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Expedition to Botswana





29 August 2016


JK the ‘bushman’, Hellen the ‘good wife’, Zito the ‘nutcase’, Lorette the ‘jet-setter’, Eben the ‘storyteller’, Lucille the ‘doctor’ and Ina the ‘globetrotter’ travel Botswana in a 10-seater Land Cruiser bus. This is their story…

THE planned journey escalated from a thought to reality in the wink of an eye and after a mention on Facebook, suddenly there were seven excited grown-ups planning to visit the only Southern African country that was declared a British protectorate, but was never colonised by those greedy men from the northern hemisphere. (“There was nothing there of any value, my old chap”.) Independence followed for Botswana in 1966, when Britain accepted the proposal for democratic self-government. Luckily diamonds were discovered only in 1967 and it was too late for the original conquerors to force their ideas on the free spirit of this wonderful land.

Before the break of dawn on the day our journey began, we pointed the Cruiser in a north-westerly direction and headed to the Stockpoort/Parr’s Halt border post between South Africa and Botswana. What a lekker little border post on both sides. As we crossed Kipling’s “great grey-green, greasy Limpopo River” using the single vehicle bridge into Botswana, we sensed the original pioneering spirit. The next 75km or so of good gravel added to our level of excitement – this safari was now truly underway. A lonely donkey walked past with a telephoto lens strapped to its back. It had us all mystified regarding the possible photo-graphic opportunity in the settling dust, but we soldiered on despite the missed chance.

We took a sharp right at Mahalapye onto the boring tarred A3, through Palapye, Serule and Francistown with its major roadworks that sent us via a lovely suburban cruise back onto the main road, finally hitting the Makgadikgadi pans at Nata Bird Sanctuary for our first overnight stop. Why not Kubu Island you ask? Well, last time I checked, the Cruiser wasn’t listed as an amphibious vehicle and the pans were filled to the brim with water after the heavy rainfall.

The first proper photo opportunity for our diverse team of photographers presented itself as the sun set over the vast 12 000km2 of the Makgadikgadi pans. JK with his Panasonic mik en druk (with a Leica lens nogal), Zito with his brand new Canon with two lenses (a bastard to master if you’ve just taken it out the box), Ina with a camera, Lucille with her smartphone, and Eben, the only pro with his professional Canon and Canon lenses. What a spectacle unfolded. You simply cannot capture the magic of the sunset on camera.

The next day we stopped at Nata for refuelling and re-stocking our refreshments, before continuing in a northerly direction to Elephant Sands Lodge, to see elephants and for lunch. It was a big disappointment that there were no ellies at the waterhole, so we decided to eat next to the road and voila, an elephant paid us a visit right there – happiness all round.  We camped at Planet Baobab, a lovely place with lovely baobabs, a lovely bar and later that evening we had a lovely meal. Lovely. Flying over the Okavango Delta in a small aircraft is a must for all first-time visitors to Botswana.

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How else could you even try to understand the largest inland delta in the world (6 000km2 of permanent swamp and 12 000km2 of seasonal swamp) except by air? The waters from Angola pass through the Caprivi into Botswana, taking roughly four months to travel the 250km from Mohembo (1 000m above sea level) to Maun (935m above sea level). As can be expected, the bird- and wildlife is spectacular, among the best in the world, with plenty of impala look-alike red lechwe antelope running gracefully through the shallow waters of the swamps with their deeply splayed hooves – what a magnificent sight.

Audi Camp on the outskirts of Maun remains one of my favourite campsites. It serves wonderful food and ice-cold St Louis Lager from the deck overlooking the now dry riverbed of the Thamalakane River. In four month’s time when the clear waters of the Delta reach Maun, the very same scene changes into a watery wonder world. And yes, you will hear the odd donkey hee-haw and cowbells clanging softly during the night, but hey, we were sleeping on the outskirts of Maun, after all. It’s just a big traditional African village, with First World logistics catering for the needs of thousands of international travellers.

The next destination was the Khwai Development Trust’s concession land situated next to the Khwai River, in the Okavango Delta – a bitch to book but well worth the effort. Unspoilt virgin bush, wild animals and birds surround you and there are no other campers close by. It’s here that you need to dig a hole in the sand to provide a bush toilet and hang a hand-operated shower from the branch of a huge camelthorn tree. This is the real life. Elephant visit and out come the cameras, zebra and impala visit and out come the cameras, vervet monkeys visit and everyone dashes to secure food supplies.

Early one evening, a hyena visited the campfire, while jackals cried in the distance. Roaring lions shattered the night’s silence. The whisky tasted divine. After two days of five-star wildernessing, we had an uncommon disappointing game drive through Moremi (the animals where not concentrated in one spot as there was water everywhere after the rains). Luckily, the prolific birdlife along the picturesque Khwai River always comes to the rescue, whether you’re a twitcher or not.

“We need a week here,” was the general consensus when we had to pack up on the morning of day six. We travelled on tracks in a north-easterly direction into Chobe National Park and crossed the Maghikwe sand ridge (once the shoreline of an inland lake) driving via the Mababe gate. Here, the friendly park official had run out of permits, but still allowed us to continue. “No problem,” she said, “I will radio Goha gate and you can pay your park fees after your visit to Savuti.”
About 10km further, a wildlife spectacle unfolded before our eyes: thousands of zebra migrating in a southerly direction towards Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pan National Park. (By the way, nearly 40% of Botswana is used for conservation-related activities – what a country!)

