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A self-drive adventure through Botswana

Time to camp

In January 2021, my wife Kirsten and I were lucky enough to go on a self-drive safari in Botswana with Chobe 4X4. It was supposed to be in October 2020 but Covid. Then it was supposed to be in November but Covid. Then December but…you get the idea. As time passed, so did the dry season. The rains came and turned Botswana from a dust bowl into a water-soaked, green wonderland.

At the outset, I must state that neither Kirsten nor I could be considered camping geniuses. We are much more camping idiots. The first time we decided to go camping in the Kgalagadi, the reactions from our families ranged from roll-on-the-floor mirth to incredulity. It wasn’t that they feared for our safety – I had decades of bush experience. It was the practical side of things – making fires, fixing engines, tinkering with catches, organising bush showers etc. You see, I am the sort of person who, when my car breaks down, climbs out to open the bonnet in the full knowledge that my ability to fathom the workings of the internal combustion engine are about as good as my ability to perform cranial surgery (I am not a surgeon by the way). Next to Kirsten, however, I’m a Formula 1 mechanic. I have never been to an outdoor camping shop or trawled the online forums by the plethora of camping/ self drive aficionados that contribute to them.

The upshot of all this, is that when the two of us go camping, as we have done a few times in the last year, it is always with a slight sense of trepidation about whether or not we will return. Like I say, it is not being in the wild that worries us, it is the fact that our mechanical ignorance and ‘fixit’ inability are so complete.

On the 15th of January we landed in Maun. Some people speak with great affection for the little town. I am not one. I have been there many times and each time searched for charm and each time found it lacking in the dust and donkeys. This time however, there wasn’t a dust mote to be found. It was the middle of a particularly wet, wet season and Maun looked like the Cotswolds – well not quite but it was lovely. Mopane trees in full leaf, grass taller than the people and skies a constantly changing arrangement of grey, pregnant clouds interspersed with blue African sky.

Our chariot

Barry, from Chobe 4X4, met us at the airport and handed over the vehicle that would be our home for the next two weeks. This was the perfect machine for a mechanical imbecile because, as it turned out, it was impossible to break. It was a massive, petrol Landcruiser – the sort of vehicle that you’d really want if you happen to find yourself in an apocalypse or, in fact, driving into northern Botswana in the very wettest of wet seasons.

Now for a camping idiot, the vehicle was as close as possible to perfect. It had everything in it, on it or attached to it. Our bedroom was one of those clam-shell, roof top tents that took literally 20 seconds to erect. The kitchen section boasted a gas canister, cutlery and crockery for four (in case we wanted to host a dinner party while at Nxai Pan), a lighter, matches, glasses, mugs, tongs for braaing and space for condiments. In the back there was an ammo case with every kind of pot or pan you might need and, for me best of all, an Italian espresso maker that fitted perfectly onto the gas plate.

In the back, there was a rail system with a large fridge-freezer and more ammo cases with tools, tow ropes, jacks spanners, foldable basins etc and a few empty ones for our camping wardrobe. There was also a table in a bracket on the roof and two comfy, camping chairs that I had almost learned to fold and unfold by the time our two week trip came to an end.

In the cab, there was GPS loaded with Tracks4Africa maps, a satellite phone and, most importantly for people wanting to make a video and take some pictures, there were USB charging points just about everywhere you looked. Our day drinks (alas all booze free because, well, Covid) lived in a super-chilled central fridge.

In short, the car was impeccable. It felt solid, powerful and perfect for purpose. That’s a lot of Ps.

Savute

We drove out of Maun as dawn broke on our first morning. The destination, Camp Savute, some 215km from Maun. The first 50 or so kilometres were easy going through the emerald landscape. Then the tar ended and the dirt began. ‘Road’ is a fairly strong term for what we were driving on however. It was more a very long strip of puddles, some deep enough to sink a Landcruiser in. Thankfully, there was a fellow in a beaten up pickup with some fencing attached precariously to his roof, in front of us. He seemed well aware of the right line to drive so we followed him. Highlight of the drive was finding tracks of a massive pride of lions outside the village of Mababe. I’m not sure the villagers were quite so chuffed to have the lions living on their doorstep, but it felt rather wild and wonderful to us.

