11 – 26 April 2013
We’d originally planned to go straight into Botswana from Zambia, but from what we could tell from reading various books, blogs and suchlike we needed to go all the way to Maun to book for Moremi and Chobe National Parks. Botswana has stopped you being able to book permits and campsites on the gate of the parks; you have to do this from Maun or Gaborone in advance. The idea is to control the number of visitors, however it does make the system very restrictive. We later found out that this isn’t strictly true in the low season and others had managed to do this from Kasane, which is what we’d hoped to do, or the gate. However, as annoying as this was, we really enjoyed our time in the Caprivi, so every cloud and all that …
Once we’d crossed over the border, a fairly quick and painless crossing, we stopped off in Katima Mulilo for a few supplies. We also got a recommendation on where to stay for the night (Mavunje Camp) and soon realised that it was one of the camps given to us by Nicky, Nick and Simon who we’d met in Malawi. We were so glad we hadn’t missed it when we got there: the campsite overlooks the river and is in a beautiful setting. It’s run by an English guy called Dan and, whilst it’s a small camp, it has been really nicely designed and thought out. There are dining areas looking out onto the river, kitchens and seating areas around braai/fire pits, all made using reeds from the river and laid out with sand: rustic at its best. Pretty much as soon as we arrived, we realised our planned one night was going to extend to two.
Dan also runs river safaris, so once we’d got set up he took us out for a cruise along the river. It made a really nice change being on the water rather than on a game drive, getting up close and personal with the hippos. Well … not too close as they can be prone to charging if they feel threatened, but it was fun being on the same level as them, watching them eyeing us up. We also saw our first red lechwe: the J-Lo of the antelope family as they have a bit of “junk in their trunk”. This helps them bound through the wetlands where they’re generally found. On the way back to camp we stopped off for a quick swim and were treated to an amazing African sunset.
The next morning we got up early to head out onto the river again, hoping to catch the elephants or perhaps even a leopard coming down to the water to drink. Unfortunately we were out of luck on this occasion, but we saw lots of pretty birds as well as the hippos and lechwe and it was just nice being out on the water.
After a spot of brunch Dan offered to take us on a game drive in the back of his bakkie (a Toyota Hilux) to Bwabwata National Park which is just up the road. (As Dan later put it: “the Italian stallion does Bwabwata in a proper car” … the Landie/Toyota rivalry continues!) The park has undergone a restocking programme in recent years, as the war of independence in that region wiped out a lot of the game there. Now, as well as the usual suspects, they have a large pack of wild dogs in the park, so we were quietly (or not so quietly!) hopeful for a sighting. However they are very elusive animals, so we knew the chances were slim.
As we were driving through the park, remnants of the war were apparent, with remains of the army camps, discarded shells and even an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade stuck in the trunk of a tree. We saw some impressive kudu bulls with their huge spiralled antlers, but the most awe-inspiring moment came when we turned onto one of the plains and were faced with hundreds and hundreds of elephants grazing there. We’ve never seen so many together at once before and the longer we stayed and watched them, the more turned up. Philip, one of Dan’s friends who worked in the area as a guide for many years, said that he’s noticed how much calmer the older elephants are compared to even a few years ago. With memories as good as theirs, they’d obviously been badly affected by the war and had been understandably skittish.
On our way out of the park as dusk was setting in, Diana suddenly spotted something at the side of the road. What at first glance looked like hyena turned out to be our first sighting of wild dogs. Unfortunately it was pretty dark by this stage and when we backed up the car they made their escape into the bush. However we’d managed a glimpse of this rare and endangered animal and got our wish. When we got back, still buzzing from our sighting, we shared a lovely meal in front of the fire. And after discovering they’d gone to the same university at the same time, Karen and Dan reminisced about the good old days in Sheffield when “pyjama jump” was still the highlight of the student calendar.
