Jao Camp is one of the Okavango's smartest camps; it has a very tropical, luxuriant feel.
Jao Camp: Our full report
Situated on a remote island in the middle of the large private Jao Reserve in the Okavango Delta, Jao Camp is surrounded by open seasonal floodplains dotted with small islands. With a fusion style of Balinese and African décor, Jao is an imposing and luxurious camp which sprawls over roughly a kilometre among tall shady leadwood, African wild mangosteen and ebony trees.
Jao Camp is one of the original ‘premier’ camps of Botswana, designed to make it a cut above most others. Yet despite it’s opulence and grandeur, and its sometimes rather ‘stiff’ feel on arrival, the very friendly team here create a relaxed and informal atmosphere. Note that Jao commands a supplement over the cost of most of the Okavango's camps. At the time of writing (2013) this is typically around £286–452 per person per night extra (depending on the season).
Jao's central area is arranged over two levels. The lower level features an intimate and tucked away sitting area, a small library and a richly stocked curio shop. This opens out onto a large deck surrounding the firepit – a traditional gathering spot to swap stories after dinner – and decorated with quite probably the biggest wind chimes we've seen. From here, wooden walkways lead to not one but two separate plunge pools.
From this lower level, a large polished rosewood staircase leads to the upper deck, incorporating a large bar and lounge to one side and a dining area to the other, complete with cappuccino machine. We thought the original artworks and African wood sculptures (some by local carvers) were a real feature.
A winding wooden walkway, about 3m off the ground, connects to Jao's nine luxury suites, which are spread out on either side of the main building. (Read more about Jao's suites here … )
Not too far from camp is a sleep-out platform in the ‘bush’, which offers a pretty rustic experience and really does put you close to nature. Accessible when water levels are low enough (generally from September to May), it is a wonderful contrast to a night in the suites, but it is not for everyone! It is advisable to book this in advance, preferably if you have a three-night stay at Jao.
Separate from the central area and along a shady walkway, is the dedicated wellbeing Jao Spa. On offer is a surprisingly comprehensive – but expensive – array of treatments including massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and other beauty treatments. Jao prides itself on using naturally inspired, chemical free and eco-friendly products. There's nothing quite like listening to the sounds of the bush (not recorded!), while having a relaxing massage – and when we met inclement weather, we didn't mind staying in camp and indulging in a spa treatment.
There is also a small gym with a rowing machine, stationary bike, cross trainer, yoga mats, exercise ball and free weights.
Most notable among Jao Camp’s activities are the fantastic water-based options, such as mokoro trips and motorised boat cruises. This is where Jao comes into it’s own! Fishing is also offered, seasonally, on a catch-and-release basis, and the camp has a limited amount of fishing tackle for guests to borrow.
Activities also include day and night 4WD safari drives. On our most recent visit, we were astounded by the tremendous numbers of red lechwe grazing on a very pretty part of the Jao Flats (seasonal floodplains) – although other than some elephants and several species of antelope, we didn't see much else in the way of game in the area close by. For the best game viewing whilst staying at Jao, we advise taking the longer game drive to Hunda Island (you take a boat to the island and then hop into a 4WD vehicle). This is the largest swathe of dry land in the area and attracts giraffe, zebra, wildebeest and kuku, as well as leopard.
Guiding at Jao is, in our experience, usually very good. On our last visit, we had an excellent guide who’s expansive knowledge of birds, animal behaviour and flora made for extremely interesting activities despite the lack of big game. He even managed to make grasses a fascinating topic!
Whilst our team has had some good game sightings here over the years – Jao isn't a camp that majors on big game. We'd suggest that visitors come, instead, to stay in one of the prettiest parts of the Delta, for the trips out into the floodplains and channels, and for some wonderful birds. On this last trip our highlights included various kingfishers (woodland, pied and malachite), wattled cranes, an African marsh harrier, and a vast array of waterbirds.
Our viewJao is a well-established and very luxurious camp – even by Botswana's high standards – and has a price tag to match. It's a camp that can be enjoyed and experienced for itself, as much as for its beautiful surroundings. The food and spa are very good, the levels of service are very high, and they seem to succeed at providing a more individual and adaptable experience than in many other Okavango camps. Jao is unlikely to appeal to the safari 'purist', unless they're keen birders. However for a couple of nights at the start or end of a trip, to relax and enjoy the best of the Okavango Delta's water-based activities, it's a great choice.
Ideal length of stay: 2–3 nights
Directions: Access is by light aircraft transfer to Jao airstrip, and then a short drive by 4WD vehicle to Jao.
Owner: Marketed by Wilderness Safaris
Food & drink
Usual board basis: Full Board
Food quality: Although the norm at Jao Camp is for 'family' dining around one central table, guests have the option to dine individually if preferred. On our most recent visit in April 2013 we found the quality and variety of food was very good.
A light breakfast is laid out before guests depart on the morning activity. Expect a selection of cereals, fruit, yoghurt, muffins, and usually even a cooked option if you wish.
