Where the boundaries between land and water are often blurred…This is Jao, this is the Okavango Delta, as some of the purest waters on Earth ebb and flow, descending from the Angolan highlands to the Kalahari Desert. Jao co-owner Cathy Kays’ description captures the magic of both, of the camp and its dreamlike setting.
Built 23 years ago by the Kays family – Cathy, husband David, son Martin and team – Jao rests under a tree canopy on its own remote island, surrounded by a watery garden of channels, reeds, and lilies. Land- and water-based game viewing are spectacular there, with huge wildlife diversity, ranging from the elusive Pel’s fishing-owl, to the infamous ‘Jao Mafia’ mongoose gang, to a myriad of big cats, to cohabiting crocs and hippos, to vast antelope, buffalo, and elephant herds.
The camp itself is a knockout, one of Wilderness Safaris’ most luxurious and a multiple-award winner. Revamped in 2019, Jao is a sculptural marvel of natural and recycled materials, of steel, wood, and glass, of towering, spacious interiors embracing the light, the bush. Offering extras like its spa, library, museum, and gallery. In many places stamped with the Kays family’s personal touch – a family rooted in Botswana since the 19th century and today based in Maun, running Ngamiland Adventure Safaris (NAS) and other ventures.
Cathy, shareholder and director for finance, guest relations, and décor; Martin Kays, NAS director; Kgosi Sethoko, Jao lodge manager; Cindy Swart, Food Experience Manager, Jao Reserve; and Guide Meshack Mbwe share what they love about Jao and its floodplains…
(Cathy) ‘Jao’ comes from the maXanekwe name ‘Xao’, and in that language means ‘to try something that is good tasting’. In baYei it means ‘metsi a tsela a Mashaa’, which translates into ‘a water channel that brings new water’.
(Cindy) I have heard stories that the Jao area was named after the people who lived here many years ago. I have heard stories of the spirits who live on the Jao floodplains. But my personal favourite is that ‘Jao’ is the combination of sounds that the water trickling into the floodplains make. So to me it is standing out on the floodplain while the water is coming in, listening to the clicks and ticks of the insects and the squawks of the birds and the hoof beats of the lechwe, and far in the distance the snorts of the hippos. That’s Jao.
(Cathy) The Jao floodplains are what distinguish Jao. I know of no other place in the Okavango with such vast open plains, which provide for incredibly beautiful scenery. For me that is what Jao is all about, a very special place in the Okavango Delta – where the boundaries between land and water are often blurred.
(Cindy) I have heard many different stories of what the Jao Reserve is; for me personally it is the place where my soul is happiest, my personal touchstone. When I think of Jao I think of the joy on a guest’s face the first time that they see a sunset over the vast floodplains. Or the pure excitement of having an elephant walk right past you, so close that you can almost feel the hairs on their tails tickle your arm. Or the first time a guest walks into their room and sees what the view will be for them in their home for the next few days. I also love the library and the museum at Jao. I can spend hours in them just looking and seeing; having been a part of this extended family for so long I can put names and faces to the stories, an absolute treat. It’s been such a privilege to have been part of so many of these stories and pictures.
(Kgosi) Jao has this magic that one cannot explain or show through images. It starts with the camp itself then carries all the way to the staff – there is a lot of personality. Some of my best moments here are when guests first arrive and walk through the library to the main area, and you see the shock in their faces not believing the wonder of what they are witnessing.
(Martin) Jao for me is a true Okavango Delta experience. It’s a great place to come and unwind, as your typical safari experience is filled with excursions so you’re often pretty bushed by the end of a safari. The whole camp to me is really special. I’d call it my second home as I have years of special memories here. I’ve seen Jao grow from a wild island with nothing on it into a beautiful, award-winning camp. As a boy I helped position the first rooms by climbing trees to help the team get an idea of potential views. Then I had the opportunity 20 years later to rebuild Jao into what it is today.
(Cathy) Jao Camp is situated just south of the floodplains on a riverine island fringed with tall, lush trees. The center of the island has the remnants of a mopane forest, which became water-logged over the years, converting the trees into bonsai mopanes. Situated as it is on the edge of the permanent waterways, Jao is perfectly placed to offer a wide range of activities.