The following day we drove to the other end of the Caprivi Strip and stayed at Nunda Lodge on the Kavango river. This was another beautiful spot and we commented on what fantastic camps we’d been staying at over the last couple of weeks. Somewhat inevitably by now, our intended one night stay turned into two and we made the most of the wifi and electricity. We went on a game drive in the Western part of the Bwabwata park our first morning there and unfortunately while we were there Diana received some sad news from home. Regrettably this meant that rather than continuing their journey with us into Botswana, they had to make arrangements to fly back to the UK. However we’re sure they’ll catch up with us along the road again at some point when they return.
After saying our farewells to the Windleys, we set off for Botswana. We’d run down our food supplies as we’d been warned the veterinary controls going into Botswana from the north were very strict, with no meat, dairy or vegetables allowed through, however we weren’t even checked. Better to be safe than to have to throw good food out though!
Our first stop was at the Tsodilo Hills, located in the north west of the country. The Hills have apparently been inhabited sporadically for about 30,000 years, making it one of the world’s oldest historical sites. The Hills were first inhabited by the San and then the Bantu tribes and they contain over 2,000 bushman paintings. When we arrived we were surprised to find the gate to the site unmanned. We weren’t quite sure where we should go until a local girl came over and told us to just open the gate and drive through ourselves. Further down the track we found the headquarters and museum and were told we could set up camp there. We arranged a guide for the following morning and then enjoyed the remote setting under the hills, with just two of the local dogs to keep us company.
Our guide met us soon after the sun was up the next morning and we set off along the Rhino Trail on the Female Hill. The trail took about two hours and took us first up steep rock and then along sandy paths surrounded by trees and the odd cave. It’s a beautiful setting, with many different colours of minerals in the rock and some very tall baobab trees. At various points along the trail there were paintings of giraffes, rhinos, hippos, tortoises and the San people, somewhat excited, performing a trance dance. You could see in some of the later paintings that their drawing skills had moved forward as some shading and depth to the paintings was apparent. It was also surprising to come across paintings of whales and a penguin, which our guide explained would have been where some of the tribes would have travelled thousands of kilometres west to the coast and then returned to teach their people about what they’d discovered.
After chilling in the afternoon and a second night enjoying the solitude, we set off for Maun. When we were about 50km away we spotted a couple of cyclists at one of the picnic spots and soon realised it was Diarmaid and Hannah, an Irish/Scottish couple cycling to Cape Town. We’d first met them in Bahir Dah in Ethiopia just after Christmas and then bumped into them again for the first time a few months later in Lilongwe. It goes to show that, although they’re obviously travelling a lot slower than us, covering approx 100 km a day, by us taking a less direct route around the continent meant that we’d caught up with them again. This time it was a lot sooner that we’d seen them again and it was good to see that Hannah had recovered from malaria, which she’d contracted just before they’d reached Lusaka.
After a quick catch up and assurances that we were bound to bump into each other again, we drove the rest of the way into Maun. Having arrived just after lunch, we spent the afternoon scouting around for, first, a garage as Marcello had noticed oil leaking from one of the wheel hubs, and then to find out the costs for the parks and various campsites. Luckily all the offices are fairly close together, but it still took several hours.
Unfortunately for Marcello, what he’d hoped would be a quick job on Charlie, ended up taking two whole days. Luckily there wasn’t anything majorly wrong, but it was slow going, especially when things happen like bolt heads coming off. A big thank you to Chris Pin who let Marcello use his garage and gave a second opinion when needed.
Then, after a day chasing around town again making all the bookings and stocking up on supplies, we set off to our first campsite just outside the Moremi Game Reserve. We’d decided to spend a night outside the reserve, then one night inside, followed by a night in Khwai, just north of the reserve. We were then going to drive into Chobe and spend two nights in different parts of the park there.
Our first night and day were fairly uneventful, mainly seeing the usual suspects, although we did see our first honey badger. Having said that, we did remind ourselves that it’s easy to become complacent and we’re very lucky to see anything. At Third Bridge we’d been warned that they have a problem with aggressive baboons, so Marcello was ready with his cattie, although luckily they stayed away. That night Marcello heard all manner of animals close to the camp: honey badgers, hyena, lions and even a leopard, although we didn’t catch sight of any them. For once, Karen was the one out cold while Marcello was awake!
