Imagine one of the best and most luxurious travel companies building an architectural masterpiece in the world-renowned Okavango Delta. Only then will you get a grasp of what awaits you when staying at the beautiful andBeyond Sandibe lodge in Botswana. And because the delta was on my bucket list for a very long time, it was a given that I would combine both when I was looking for a nice break earlier this year. Little did I know it would become one of my last trips before this crisis hit globally.
Botswana is one of those countries that chooses quality over quantity when it comes to tourism. Don’t expect big crowds when going on safari here, but rather a unique experience which in most instances you don’t need to share with anyone. And the Okavango Delta might just be the most exclusive of them all, thanks to its difficult access. As a result, most of the lodges are very luxurious, with only a handful which are a little bit more budget friendly. My choice for andBeyond Sandibe came mainly through the pictures that I saw of the lodge (it is constructed out of wood and in the shape of a massive pangolin), together with the reputation the andBeyond brand has. It is also their flagship lodge in the delta, so it was the ideal opportunity to experience the brand that has several iconic lodges in their portfolio.
First stop is Maun, which is the gateway to the Okavango Delta. Direct flights are operated from both Johannesburg and Capetown which makes this remote place feel like the town next door. Once arrived in Main, you’ll have to transfer your lodge via either helicopter or smaller aircraft which fly to the different private airstrips within the delta. We narrowed it down to two options, being Mack Air ( http://www.mackair.co.bw/ ), an airline company with over 25 years of experience and a great reputation with Maun as their base. Or Horizon
Helicopters (https://www.helicopterhorizons.com/ ), because helicopters do tend to fly lower and as a result would give us better views over the delta while being transferred to the lodge. In the end I couldn’t choose so opted to do the transfer with Mack Air while using Horizon Helicopters later during our stay (more info later in this review). The flight from Maun to the airstrip took around 20 minutes (depending where your lodge is located in the delta) and the views along the way were stunning. The landscape changed completely during the short flight, and before we knew it, we arrived at the gravel airstrip (like most of the airstrips here) where our andBeyond ranger and tracker were waiting for us. Usually they will take you straight to the lodge, though it was already afternoon and as a result we opted to go straight on our first game drive. Of course, it all depends on the time of arrival, and your personal preference, cause as you can see it does involve a few short trips to arrive at your destination in the Okavango Delta. Then again, all in all it took us 4 hours from our house in Johannesburg to get here, so it’s not the end of the world either.
As mentioned before, you can expect a luxurious stay then you book at any of the andBeyond lodges, irrelevant of their location. And Sandibe lodge is no exception, on the contrary. All the rooms are actual suites on stilts which are dotted on both sides of the main building. The specific shape and location of the suites insures that you can’t see any other one from your room, giving you the impression to be staying here on your own. Then again, even when the lodge is fully booked, it never really gets busy as there are only 12 gorgeous suites and 1 family suite (consisting of 2 separate suites which are connected). It does feel even very exclusive, and not seeing or hearing any other guest (when you are in your suite) just emphasises this feeling of true luxury. Inside your room you’ll find all the modern luxuries you could wish for. A huge bed, separate dressing, in-and outside shower, a fully stocked minibar with al those yummy snacks which you can’t resist (guilty as charged), private plunge pool on your huge terrace, and the list goes on and on. They even thought about those early hours in the day, where you don’t really want to see or speak to anyone (and vice versa) until you had that first cup of coffee. As a result, they made a practical hatch on top of your minibar and hidden behind a door, where you can expect your coffee in the morning, accompanied by some freshly baked cookies. I mean, what more do you need before getting into the shower and prepare for breakfast and morning game drives?
