Okonjima is private safari reserve in Namibia on the road between Windhoek; Namibia’s capital city, and Etosha National Park to the west of the Waterberg Plateau. It’s the perfect place to stop for a night or two on your way around the country’s classic self-drive route (even though the drive from Windhoek to Etosha is only 400km I’ll always find a justification for an opportunity to see big cats). The Reserve is based around the operations of the Africat Foundation who utilise the vast expanse of land that Okonjima sits on to rehabilitate carnivores with the intention of releasing them back into the ‘wild’. This means that not only will you have a great chance to track big cats across a vast wilderness, but you’ll also be contributing to the philanthropic activities of the Foundation – a ‘win-win’ if ever I’ve heard one!
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Wildlife – 3.5*
The whole reason you’re visiting Okonjima is to see big cats, right? If not, then you’re probably not in the right place as there aren’t any rhino, elephant or buffalo (if ‘Big 5’ tracking is your primary aim). Also, because of the focus on leopard and cheetah you aren’t going to see lion roaming the reserve (although you may see them in the rehabilitation area of the Africat Wellness Program). However, in addition to the populations of leopard and cheetah on the reserve you’ll find an abundance of other wildlife including…..drumroll please…. Painted Wild Dogs (my favourite!), Caracal, African Wild Cat, Brown & Spotted Hyena, Black Backed Jackal, Aardwolf, Bat-eared Fox, Aardvark, Pangolin, Honey-badger, Porcupine, Large & Small Spotted Genet, Striped Polecat, Kudu, Oryx, Red Hartebeest, Gnu or Blue Wildebeest, Eland, Impala, Giraffe, Hartmann’s (Mountain) Zebra, Burchell’s Zebra, Steenbok, Common Duiker, Damara Dik-Dik, Warthog, Chacma Baboon, Rock Hyrax and Yellow & Banded Mongoose…so yes, there’s plenty of wildlife to keep you happy. In fact, we barely went more than 2 or 3 minutes between the excited screams of an animal sighting (the screams were my wife, not me…..honestly). Morning and evening safaris are typically based around a particular wildlife ‘activity’. The available activities include the tracking of GPS collared, free-roaming, cheetah, leopard, Spotted Hyena and Wild Dogs that are under rehabilitation within the reserve, and; carnivore tracking on foot (definitely not leopards but we got within 5 meters of a cheetah that was lounging under a tree whilst a member of our group hyperventilated through sheer terror). There are other wildlife options throughout the day including visiting the Africat Carnivore Center (which is where the big cats go before they enter the reserve) and Bushman’s walks. Night game drives are also available on request which is a bonus!
Scenery – 3.5*
The reserve covers some 200 square kilometers of wilderness just west of Waterberg Plateau Park and is nestled between the Omboroko Mountains. The rugged mountains against which the lodge is set makes for a fantastic scenic contrast to the open grasslands and forested areas of the reserve. One thing we did notice was a prevalence of the ever-pervasive acacia bush which was taking over vast areas of the reserve. According to our guide this is being dealt with on an on-going basis by a program of removal and burning; so you’ll see a few piles of removed acacia dotted around that appear to have become homes for some of the wildlife. One of the great things about Okonjima is that the views aren’t broken by tarmac or gravel roads; instead you’ll spend most of your time on mud roads and even off-roading which makes for a much more enjoyable, and scenic, experience.
Accommodation – 4*
The simple fact is that it’s best if you overnight within the reserve as there isn’t much else available within a 50km radius. The good news on that front is that there are a number of accommodation options at different price points. At the budget end of the spectrum you have the Omboroko campsite. The campsite provides basic facilities including private showers but does not allow access to any of the facilities of the lodge; for example, you can’t visit the lodge’s restaurant which would mean that I would be eating baked beans out of a can for two nights. The mid-level option is the Plains Camp, which is the largest of the lodge options and provides a decent level of luxury although its not exactly a classic safari experience (but does have great views over the grass plains). The classic safari experience is provided by the Bush Camp; which is the luxury end of the scale. There are only nine luxury chalets at the Bush Camp all of which overlook the bushveld and share the central lodge area where dinner is served around a campfire overlooking a waterhole…..how romantic!
Access – 4.5*
If you’re visiting Namibia then you’re 99% likely to be starting your adventure in the capital city, Windhoek. From there Okonjima is a straight 2.5 hour drive on the tarred B1 highway (and then 10km on a dirt track where we saw warthog, guinea fowl and cheetah). It really is one of the most accessible locations you’ll probably ever visit on safari. The only exception to that could possibly be in the rainy season. As Okonjima is bordered by rivers it can cause problems on that last 10km stretch. If in doubt, call the reserve before you arrive. Finally, if you’re feeling super-fancy and want to fly-in then the reserve does have its own airstrip which is a 5 minute drive from the main lodge.
Safari ‘X’ Factor – 3*
Now I know what you’re probably thinking….is a reserve with an electrified fence twinned with some of the big cats being fitted with tracking collars a real safari? This was exactly my thought when I booked us to stay here. In honesty, I’m not sure I actually came to a concrete answer. What I will say is that no private reserve should ever be thought of as a true wilderness that is comparable to the likes of the Serengeti , Mara or Okavango Delta. What Okonjima does provide is the ‘feeling’ of a true safari experience with an increased likelihood of leopard and cheetah sightings and the opportunity for a close encounter, on foot, with a carnivore that you simply wouldn’t get elsewhere. Put simply, it’s a unique experience that supports a worthy cause that justifies the price tag and at least a one-night stay (although I’d recommend two nights if you want to experience the full range of activities on offer). The safari itself (especially if you aren’t tracking the GPS-collared cats) feels genuinely authentic and, unlike Etosha, is largely off-road; which allows you to get closer to the wildlife. The evening safaris also include the much-deserved sundowner where you can get out of the jeep, stretch your legs and consume enough drinks to make the bumpy ride back to the lodge extremely uncomfortable.
Alternative Accommodation Options: If you really don’t fancy staying at one of the Okonjima lodges or the campsite then the closest alternative option that would allow you to make a day visit is Otjiwa Lodge (http://www.otjiwa.com.na) which is just over a half hour drive away. Beyond that the next big town is Otjiwarongo which is an hour’s drive north of Okonjima and has a host of different accommodation options.
Africat Foundation: For more information on the Africat Foundation visit their website: http://www.africat.org
Activities: The Okonjima website (http://okonjima.com/) provides some example itineraries for your stay and looking through those is a great way to work out the kinds of things you can do. That said, when you arrive you’ll be assigned a guide for the duration of your stay and they basically become your activity advisor, nature guide and driver all rolled into one. Once you check-in they’ll provide you with a list of all of the available activities and you can sit down and schedule them all (and price them up) and agree on meet-up times and locations. It’s an amazingly efficient way of running things and ensures that you can get the most out of your stay. Of course, if you’ve just arrived on an international flight followed by a 3-hour drive it might be a lot to take in within 10 minutes of checking in!