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Photos just can’t do this sight justice: elephant in the foreground, giraffe in the background, with wall-to-wall zebra filling up the plains of the Mababe depression. Oh, and did I mention the families of warthog, numerous ostriches, tsessebe and wildebeest filling up the rest of the picture. I have been to the Serengeti more than once and it is amazing, but the Botswana annual zebra migration comes a very close second. We enjoyed a picnic lunch right there, followed by an ice-cold St Louis to round it off, while Zito had us in fits of laughter telling us about his days working on the West Coast as a diamond diver.

After lunch, we followed the sand ridge road to Savuti campsite administered by SKL, a private concern. The change from old to new is immediately apparent. There was a friendly reception, a raked and cleaned campsite and a user-friendly ablution block. What more could you ask for?

While the campfire was roaring, Eben entertained us with his stories from being a journalist and photographer for Die Burger, in Cape Town. “There was the guy who claimed he was running round the world and the first question I asked him was about which running shoes he preferred. After a vague answer I just knew the man was a con artist. Later it came to light that his modus operandi was to run out of a town, then secretly get picked up by his girlfriend in the back-up vehicle, only to be dropped off a couple of kilometres before the next town. He would then run into the town to huge fanfare… and sponsorship.”

As the fire continued to burn, the lions roared, and roared and roared, while background music was supplied by nearby elephant trumpeting, hyena laughing, African scops and southern white-face owls calling, interrupted only by the harsh chaa-chaa-chek-chek of the red-billed spur fowl.

Savuti, another special place. The Chobe River, which starts out as the Cuando in Angola, changes into the Kwando River in the Caprivi, then the Linyanti River in Botswana before finally becoming the Chobe River that joins the Zambezi at Gazungula. It’s here that four countries meet, Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The Chobe is also famous for its elephant, the highest concentration of elephant anywhere in the world, huge herds of buffalo and the only place in Botswana where you can see the puku antelope. A sunset boat cruise on the Chobe with its vast flood plains is not to be missed; it’s here that you will probably experience one of the most beautiful sunsets of your life.

We left Savuti campsite at 8am, drove via Goha gate where we paid our dues, and followed the deep sandy tracks where the Cruiser sometimes roared like an angry buffalo bull, using every newton metre that the 4.2-litre, naturally aspirated engine could muster. And don’t even think of trying to change into a lower gear while negotiating the thick sand, as your vehicle will act like a horse with a python in its way – there will be a rather unpleasant sudden stop. Getting going again is a story for another time.

The tracks lead you out of Chobe National Park and into the beautiful Chobe Forest Reserve with its Zambezi teak trees, via the village of Katchikau, where it joins the tar road to the Ngoma junction. Here you turn left to Namibia or right to re-enter Chobe National Park. There are no fees payable on this stretch of road through the park en route to the town of Kasane. We arrived at the Chobe waterfront at around 1pm and made it in good time for the sunset cruise that starts at 3pm, which was magical! That night we pitched camp at Chobe Safari Lodge camp-site, the original safari lodge  in Kasane bordering the Chobe National Park, chosen for its easy access to the sunset boat cruise.

Afterwards, we decided to take a walk and have dinner in town, as the lodge’s dinners have become rather expensive for our South African rand earners. We also encountered the odd warthog looking for a quick bite – hey, great minds think alike. After a pleasant dinner at the Pizza plus Coffee & Curry Restaurant, we returned to camp for a well-deserved rest – most of our group did not even hear the elephant breaking branches just a few metres from our tents. It’s never pleasant to start a return journey, especially not after experiencing so many wonderful highlights. We had to travel 300km to Nata and then another 190km to the Woodlands Campsite, just before Francistown. The campsite is situated on the banks of the Tati River and is clean and neat, the ideal stopover around Francistown. You can even sleep in one of their chalets if you don’t feel the urge to pitch your tent for the last time on safari.

Earlier that day, we each bought a good bottle of wine from the bottle store at the Shell garage in Nata, and on our last evening together, we drank a toast while reliving the magic of our Botswana safari.

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Travel Information

Parr’s Halt border post
Vehicle and trailer (road fund and third party single entry): P230 (R317)
S23°24.228’ E27°21.584’

Nata Bird Sanctuary
No pre-booking required Camping fees: P75 (R103) per person per night Sanctuary drive: P55 (R76) per person
S20°17.365’ E26°18.103’

Planet Baobab
Bookings: Unchartered Africa  (www.uncharteredafrica.com)Camping: P76 (R105) per person per night
S20°12.089’ E25°55.395’
Audi Camp, Maun
Bookings: info@okavangocamp.com
Camping fees: P80 (R110) per person per night
S19°56.030’ E23°30.543’

Air Shakawe
George Teessen (owner)
Bookings: airshakawe@ngami.net
1 hour scenic flight  (5 participants): P760 (R1 050) per person
S19°58.498’ E23°25.804’

Khwai Development Trust
Bookings: khwai@btcmail.co.bw
Camping fees: P300 (R414) per person per night S19° 09.887’ E23° 45.077’

Mababe Gate Chobe National Park
No pre-booking required
Park fees: P120 (R165) per person per day plus P50 (R69) per vehicle per day
S19°06.179’ E23°59.125’

Savuti Campsites
(administered by SKL)
Booking: sklcamps@btcmail.co.bw
Camping fees: P250 (R345) per person per night
S18°33.912’ E24°03.811’

Chobe Safari Lodge
Bookings: reservations@chobesafarilodge.com
Camping fees: P75 (R103) per person per night
Sunset boat cruise: P235 (R324) per person, plus park fees P70 (R97) per person
S17°48.347’ E25°08.812’

Woodlands Stop-Over
close to Francistown
Bookings: info@woodlandsbotswana.com
Camping fees: P95 (R131) per person per night plus P35 (R48) per trailer
S21°04.886’ E27°27.845’

Text and photography: Johan Kriek