News & Reviews Africa Botswana Review: Jao, Botswana

Life’s full of unforgettable milestones – saying “I do,” the pitter-patter of tiny feet, the keys to your first house, your debut blog post, and that time you saw a Wilderness camp called Jao Camp and thought, “holy hell, this is as good as a Singita”.  Jao marked the last stop on my Wilderness Premier camp tour, and it seemed I saved the best for last.  What a genius I am.  It also turns out it’s just a camp Wilderness market, rather than own or manage, but it’s still got their name all over it.  Especially in the medical department, as I found out.

I started hallucinating giant domes.

It’s never fun getting to Botswana.  A flight to Johannesburg, then another to Maun, topped off with a final 30-minute hop to Jao.  For me, coming from London, it’s practically an entire day in transit.  And for our American guests it’s like they age nine weeks just trying to get here.  After all that travelling, I was excited to get to the room and find…my stay list completely ignored.  While they weren’t so kind with their gifts to me, I brought everyone’s favourite thing from Europeans: disease.  Almost the moment I got off the plane, I started to feel ill, and it knocked me out for most of my stay.

But sacrificing talking about myself for a moment, which will be a chore, let me focus on Jao.  As the first impression of Jao is not their reluctance to read emails; it’s walking into an ordinary, mundane camp that looks no different to any other I’ve been to.  That is until you’re greeted by their entrance, complete with an actual giraffe skeleton, set inside their museum.  It also serves as a gift shop, which fits perfectly for both a hotel and a museum, as what is one without a gift shop?  After ascending the stairs, the true essence of Jao unfolds before you.

Jao beautifully combines elegant design with the nature around it.  The camp has a luxurious feel with a blend of traditional African styles and modern touches.  It features carefully chosen furniture that mixes earthy, natural colours with vibrant textures, making the space so welcoming you’ll feel like a know-it-all at a Ted conference.  Expansive windows and open-air lounges ensure the views remain the focal point, while the decor – such as intricate woven fabrics, wooden sculptures, and artisanal pieces – celebrate the area’s cultural history.

Jao sits in the Okavango Delta, an area that dramatically changes throughout the year and impacts your activities.  During their winter, when it’s hottest, you can go on walks and game drives, whereas in Summer, it will be flooded, and the activities would be entirely boat-focused – you will even float into the camp.  Nature is at the heart of the camp.  It’s 100% solar-powered and is designed to blend into the terrain and leave behind a minimal environmental footprint, which I’m sure is all true, but it certainly left a footprint on my heart.  I’m kidding; I’m not that sentimental.  But I do have the capability to feel feelings, and I had strong feelings for the gorgeous design.  The main area contains the restaurant with lounge, bar and boma, which, as you would expect, have views out onto the plains, but I think the real surprise and joy at Jao is not only the rooms but their health focus.

The pool may be impractically small for actual swimming, yet the area dubbed “the nest,” which features stunning wooden artistry, is at least photogenic.  Nearby is an outdoor lounge and the indoor gym, equipped with TechnoGym cardio machines and weights—quite sufficient for a workout.  It’s decent enough if you don’t mind the lack of air conditioning.  On the bright side, it means you only need to exercise for about three minutes before exhaustion kicks in.  I hear using a defibrillator burns at least ten calories.

Unlike the typical safari lodge where spa treatments are offered in your room, Jao offers a dedicated spa reception and two exclusive treatment rooms, each encircled by quaint moats and the gentle sound of trickling waterfalls.  They manage to do what most urban luxury hotels fail: a proper consultation and introduction, rather than ram you into a room like cattle and forcing you into sucking on the teat of some guy called Bob in silence.  Maybe that’s just my experience.  They start with a foot scrub in the reception area and then whisk you away to one of the serene treatment rooms, equipped with adjacent changing facilities, for a world-class massage.  At least, I think it was, as I drifted off for part of it.  Given the demands of my job, this indulgence felt not only necessary but thoroughly deserved—a detail I’ll touch on more later.

Jao offers plenty to very few, with just seven rooms – five villas and two two-bedroom family suites.  The family suites, luckily, have started to become more prevalent in recent years as market research has consistently proven that children also like things that go “raaaar”.  The family suites come with a private chef, kitchen, private vehicle, extra dining facilities and boma.  They stop you from having to mix with the other guests/peasants.

The rooms look ginormous.  It looks like a giant’s home on the outside and far from a hobbit’s nest from the inside.  I loved the design – open-planned and extremely spacious, with ceilings so stupendously tall you’re expecting a weather system to develop inside.  And how nice that would be, as then the room might have been cooler.  There’s no air conditioning, but some airflow system tries to keep the room cool.  You step over it and get a brief moment of chill before remembering you’re basically living in a sauna.  You may say, “Ohh, but Tom, you’re in nature, why would you want air conditioning?” and I say “It was close to 40C, even my imaginary friends started to sweat”. 

