Thursday, 25 February 2016

Botswana Safari - Land Cruising & Wild Life

On February 5 we flew from Cape Town to Kasane, a small town in northern Botswana. There we collected our rental vehicle and set out on a sublime adventure - 10 days of camping and cross country travel in northern Botswana. Our earlier game park visits in Kwa Zulu Natal had given us a real taste for this type of touring - we wanted to be independent travelers and to maximise our opportunities for wildlife viewing.

We chose Botswana because of its reputation for great wildlife experiences, plus the understanding that in Botswana the local people are generous, respectful and law abiding. This was a country we'd wanted to visit for some time. We chose our vehicle supplier because they had the best truck for us - a Toyota Land Cruiser long wheel base utility, with a double cab and a custom camper rig fitted into the utility tray at the back. The truck had a 6 cylinder diesel engine that pulled us through thick and thin without fuss, great ground clearance and significant capabilities when it came to deep sand and even deeper water. Our tent unfolded from the roof of the camper rig.

Ihaha Camp, On The Chobe River, Heaven On Earth
Kasane was bigger than we expected, it's people infected with the graciousness and courtesy that we had heard is normal here in Botswana. After some quick provisioning we drove out of town to a private camp ground on the river, where each site had its own shower, toilet en-suite, plus a Braii (BBQ) pit and benches. A five star camp ground for our first night...

Next day we provisioned in Kasane for 10 days of "back woods" travel, frankly without realising just how far off the beaten track we would be. We had a good GPS navigation system plus an efficient 12volt refrigerator and a suitable supply of beer and wine - what could possibly go wrong? Fact is, we had under estimated the truly four wheel drive and remote nature of our chosen route - mainly deep sand and muddy tracks - and we drove for six days without seeing a fuel station or a town. With much of the driving in second gear, almost always in four wheel drive, the fuel situation was actually our biggest concern. Fortunately the truck had a 160 liter main tank, but the 20 liter fuel cans on the roof were a very welcome insurance policy. Oh, and then there was the wild life...

About two hours into our trip Ley spotted our first lion - a large and healthy looking female who stalked out of the bush ahead of us and completely ignored us as she pranced by about 30 feet away. Talk about regal - clearly the attitude of the apex predator in these parts. It was a breath taking moment - we looked around for the rest of the pride, could not find them. The lioness was beautifully spotted (look at her belly) and on the prowl. She ignored us completely, emerging from the scrub and marching past us with considerable purpose before we lost sight of her.  This is when you realise that all those Tarzan movies and the Jungle Jim TV shows are just so much crap - no, I will not get out of the truck to wrestle with her.
Day 1 of our adventure was spent traveling to Ihaha Camp, about 45km away. The exact minute we crossed the park boundary the wildlife encounters started and were non-stop. In the first hour we saw elephant, giant lizards, hippo, eagles, cranes, giraffe and numerous antelope species.

The tracks wandered all over the place, with little or no sign-posting, so we navigated using the GPS in the iPad and the maps we had previously downloaded. Of course the maps were often wrong, and we spent a lot of time back tracking from dead ends. The driving was constantly in deeply rutted tracks, sandy and quite demanding.

On the track, the biggest delays were the elephants - they really do own the land here. We saw many large herds, possibly over 200 in total, in just a few hours. Giraffe were also present, wherever the trees were tall enough for them to feed and be covered.

But the elephant will not always move as we approach - they stubbornly stand under the shade of a tree, feeding, with their bum half on the track and maybe a baby at foot as well. So we wait and wait, maybe inch forward a little, wait some more. As we get within say 30 feet they will get nervous and hide under mums legs. If it's an older juvenile male it will stop and wave it's ears, shaking its head aggressively, and sometimes trumpet a warning. The older females are fairly wise however, and they usually allow us by within five or ten minutes.

It is a unique battle of wills, us in a white truck that weighs less than even the juveniles. We were brought to a halt at least six times that first day.

The funniest incidents occur when there are several juveniles and not quite fully grown males together - they play around pushing and shoving each other, head butting and play-fighting, until they see us, when suddenly we are more fun to play with. They'll run towards us full of bravado and then pull up with the usual head-waving ear-flapping scary stuff - acting like tough guys in front of their mates. Then they back off as we inch forward, usually having another mini tantrum as we pass by. Mostly it's funny, sometimes it's serious and we do have to drive "creatively" to get past safely. I'm glad we learned about this stuff from the rangers in Kwa Zulu Natal, or we'd end up turning around and going back to town!

We arrived at the Ihaha camp site after 4 hours of (at times) stressful driving, specially in the deep sandy sections that needed low-range four wheel drive to keep moving. We made camp, and a camp fire and settled down to relax for the evening. The camps in Botswana are not fenced, so we have to be careful at all times. We'd set up with thick brush behind us and good shade.

After dinner we sat at the camp table and watched the stars and the river, and were interrupted by a family of baboons that marched across in front of us, just 6 meters away, climbed their favourite tree (right above us) and settled down to sleep. Twenty minutes later we spotted eyes in the bush, reflecting our head torches, and within minutes a herd of buffalo walked right through our camp. This was getting to be a bit much, so we moved the table and chairs back against the truck. Another 20 minutes and then a lion roared close by - that was it - we were up the ladder and into the tent as fast as we could go. During the night the baboons visited the truck, along with something very large that scared them away - yes it was a hippo.

