United Kingdom (UK), travel writer for the Times, Susan d’Arcy relives her experience sleeping under the stars in Africa’s poshest treehouse.
As our SUV negotiated potholes on a dirt track under an African night that had pulled down its blackout blind, I remembered Eleanor Roosevelt’s philosophy: Do one thing every day that scares you. I was about to do something that was up there, in the terror stakes, alongside being shouted at by your brother. I was en route to sleep under the stars — off grid and alone.
I couldn’t help feeling that the former US first lady would be proud of me because, technically, I’d already hit my Eleanor quota for that day. I was in the Okavango Delta in Botswana, staying at a safari lodge called Xigera (pronounced “Kee-jera”).
Not only was it Africa’s most expensive to build (the final tally was about £27 million), it is also the most artistic — sumptuously stuffed with site-specific sculptures, bespoke furniture, colourful handpicked paintings and thought-provoking objets d’art. Apart from the room rate, which is north of £3,500 a night, I imagine the only thing that might raise the heartbeat in camp would be if one of the waiters were to spill a drop of wine from the premium cellar (for which you pay extra) — a bottle of Pétrus Pomerol 1998 is £10,500 after all. Fortunately, with 105 staff for a maximum of 24 guests, there’s always someone on hand to mop up.
Initially I’d thought that the great outdoors would be equally civilised. From my seat on the private plane, the pancake-flat expanse of the delta’s Moremi Game Reserve, where Xigera occupies a prime spot, had looked disappointingly tame. Serene waterways squiggled through swirls of land that graduated from deep-green woolliness to ochre dustiness, but there were none of the herds of cavorting beasts you see on David Attenborough’s trailers. Sleeping out in this tranquil world would be fun, I’d thought.
The lodge stands on stilts on a river island, with a contemporary design that includes a glamorous open-air lounge flowing into a bar and restaurant complete with chef’s table. Elevated walkways lead to an impressive library, a spa with trendy organic Tata Harper treatments, a dinky pool and Technogym, and 12 ridiculously decadent suites. Every inch is adorned with vibrant African art, tactile tribal fabrics and specially commissioned pieces, from hand-forged copper tables to chairs crafted from 130 fallen trees — the South African sculptor Adam Birch spent six months onsite making these.
My suite was so vast that someone could have been smoking in a corner and I’d never have known. There are separate air-conditioning systems for the living area, bedroom and bathroom, where the shower floor has a lily-pad design cast in bronze. I could spot rhino from my wraparound deck or work out with the weights discreetly tucked inside my hand-carved wardrobe.
If the lodge is the definition of conventional luxury, it also throws in a glorious wildcard: the chance to swap OTT pampering for something more primal. The Baobab Treehouse is an electricity-free hideout-cum-art installation 1km from the main complex.
Its distinctive look, worthy of Tate Modern, is inspired by Africa’s emblematic baobab tree, constructed in steel and mesh and rising 10m from the floodplain like an arboreal lighthouse marooned in a disappearing sea. Inside the “trunk” a spiral staircase leads to a first floor with a rustic-chic bathroom, complete with his-and-hers beaten copper sinks, shower and flushing loo.
Up another flight is a pretty indoor bedroom. Both “floors” have canvas sides that can be rolled up — but even that felt a bit cissyish. For more of an Out of Africa vibe you have to climb up again, to the pièce de résistance: a rooftop viewing platform with a muslin-draped, feather-pillowed four-poster, offering the ultimate in stylish wilderness sleepouts.
I had declined a picnic-style supper at the treehouse in favour of a more gourmet Caesar salad followed by creamy fish with fire-grilled vegetables at the mothership, so now my guide, Des, was about to deposit me in the middle of nowhere with a hamper of snacks, a generous cache of wine and an emergency radio. I would be the first Brit to stay here — an invitation that seemed irresistible from my cosy Dorset cottage, but had become increasingly more daunting as the continent’s potential dangers were brought into sharp-teethed focus.
Unfortunately, the risks were most forcefully demonstrated in the hours leading up to my big night out. That morning I had wandered down to reception to be greeted with excited reports that wild dogs had been spotted. I tried to look impressed, but really? Dogs? Lockdown puppies have turned the entire UK into one long Crufts after-party and pretty much curbed my enthusiasm for canines. Besides, I’d already heard lions roaring barely more than a paw’s swipe from our SUV, seen the protective parents of cartoon-cute baby elephants threatening to charge our vehicle and — even more startling — had a hippo pop up inches in front of our flimsy boat on a river expedition. How could some mongrels compare?