Anyway, back to the room.  Sunlight pours into the room from all sides, illuminating the expansive, open spaces that are shielded only by mesh to keep the bugs at bay.  Directly in front of the bed, the best view of all, onto the plains.  It already looked great, but I bet the views are something else during the flooding.  There’s a little kitchenette welcoming you as you enter the room, with a minibar, coffee-making facilities, and a second toilet nearby – perhaps they think poorly of what’s in the minibar.  The living area contains a dining table, which became my sick bay, a fireplace designed just to make you realise the temperature could be worse, and a sofa that can be turned into a second bed in case I couldn’t make it to the first one.  The room also comes with a phone – revolutionary.  I wish I were kidding, but it’s quite rare in safari camps.  The bed was huge and comfortable and kept me company for most of the trip, along with the shower, where hot water was immediately available.

Outside, there’s a plunge pool, which remains untouched by me because, let’s face it, if it’s not heated, I’m not interested.  You’ll also find a swing sofa-cum-flying saucer, a table and chairs, and a couple of lounge chairs designed for watching sunsets and getting bitten by insects.

The food was sublime.  They have some cheese pasties in the minibar that are like crack.  Seriously, though, what is the point of dragon fruit?  Is it like having an ugly friend so when you go out, all the blokes chat you up?  Does it make you appreciate all the other fruit?

The menu selection is limited, with it written onto a chalkboard each day, which is quite novel.  You’re restricted to two to three options for starter, main and dessert.   However, it was so good and included such an enormous amount of side dishes that you will feel comfortably assured you’re on a safari as you will get fat.  It’s like they’re trying to make you more attractive to the predators.  Every meal had delicious freshly made bread and two salads, some of which were incredible.

It’s interesting how each lodge seems to differ in serving breakfast.  Most suggest snacks before you head out, whereas Jao offers the whole thing at 5:30 am.  They offer a selection of fruit, yoghurt and pastries they bring over and cooked eggs, bacon and sausage.  If you’re scanning for that point, then it’s here.  I have nothing to add; I just wanted you to spend ages looking for it.  I don’t benefit from this as we have no advertisements, so how long you spend on the page makes no difference.  Oh, and the hot chocolate was phenomenal.

The service was the shaky part.  They seemed really eager to please, particularly the chef, who was already my favourite person, but still he wanted the feedback and offered to “move mountains” to make my stay welcome.  No need, sir, just move closer to my home, thank you.  Beyond that, things occasionally verged on chaotic.  It was the first time I had ever returned from a game drive and found housekeeping in my room – it’s not like they don’t know when I’m back.  Normally it would not be such an issue, but by this point I felt like I was going to die, which is a bit inconvenient when someone is lurking around your bed.  Then there was the time room service asked me to ring them to pick up the dish, and I dozed off, only to be woken up as someone came in the room and did it anyway.  But, the standout service was Wilderness24 – their medical emergency support, who checked in regularly.  I had a doctor consult with me, ensuring no emergency vehicle (read: hearse) was needed.  No one wants a picture of me on their TripAdvisor page, least of all a dead one.  Although that’s how I want to go out and be remembered.

The Good

  • Beautiful setting

The Bad

  • Lack of air conditioning
  • I was told drones are not allowed in Botswana so don’t bring one, so what did I see on Instagram just a few days ago?  Influencers with a drone.  On the official Wilderness account.  I’m going on hunger strike.

The Luxurious

  • Accommodation
  • Food
  • For a safari lodge, excellent facilities
  • Gorgeous design

Rating

Good

Conclusion

It’s a brilliant camp, even though it sticks to the Wilderness playbook of rationing WiFi like it’s spice from Dune.  It’s available only in your room; not even the gym, so my workout routines of watching YouTube for 99% of the time were no longer viable.  That makes it brilliant but not perfect.   Ok, I’m not that petty, even though it annoys me.  The real reason is the service needs some improvement.  I was their first guest in almost three weeks, so perhaps they were out of practice.

I should probably tell you everything there is to know about the game drives here, but Mother Nature forced me away from nature, compelling me to swap the wild outdoors for the wild sounds of monkeys tap-dancing on my roof as I lay bedridden. Of the singular safari venture I managed, I can attest that the vehicles are shiny, new, and comfortable. Sharing the conservancy with four lodges does mean you’ll occasionally cross paths with other camps; I counted a cameo from two other vehicles during one sighting.

I take my job seriously, so I deliberately got ill so I could spend longer in the lodge.  That’s my dedication to you, reader.  I was very impressed by Jao and, along with Xigera, they are the most luxurious camps in Botswana.  The biggest problem for both properties, though, is location, location, location – they are in areas without much game.  You’re really paying for the accommodation (or the boating), which you might be ok with.  It’s not like there’s nothing around; there are just better areas that guarantee better sightings.

Barely a 10-minute flight away, and the next stop was Mombo.

In Summary

  • Best suite

    Two bedroom

Roms starting from $4500/n

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 6th Mar '24

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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