We arrived at Savute Camp as evening fell. There wasn’t another tourist soul in the place because of the season and the pandemic. The Botswana Parks’ staff were very pleasant and basically gave us free run of the place. We managed to sample three campsites – and there were another 15 or so we could have tried. The bathroom area deserves special mention. If there was an apocalypse, this bathroom area would be the perfect place to make a last stand. It was surrounded by a two and a half metre earthen wall with access through two, tiny entrance gates. The reason of course, is not for humanity to escape the aliens but rather to keep the elephants from stealing the water during the dry season – a season difficult to imagine given swampy greenery and constant rain.

It took a little while to really figure out where everything in the vehicle was, to pack and repack the fridge 450 times and light a fire – this is also something I am particularly useless at. By the time we’d finished, a glorious sunset had sprayed the sky a hundred colours and it was time for some contraband beer. Delicious.

Lions called and thunder rolled through the night as we lay happily (and safely) in our spacious rooftop bedroom.

We spent the next two days exploring magnificent Savute. While there wasn’t a massive amount of animal life because of the green season, we still saw lots of elephants, buffalo, general game and birds forever. The carmine bee-eaters were particularly impressive with their pink, red and blue juxtaposed with the grey skies and emerald plains.

Our highlight came on the last morning when I was woken by my wife’s sharp elbows. A lion called close by and my plan to have a slow start to the day was dashed. We made some coffee in double-quick time and then headed out, determined to find a Savute lion. As a misty, rainy dawn broke, we found a dark-maned monster strolling across a clearing to the south of the camp, yelling his head off. This was Tsekedi – famed one of two dominant Savute lions. 

The Chobe River Front

It was a very pleasant drive from Savute up to the Chobe River front where we spent three nights at Ihaha camp – and yes we did think it was an amusing name for a campsite. The drive didn’t net us much in the way of animal life – it was mostly through thick woodland but it was sunny and green and a very pleasant road for someone who had never been there before. Endless stretches of woodland where elephants and other wildlife live outside protected areas with just three little villages on the 100km road between the Savuti camp site and the Ngoma gate).

We stopped for fuel at a little petrol station in Legotlhwana (a tiny village about 15km from the Ngoma gate) and then it was onto the riverfront. Neither of us had ever been in the area before and it was spectacular to finally expereince the famed Chobe River, with elephants on both banks.

Once again we had the place largely to ourselves which was great. The only disadvantage is that you can’t share information on sightings with other people. Ihaha camp itself was stunning. The entrance is nestled in a beautiful teak forest that, in January, was in full flower – the verdant green interspersed with purple, pink and white flowers. The camp then opens out onto the river where every campsite has a view of the river. The first site we chose was scenic but the lack of people and the exuberant fruiting of the wooly caper bushes meant that a troop of baboons had taken up residence. They had apparently eaten themselves fat and then relieved their overtaxed bowels all over site 9. We moved quickly and had a perfect time in campsite 7. The ablutions were brand new, clean and, but for a few hygiene-conscious millipedes, free of anything that might hinder a cleansing time after a day out exploring.

On the first morning, we headed west along the river, spending endless time laughing at baboons and not going anywhere in particular until we found tracks of a large pride leading south into the teak forests. Offroad driving is not allowed, but some guesswork and time ended us at a pan, deep in the woodlands where every vulture in the Chobe was jostling for space in the dead trees. There were lion tracks everywhere, the place stank of death and the scavenging birds continued to arrive but, try as we did over the next three mornings, the lions did not emerge from where they sat on an obviously massive carcass in the thick bush – our guess was a giraffe.

Other than for forays into the woodlands to check if the lions had emerged, we spent the days driving on the riverfront, exploring the floodplains, picnicking under the fig trees and enjoying the plethora of birdlife that lives on in or near the water. Elephants were also a more or less constant companion although not present in anything like the concentrations you might expect come the dry season. The highlight of the river however, was the baboons. The feverberries and the wooly caper bushes were in fruit which meant that just about every bush had a baboon or fifty hanging in it or from it. The primates were a constant source of hilarity, pulling each other’s tails, wrestling in the sand, falling out of trees and screeching at each other. We spent countless hours finding similarities between our own species and the baboons.