That was my first mistake. There are dogs, and then there are wild dogs; the latter so dastardly sinister that they make vultures look cuddly. My second mistake was being polite. As the ebullient Des rounded up four other Brits and me for a game drive, I had decided on one last trip to the ladies. Anxious not to hold up the group I ran across the bridge between the lodge and the truck pick-up point. This, I was told, was reckless; the hungry hounds might have mistaken me for a fleeing red lechwe antelope — in other words, breakfast — and attack. The thought of how many schoolgirl errors I could make when alone in the treehouse in the dark would constantly replay in my head. I ate my dinner very slowly.
But before that we were off on one of Des’s “Ferrari safaris”, driving at breakneck speed on the trail of those dogs, guided over the radio by spotters. We found the pack by the river, eyeing up impala on the opposite bank. The latent menace as the dogs paced about, figuring out how to cross, was spine-chilling. One slunk past our vehicle, emanating Game of Thrones levels of evil intent, and I let out a Hitchcockian gasp as they finally worked out the shallowest point to forge the river.
In a flash, the chase was on. Wild dogs can run as fast as 70km/h, and by the time our four wheels had caught up with their four legs they’d already brought down their victim and were in a feeding frenzy. The sight of limbs being ripped apart, the dogs’ blood-stained faces and the visceral smells were stomach-churning, but the crunching sounds as they ate were unbearable. One dog gnawed on a hoof; two squabbled over the intestines. You’ve got the picture, right? It was horrifying, yet we were gripped.
Well, not everyone. One of my group nudged me and nodded towards the only other vehicle, another Xigera SUV, occupied by some elderly Americans. While I was doing a decent impression of Edvard Munch’s The Scream, our transatlantic cousins’ expressions suggested that they were watching below-par daytime TV at a rest home. One oldie slowly sipped her coffee with “when’s the main act on?” ennui (there are many Africa old hands who would give their eye teeth to witness a wild-dog kill, but it’s one of Moremi’s USPs and a rare privilege . . . of sorts).
Still, I could have done with some of her sangfroid as Des and I pulled up at the treehouse. I’d been spooked by the amount of shuffling and snorting I’d heard on the ride from the lodge, and asked Des whether wild animals ever, um, slept. Apparently elephants need only a couple of hours’ shuteye each day. I decided that any Dumbo who could scale my treehouse’s intricate branches deserved a nibble of the delicacy formerly known as Susan d’Arcy. Thankfully, Des assured me that the hounds with the terrible table manners sleep all night, especially on a full stomach. Phew.
And yet the coward in me wondered if perhaps I could just keep asking Des questions until dawn broke. He had other ideas. After patiently explaining how to use the radio for the fourth time, he made his excuses and left. As the engine’s sound faded, I felt like a babysitter snooping around their employers’ house, tiptoeing about, jumping at pin-drops. But my hyper-vigilance soon subsided, and I snuggled under my silk-filled duvet and turned out the torch. Soon I was giving thanks to those vile mongrels — had I not felt such to-the-core fear, I doubt I could have appreciated the delta’s peaceful counterpoint quite as profoundly.
With zero light pollution I was being treated to nature’s spectacular version of sensory deprivation. The sky was more velvety, the blaze of stars brighter, the air purer and the silence rather noisier than I’d ever experienced before. I heard lion, hyena and owls, and embedded in their backyard, under the cover of darkness, I found the experience powerfully connecting and strangely liberating.
I slept like a sated dog and woke naturally, to share sunrise with the wildlife, looking over the jackalberry and acacia trees towards a streak of blue where elephants and hippos were splashing through their morning ablutions. The sky was a palette of oranges and reds as unfathomable as the names on a Farrow & Ball colour chart. I felt content; at one with the world.
Reluctantly I radioed to be collected. Just as I did Xigera’s American guests passed below on their morning game drive. I thought that it would be funny to surprise them so I hung off the platform’s edge, waving manically and shouting hello. They did look up, but they didn’t smile or even wave.
I think they could have done with a night in the treehouse to let Africa in, and their fears out.