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COVID-19 delays Mombo's return to glory

MBONGENI MGUNI
Bouncing back: Mombo is Wilderness Safari’s flagship asset and a major drawcard in the Delta
A week before lockdown began, a high powered delegation from the Tourism ministry descended upon one of the Delta’s prime addresses, Mombo, to witness the fourth rebirth of the iconic camp. Staff Writer, MBONGENI MGUNI was amongst the visiting group

Going to one of the country’s top tourism addresses and then returning into a 48-day lockdown must count as one of life’s curious ironies. The juxtaposition of the two cannot be more stark, a poles-apart experience with surreal luxury and wilderness freedom on one end and humdrum home confinement on the other.

Still, during the lockdown and accompanying routineness, for those in the small group blessed to be amongst Mombo Camp’s last visitors before the cessation of tourism activities, the memories provided much-needed comfort.For Tourism Minister, Philda Kereng, who headlined the small group, the memories will no doubt have been more overpowering, given her admission that the trip was her first visit to the Okavango Delta.

The occasion was the relaunch of Mombo Camp, rated one of the country’s most luxurious addresses in the Delta and one of the best areas for game viewing. The camps’ eight tents sit in a floodplain “teeming with wildlife” that allows visitors to literally have a front seat to wilderness sights rare elsewhere in Africa.

Each tent is the pinnacle of luxury, fitted to the hilt with the top end of all conveniences and outside, the deck or viewing area outfitted with a pool from which one can dip and watch the wildlife world go by.

Shortly after her arrival, the minister was quickly educated on the truth behind Mombo’s nickname, “Place of Plenty,” when an elephant acquainted itself with the pool on her deck to have a drink!

The relaunch was Mombo’s fourth ‘reincarnation’ since its establishment in 1990. The sustainably built camp has been revamped, overhauled and rebuilt three times before and the last effort traces back to 2018.

Wilderness Safaris spent P140 million on the latest refurb, an effort Kereng said is what keeps the company at the apex in the local tourism sector.

“This is my first time in the Delta and it’s an opportunity to appreciate what our stakeholders always talk about,” she said during the launch.

“Your investment framework in your products is what is keeping you at the top of the market and it will keep you there for many years.”

Even as she basked in her glory, being unveiled before top tourism ministry officials, an air of apprehension was draped over

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Mombo. The relaunch was taking place only two days after government instituted a global travel ban to protect Batswana against the coronavirus (COVID-19).

The pandemic, initially seen as something happening elsewhere in the world, was spreading its tentacles across the region, touching the tourism sector first.

Rather than celebrating its investment and ringing back the good days at Mombo, Wilderness directors were understandably thinking about the extent and impact of COVID-19 on tourism broadly and their assets specifically.

Wilderness has 35 years in Botswana and is one of the biggest operators, particularly around the Delta. The group has invested P340 million in Botswana in the last three years and had plans to invest P70 million more this year. It is also amongst the major employers with a staff of 1,100 countrywide.

Mombo itself has a staff of about 100 that enthusiastically joined in the relaunch celebrations, which provided, for a while at least, a break from the thoughts about darkening clouds of unease.

“We are tackling this as best we can, with a focus on the health and safety of our staff and guests,” said Wilderness director, Derek de la Harpe.

“The industry here and globally is facing a very tough challenge. In fact, the world has never seen anything like this and we are facing huge uncertainties.

“We don’t know what’s coming next and we have to recognise that this will have a huge impact on the industry.

“We are committed to working with government on combatting this pandemic. This thing is far too big to fight alone and if we pull together, there’s no doubt in my mind that we can come out on the other side.” However, even as the tourism sector hunkered down for the worst, Mombo was dolling up for the reopening of activities, with the return of floodwaters to the Delta, after a year of an unprecedented dry period.

With the waters came new and old wildlife visitors who had disappeared from around Mombo and the miracle of life has been springing up ever since. “When travel restrictions are finally lifted, a revitalised and rejuvenated wilderness experience will be ready and waiting for our guests,” Wilderness stated.

Mombo’s return to glory has been delayed, but not denied.



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