Jao Camp: Passing on the Flame to Burn Brighter!

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Wilderness Blogger


Our first building update from the camp team at Jao… Read Antony Mulligan’s report on what’s been happening on the ground, the building progress as well as the highlights (and lowlights) of the Jao transformation!

Jao Camp. Need I say more? Ok, maybe just a small brag. Jao was the first Premier camp in the Okavango Delta and has graced the pages of many magazines, including an eight-page spread in Architectural Digest, as well as being featured in Trisha Wilson’s book, Spectacular Hotels: The Most Remarkable Places on Earth. Most importantly, Jao is our home, and the home and passion of the Kays’ family.

For almost five years, the Kays, along with Wilderness Safaris, have been mulling over the necessary rebuild of this trend-setting camp and how to go about it without sacrificing the beauty and elegance of the original Jao. Nineteen years of being on the water’s edge has inevitably taken its toll.

The first step was a reunion of sorts, of the original team, David and Cathy Kays, with their son Martin, while acquiring the amazing services of architects Silvio Rech and Lesley Carstens. This power group, combined with their teams (which includes me of course), is what was needed to begin the grand task of rebuilding iconic Jao Camp.

Fast forward a few years, a lot of concept drawings, a few squabbles and of course some tears, and we arrived at the 1st October 2018. This date marked the closure of the original Jao Camp, a day of mixed emotions as we said goodbye to this special camp, and set in motion the beginning of an eight-month build.

I will not delve into details of what the new camp will look like, as I would not do any justice to it. Instead, the Wilderness Safaris Marketing team and Cathy Kays will be releasing updates on this as we go, I will, however, do my best to keep you posted on the happenings on the ground, not only of the build, but of the sad and funny, the blood and sweat, and of course the spectacular sightings to be seen on the concession.

The first few weeks of October were mostly spent in disbelief, not only questioning why we were actually breaking down this magnificent camp (until we saw the rotten poles of course) but also disbelief at the amount of work that lay ahead over the next eight months. Most important of all is for us to ensure that we build in such a way that does not impact the fauna and flora of this incredible environment.

The new generation of Kays watching the arrival of the first trucks on site

David Kays ensuring that everything is under control

A few tears were shed when the main area was dismantled

From the side where the library used to be, and the last column standing

The sun setting on the original Jao main area. A new chapter awaits!

Towards the end of October all the rooms were demolished as well as the main area. We still had a few buildings like the spa and treatment areas to clear but progress was good and the excitement to see the first structures being erected made everything worthwhile.

The back-of-house areas like the kitchen, stores, laundry and office are also being rebuilt and even the new Jao Bridge is in its building phase, with a new one being built further south. It was baptism by fire with no rest, but the excitement has kept us charging full steam ahead.

The first poles planted for the new bridge, which is 320 m long!

The beginning of the new kitchen, back of house and stores.

Jao is situated on a beautiful island where water and land meet, allowing for all activities, including game drives (day and night), boating, fishing, guided walks, day trips, mekoro trips, stargazing and more, allowing guests to experience the richness and pristine environment of the Okavango Delta and our reserve in the heart of the Delta.

For those of us who live out here, we are reminded daily how magical it is.

The pair of Pel’s fishing-owls has nested again on Jao, an indication of how well the build has been managed.

The new bridge taking shape

The new back-of-house kitchen and stores are taking shape and the floor is near completion

New laundry, freight table and passage coming together nicely

Our “bridge inspector”. As you know, quality control is important!

The elusive (or not so) sitatunga, caught on our camera trap – checking out the building proceedings.

Dejected wild dogs after the baby lechwe they were chasing had eluded them

Before we knew it, October had rolled by and we were in November. As with any build, there were frustrations, anxiety, and, of course, the inevitable squabbles, but things kept rolling and progress was made and seen daily. Deadlines were being met and we were fast approaching the completion of the new bridge.

November flew by and we reached mid-month and the bridge was complete!

The new bridge has a pull-over area so guests can view birds and wildlife from the elevated vantage point of the bridge without impacting movement on and off the island. We had the whole team on site for the two-weekly site visit and we decided to officially open the bridge with sundowners in the pull-over area. Little did we know what celebratory surprises the wildlife would deliver!

The new bridge photographed from the airstrip side

Reaching the middle of the bridge and the pull-over area

The pull-over area allows us to offer game-viewing in an elevated area without impacting traffic on the bridge. As we gathered at the bridge our pygmy geese inspectors were there to approve the safety! We had elephants drinking upstream and casting their nods of approval, large herds of lechwe and impala standing proud, and a crocodile under the bridge, keeping guard.

Elephants enjoying their Okavango ‘champagne’ for the official bridge opening celebration.

We all gathered for the Kays family to toast the opening of the new bridge, but no sooner had the cheers gone up than two sub-adult lions were seen about 100 m south of the bridge, crossing through the channel. Almost at the same time a radio call came through telling us the whole pack of wild dog (12 of them) was in camp making their way towards the bridge.

As if in a dream we all stood on the bridge watching this unfold… With “Lions to south of me, wild dog to the north, and here we were, stuck in the middle with each other” ringing in our heads, we didn’t know which way to look – what a way to celebrate!

We got back into our vehicles in search of the wild dogs. We watched the four adults and eight pups as they began hunting. They managed to isolate a lechwe calf but didn’t manage to catch it, eventually moving off to find a spot to spend the night.

Jao mongoose mafia warming up to a new day and a new Jao.

Our mongoose mafia, who have been on Jao island for as long as the camp has, also had additions of their own, with the next generation born close to the back of house office. The resident impala family have six pregnant moms who should welcome their brood in December.

Villa 4 quickly caught up with Villa 3, which was leading the way for the first two months. Villa 5 and 6 were hot on their heels, and the preparations are all done for the rest of the villas, the main area and surrounding buildings. The spa, reception and treatment rooms are also all ready for structures to go up, as are the pool and gym.

Sun setting on Villa 3 as the boarding and roofing start

The view from the new rooms

An inspection visit from the inside

So it’s been an action-packed two months which has set the tone for what will be a very busy festive month.

The torch is slowly being passed forward, and as we look from the new Jao Bridge to the old, we can see how bright that torch will burn, and we will continue to stoke the flame as the months pass by. We hope to build your excitement alongside ours and that our passion and love for the Delta and Jao rub off on you.

We look forward to sharing our next update with you soon!

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