Zambezi and Chobe National Park
At the extreme northern reaches of Botswana – the Caprivi just on the other side – lie three of the most, wild and secluded destinations Botswana has to offer. Chobe National Park offers superb wildlife viewing – and terrain to rival the physical beauty of the Okavango. Due to rain we never had the opportunity to explore the whole part of this park in 2010, so we returned this year at the end of the dry season, the perfect time. This is real African big game country, and during the dry season the permanent waters serve as important migration points for wildlife from much of northern Botswana. Virtually all predators can be seen in this area. These include lion, hyena, leopard, cheetah, jackal, serval, caracal, waterbuck, reedbuck, giraffe, impala, kudu. But the greatest attraction of this part of Botswana is the feeling it gives of extreme isolation, and being completely removed from the world as we know it. There’s nothing else out there – except us, the bush and a fascinating contingent of wild animals without any fences.
For us without a doubt the Chobe is one of Africa’s most beautiful rivers. The Chobe supports a diversity and concentration of wildlife unparalled anywhere else in the country. Like the Okavango and Zambezi rivers, the Chobe’s course is affected by fault lines that are extensions of the Great Rift Valley. These three mighty rivers carry more water than all other rivers in Southern Africa.
We stayed just outside Kasane as we were unable to camp on the Chobe Riverfront like we did in 2010. All tracks were marked NO ACCESS. The Chobe Riverfront is most famous for its large herds of elephants, cape Buffalo, Lion, Leopards and cheetahs which during the dry winter months converge upon the river to drink. Driving the loops that hug the river’s edge, we saw up to 15 different species of animals on any one game drive, including waterbuck, lechwe, puku (this is the only part of Botswana where they can be seen), giraffe, kudu, roan and sable, impala, warthog, bushbuck, monkeys and baboons, along with the accompanying predator’s lion, leopard, hyena, jackal, hippos and crocodiles. Our second night we were awoken by the sounds of elephants and lions. At 5AM it became clear this was a lion kill, but for us the first time we saw a herd of about 15 lions attack an elephant. Chobe and the Zambezi River are 2 locations where spending 2 weeks are not enough.
ZIMBABWE BORDER TO MAUN
After a short round trip in Zimbabwe we arrived back via the Pandamatenga border outside Hwange National Park in Botswana and our next destination were the Pans in central Botswana and the Okavango Delta. Our first stop was Elephants Sands bush camp around 150km south of the border. A permanent waterhole close to the camp sites guarantees elephants around your camp, plus plenty of other wildlife. No fences mean wild life roams freely. Botswana is well known for having some of the best wilderness and wildlife areas on the African continent. Botswana has 40 % of its total land area devoted to national parks, reserves and wildlife management areas which are all unfenced, allowing animals to roam wild and free. For us travelling by through Botswana we had the feeling of living in an immense nature wonderland. While we were bush camping we were surrounded by wild animals. Botswana has the world’s second largest game reserve – the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The remoteness of the Makgadikgadi uninhabited pans the size of Portugal which measures an area of 12 000 sq. kilometres is one of the largest salt pans in the world. For much of the year, most of this desolate area remains waterless. Next was Maun, the tourist capital of Botswana and the gate way to the southern entrance of the Okavango Delta. One of the most sought-after wilderness destinations in the world, the Okavango Delta gives the opportunity to the spectacle of wild Africa where most people only dream off. A journey to the Okavango Delta – deep into Africa’s untouched interior – is like no other. Moving from wetland to dryland – traversing the meandering palm and papyrus fringed waterways, passing palm-fringed islands, and thick woodland, resplendent with lush vegetation, and rich in wildlife. But cost has sky rocketed!!! A mokoro ride now cost 360USD (3600 Pula) for 2 people!!!!! (While the driver earns this amount in 3 months based on a 6-day work week. He earns 1300Pula per month (130USD) per month!!!!). A 45-minute helicopter ride 895USD!!! (MAX 3 people.) Our truck is now 1500 Pula a day (140USD) to drive into Chobe and a camp spot with no facilities except toilets cost 50USD!! per night. (Africans pay less)
Maun lies on the southern part of the Okavango Delta, and despite recent modernisations, still carries the feeling of a dusty, frontier town. In Maun you will still see the Banoka people, the River Bushmen, who are the Okavango’s original inhabitants, the Bakgalagadi, and the Baherero, who originate from Namibia. The women are recognized as they wear brightly coloured Victorian style dresses as they stroll along the town roads, or sit outside their traditional rondavels. We used Maun as an R&R stop, camping on the Thamalakane River in front of the Sedi Hotel. We were glad we followed the 4WD tracks in the North from Kasane avoiding the hefty fees.
