They call it the Magotho Camp. It’s a little piece of heaven, nestled between the Moremi and Chobe national parks, in the north-west corner of Botswana. And if the mythic Garden of Eden existed on earth, this would probably be it. But wait, maybe Chobe National Park is it. Or is it the Chobe River? Welcome to the 2013 Leisure Wheels Botswana Adventure Safari
In the beginning (DAY 1)
“I said sit down!”
The young policeman, looking at us as if we had just committed a heinous crime, was in no mood for polite hellos and other such trivial matters. He was in a feisty, ready-to-lock-people-up mood.
We were in a small holding room at the Maun airport, in Botswana. We had been brought here because we had dared to off-load the 13 SUVs that formed part of this adventure in the airport’s parking lot, after they had arrived there on two Motorvia car-carrier trucks.
The two truck drivers, looking rather bleak, were also in the holding room. They had left Gauteng five days earlier and had already spent three nights camped at the South African and Botswana border.
No matter how many official stamps and papers and letters from senior Botswana officials the drivers had, two carriers filled with luxury SUVs was for many officials like a feast of 200kg steaks for a starving lion.
After being shunted from pillar to post, first on the SA side and later in Botswana, the outcome was always the same: Hand over some cash, and we will make the problem go away. Three nights later, and with much lighter wallets, the two drivers and their precious cargo finally arrived in Maun, and the dust bowl that is the airport’s parking area.
Our contacts in Maun had told us that it wouldn’t be a problem for the cars to be parked there, in anticipation of our guests’ arrival from OR Tambo International Airport the following day.
It was, after all, just a vast dust bowl, with plenty of space to spare. Maun International Airport caters mostly for tourists, so most of the passengers are pale-skinned Europeans who walk off the air-conditioned planes into 38ºC heat and a glaring African sun. Essentially, though, it’s a tiny little outpost airport with very little people and air traffic, and our cars would make no difference to anyone, tucked away in a dusty corner. Well, that’s what we thought.
So back to the police holding room, where an assortment of would-be criminals, ranging in age from about 10 to 90, were also waiting…
“Who gave you permission to put those cars in the parking area?”
The young policeman was clearly in a fighting mood.
Choosing to ignore the youngster, we focused our attention on a more mature, calmer official. We explained about the SUVs being off-loaded in the belief that it would not be an issue, since it was just an open space, with no apparent security control.
We explained about our guests who would fly into Maun the next day, pick up these very cars from the airport parking area and drive them to the Magotho Camping area, wedged between the Chobe and Moremi national parks. We handed over the documents we had received from the relevant government departments. These were all scrutinised and checked and discussed.
Finally, we were told that we would have to appear before a senior official to clear up the matter. So we were whisked off to the senior person’s office. He had a shiny suit, and even a secretary.
He asked the same questions over again, and we showed all the documents again. The senior official spent much time reading through these documents. Eventually he asked the identity of our guests, who would fly in the next day.
We said they were VIPs from South African motor companies. Oops, mistake. The mere use of the term VIPs had the official in a flap. Why was he not informed about this prior to our arrival? How could he make special arrangements if he is not informed?
After assuring him that we really, really didn’t need any special treatment or red carpets or military escorts for our guests, we said we’d appreciate it if we could just use a tiny corner of his parking area for less than 24 hours.
After studying the paperwork from the Botswana government again, the senior official finally agreed that it would be OK for us to park our SUVs in a corner. However, since we hadn’t made any prior arrangements he could not guarantee that the vehicles would be safe during the night.
Yep. Give a man a badge, and you end up with a whole lot of badge issues.
Later we heard that our senior official had driven into the parking area while the cars were being off-loaded. Apparently he was angry because he hadn’t been informed about the off-loading of 13 snazzy SUVs in the parking lot.
And this sparked the two-hour session in the police holding room, shiny suits and lots of talking in circles. The end result was that the cars were cleared to be there, and we had to employ a private security guard to look after them for the night – in the parking lot of the Maun airport, in Botswana.
Welcome then, to the 2013 Botswana Adventure Safari.
