Fig. 1 – Okavango Delta Spa at dawn.

The Okavango Delta Spa was designed for Uncharted Africa, a wildlife safari company operating in Botswana’s Kalahari Desert Basin. Each year about eleven cubic kilometers of water spreads out across a fluctuating 6,000 – 15,000 km2 area known as the Okavango Delta, one of earth’s very few remaining endorhetic deltas, a system that discharges water inland rather than out to sea (figs, 2 and 3).

Fig. 2 – Okavango Delta from a satellite orbiting in the exosphere.

Fig. 3 – Okavango Delta from the Space Shuttle Endeavour (1992).

Fig. 4 – Transnational seasonal wildlife migration routes.

The Okavango Delta was once part of the ancient Lake Magadikgadi system that had mostly dried up by the early Holocene. It is now key to the transnational Kavango-Zambezi (KAZA) Transfrontier Conservation Area coordinating a broad territory that spans Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Angola through a network of protected areas to increase biodiversity and expand historical wildlife migration routes (fig. 4).


The African Rift Valley System splinters, redistributes and captures the Okavango River in extensive waterways, permanent marshlands, and seasonally flooded grasslands (ref. 1). Summer rains in January and February surge downstream from the Angola highlands and spread across the Delta in March through June. High daytime temperatures drive rapid transpiration and evaporation setting off three cycles of rising and falling water levels.

Fig. 5 – Elephants crossing a channel.

Fig. 6 – Female lion moves along a shallow channel.

Fig. 7 – Seasonal zebra migration across the Kalahari Desert

Fig. 8 – The central Okavango Delta from a light aircraft.

Fig. 9 – Navigating the central Okavango Delta by Mokoro, a dugout canoe made from local ebony trees.

Fig. 10 – A wildlife guide maneuvers an amphibious vehicle towards an island.

When flooding peaks June through August in Botswana’s dry winter season, the Okavango Delta swells to three times its permanent size, drawing animals from kilometers away in one of Africa’s greatest concentrations of wildlife that includes some of the world’s most endangered species of large mammal; cheetah, white rhinoceros, black rhinoceros, African wild dog and lion (figs. 5, 6, and 7).

Fig. 11 – Okavango Delta Spa site plan

In the pristine Okavango Delta landscape, humans, just one among many sentient species in circulation, can leave an outsize footprint (figs. 8, 9 and 10). For site planning to facilitate movement of people through the ecosystem’s circuits of hydrology, geology, vegetation, and predators and prey, we looked to neuroscience for an explanation of spatial navigation and how sentient beings become coordinate with their environment and integrated into it (See Log 52 ‘Navigating a Nervous Ecology’). Only accessible by light aircraft or shallow hull boat, the project is made up of a series of interrelated fixed, tethered and free floating elements (fig 11).

Fig. 12 – Guest pods distributed in natural clearings in Delta papyrus beds.

Fig. 13 – Papyrus beds screen a guest pod for seclusion and also acts as a blind for watching wildlife.

Seven wood and thatch guest pods are secured to the delta floor in natural clearings in tall, dense papyrus beds that provide privacy (figs. 12 and 13). To prevent rotting, thatch requires a minimum pitch angle to drain. Working with traditional thatching methods from Angola, we introduced hyperbolic geometry logics and swept that pitch angle in space to create propeller-like roof forms with extended overhangs (refs. 4, 5 and 6). Pristine delta water is pumped up into a solar collecting drum mounted at the intersection of the two roof blades. Heated by the sun in time for guests returning at dusk, water is fed into the tethered floating spa.


Individual guest units are connected by a network of buoyant wood tracks anchored to four small islands – the tops of abandoned termite mounds – that protrude out of the water. Walkways flex and relax with changing water levels. Tapping Botswana’s traditional basket weaving expertise, but substituting grass with thin optical fiber cable, walkway guardrails are designed to be woven locally and solar powered, lighting the tracks through the site at night (refs. 8 and 9).

Fig. 14 – Site section with sedimentation processes below water. No tracks penetrate this deep into the Delta. Mokoros, dugout canoes carved from local ebony trees, ferry people and goods through open lagoons and papyrus corridors.

‘The Delta’s dynamic geomorphological history has a major effect on the hydrology, determining water flow direction, inundation and dehydration of large areas within the system. The site is an outstanding example of the interplay between climatic, geomorphological, hydrological, and biological processes that drive and shape the system and of the manner in which the Okavango Delta’s plants and animals have adapted their lifecycles to the annual cycle of rains and flooding. Subsurface precipitation of calcite and amorphous silica is an important process in creating islands and habitat gradients that support diverse terrestrial and aquatic biota within a wide range of ecological niches.’  UNESCO World Heritage Convention, 2014. 

Fig 15 – Site section with hydrologic cycle and fluctuating water levels. Under the Kalahari sun, 95% of the Delta water evaporates annually. While the outer edges of the system fluctuate with seasonal rains, the inner zone where the site is located is a perennial swamp. Floodwaters rushing south from Angola replenish the region. As floods recede in summer, fresh grazing land is exposed. Vast migratory herds including elephant, zebra and wildebeest follow the shifting pastures.