MAUN to the KALAHARI DESERT
After a week in Maun our first stop was Ghanzi from where we hoped to find the San people we met in 2010 (and we did). Ghanzi is the centre of cattle farming in Botswana with over 200 cattle farms in this area. East of this extensive area of farms lies the vast Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR); and in between lies a 58 km ‘no man’s land,’ a buffer zone between wildlife and the farms, and between Kalahari predators and livestock. In this area we found the Kalahari Bushman. This whole area is a mix of ethnic groups made up of San and Bakgalagadi (the original inhabitants), the Herero, and the Batawana. The Central Kalahari Desert is a wild place. The Central Kalahari game Reserve (CKGR) is the largest, most remotely situated reserve in Southern Africa, and the second largest wildlife reserve in the world, encompassing 52 800 sq. km. At night the stars utterly dominate the land. The Central Kalahari is unique in that it was originally established (in 1961) with the intention of serving as a place of sanctuary for the San people, in the heart of the Kalahari, where they could live their traditional hunter/ gatherer way of life, without intrusion, or influence, from the outside world. The area was closed for foreigners until the late 1990’s when small groups in organised tours were allowed in, albeit in small, tightly controlled numbers. Many people think the Kalahari Desert is a barren, vegetation-less, useless land, however the Kalahari is rich in natural resources, sweeping grasslands that feed its wildlife populations. Many desert animals, including springbok, gemsbok, eland, and the Kalahari lion, are supremely adapted to its semi-arid conditions, and can live without water for a long time. Antelope derive their moisture by feeding at night and early morning (when plants regain moisture), by eating succulent plants (such as wild watermelons or wild cucumbers), and by remaining inactive during the heat of the day to conserve body moisture.
Kalahari lions appear to gain their moisture from the body fluids of their prey. Other common Kalahari animals include cheetah, leopard, wildebeest, zebra, kudu, red hartebeest, duiker, steenbok, and both spotted and brown hyena. The Kalahari Desert is the largest continuous area of sand on earth, touching nine African countries. With an approximate area of 2.5 million sq. km.
For us the sensation of unending space and pure isolation hundreds of kilometres away from civilization are the principle reasons we visit those areas. Next, we crossed into the Kgalagadi Trans Frontier Park straddling the border between Botswana and South Africa. The Kgalagardi is a semi-desert of red dunes and star-crammed skies where African animals run wild and visitors get a wilderness ‘fix’ that’s Viagra for the soul. This park spans an impressive 3.6 million hectares, making it one of the most extensive conservation areas in the world (Kruger is only two million hectares). Kgalagardi is a harsh place, where survival is an art leading to fascinating adaptations in the area’s animal residents. During our visit the temperature reached 50 degrees. Red sand dunes, sparse vegetation and the dry Nossob and Auob River where we saw lion, cheetah and leopards provided us with excellent photographic opportunities.
People tell us once Kalahari sand gets into your shoes, you’ll be drawn back again and again. Well it did as this was our second visit and probably not the last.
It was freezing cold with a bitterly cold wind blowing. The Kalahari Bushman Village was so tourist orientated, we had to make an appointment to visit so we decided not to go, and we moved on to Botswana, leaving Namibia behind. We took off for the border with Botswana around 10am, following the Trans Kalahari Highway for the first 200km before turning north. The border-crossing was uneventful. Namibia was very disorganised, but Botswana was efficient. Mid-afternoon we looked for a campsite and would you believe it, we found a little village with Kalahari Bushman, this was not a tourist set up and we finished up with the Kalahari Bushman and we were able to camp in the village. During happy hour they came to visit us, so we had an ideal opportunity to take some photos. Tonight, we are invited around the fire. As I mentioned yesterday, it gets bloody cold here in the Kalahari. But Clary has sauerkraut on the menu, so for me it is sauerkraut – not goat or some other unknown animal.
