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Mombo: Africa’s ultimate destination

Known as the Place of Plenty, Mombo in Botswana’s Okavango Delta, has some of the highest densities of wildlife in what is already a wildlife rich area.

Doc, our incredible local guide, announced upon arrival, “Welcome to paradise”. We couldn’t have agreed more. The reason it’s such a paradise is probably not what you expect.

A herd of elephants feed through a grove of Apple Leaf trees. In summer they predominantly graze on the nutrient-rich and easily digestible grasses, turning to browsing with the onset of winter. The Okavango Delta is one of the best places in the world to view African elephants.

Mombo sits on the northwestern tip of Chief’s Island, the largest Island in the Delta covering an area over 70 km long (43 mi) and 15 km wide (9.3 mi). This strip of land provides the core area for much of the resident wildlife to concentrate on when the waters rise in winter but there’s an even more important factor that draws the wildlife here. This factor is the fertility of the land, which rather unexpectedly is due to natural peat fires; peat being the true meaning of the word Mombo.

Layers of papyrus and other decomposing vegetation build up on top of each other and dry out. Eventually combustion (from a lightning strike or from a build up of pressure) causes this underground fuel to ignite. Due to the shape of the island these groupings of peat are then deposited on the northern tip of Chief’s Island, on the Mombo concession, and creates the extremely fertile top soil. This soil allows highly palatable grasses to grow, which in turn attracts many grazing species that the predators then hunt.

The lush landscape of the Mombo concession on Chief’s Island. Peat is what makes the soil so fertile, encouraging palatable grass species to thrive, which is what draws in the large herds of grazers and browsers and the predators that rely on them for food.
A male lion grooms himself after a morning of consistent drizzle. His large belly was the tell-tale sign that the pride had eaten recently. Although we weren’t sure what they had caught, it must have been something large, like a zebra or buffalo, as all 14 lions in the pride were well fed.

We visited in February, during the wet season, when the area experiences some of its highest rainfall. The quality of the sightings and beauty of the area far surpassed my expectations, which is really saying something.

One of our very first adventures was a helicopter flight on our first evening. We flew above vultures that had just spotted and were landing on an elephant carcass, herds of lechwe, elephants, giraffe and sun bathing hippos but by far the most incredible sighting was of two black rhino. Wilderness Safaris pioneering Rhino Reintroduction Programme began almost 20 years ago. This project saw the largest ever cross-border translocation of Critically Endangered black rhino to date, moving 1% of the total global population of this highly threatened species to a wilderness safe haven in the Okavango Delta. They work closely with the Botswana Government and the Botswana Defence Force to protect these animals and we were lucky enough to spot two of them.

A fortuitous sighting of two fairly relaxed black rhino. This species is highly endangered and although figures vary, it’s believed that there are only about 3000 left in the wild. Notice the shorter body length, hooked lip, deep arch in the back, small rounded ears, short horns and ability to raise their necks high for extended periods of time. These are all distinctive attributes of the black rhino and help you distinguish them from the white (straight lipped) rhino.

Another wonderful sighting was of a large pride of lions we found the following morning. The pride had two very young cubs, a few subadults and females as well as three large males, making up a pride of 14. Their full bellies were a clear sign that they’d feasted during the night and were more intent on shaking their sodden manes than moving great distances. However large downpours of rain, like the ones we experienced while we were there, wash away the important scent markings these lions rely on to demarcate their territories. It wouldn’t have been long before the pride were up and exploring their territorial boundaries.

The same male lion photographed above shaking the remnants of rain from his impressive mane.
One of the youngest cubs in the pride trying to coax another pride member into some play.

That same afternoon we found a pack of wild dogs and were lucky enough to watch them rest, play, shake, and start to hunt. Wild dogs are some of the most successful hunters on the continent and one of the reasons for this is the speed they can move at (about 50km/hr) and the length of time they can keep it up for (about 5km). Normally it is this that makes keeping up with them so difficult but for us it was a grassland area, too heavily saturated in water, that brought us to a halt. As soon as we began to drive through the deceptive bog we all knew we were in trouble by which point it was too late. We watched as the dogs disappeared into the tree line and we begun the exercise of digging ourselves out. Although maybe not delivering the adrenaline associated with wild dogs, the extraction process definitely led to many laughs.

