephant drinks from the swamp as a crocodile cruises by, only its beady eyes giving away its presence. A mother and father hippo protect their calf below the surface as a mokoro is expertly steered between the swishing reeds. A lilac-breasted roller flies overhead, displaying its rainbow-like plumage. It’s scenes and moments like these in the Okavango Delta that guests get to experience at Wilderness Safaris’ Jao Camp.

Owned by David and Cathy Kays, fourth-generation Batswana, and their son Martin, Jao Camp was originally built at the turn of the millennium, and recently underwent a complete renovation. Entrusted by the Kays for its first design in 1999 were dynamic husband-and-wife architecture-and-design duo Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens – and they were called on once again for its reinterpretation.

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After two decades in operation, the camp – which has grown to be one of the finest in the Delta – had become a bit weathered due to heavy rains, floods and termites. The owners decided it needed an overhaul, one that would take its current issues into consideration and prevent it from deteriorating in years to come while also elevating its offering. This was no problem for Silvio and Lesley, the self-described adventure architects – and everything that makes up the re-imagined Jao is recycled, reclaimed or handmade, and built to last. Authentic-looking thatch is, in fact, recycled plastic. What from afar appears to be a structure made of intertwined metal pipes, haphazardly pieced together like a nest, is actually bleached discarded wood (which shelters the pool). The wooden poles that previously held up the main area have been replaced with a steel structure. And the private and communal decks that appear to be wooden are also made of a composite material. There’s no greenwashing happening here – this is an ecofriendly build in every sense of the term.

“We took a fresh, contemporary approach to the sense of adventure Jao has always had, creating a feeling of not knowing what to expect around the next corner,” says Silvio. “The ever-changing architectural structures take their cues from forms found in nature, but in an innovative way. Conventional materiality is replaced with a more eco-sensitive palette, as the bouquet of spaces and sculptures evolves. The way one is couched – protected from the environment – is blended into a series of sculptural, emotive spaces that amplify the blur between the concept of shelter and art, sculpture and architecture.”

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Accommodation is made up of five one-bedroom suites and two two-bedroom villas, each with an open-plan layout, private plunge pools, lounge and dining areas, and en suite bathrooms with indoor and outdoor showers. Interiors are muted and earthy, as one would expect in a place where nothing can hold a candle to the surrounding natural beauty, but that does not make them any less impressive. The predominantly handmade local furniture and decor pieces were thoughtfully imagined and designed by Silvio, Lesley and their team, and meticulously crafted by African artisans and makers.

Attention to detail is apparent throughout, with standout design pieces that echo the environment. The resin and hand-carved steel bathroom furniture is inspired by the waterlily leaf, the wallpaper is made of raffia floor mats, palm-leaf-shaped lampshades are constructed from leather, and floors are adorned with hand-woven raw wool carpets. Communal areas include the elevated lounge and dining space housed in an elaborate two-storey building, a gift shop, a library, a museum and gallery, a boma for outdoor dining, the pool house, a spa and a separate gym.

Jao offers both land- and water-based safaris, with plenty of game-viewing possible from the comfort of the camp. As a destination that has been welcoming guests for 23 years, Jao’s future in the Okavango Delta once again looks as bright as the plumes of the roller.

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