Fig. 16 – A bird of prey conserves energy by riding airfoils over the Delta. Islands with palm trees are scattered around the Delta, most have formed slowly through sedimentation around old abandoned termite mounds.

Fig. 17 – Infrared imaging showing distribution of termite colonies in an evenly-spaced offset grid in the northern Kalahari. The large red dots are cattle posts.

Fig. 18 – Walls in a local village are constructed from upcycled aluminum cans secured by mortar made from pulverizing abandoned termite mounds.

Solid ground in the Delta, built up over millennia, is assembled by colonies of Macrotermitinae, subterranean fungus-farming termites. The swarm produces a cementitious mix of desert sand and their own pheromones that emits signals into the air, evoking the swarm’s nest-building behaviors.

Fig. 19 – Termite swarm nest-building behaviors.

Fig. 20 – Mobile crocodile-resistant lap pool docked in the shade of a thatch roof overhang. Below water a grid of waste pipes, septic tanks and pumps separate and process waste in accordance with environmental codes.

Fig. 21 – Interwoven above and below water networks: fresh and waste water infrastructure with solar collecting drums, septic system, and buoyant walkways tethered to abandoned termite mounds.

Fig. 22 – Crocodile-resistant lap pool maneuvers through the Delta propelled by and outboard motor.

Fig. 23 – Guest pod at dawn. Lightweight ripstop fabric is drawn along the edge of the roof profile for privacy.

Fig. 24 – Guest pod at sunset. Daytime temperatures during peak tourist season often exceed ninety degrees. Thatch roofs are oriented to maximize shade and take advantage of shifting wind. The buoyant spa moves with fluctuating water levels and is shaded by roof overhangs.

Fig. 25 – View from a light aircraft.


Kalahari Desert, Botswana






Wildlife safari lodge and spa

systems and materials:

Wood frame, wood, thatch, fiberglass, optical fiber


Uncharted Africa

project team:

Lindy Roy with Albert Angel, Gavin Bardes, Karen Bullis, Aline Cautis, Heidi McDowell, Ana Miljacki, Lee Moreau, John Mueller, Chris Perry, and Mary Springer

related projects:

MoMA P.S.1: Subwave, Alaska Rendezvous Lodge, Hotel QT, Sarah Bartmann Centre of Remembrance


Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, ‘New Hotels for Global Nomads’

SFMOMA, ‘ROY Design Series 1’

Art Institute of Chicago, ‘Figuration in Contemporary Design’

Henry Urbach Architecture, ‘X-Roy Projects’

selected press and publications:

New York Times (March 23, 1997)

Architecture (March, 1999)

Wallpaper (July, 1999)

Architectural Record (August, 2001)

Modern Painters (Winter, 2003)

Vogue Hommes International (March, 2002),

Wellness Design (May, 2003)

Oeste (2004)

Seed (February, 2006)

TIME Style and Design (February, 2004)

Conde Nast Traveler (November, 2004)

bob: International Magazine of Space Design (September, 2005)

10 x 10 (Phaidon: 2008)

Figuration in Contemporary Design (Art Institute of Chicago: 2008)

The New York Times (November 1, 2002)

Town and Country (November, 2001)

Architecture + Urbanism (September, 2001)


Vladimir I. Vernadsky, The Biosphere

Randy C. Gallistel, The Organization of Action

Charles Scott Sherrington, The Integrative Action of the Nervous System

Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, Essay on the Geography of Plants

David Thomas and Paul Shaw, The Kalahari Environment

John Reader, Africa: A Biography of the Continent

James G. Workman, Heart of Dryness: How the last Bushmen can help us endure the coming age of drought

Jakob von Uexkull, A Foray into the Worlds of Animals and Humans

William Morton Wheeler, Ant Colony as an Organism

Kevin Kelly, Out of Control 

J. Scott Kelso, Dynamic Patterns

Ref. 1 - The Great African Rift System is driven by extension and thinning of the suboceanic African Plate that began in the Oligocene approx. 30 million years ago.

Ref. 2 - Jakob von Uexküll’s Umwelt (1934).

Ref. 3 - J..J. Gibson's Optical Flow (1966).

Ref. 4 - Airborne seed pods are propelled away from the mother tree to avoid competition for resources.

Ref. 6 - Hyperbolic geometry of roofs produces compound curvature while maintaining optimal pitch angle for thatch drainage.

Ref. 5 - Mobile roof during construction of a dwelling.

Ref. 7 - Optimization of a self-organizing system..

Ref. 8 - Woven baskets are material evidence of the integration of two cultures - basket-weaving expertise brought by refugees from Angola, intertwined with the dyes and patterns that are part of Botswana tradition.

Ref. 9 - Light-emitting polymer optical fiber woven fabric. Source: Institut für Textiltechnik of RWTH Aachen University