One of my all-time favourite scenes- a pack of wild dogs on the move. As the sun began to dip behind the clouds, the pack began to move, stopping to scan and listen for potential prey.
It seems wild dogs are no different from domestic dogs in that they’ll shake with no regard given to who they might be wetting in the process. Here the pack begins to get moving after a midday rest.
Wild dogs all take responsibility for getting involved in the hunt as well as looking out for the safety of the pack. There enormous saucer-shaped ears and keen senses allow them to hear, see and smell both potential food and potential threats from a long way off. As they all look, listen and move in different directions they increase their chances of finding an evening meal.
Doc takes on the mean feat of trying to jack our vehicle out of its entrenched spot in the grass. The aim was to raise the tires enough to stack wood under them that would give traction as we reversed out. Although this worked, it only inched us a meters further back and we eventually had to call for the help of a tractor to pull us out (but hush! I never told you this).
Callum with his muddied hands from throwing himself wholeheartedly into the extraction effort.

On our last morning we had a magnificent sighting of a female leopard and her cub. Doc pulled off an incredible spot and to top it off, they were in one of my favourite trees, an Apple Leaf (Philenoptera violacea). This leopard is the granddaughter of the famous Legadema, whose name means Lightening. Legadema, possibly the most well-known leopard in Botswana was made famous by Derek and Beverly Joubert in the filming of their National Geographic documentary, Eye of the Leopard. In her lifetime she successfully raised just two cubs to maturity (Pula, which means Rain and Maru, which means Cloud ). This leopard photographed here is the one known as Marotodi (Raindrop) and is the only surviving female cub of her mother, Pula. We watched her play with her cub, drink from one of the many natural pools of water and lastly climb a massive acacia tortilis tree. It was wonderful to consider that we were watching the future potential of Legadema’s legendary line.

A female leopard, of the famous Legadema lineage, lounges in the boughs of an Apple Leaf tree. It’s always amazing to me how comfortable leopards can make just about any branch look.
The same leopard scales down the main stem of the tree to meet her cub investigating the shrubbery below. The pair played a game of hide and seek, stalking and chasing each other through the dense brush.
One of the beautiful aspects of visiting the bush in summer is the amount of water around. This means that you have a good chance of watching and photographing animals having a drink and their reflections created as a result.
Can you spot the leopards in this enormous acacia toltilis? Hint: They’re in the left half. Seeing how small they appear in this tree gives you a sense of the size of the trees in the Delta. Due to the amount of water and high water table, they are absolute giants here.

Being one of the most expensive camps in Africa, we’re often asked if Mombo is worth it. My resounding answer is, YES! Apart from all the reasons and experiences listed above, another has to be the astounding beauty of the landscape. From the air filled with the scent of wild sage, the Real Fan Palm dotted horizons, the enormous Mangosteen, Ebony and Sausage trees and the proliferation and diversity of small and large species, every little element adds to the perfection of this paradise. Another big factor is its exclusivity. Botswana, in general prides itself on its brave decision to create a more expensive experience for a low impact (limited beds and vehicles) but Mombo takes it to a whole new level. In our four game drives, we didn’t see a single other vehicle.

A herd of zebras welcome the break of day in the clearing they have seeked safety in during the night. The summer skies result in moody mornings like this one.
Morning light catches the towers of the Delta, the Real Fan Palm trees (Hyphaene petersiana). It is these trees that the elephants shake for fruit. When the palm fruits fall to the ground the elephants feast on them. This is an important process for the tree, as it softened or broken open in the elephant’s digestive system, making it more likely to germinate. The elephant carries the seed far from the mother tree and thus disperses them. It also leaves the fruit in a pile of dung, providing it with just the right environment to begin its journey of growth.

Added to the outstanding wildlife experience is the amazing quality of service, food and wine. Fresh produce is flown in weekly and the gourmet dining – accompanied by choice South African wines – might compete for a Michelin star were the camp not deep in the bush. What may even be better though is the pizza oven, where with a wide range of toppings, you can create your dream pizza in the middle of nowhere.

The eight spacious tents, re-built in 2018, afford sweeping views over a floodplain teeming with wildlife. The sitting room, separate bedroom and bathroom, indoor and outdoor showers and bathtub with copper and brass fittings all contribute to Wilderness Safaris’ ideal of responsible luxury. Mombo also offers a brand-new gym, spa and infinity pool, and helicopter and hot-air balloon trips. One of the wonders of this camp is the amount of animals that stream in throughout your stay. There really is no boundary here between being in the wilderness or back at camp.

One example of the wildlife that wonders into camp. This elephant is well known at Mombo for stepping over the walkway between the guests’ rooms.

An insider’s look into a Mombo guest room.

Paradise is defined as an ideal or idyllic place or state. Some may refer to it as the Garden of Eden or Heaven on Earth. Others Nirvana, Moksha, Aaru and so on. For me, I’d simply call it Mombo.

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