Our second day in the park was also fairly quiet, however this all started to change once we’d left the reserve and entered the Khwai Community area. First we came across a hippo pool where a lot of the hippos were out of the water munching. Then, when trying to find the campsite, we saw various groups of elephants along the way, some right by the camp once we’d finally located it. The camp itself is essentially an area where some pitches have been marked out. There are no facilities, but it’s a very cool spot near a river. We settled in and made dinner and a fire, then, just as we were sitting down to eat, a large bull elephant came walking past right in front of us. We got a bit nervous when it turned to walk towards us, but it just scratched itself on a nearby tree and then carried on down towards the water. Very cool.
That night we had a brief visit from a hyena, which Karen spotted through the window skulking past the car. Then at around one in the morning, Marcello heard and then saw two elephants walking towards the car. We lay as quietly as possible watching them through the window coming slowly towards us. Then they turned and walked right in front of the car. Luckily it was practically a full moon, so we could see them really clearly in the moonlight. It was incredible to see them so close to us and hear the rumbling sound that they make as they walked past.
If our experience that night wasn’t enough, the best was yet to come in the morning. Marcello was standing on the roof-rack as we were about to start packing up and saw something moving by one of the other camper’s cars. At first he thought it was hyena, but then when we both looked closer we realised it was wild dogs. After seeking them out for so long, they’d come to us: we couldn’t believe how lucky we were! We watched them sniff around for a bit and then trot further across the camp, so we packed up as quickly as we could and followed in the direction they’d left in. Fortunately their trail carried on along the road and after only a few minutes we caught sight of them ahead.
For the next 15 or 20 minutes we were privileged enough for them to let us follow along behind them. There were seven of them in the pack and they were clearly on the hunt, with two going off ahead every now and then sniffing for a trail, the others following along behind, occasionally playing around as domestic dogs would do. We couldn’t believe how close they were to us and that they didn’t run away into the bush. They then walked out into a clearing, where we were able to sit and watch them, as well as the hyena skulking behind them. However they were soon off on the hunt, scaring some zebra as they started chasing down an impala (which got away). From here we left them to it, basking in what an awesome experience we’d had with them, and made our way towards Chobe.
Our first night in Chobe was spent at Savuti. The drive there had some pretty deep patches of sand, but Marcello and Charlie got us through without any problems. We arrived at the camp at lunchtime and made some sandwiches. We were soon joined by some cheeky dwarf mongooses (I had to Google the plural of mongoose as I wasn’t sure if it should be mongeese …). After sussing us out for a while, they were soon jumping up onto our ammo boxes to get to the chopping board, seeing if they could find any scraps. Karen’s been longing to see meerkats, so this was a close second. They were very amusing to watch running around the car squeaking and checking things out.
The next day we headed north to Chobe Riverfront. Along the way we were checking out some roan antelope when we noticed one with a horn facing completely the wrong way. On closer inspection Marcello remarked that it was in fact a Gemsbok, our first of the trip. Gemsbok aren’t usually found in this area, although they’ve apparently started migrating across as more have been spotted there in recent years. The ranger said that this one lone Gemsbok has been around in the park for some time though, although it hadn’t been spotted for a few months.
During our drives around the riverfront we were amazed at how many giraffe there were in the area. It’s certainly the most we’ve ever seen as it was as though wherever we looked we were counting more and more of them. Despite our best attempts we didn’t see any cats or manage to catch any elephants swimming or wading across the river, but it’s always enjoyable driving through the bush, seeing the different antelope, giraffe, buffalo, elephants and various colourful birds. We also spotted a couple of jackals by the side of the road, something we haven’t seen for some time.
Although we had a few days where the game viewing was pretty quiet, we had some of our most incredible wildlife experiences in Botswana. We’ll never forget the excitement of seeing an elephant walk so close or the thrill of getting close up to wild dogs. It’s also hard to beat camping out under the stars with a fire on the go, wondering what sounds you will hear that night. Khwai in particular has been added to our growing list of places that we’d like to come back to in the not too distant future.
Next stop: Caprivi round two.