The Kalahari Desert
An unforgettable night with the Kalahari Bushman where they even did a trance dance for us. The San women sit around a fire and provide music by clapping and intoning, it sounds monotonous, discordant and disjointed. The men, traditionally the healers, start the dance around the fire. Then the music gathers a discernible tempo, and the dancers become more frenetic. Not sure what it is but the music suddenly penetrates your whole body. The harmonizing, the offbeat clapping, the rattle of the stamping dancer’s feet grows into a well-orchestrated crescendo. At this stage the dancers start slipping into a state of trance. Then the healers alternate between dancing and laying hands on us! Removing any ills from our body and casting them away with a sharp barking sound. To be honest, it was quite scary. This dance cannot be stopped and started at will and it will continue till all dancers have returned safely from the state of being in a trance. After this they also showed us some traditional dancing, trying to pass on to us historic folklore that is passed down from generation to generation. This has not changed in the last 20,000 years of San/Bushman culture, so they say. We were up and about early to join them as they wanted to show us their skills in the bush. The hunter-gatherer life of the Kalahari Bushman has nearly disappeared and only a few remaining bushmen retain the survival skills of the ancient way of life. We shared with them the tracking of animals, an astounding array of edible foods and medicinal roots. It should be stated that the Kalahari Bushman`s skills in tracking of animals is unbelievable. It is fantastic. This uncanny ability at reading animal tracks offers some idea how they survive in the Kalahari Desert. An unforgettable day and night.
Nxai Pan National Park and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park
Our next destination the Nxai Pan National Park and Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. Instead of a bush camp, we found a perfect spot called Planet Baobab. GPS S20.11.385 E25.18.442 just outside Gweta. I would say just about in the middle of Botswana. we crossed the middle of Makgadikgadi Pans Game reserve, a 12000km2 area. It is part of the Kalahari basin. This unique area has one of the largest saltpans in the world. Early in the 19th century, Africa`s most famous explorer Dr David Livingstone crossed these pans. Human habitation has continued to the present day. Most villages are located at the fringes of the pans. From here we skirted the border of Nxai Pan National Park, which is also part of the Makgadikgadi. This park also has pans and the larger ones are now grassed and have islands of acacia trees.
Maun and Okavango Delta
In the late afternoon, we left for our destination Maun and well-known Audi Camp. Maun is promoted as Botswana`s tourism capital and you soon find out why. Prices are high and there are tourists everywhere. The town lies on the southern end of the Okavango Delta, has the busiest airport in Botswana and is the entry point for the Okavango Delta. 2009 was a year with record rainfall and the waters are high. Hence many tracks are under water. The local people here are the Batawana People. However, it has a variety of ethnic groups: The Hambukushu, Basubiya Bayei, Bakgalagadi, Bahero and Banoka all of whom have Central African Origins. The Banoka are the river Bush Man and they are the Delta’s original inhabitants. Maun has a mixture of donkey carts, luxury 4WD, trendy city people contrasting with people in traditional dress. During our time in Maun we visited Moremi National Park. This park is situated in the central and south-east area of the Okavango Delta. In the past year or two, it has introduced the Rhino, which now makes it possible to see the big 5. We hired a guide and a mokoro (traditional boat), which is hewn from the trunk of a large straight tree such as the sausage or ebony tree. After a 2.5-hour 4WD trip through deep-water crossings and soft sand, we finally arrived at the spot where we had to meet the Banoka Bushman. From here we ventured deep in to the Delta’s untouched interior, traversing the meandering palm and papyrus fringed waterways. Even though we are a little gamed out it was very special to see all the wildlife along the way. It was time to explore Maun in the following days. We did some shopping, had lunch and would you believe it, here we were in the middle of Botswana and we find our favourite beef croquettes on the menu. We looked at each other and said, “the owners must be Dutch”. And yes, they were. You can pick them a mile