Brunch is usually served once guests have returned from the morning activity; there is no set time. You can help yourself to a selection of cheese and crackers, fresh bread and fruit platters, but the plated main dish is brought to you. We had the choice of a warm Thai beef salad or a vegetable stack consisting of aubergine, sweet peppers, tomato and feta, all on a bed of green salad; both were very tasty. For pudding we enjoyed a sweet apple crumble with crème fraîche.
Afternoon tea is served just before heading out on the afternoon activity. In addition to fruit salad, chicken ‘lollipops’ with a selection of dips, milk tartlets and jam scones, we were offered homemade lemonade with a twist of ginger (very refreshing), iced tea and iced coffee.
Dinner is usually a three-course plated service. We had a choice of two starters – grilled mushrooms with brie or red pepper and pear soup; two main dishes – salmon with orange sauce or pork with a pepper sauce, both served on a bed of basmati rice, with patty pan (a type of squash) and beetroot. For dessert there is the choice of a fruit platter, a cheese platter or the speciality of the day, which for us was a custard slice. All were of a high standard.
The camp can cater to vegetarians and most other special dietary requirements if notice is given.
Dining style: Group Meals
Dining locations: Indoor and Outdoor Dining
Cost of meal e.g. lunch: Included
Drinks included: Bottled water, soft drinks, local beers and spirits and a selection of (usually) South African red and white wines are included. Champagne and imported wines and spirits will cost extra. The camp has a bar that is stocked much more comprehensively than most, and can order in special requests if advance notice is given.
Family holidays: With adjoining suites, an entertainment room and varied activities Jao welcomes families for safari holidays. We liked its flexibility and kids loved a close mongoose encounter on our last visit. Families with children aged 6-12 usually need to book a private vehicle.See more ideas for Family holidays in Botswana
Honeymoons: Jao Camp is a lovely destination to include in a Botswana honeymoon. With beautiful scenery and stunning suites, this is an ideal place to relax and indulge. Jao is slow paced and flexible, its tranquil mokoro activity and one of the best spas in the Delta add to the attraction.See more ideas for Honeymoons in Botswana
Birdwatching: Spectacular Botswana birding at Jao Camp may include yellow-billed and woolly-necked storks, hadeda ibis, painted snipe, slaty and black egret, sacred ibis, wattled crane and goliath heron and pel’s fishing owl during the dry (flood) season.See more ideas for Birdwatching in Botswana
Wellbeing: One of only three proper spas in the Okavango Delta, Jao Spa even has its own dedicated website! The single and double treatment rooms both offer a vast array of pampering experiences – massages, facials, manicures, pedicures and so on. All products are free of chemicals, eco-friendly and contain natural, indigenous plant extracts.See more ideas for Wellbeing in Botswana
Attitude towards children: Children over the age of 12 years are welcome at Jao Camp. The camp may accept children aged 6–12, but private activities must be booked and this will be at an extra cost. Children younger than six may be accepted by special arrangement, but only if the entire camp is reserved for exclusive use.
Special activities & services: During our last visit, the guides took children on a nature walk around camp and spent time watching a group of banded mongoose that had made their den in camp. Given time (and stillness) these creatures will approach really close and become very inquisitive – the kids seemed to love the experience. Jao also offers craft activities designed for children.
Equipment: There is no specific equipment but there is a separate entertainment room that is furnished as a lounge and dining area, and is suitable for family dining and children's entertainment. There is also a family unit which comprises two adjoining suites, each with its own bathroom.
Generally recommended for children: Despite the elevated building and walkways, we think that in some ways Jao is one of the more welcoming camps for families with children. We particularly like the family-style accommodation and flexible dining options.
Notes: Parents should be very aware of the elevated platforms and walkways, which have open sides and can be very slippery when wet; they have not been designed with young children in mind! The camp is unfenced, and wildlife – including elephant – is known to wander through. The pools are unfenced, too, and the camp is in close proximity to open water. Children must be under the constant supervision of their parents. Note that minimum age requirements mean that children are allowed on boat trips from the age of six years, but sleep-outs and mokoro excursions only from the age of 13 years.
Communications: Jao has no cellphone reception, no direct phone or fax and no email. Communication is maintained with the head office in Maun via radio.
TV & radio: There is no TV or radio.
Health & safety
Malarial protection recommended: Yes
Medical care: The camp managers are first-aid trained, and a first-aid kit is kept on site. In the event of an emergency, guests can be flown out. There is a nurse in Maun who can be contacted for medical advice, and is on call 24 hours a day.
Dangerous animals: High Risk
Fire safety: Fire extinguishers are kept in all suites and in the main area. There was also a bucket of sand on our balcony when we visited in April 2013.
Disabled access: Not Possible
Laundry facilities: A full laundry service is included; wherever possible, items will be returned to guests on the same day.
Money: All rooms are equipped with small electronic safes. There are no money exchange facilities.
Accepted payment on location: MasterCard and Visa credit cards are accepted; Diners and Amex are not. Cash in the form of South African rand, GB sterling, US dollars, euros and Botswana pula is accepted.