We slept, but not quite so soundly. If it wasn't the animals it was the anti-poaching army patrols that woke us - this park is right on the border with Namibia and the animals do need protection.  
Next morning we emerged to another beautiful day on the river. Day 2 was spent simply relaxing, watching hundreds of antelope pass our camp along the river bank and keeping the monkeys and baboons out of the truck and away from our stores. We also chased away a large green snake that was determined to get inside the truck - throwing stones at it seemed to do the trick.

After the excitement of our first night, things did settle down. Following a quiet day by the river we watched storm clouds roll in from the north as we prepared dinner. It rained heavily for several hours, but the tent was dry and we woke to a lush green world - you could almost hear the grass growing.

 Chobe River To Savuti Camp

The New Kanini Kanini High Life Bar & General Dealer - The Only Shop Between Chobe & The Delta - But No Diesel

After packing up camp we drove first to Ngoma Bridge, following the river on a sandy track that wound it's way west for 30km. Birds, elephants, antelope and buffalo were everywhere, but no big cats.
Dwarf Mongoose

From Ngmoa Bridge we turned south, covering another 100km on a track that had us wondering at times.  

The deep sand needs very low gear to plow through, and in low gear we burn more fuel. I was starting to wonder if I should have carried more jerry cans. Eventually the track improved and we were able to get out of second gear, at least some of the time! Occasional vehicles traveling north created surprises, as the track is so narrow that one vehicle must leave the road, which means climbing out of the deeply rutted track.

In Botswana even the drivers are courteous, so there were never any problems. Traffic on these tracks is minimal - three or four vehicles a day it seems.

The northern gate to Savuti Reserve appeared out of the bush after 100km, we paid our park fees and then covered another 45km to the camp, arriving at Savuti Camp mid afternoon.

Almost immediately the local wildlife came to greet us.

Red Billed Hornbill
Squirrels so tame they played around our feet, horn-bill birds and guinea fowl under the camp table, plus a family of dwarf mongoose that played all around (and inside) the truck. Amazing wildlife!

Late that afternoon we heard a vehicle approach and were surprised to see another truck turn into our camp - with friends onboard. Arthur and Amy Hoag, along with daughter Rivers and son Steven are also cruising sailors and were also on safari.  They saw our entry in the log book at the park gate several hundred kilometers back and tried hard to catch us.

We had a marvelous evening sharing the camp site and fire with the Hoags, and the camp was peaceful that night, until it wasn't...

Ley's Print Meets Lion Print
An elephant pushed over a tree not far away, then we heard a big cat roar fairly close.

Bird noises were constant all night Ley tells me, but I slept through those. We woke early, waited for daylight and carefully checked the site before unzipping the tent and stepping down the ladder.

Minutes later we found big cat tracks - two sets just 20 feet from our dining table. Hmm - not safe to go to the toilet at night around here. We heard that many people have plastic piss bottles on standby in the tent!

That day we moved on, covering another 150km on sand tracks and clay pans, through beautiful open plains country.

We saw elephants, zebra, wildebeest, and (hooray) our very first Oryx.  Once again we surprised a few elephant - they don't like having their feeding interrupted.

By early afternoon we'd reached the eastern extremity of the Okavango Delta, and the countryside was now lush and green, water was everywhere.

Our target was the north gate of Moremi Game Reserve, our gateway to the beautiful Okevango Delta region.  I should add that by now we were down to less than half of our diesel capacity.

North Gate Camp - Moremi Game Reserve

At the entrance to the reserve is a small local village, Khwai, which boasted two (!) shops and seemingly few customers. 

We stopped the truck and ordered cold drinks, before sitting down with the four sisters who ran this and one other shop.

"Are you married ?" I asked the lady on my right. "Single But Searching" was the immediate reply, followed by the advice that she was really looking for a white guy. "Pity I'm already married" I said, "But maybe I can have more than one wife in your culture?".  "Oh no, we don't do polygamy" she said, even before Ley could hit me over the head.

Hippo's mating entertained us for some hours, and we setup camp just inside the northern gate, close by the river.

Again the wildlife was friendly, until a cheeky Vervet Monkey stole a packet of Dorito chips from the back of the truck when we stepped away for mere seconds.

The Monkey Wars

The monkey wars erupted in the trees over our head as first the vervets and then the bigger baboons fought for Dorito ownership. Then the bag exploded and the Dorito's rained down right next to our table - which brought the critters in really too close.

So now we had 20 monkeys of various sizes hissing and spitting at each other, and at us, as they scrambled to find and eat the Dorito chips hidden in the undergrowth around us. Damn it was funny, at least until I had to start chasing them away with a big stick ... and the baboons don't like to be "directed". So for the next three hours I played alpha-male and chased the baboons away whenever they appeared too close.

Ley prepared dinner, I lit a (large) fire and after eating yummy pasta we settled down to a glass of wine around the fire, before bedtime. Which is when our biggest animal surprise happened - but you'll have to click here for the next instalment to read about that !

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