Another rather odd bit of animal behaviour was that exhibited by the impala of the Chobe Riverfront. Nowhere else in Africa have I seen impala as relaxed as the ones there. They simply didn’t seem to have a care in the world and often we’d be delayed by large herds of them resting on the road, in no rush to move out of the way. It made me think that perhaps there was something in the vegetation that was chilling them out so much – everywhere else I’ve been, you would struggle to approach to within 30m of an impala, on the Chobe riverfront, you’d struggle not to run them over by mistake.

Our last night on the river was a magical boat cruise from the Chobe Safari Lodge. This really is a spectacular way to experience the wildlife on the banks – smooth, quiet and slow. For photographers, it’s great because the animals are at eye level and the boat’s movement is smooth and even. As the sun set, we watched elephants coming down to drink, hippos climb onto the islands to graze, lechwe galloping over the floodplain and darters skimming over the surface, wingbeats breaking the glassy surface as it reflected the pinkening sky. A gin and tonic would have been the perfect way to end the cruise but alas the Covid lockdown made this impossible. A bitterly cold rock shandy hit the spot.

Makgadikgadi

The road to Makgadikgadi from Kasane took us due south to the bustling metropolis of Nata where we fueled up and turned 90 degrees to the east. Alas, because of the time of year, many of the attractions around Makgadikgadi, including the pans themselves, were not accessible – it was simply too wet and muddy. Our last stop before the park proper was the giant pink aardvark just west of Gweta town (the last fuel stop before Maun). Quite why the giant aardvark is there we did not manage to discern but it is a quirky and rather interesting waypoint on an otherwise not particularly entertaining road unless you enjoy playing dodge the pothole.

Once again, we seemed to have the Makgadigadi all to ourselves. It was 50 or so kms from the gate to the Kumaga Camp which was supposed to be our home for the next four nights. In the end we only spent two nights there – I shall explain the reason for this below. The drive in was not particularly edifying – thick scrub, about a metre and a half high meant we couldn’t see more than three centimetres into the bush but we were more than entertained by the antics of the northern black korhaan. Every time we drove past where one of them rested, the angry things would take to the air and squawk like demented pieces of badly lubricated machinary before disappearing into the scrub. We found it rather hysterical. Finally, we arrived on the banks of the Boteti River where Kumaga Camp is situated. As we had come to expect, the ablutions were pristine and there wasn’t another soul in the camp – well, not another human soul that is.

There were many monkey souls at Kumaga and these chaps, possibly on account of their proximity to Kumaga village just across the Boteti River, were well-experienced, innovative and fearless thieves. Luckily they weren’t particularly subtle about it, so we quickly figured that unless we kept everything locked up, we’d end up with nothing to eat or drink for the next week.

The gang was led by the biggest male of the troop and, like many good mafia leaders, he did not involve himself in the day to day business of theft. This he left to underlings whom he watched from the safety of a tree nearby while being groomed by another servant. I was forced to patrol the cooking area with a camel thorn cudgel while Kirsten chopped veggies for our meals – turning our backs, even briefly, would result in a flurry of extremely fast thievery and then a lot of bad language from me. In the end, the only thing we lost was a rusk. The thief dropped the bag as he ran from my club. It is possible that he tasted the others in the bag so we might have consumed some monkey saliva with our morning coffee but don’t seem to have suffered any ill-effects.

All the action took place on the Boteti River which carried a lot of water. Birds, kudu, zebra, impala and hippo plied their various trades on the banks, in the reeds, on the lilypads and beneath the crystalline surface of the shallow river. Our highlight, however, came on the second evening when we found a viewpoint over the water. As the sun set, two elephant bulls grazed in the sedges and reeds before crossing the river, the water reflecting the end of another stunning day in Botswana.

We had great intentions of going to see the Ntwetwe Pan – the biggest pan in the national park, but a visit to the rangers at the Kumaga pontoon gate, dissuaded us of those ideas. They explained in great, rather terrifying, detail that the last crew to go down and inspect the roads was still stuck there after three or four days and the recovery vehicle sent to get them was also stuck. In short, they didn’t hold great hope for our survival.

