Jao Camp Executive Chef Cindy Swart sets the scene for a magical night in the Delta. You may as well grab the popcorn – this is pure theatre of the mind…
“Mike STOP!” The peace of the pre-winter evening is shattered… We are on our way to start the setup of the “beach” dinner at the hide when I see an eagle approaching overhead; it is only as he gets close enough that I realise it is another one of our extraordinary residents, the martial eagle. So the white utility comes to an abrupt stop, and along with that food, drinks, two waiters, two chefs – Mike and Ralie – and I all come to an equally abrupt stop. And everyone turns to look at me, but at this point I have made sure that everyone is still on the vehicle, and I am up and trying to get a photo of the martial, which has landed on a tree right next to the road.
“Okay Cindy, seriously, there needs to be a level of urgency to what's happening when you shout stop…” It seems once again my unbridled bursts of enthusiasm for the birdlife of the Delta have gotten me into a sticky situation.
As we drive off, me sitting quietly and trying to control the urge to call out each bird we pass, Waziba says to Ralie and Amo, "Oh you should have seen the time Cindy walked straight off of the walkway…”
And suddenly the stories start flying about the numerous times I have been distracted by some amazing or unusual bird or insect, and the situations this has led to. Falling off the walkway was one of the few times I have accepted that walking with a camera while trying to take a picture of a woodland kingfisher, on a walkway without balustrades, is not such a good plan.
As we make the 30-minute drive to the hide, we are all at times speechless and other times enthusiastically discussing the area that we are lucky enough to live and work in. As we drive past herds of impala, tsessebe, steenbok and red lechwe, Waziba tells us about how in the past there was a large herd of impala on the Jao Camp island. The herd was whittled down to four individuals by predators and is now slowly making up the numbers again, as in three years we are now up to nine.
Now the “beach” has always been a special place for me and I love going out there to see what is happening. There is something wonderful and strange about being in a landlocked country and yet having a beach. However this is exactly what it is – there is a white sandy area, palm trees, and a shallow lagoon.
There is also always something to see there, be it a set of tracks on the ground, beautifully defined in the soft sand, or the birds that hang out there, or the hippo that are in the area, shouting to us.
As we arrive and start the unpacking and setting up part of the bush dinner, there is a lion paw print right in front of my foot… hmmm… “Mike…?”
Luckily for those of us who are not too sure about the age of tracks and such things we have others within our team who can tell the difference, and after a somewhat technical talk from Mike we understand that the lions where there at least a day ago, possibly longer… and the rest of the set up carries on…
As we are finishing up we are supported by the dying rays of the sun. With the first signs of winter arriving, there is a very slight chill in the air and some of the setup group start the jacket run. We stand in awed silence watching the bright red ball slowly setting then suddenly disappearing across the horizon.
Then to my utter amazement and pure joy a flock of 14 wattled cranes fly across the sunset and land just out of sight. We hear them arguing through the evening. The bats start coming out and a special soundtrack heralds the beginning of the night shift on the Jao floodplains – we hear the gloop and gobble of the catfish in the water around us as they feed on the midges, the snorts of red lechwe as they sort out who is where, and the ever present squeak of the spur-winged geese coming in to the floodplain to roost for the evening.
"Bravo Delta, for Marks, we are about 5 out.” This signals a quick run-around from the six of us as we light the candles, the lanterns and the tiki torches, get the skottel on to cook the prawns for pre-dinner snacks and pour the water and the welcome drinks for the guests.
We are greeted by silence from the guests, and silence is not something I am familiar with at all. Then suddenly the Delta silence is broken by a cry of WOW from the husband, and a quiet sniffle from the wife… they are here at Jao celebrating a big wedding anniversary. They join us in our watch as the final rays of any light dissolve into pure darkness and the stars shine a little brighter by the minute.
The next group arrives and more of the same wonder is exclaimed. Everyone gets off of the vehicles and ambles through the bush dinner setup taking photos. As drinks are poured and snacks are passed around there is chatter about the stars and the major constellations and special stars are pointed out.
While this is going on I start cooking the dinner: kudu loin and bream parcels are in the fire and the chicken potjie is slowly simmering over the coals. Some of the guests come over to see what's for dinner and to have a taste of the kudu hot off the fire. When everything is done, all the guests take a seat at the table and are surprised to see that there are ‘stars’ hovering just above the water, as the fireflies put on an outstanding performance of pre-dinner entertainment, Delta style.
As all the staff are introduced and we get the ball rolling for the meal, we send out the soups and the mains while the guests are all happy to sit in sporadic shifts of silence as they take in the beauty and the enormity of a true African night.
As the guests drive off, we commence the breakdown, facing what feels like the challenge of a lifetime. How to fit an entire setup for 14, food and drink, left overs, two FOH staff, two chefs and two managers onto a white utility and a trailer…?
The last of the lanterns, tiki torches and fires are put out and the last of the loading is done as the hippos that are just round the corner start to shout. I like to think that they are letting each other know that the people are on their way out and the creatures of the Delta can return to their normal nightly routine, uninterrupted by us…
By Cindy Swart, Executive Chef – Jao Camp