(Cindy) Guests always find the family feeling a special part of Jao. Here we are all a part of the greater Jao family, and guests staying with us can feel that. The Kays family has welcomed each of us to be a part of their dream, Jao Camp. Cathy is one of the few people who’d let my love of the mongooses and birds run wild, almost daily getting a picture or video of a baby mongoose’s growth, or of swallows building a nest near the office; there are not too many bosses willing to do that.
(Kgosi) Jao for me is the people! The love and the passion that everyone working here has for their job and being here. You must have a love for the wilderness to do what we do, and everyone here has it, and you can see it. The team has unrivalled connection and mutual support. Like any other family we have our days, but we get through them and keep getting stronger – we often laugh through it together.
(Cathy) Our Jao staff are led by a vibrant young team who are eager to please and take great satisfaction out of enhancing a guest’s stay. Many of the staff have been with us for a very long time and are very well known to us.
(Cathy) We offer mokoro trips, fishing, and boating in the wet areas and walking and game drives on dry land. Some years up to 85% of the Jao Reserve can be inundated, but we have great logistics worked out to get guests to the prime game-driving areas in between the water activities. Guests love going on the mekoro, such a peaceful, serene experience and the perfect time for noticing the smaller creatures and the magnificent flora. Highlights for many guests are Jao’s wonderful bush setups, be it an outdoor breakfast facing a hippo-filled lagoon at dawn; brunch with tables set in the shallows of the lechwe-dotted floodplain, with clear water and white sand enveloping your feet; a bush picnic on Hunda Island amongst a zebra herd; a sundowner setup or gin stop that brings the lounge into the bush; or a magnificent bush dinner set under starry skies, a mesmerizing fire as the focal point.
(Kgosi) Everyone loves a boat cruise, where you can go do catch-and-release fishing with your friends or your family and the kids. You can follow that up with a game drive and see lions and other big cats, which is amazing, but for me there is nothing better than sitting in a mokoro, cruising through the Delta channels. Being so close to nature all you can hear around you are birds, the wind blowing through the grass and the trees, the breeze hitting your face. That is what I call ‘the Okavango magic’. Then, as you round a corner, on a sand bank in the middle of the channel you have drinks waiting for you, to watch what many come here for, the sunset.
(Cathy) Jao is a place of wonder with beautifully designed buildings that fit into the landscape. The ‘new’ Jao is a major departure from the old camp with its thatch and hand-crafted woodwork. This is a far more sustainable camp, making use of the opposite spectrum of building materials, with steel and recycled plastic. It was quite terrifying, but watching the rebuild come to life was tremendously fulfilling. Jao is a very personal place for me; so much of our love and energy have been invested there. We’ve shared a lot of our history in the Jao museum.
The furnishings are hand-crafted and designed especially for Jao, so everything is unique. Elements of my childhood reflect in the sandstone slabs which come from my home town and are used as coffee tables, vanities, and kitchen counters throughout the camp. The rooms are open plan with high-pitched roofs, creating volumes of space, and glass or metal gauze aluminum doors opening out to the magnificent floodplains.
The main area has the same height off the ground as the original Jao main area had, but it is larger and designed around the trees. This area has an indoor lounge and dining area which can be opened up to the elements with its tall glass stacking and folding doors, or sealed off against the cold in winter or bugs in summer. The main feature of this area is the impressive bar with its cedar counter over an angular iron base, with a backdrop of leadwood uprights holding glass shelves. Above the bar hang hand-thrown, ceramic lily-like lights in a mass display offset with water-colored strapping and a large ceramic leaf-imprinted disc. The stately iron fireplace set on a sandstone slab creates a cozy ambiance on cold winter nights. Adjacent to this and under the same roof structure is the outdoor lounge area, with separate private eating decks set amongst the trees.
Alongside the main area two oval shaped towers house the kitchen and the gallery/museum. There you’ll find many curiosities under glass, the library, a wine cellar, and a striking giraffe skeleton.
The elevated walkways outside lead you to the two lovely, tranquil rosewood-clad spa rooms, enveloped by water pools and birdsong; to the fire deck; to the gym with all its sexy machines; and to the main pool and its intriguing bird’s nest gazebo.