So it was that we made the greatest decision of our trip. We decided to pack up and head for Nxai Pan.

Nxai Pan

We didn’t have a booking at Nxai Pan but judging from the paucity of other campers anywhere, we figured we’d probably be alright. The parks officials at Nxai Pan couldn’t have been more helpful and they transferred our park fees from Makgadikgadi so that it didn’t cost us any extra. At the camp itself, another group of friendly people assisted us and soon we were, yet again, alone in a campsite with a whole national park to ourselves – well almost to ourselves. A german couple on a five month, self drive safari, pitched up mid afternoon – they were friendly and kept to themselves so we didn’t feel too put out at having to share the place with them.

Yet again, the ablutions were perfect for our purposes although we had to be a little careful at night because the whole block was surrounded by a field of 20cm steel spikes to deter the elephants from coming to use the loos in the dry season. Our little campsite was beautifully shaded and while we saw a few monkeys and baboons, none of them thought to test our dwindling supplies which was most considerate of them.

It was in Nxai Pan that we had our best wildlife viewing experiences. The reserve is centred on a massive salt pan that, in the wet season, is covered with grass. Much of the rest of the area is quite thickly covered in bush so finding animals tends to be centred on the roads around the pan and to the west where you can visit some baobab trees – perfect for picnics. The pan was covered in zebra – they were the constant sight and sound of our Nxai Pan experience,

If the zebra were the chorus on the stage, there were excellent cameos by pale giraffe, elephant bulls covered in the salty earth giving them a ghostly appearance, black-backed and side-striped jackals and huge herds of springbok, gemsbok and one cheetah – far in the distance unfortunately. The main players, as far as our little trip went however, were the lions and bat-eared foxes.

On our last evening, we headed off to a baobab tree in the far western section and then approached the pan from the north west. We had seen nothing as the sun began to dip and the mood in our car was not exactly light – my good wife had objected to my chosen route and frankly, it wasn’t like I’d brought a great deal of logic to bear on choosing it. As we came out of the thick bush however, we had the first of two magnificent sightings. We stopped to take a few snaps of a back-lit termite emergence. The insects looked like fairies dancing above the long green-gold grass. I then spotted a dog-like creature which I dismissed as a jackal and continued to take pics of the termites. My sharp-eyed (and tongued) wife however, quickly picked up that we were not looking at a jackal but a bat-eared fox. Then it wasn’t just one but five bat-eared foxes, some of them small pups, frolicking in the termite feast, back-lit by the glorious sun.

By the time we left the little foxes, we were satisfied with our day and peace had been restored in the cab of the vehicle. Shortly after leaving the foxes, we spotted a huge herd of springbok that seemed unhappy with their evening. The reason, three lionesses, just woken from their day’s slumbers, were walking towards them. Now, there is no healthy springbok in the world that is going to be caught by a lioness it can see – they are simply way too fast and way too alert, Lions know this of course, so we wondered what on earth the pride was doing. One of them just kept plodding towards the herd, trying to single out a weak animal. The herd gave the lioness a wide berth and eventually began swirling around her. The image of 100s of springbok running in a circle, a lioness standing in their midst, all lit by the sun setting through a rolling storm is one that will stay with us for many years.

Apparently there were no weak gazelles in the group, and the lionesses disappeared to hunt elsewhere as we made for home feeling a deep sense of satisfaction with our afternoon’s efforts.

Maun

We left Nxai Pan the next morning, sad but satisfied – we’d have happily spent another week enjoying the place. We had one more place to visit before making our way back to Maun and that was Baines’ Baobabs which is a copse of three or four ancient baobabs named for the naturalist Thomas Baines. They were apparently a very handy landmark for weary travellers and are now a popular camping spot. Unfortunately for us, the water in the channel surrounding the trees was too deep to drive through. We did, however, enjoy a gorgeous view of the trees in full leaf as we waded through the crystal clear waters of the channel.

Despite the fact that storms had swirled around us for the entire time we’d been in Makgadikgadi and Nxai, their only effect had been to colour the sky a hundred shades of thunder. This was until we hit the road for Maun – then, very kindly, the heavens opened on us, cleaning the mud from our filthy but trusty Land Cruiser on the final stretch of our epic self-drive