Now that we’re talking about food…don’t ask me how they do it, but it seems like they have a secret underground vault where they have unlimited access to whatever produce you can imagine. All the food I had at andBeyond Sandibe was cooked perfection, using only fresh ingredients. The kitchen is partially interactive so you can chat to the chef and tell him which ingredients you would like to see incorporated into your meal. Or what do you think of a complete eggs Benedict menu in the morning? Not just the regular or the royal, but also some very own twists to this legendary breakfast dish. And we haven’t even touched the drinks menu. The wine list is extensive and includes some of the best wines you’ll find in South Africa. There’s also a large selection of liquor for those who are more into that. All meals and drinks are included in the price, and all too often this is a place where lodges try to cut corners and reduce the cost per guest. But clearly it’s not the case at Sandibe and it does add to the overall luxurious feeling when staying over here. The culinary delights aren’t just limited to the lodge, no no no, that wouldn’t be fitting for an andBeyond property. Also during the game drives they will pull out all the stops to make your experience just that bit more exclusive. Both during the morning and afternoon drive your tracker and ranger cook up some delicious snacks, which really impressed me. Another example was a great lunch in the middle of the reserve, at the spot where the helicopter would drop us. Nothing beats finishing a great flight with some amazing wines and a cook that serves you delicious food.
It’s a given that everybody comes to the Okavango Delta to enjoy the beautiful fauna and flora, though it doesn’t have to be just that if you are looking for some relaxation. For example, there is a fully equipped gym at Sandibe from which you have great views. Rather something less intensive? How about a spa where the sounds of the surrounding nature make you relax even more. There’s also a nice boutique where you can find beautiful and unique souvenirs, you know, for those shopaholics that need that little kick. But something you really need to consider while visiting the delta is a helicopter safari. I love helicopter flights and will take any chance to do one, but never did I have a game drive from the air, or should I say…game flight? Remember Horizon Helicopters I mentioned earlier, well, they are specialised in these flights so it was a given for me to book it. I specifically requested to take the doors of the helicopter in order have a better view and to get that extra adrenaline rush (you can also opt to keep the doors on of course, but if you are up for it I hight recommend you to do it without). Our pilot was a very friendly guy from France, and his enthusiasm + the fact that I could practice my French once again made the whole experience even more fun. Our ranger also joined us in order to increase the chances of spotting wildlife from above (just another example of the level of service andBeyond provides you when given the chance) as I didn’t expect to see much due to the height and speed you’re flying at. But boy was I wrong. During our hour long flight we constantly saw animals, and not just elephants and hippo’s (they are easier because of their size). We even spotted a whole pride of lions that was hiding from the sun. It’s definitely one of my highlights on safari and I would recommend everyone to do it.
You don’t need to be David Attenborough to know that the Okavango Delta is one of the best places to spot wildlife. During all the game drives we did we were amazed by the diversity and abundance of animals which we encountered. Not only that, also the landscape changes constantly which results in spotting different animals in different vegetation. To make sure its guests don’t miss any of these encounters, Sandibe provides everyone with Swarovski binoculars during their stay. Not only does this save a lot of space and weight in your luggage, it also provides you with one of the best binoculars currently on the market. I really hope there are more lodges following this example. My favourite sighting during my stay? There were many, but among my favourites was a leopard overlooking the area from high up in a tree. Lions that were dragging their freshly caught wildebeest into the bushes in order to hide it from predators, while hardly being able to contain themselves from eating it all right there on the spot. A whole herd of elephants that crossed one of the many channels while we were having our sundowners. I can go on forever, but I guess my pictures speak for themselves.
On my return flight home, I only had one conclusion: I delayed my visit to the delta way too long. I should have experienced this years ago. The Okavango is so unique and different to most parks and reserves out there. Of course, the andBeyond Sandibe lodge was the perfect choice for my stay and it made the whole experience even more special. Not only the architecture (which was my first reason why I put this lodge on my shortlist initially) but also the warmth of the staff, the endless little details that make the difference between good and luxurious, the amazing suites, the food,….I can go on for a while. It was a definite “See you again soon” when we drove back to the airstrip as I really want to return. Then again, andBeyond has many more luxury lodges in fantastic locations which I certainly want to visit too, so let’s hope we can make it happen as soon as this crisis is over.
Guest Blog: Text and Images by Kristof Eyckmans @KEyckmans