away. Memorabilia, table-cloths, table service and clean facilities. And for the smokers, ash-trays on the table and on the bar. At 2pm we booked a flight on a 5-seater plane to fly over the Okavango Delta. As you know, I am not too keen on small planes, but it is the only way to see the Delta. Really, it is the only option because the park was largely under water due to the very high rainfall during 2009. We flew over both wet and dry land and the whole area is full of wildlife, which is very impressive to see from the air. The Delta is shaped like a fan and is fed by the Okavango River, the third largest river in Southern Africa. The river travels from the Angolan Highlands, crosses into Botswana via the Caprivi in Namibia. By the time the water reaches Maun in the far south west of the Delta its volume is less than 3% of what it was, all lost to evaporation. The Delta varies in size from 15000sq km in the drier months to 22000sq km in the wetter months. The wild life roams around freely and includes over 122 species of mammals, 64 species of reptiles and over 1300 flowering plants. We saw elephant, buffalo, giraffe, zebra, hippo, crocodile, and kudu either from the air or while walking through Moremi National Park with our guide. The park also has lion, cheetah, and leopard and off course baboons amongst many others. We believe it will not be long before this will become a World Heritage site. We survived the flight and apart from the sharp turns every time the pilot spotted wild life, the flight was okay. We were however glad to be back on the ground, but Clary felt a little sick. It was time to move to Chobe National Park, but we felt very much ripped off. Cost for our vehicle was $200 per day plus $120AUD for camp fees for one night, plus park fees of $50 per day. That adds up to $370 for one day. A bit rich we thought. After South Africa, Lesotho, Swaziland and Mozambique we really did feel like we were being ripped off as tourists in both Namibia and Botswana. The recession must have lifted because European and US visitors seem to flock here. Like every other tourist, we paid the price and wanted to have a look. And if we are willing to pay the asking price and continue to visit, I guess the price will remain high. It was worth seeing this beautiful National Park. We drove into the interior of the Park at Savuti. It was a long and sandy track, but the scenery and wildlife were perfect. We spend a few days around Savuti. This part boasts most of the Chobe species. It is however best known for its predators, particularly lion, cheetah and hyena all of which there are large resident populations. The Savuti River is flowing for the first time in 35 years after the huge wet season of 2009. We camped right on the Savuti Channel. We were warned by the ranger to be on the look-out because lions, cheetahs and leopards frequent the campsite. It is important to remember to leave all food inside. Clary didn`t like the idea of a campfire with all the wild life around but this is what Africa is all about. The locals brought us a wheel-barrow full of wood, so we will not be cold tonight. The days are beautiful and warm to hot, but the desert nights are very cold, and the fire is our nightly entertainment together with star gazing and planning our next day. Lots of sand driving but unfortunately not a lot of wildlife.
Savuti-Chobe River to Zambia Border
Once we left the park we saw 4 large groups of elephants, zebra and hippos just along the roadside as we were driving towards Kasane. While based in Kasane we organized a sunset cruise on the Chobe River from 3 to 6pm. This cruise was a beauty and the wild life was impressive. But the best part was the hundreds of elephants coming down to the waterfront to drink. Another bit of excitement was the fact while looking at the hippos and crocodiles the lady captain decided to go into marshland. We ran aground! What now, crocs and hippos on either side of the boat! First, we all moved to the front of the boat, and then we all moved to the back of the boat. “Could we please rock the boat”, she asked. You have got to be kidding! We moved about one meter. More rocking, “Please do not roll the boat over” was the next advice! The hippos and crocs came closer and closer. As they say, “This is Africa”. Finally, we found ourselves floating again. Just in the nick of time, I say. A few Americans where already working out insurance policies and claims but we were all happy to get back to shore. We arrived back at camp around 7pm and we lit the fire, had a BBQ and realized that the night was a fair bit warmer than the previous nights in the desert.