(Cindy) The decor and design of Jao are all inspired by the Delta, be it in the colors of the room linen, the shape of the pool shade cover, or the colors of the recycled thatch used on the room roofs. These are all the colors, shapes, and textures you will see in the water lilies, the grassy plains, and the weavers’ nests as you make your way through our concession. Jao has just had a major revamp, going from a grand old dame to the most fashion-forward camp in the Okavango.
(Kgosi) The guides always jokingly tell us that we need to stop taking guests to the rooms first as they’ll never want to leave to go do activities – why did we build such nice rooms?!
(Cathy) Jao’s food is sophisticated yet simple, using the freshest ingredients with an African twist to the dishes. We serve light café lunches, including salads and homemade pestos, and move on to elaborate six-course dinners. For lunch, some of my favorites are Okavango bream with fried skinny stick potato chips and homemade ice cream (peanut butter is my favorite). For dinner, some of my favorite dishes include roasted carrot soup with curried ice cream; fricassee of mushrooms served with caramelized onion cigars, avocado, and compressed tomato; watermelon sorbet; seared venison loin with reduced chilli harissa jus and sweet potato and ginger puree; and an intense chocolate combo – chocolate fudge torte, dark chocolate marquise, and chocolate ice cream.
In camp we offer in-room dining, but most people love to dine at the main area where there is a choice of different dining spots – on the outdoor decks, outside dining area, inside dining area, or in the gallery. We also dine in the outdoor boma a couple of days a week. Alternatively, we can set up an out-of-camp bush dinner in a number of different locations.
(Cindy) Dining at Jao is an experience in itself, and in essence is the spirit of the Delta, simplicity made special. We offer dining in each guest room, and if staying in one of the two villas, you can have your own private chef come to your room and make your dinner for you. We can also do meals in the bush – and whether you are eating brunch with the water lapping around your ankles, or on drier land with the roar of the lions in the distance, you will hold the experience for the rest of your life.
(Cathy) I honestly cannot pick a favorite season; each season is so different and brings its own pleasures. Spring is short lived, as we seem to move quickly from winter into summer, but I would define spring as being mostly hot and dry. The water has mostly dried up on the plains, leaving the channels and the permanent water to the east with water, which attracts the animals into a more concentrated area. Large flocks of wattled crane gather on the floodplains, and the lechwe herds move out to the water in the day, then trek back to the dry floodplains at night, preferring the openness for safety. The elephants concentrate in big herds and the buffalo gather.
With summer comes the rain. Dramatic thunderstorms build up while the humidity intensifies, and then the falling rain brings sublime relief. Summer also is the baby season, with most antelope, wildebeest, zebra, and buffalo giving birth during this time. The grass becomes lush and green, providing plenty of food for the grazers, which in turn provide plenty of food for the predators. Now that the pans are filled with rainwater, the elephants move out to the drier areas in the west so that they can enjoy a different diet of mopane trees.
Autumn brings the floodwater, which has travelled down from Angola. The floodplains fill up with water and everything remains lush and green for a few months longer. With the water come large herds of lechwe, filling the Jao plains and providing easy pickings for the local predators. The crocodiles may move onto the floodplains and become more visible, and we often have the rare sitatunga on Jao Island. The channels are filled with pristine water, so clear that you can see the water lilies’ twirling stems beneath the surface. The elephant herds now return.
Winter brings cold crisp mornings, occasionally with mist. The water levels are usually at their highest, so water activities like mokoro trips and boating are a highlight. This is the perfect time of year to take a boat cruise to Hunda Island in the west, to spend a day there exploring the drier regions with the animals on offer, and enjoying a picnic along the way. I never tire of the place.
(Cindy) My favorites are the in-between times. The time approaching autumn when we are waiting for signs of the headwaters coming through, when the extra termites coming up through cracks in the ground signify that the water table is rising. When everyone is waiting on that first push of water through the channels and the tannin-rich smell of the Delta waters to hit as you step onto a boat. And the opposite time of the year, when the waters are receding and you see more animals than before, when the daily routine of the lechwes coming and going is your new timekeeper, when the birds congregate en masse, in all shapes and sizes.
(Martin) I have two favorite seasons. December has always been a special time of the year for me in terms of the landscape and weather. I love the build-up of the cumulonimbus clouds in the summer afternoons, as they make the most spectacular sunsets. We generally have short bursts of rain so the sun comes through relatively quickly and brightens up the landscape.