And then a plane landed (DAY 2)
At just after 2pm, Botswana Air’s British Aerospace BAe 146-100 touched down on Maun’s 3,7km-long runway. On board were 28 Leisure Wheels passengers, all there to collect some expensive SUV hardware. Our Jannie and Maryke Herbst were also on the plane, and they escorted the industry guests to the 14 SUVs, waiting in that dusty parking area.
RamsayMedia’s Neil Piper and Dean Dicks had to make a pit stop in the rest rooms first. When they had left Cape Town at the crack of dawn that morning, the mountains had been covered in snow and the Mother City was bitterly cold. Now, getting off the air-conditioned plane here in Maun, with their cold weather clothes still in place, they nearly fainted in the 39-degree heat!
RSG’s Francois Rossouw was there too, after driving up from Gauteng in his Toyota Fortuner 3.0D-4D 4×4. Over the past few years he has become a kind of pro bono host of the event, sharing his extensive range of jokes with everyone, and sorting out any little issues like a flat tyre or radio trouble.
And so, after a short briefing for drivers, the group set off to fill fuel tanks and stock up empty cooler boxes. Then we were on our way.
We headed for the town of Shorobe. From there the going got a little tougher… sand and dirt roads only would be on the menu for the next three days.
It was also time to deflate tyres – lower pressures ensured better flotation on the sand, and a slightly more comfy ride over the ruts.
The kilometres flew by and it wasn’t long before we arrived at Khwai village. From there it was just another 20km to the campsite, where our luxury tented village awaited for the next two nights.
Arriving at the Khwai River, we saw the first elephant. Then we saw some more, and then we saw hippos, and crocodiles, and waterbuck, and more elephants, and zebra, and more elephants. It was a bit like driving straight into a David Attenborough wildlife documentary. And we could imagine Sir David’s narrative: “And here, in this magical place they call Magotho, man and beast meet in a most dramatic fusion. It is a place that time seems to have passed by. This place… this place of abundance, must be how Africa’s great explorers, like David Livingstone, experienced it. Wild, dangerous and spectacular.”
The convoy rolled in to our specially arranged tented camp, courtesy of John and Tina Chase (and son Owen) and their small army of helpers. John is a living legend in Botswana, but more about his exploits later.
It was time to get settled into the luxury, walk-in tents with en-suite bathroom. Well, “bathroom” may be a bit of a misnomer. It was a separate area where a bush toilet (read short-drop) and a bucket shower system were installed. Look, it wasn’t exactly the Hilton, but considering where we were, it was really quite OK.
However, we were warned: “Make sure you zip up that tent whenever you step in, or out. There are a lot of creepy-crawlies around here, just waiting for the chance to get into your tent. That includes snakes and scorpions. Oh, and maybe a hyena, too.”
After a hearty dinner, the tired adventurers tucked into bed. Next day we would explore this magnificent place. And yes, we made sure those zips were tightly closed.
As David Attenborough might say, “Neither man nor beast was left hungry that night. This place of plentiful food and prey, this place of such stark, raw beauty. This place they call Magotho.”
A river runs through it. Several times. (DAY 3)
We were up with the elephants and the hippos and crocodiles and lions and whatnot. As day dawned, the campsite slowly came to life.
It was quite a picture, this campsite. As we sipped on a coffee in which the spoon almost stood upright (as it should) we took in the scene. There, a Porsche Cayenne Diesel S with an 850 Nm turbodiesel engine. Next to it, a SsangYong Rexton W. And next to that, a GWM H5 AWD, a Toyota FJ Cruiser, a Land Rover Discovery and a Mercedes-Benz GL500 with a really big set of all-terrain tyres.
On the other side of the camp there presided a Jeep Grand Cherokee, a Nissan Pathfinder, a Nissan Patrol, a Volkswagen Touareg, a Mitsubishi Pajero Sport, a Mitsubishi Pajero and a Chevrolet Trailblazer.
The collection of SUVs, ranging in price from more than R1-million to a more wallet-friendly R270 000, would be put to the test in the days ahead.
A quick shower, courtesy of John Chase’s efficient staff, and with a hearty breakfast done and dusted, the group set off on their own expeditions.
