Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Ultimate Safaris' 33-hour Visit to Ongava Game Reserve

Birgit from Ultimate Safaris had an unscheduled trip to Ongava Game Reserve last weekend and enjoyed awesome game viewing and fabulous food while getting the latest news on what's happening at Ongava. Here's her account of her quick but high-quality getaway...

At the last minute I was invited by Rob Moffett for lunch over the weekend – location, Ongava Tented Camp. Of course I said YES! We Namibians think nothing of driving 10 hours round-trip just for a night in the bush.

We left Saturday morning and arrived in time for amazing coffee and cake whilst various antelope frequented the waterhole. Especially adorable was the sight of a little kudu, still learning to walk on his wobbly legs – he was all eyes, ears and knees.

I have been going to the Ongava Game reserve since the mid 90’s and have loved to see the progression of Ongava Tented Camp. It's gone from a really basic tented camp to gorgeous luxury units with canvas walls, spacious bedrooms, indoor and outdoor showers, and a great view over the waterhole.

An informal afternoon game drive with Rob Moffett, along with some ice cold beers, produced a plethora of wildlife when we weren’t even trying. Among others, we spotted the white rhino “Long Horn” and her 2.5 year old calf, as well as a lone elephant bull (both animals relaxed enough to allow for quite close approach in our vehicle).

Birding was exciting, too. The mating call of a red crested korhaan, aka. "Kamikaze chicken," was followed by a spectacular display of the male shooting up for the sky, then rolling up like a ball and plummeting back to the ground like pure dead weight, before spreading his wings moments before a possibly very embarrassing, and lethal, face plant into Mother Earth. We witnessed this daring mating stunt twice - something I have not seen before. Other birds to get twitchers excited included pale chanting goshawk, swallow-tailed bee-eater, lilac-breasted roller, white-browed sparrow-weaver, and even a sparrow hawk taking a swim in Little Ongava’s infinity pool the next day.

On that lazy afternoon game drive we saw lots of Burchell’s zebra, red hartebeest, blue wildebeest, black-faced impala, springbok, steenbok and waterbuck.

Back at the camp, the waterhole was visited by more white rhino and one black rhino, but the absolute highlight was the very rare sighting of a caracal coming to drink at dinner time. We could barely contain our excitement whilst the rest of guests at the dining table couldn’t quite understand the fuss of what appeared to be just a big stocky red cat, with tufts on his ears.

And dinner that evening was really good – Ongava has recently employed a dedicated F&B manager, Louis, and already his impact is noticeable – creative dishes such as a sesame crusted sliced aubergine (eggplant) starters, and one of the most tender game steaks I have ever had. Along with that, there is a good collection of house wine and an attentive and friendly staff who are always available but never intrusive.

The next morning I went on a guided walk, again encountering Long Horn and her calf, as well as some really curious wildebeest who seemed more interested in us than we were in them.  Fresh lion tracks got our guide a little spooked, but all of Ongava’s walking guides are qualified for walking and armed on the excursion, and after a slight detour later we arrived back safely for more of the amazing coffee at Ongava.

I also had a look at the soft refurbs of Little Ongava, and the lighter, more colourful and still very stylish suites really impressed me. Little touches like replacing the sala with a proper couch works well, and fixing up the deck will go a long way to extending the life of the gorgeous suites. WiFi will be introduced into the suites now (not only in the main area) so that guests don’t sit in the lounge just to be connected but get to spend as much time as possible in the suites.

Ongava Lodge's major changes are that they are moving away from buffet meals, and with the appointment of Louis, are offering only a la carte dining. What I really liked is the improved access to the hide – there is a fenced in walkway taking you from the lodge to the hide at the waterhole, which will make it easier to access can before (which required a guide to drive guests to the hide). Photographers and animal lovers alike will adore the close views of the waterhole. Rob, Stuart Crawford (Ongava GM/operations/passionate rhino researcher and conservationist) and I were brainstorming on many ideas how to make the hide really comfy, fun and effective, and I am sure when all is complete, in about a months’ time, that the hide will be a big selling point for a stay at Ongava Lodge.

And yes, end of December 2017 Andersson’s will cease to exist and instead a very innovative new concept will take its place, the Ongava Centre for Environmental Excellence, or as lovingly called by Rob, "The OC." A lot of people do not realize just how involved the Ongava Game Reserve is in the conservation of Namibia’s rhino and are custodians of a huge number of black and white rhino, with their Anti-Poaching Unit working ceaselessly to protect these animals along with a dedicated research and conservation team working on the game reserve. Ongava was involved in a variety of projects relocating some of their rhino, as well as science team that has presented peer-reviewed journals that includes the extensive research done into the genealogy of our rhino.

Side projects include the research into two collared leopard and of course a very healthy lion population. More and more travelers to Africa want to hear more about the conservation and protection of Africa’s wildlife and specialist groups are always interested in the back-of-house information rather than just going on your standard game drive. The new camp will be built in an innovative, modern, but stylish design as a luxury lodge compared to Ongava Lodge and Tented Camp.

It is still early days and a lot is still in the concept stage – but architects have been commissioned and ideas shared. That said, I expect many more months of brainstorming will be done before we see more detail.  But I am excited, and believe Ultimate Safari clients will particularly enjoy what the new OCEE will produce.

And as a fitting farewell, I came upon a leopard tortoise, followed by a pride of probably over 15 lions (those we could see, and I am sure there were many more eyes on us that we knew) on our drive out of the reserve and back home.

I am excited at the plans that the Ongava team has – they have a lot of hard work ahead of them, but I am confident that they will get it right.  Here’s waiting and seeing…..

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