June and July are my other favorite months. We are generally at the peak of our flood period, which means the new waters have settled in nicely and the waterways are crystal clear, making for wonderful boating and mokoro trips.
(Meshack) All seasons are unique. From May to September the game viewing is outstanding as the grass is short; the waters are at peak flow and you get to see the Okavango at its best. On the other hand, in summer you get to see more animals giving birth and their delightful babies.
Days and Nights
(Cindy) Without a doubt sunrise is my time, before anyone else is awake and I can sit and listen to the last of the night creatures and the first of the day creatures. The Delta wakes up in a very specific order.
(Cathy) For me it’s a toss-up between morning and evening. I love waking up and listening to the bird calls, watching the day come alive while enjoying a good cup of coffee. The camp faces west, so the sunset views are frontline and ever changing – a perfect time for a dip in the pool in summer or savoring a glass of red wine in winter.
(Kgosi) Sunsets, sunsets, and more sunsets, please!
(Martin) Late afternoon, particularly the sunsets. You can’t beat an Okavango sunset and especially one in the Jao floodplains. The lions and other predators start to get active around this time of day also, so if every photo you’ve got up until this point is of a lion sleeping, this is the time you want to get your cameras out.
(Meshack) Any time of the day can make your day, but nothing beats early morning, as that is the time when both day and night animals get more active. Like the leopards moving from the open floodplains to the islands or thick bushes to spend the day there, as the other animals get ready. I have seen most of my kill action at this time.
(Cathy) One of my favorite spots is the library. I love sorting through the books, finding old friends and too many new books waiting to be read. I love spending time in the gallery building and reflecting on the happy memories of how that tricky design all came together. I love the swimming pool bird’s nest gazebo and spending a few moments watching the channel for bird life. This is the perfect spot for sundowners, set low along the channel bank. Another favorite spot for sundowners is the upstairs fire deck, with stunning views and warming fires in winter. I love the rooms, any one of them, for the beauty and comfort they provide.
(Cindy) I love the area around the Jao spa; there is a feeling of calm and restfulness under those big trees and even in the height of summer it is cool. The pool area looking onto the little lagoon and the floodplains beyond that is also very special. My favorite sundowner spots are the ‘beach’ at the hide or Riley’s Island. Both have spectacular outlooks and give you a true feeling of being out in the Delta.
(Kgosi) So many options, I don’t even know where to start. Jao has a stunning view no matter where you are. But I must say I have a soft spot in camp for the fire area downstairs closest to the main pool. It is a perfect place to sit in the evening with a fire going, having a good chat and watching the sun go down, with its reflection in the water.
(Martin) The Jao floodplains for the view and great sunsets. The waterways around Jacana, which I believe is one of the best places to mokoro and boat in the Okavango Delta. Then there’s the baobab trees we have around the reserve. Harry’s Baobab is the largest and is awesome to see up close.
(Meshack) The Jao spa! It gives you an African spa experience to help you unwind, pampering mind, body, and soul. Our treatments and products are tailor-made for Jao. Our product TDA, for instance, is botanical, natural, and organic. It contains ingredients native to Africa, such as baobab, kigelia, and morula, which are rich in oxidants, omega, vitamins, and fatty acids – all excellent for the skin. We in Africa have used these for many years to heal infections and disease. Our treatments symbolize life, grace, nature, strength, and longevity and the animals that surround us.
As for the best spot for sundowners – it definitely has to be the Jao floodplains, endlessly open to the eye and quite amazing.
(Cindy) I would like guests to leave having experienced the essence of the Delta, which to me is the calm, the simplicity, and the sheer luxury of space and peace.
(Cathy) I’d like them to go away with a feeling of peace and tranquility brought about by staying in one of the most beautiful places in the world. With an understanding of the wilderness and our place within it. And the knowledge that through visiting, they have made a difference to a people and a country.
(Kgosi) From the moment guests arrive in camp, it is my goal to make them feel free and to know that this is their home and that they have nothing to worry about during their stay. So ultimately that is what I want them to take away with them: the idea that Jao is their home, and home is a place you always want to go back to no matter where you are in the world. Once Jao is your home, you will ultimately return – it might not be tomorrow, but you will come back.
Written by Melissa Siebert