Even in September, before the big rains arrive, the tame-looking Khwai River is not to be underestimated. The Toyota FJ Cruiser, heavy with four passengers on board, attempted the first crossing – and came short on ground clearance. Stuck on its belly, the FJ was rescued by one of the Pajeros that – thankfully – was on hand.
This place may look like a little bit of heaven, but it sure is not a walk in the park. At one point, on our way to find the Land Rover Discovery 3 TDV6 and a pack of wild dogs, colleague Jannie Herbst contemplated a water crossing that could have saved us some travelling time.
However, as we were about to draw straws on who would walk the crossing first, a big crocodile cruised past – right through our potential water crossing. So that settled that – we’d stick to the main track!
We saw so many elephants, hippos and other wildlife that we eventually kind of pointed and said, without even stopping: “Look… elephant. Look… waterbuck. Oh look, another giraffe.”
Matt and Toni Genrich, in the VW Touareg, took a turn somewhere – and happened upon a group of lions, in the process of hunting. Talk about a lucky turn of events!
Sundowners were enjoyed next to a hippo pool, filled with at least 329 hippos. OK, not that many, but there were plenty of them.
Back at camp, and after another stunning dinner, we hit the sack pretty early. It had been a most brilliant day in Africa. But the day would not be complete without another Attenborough-ism. So here goes:
“The duvet cover, of the most freshly-washed linen, beautiful and rich in flowery scent, and drawn over one’s head, could hardly muffle the sound of the beasts that were clearly in disagreement, 100m from our abode. As they tormented each other, yelping and growling, the hyenas’ cries were overshadowed, every now and again, by the majestic roar of a male lion. This place, this moment, this duvet cover… this was Africa.”
Eat my dust! Again, and again, and again (DAY 4)
It was another spectacular morning. A big elephant bull ambled past our tent in the first light of day. But on this morning we had to gulp down that cup of strong coffee at a good speed – ahead of the convoy was about 300km of sand and dirt on the way to the border town of Kasane.
There was still enough time, though, to hear the story behind the legend of John Chase, as told by his son Owen, with a strong cuppa in hand.
Owen was still a toddler when his dad and a friend went hunting. A wounded lioness ambushed the men, and the enraged animal attacked John. She got hold of him, but he fought for his life, wrestling with the big cat.
Eventually John’s helper managed to get hold of a rifle, dropped in the scuffle, and shoot at the lioness. She was still not done for, and the badly wounded John took another shot with the rifle, killing the lion.
John was evacuated to hospital, and for a long time his doctors did not think he’d pull through. But he did, and today he is often referred to as “the lion wrestler”.
Yep, this Magotho seems a fitting place for the likes of John Chase.
But now it was time to bid our farewells, and we headed north, into the Chobe National Park. By this stage of the trip the sight of an elephant hardly got anyone excited, and we hustled on.
We had used the Savuti Marsh road on a previous trip, but this time, thanks to John Chase, we skipped this turn-off and stuck to the main road.
It was a long and uneventful journey and we made it to Kasane, and the Mowana Safari Lodge, in good time. The lodge is at a point where four countries meet – Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe. It is quite a spectacular setting.
Just after 3pm we boarded one of the many tourist barges that cruise the Chobe River.
If Magotho Camp was special, this part of the Chobe National Park must be, well, an even better version of the Garden of Eden. Elephant, buffalo, giraffe, crocodiles, hippos – it’s just a mind-blowing experience.
We were nearing the end of the trip. On the last day the crews would just have to drive the last 10km to the Kasane airport, where the Motorvia drivers were waiting. A quick two-hour flight would have the guests back at OR Tambo the next day.
After yet another beautiful dinner, and with everyone feeling the fatigue of the long but amazing days, we retired early. It had been a spectacular venture.
Of course, we conclude with a last bit of commentary from, well, Sir David Attenborough:
“Elegantly, so elegantly, the boat glides over the water. Beyond the shoreline, almost as though on guard, stands a small herd of elephant, grazing, munching. Nearby a group of buffalo shows little interest in the boat filled with Japanese tourists, click, click, clicking away. A lone, curious hippo, caresses another boat in the water. And down below us, no doubt, is a hungry crocodile, waiting, hoping for a scrap of something. This place, this Chobe, this heaven.”