You might think that one of the biggest challenges for the executive chef of a game lodge in the Okavango Delta that has no phone lines but an abundance of wildlife and is a 40-minute plane ride away from the nearest town, would be the difficulty of ordering and accessing fresh food and supplies.
For chef Craig Higgins however, it’s “Jimmy” the resident hyena – lover of beef fillet, yoghurt, biscotti, leftovers and in fact anything from the lodge kitchen. Despite efforts by staff to keep the hyena out of the camp – think barricades and reinforced doors – teeth marks on the kitchen door show this animal’s determination and prowess. But it’s the nature of the beast that has drawn Craig from his native Scotland to Africa.
He literally dreamt one night of this continent, and came here on a whim. “I dreamed of training and working with local chefs,” he explains. “I had no idea what to expect, but wanted something different, a challenge.” At Wilderness Safaris’ premier Mombo Camp in Botswana, where Craig has worked for the last five years, it’s as much about food and wildlife as it is about service and luxury – all of which have contributed to a slew of awards for the game lodge, as well as guests who return time and time again.
Mombo means place of plenty in Setswana, and whichever way you look at it, the significance of this title shines through. Its location in the Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta make it a base for what many believe is among the best game viewing in Africa.
Luxury tents raised off the ground with an outdoor shower and lounge area offer superb views of the floodplains, as well as adrenaline-racing proximity to the wildlife just metres below. In fact, some of my most memorable sightings were along the raised walkways and from the dining room over sundowners and early morning breakfast. And while Mombo has location, location, location, it also boasts service, service, service from some of the warmest, friendliest and most passionate and knowledgeable staff.
It is at Mombo where Craig started working on his recently published book Elephant in the Kitchen, a cookbook-cum-storybook-cum-photo journal, together with Beverly and Dereck Joubert, both National Geographic wildlife photographers and filmmakers. The book shares some of his favourite Mombo recipes, interspersed with anecdotes, stories of the bush, descriptions of Mombo Camp and photography that takes you from the kitchen to the table and outdoors.
It’s a diary of a collection of work from the last few years, Craig explains, whose favourite recipes from the book include his parsnip and apple soup, bobotie springrolls, sticky chicken, an ostrich burger and the chocolate delice, all of which still appear on the menu at Mombo. And for all those recipes that sadly aren’t in the book, Craig will happily provide – and provide, and provide.
During our visit, each guest in the camp requested the recipe for his Malay Mombo butternut soup after dinner. Despite his roots and fortunately for most, you won’t find the Scottish traditional meal of haggis on the menu. “I realise it’s not everyone’s favourite,” laughs Craig. “Instead, my style is African-European fusion, and I try to keep dishes simple, clean and fresh – no one wants heavy meals in the bush, especially since guests stay here for a few days.”
His favourite ingredients are lemongrass, coconut milk, lime, chillies and fresh herbs, and from the bush he sources wild morogo (spinach), marula, soft wild sage, papyrus and wild mushrooms. These mushrooms, a favourite of baboons and elephants, grow on termite mounds and emerge after the rains. They can reach up to a metre in height and have a meaty, leathery texture – delicious in Craig’s risottos or simply sautéed with garlic, butter and black pepper.
Just as the kitchen is the perfect hunting ground for Jimmy the hyena, so too is Mombo the ideal habitat for Craig. “I love this beauty and tranquillity – it’s paradise!” exclaims Craig, motioning towards the bush behind us. “I even find excitement in ordering food through mailbags,” he laughs.
Craig, who has encountered a leopard outside his house (he radioed for help) and literally fell off the raised pathway onto a buffalo one night while walking home (“he ran away – he got more of a fright than I did”), dons his kilt for festivals and celebrations, and it’s clear he’s as respected in the kitchen as he is liked by guests. It must be his warmth, calm, humour and skill – plus the funniest bush tales in the camp. Even when it comes to Jimmy.
Elephant in the Kitchen, published by Wildlife Films Press, is available from good bookstores for R350.