Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Feature in June 2010 GETAWAY Magazine

Going Boldly Into Botswana

The Kalahari wilderness has a flow of life like nowhere else on Earth. It is a place of abundant sun, sweat and sand. It teems with tough survivors. For an authentic wilderness experience you have to go boldly forwards, through the wet and the dry. Having a tough vehicle and a stubborn spirit for adventure can’t hurt your chances here – by Nick van der Leek

Once through the Martins Drift border, I drive the Land Rover as far inside Botswana as one can manage in an afternoon. With light fading at the end of a long first day, at about 900km from Bloemfontein, not far from a local village, I take us off the unfenced tar road to a rural village. We arrange with the locals to camp in the bush since it’s an emergency camp of sorts, and there’s nothing around here for miles. After handing over a small donation we settle in at our campsite about 500m from the road. With the melancholy ring of cow bells we drift off into a much needed sleep. No more sounds of the city. In the bush at last.

I’m with – Hennie Butler – a lecturer at Free State University’s department of Zoology and Entomology. This is our first camp on a 3500km, 10 day journey. It’s not only Hennie's extensive knowledge of animal behavior that makes for a fine companion [he’s currently working on his doctorate], but his quest for adventure.

We first experienced the wet…

It’s an early start the next morning. At 7am we begin the next 600km leg. We are heading west towards Maun via the southern route to Mopipi then further north, towards the eastern fringe of the Okavango Delta. We arrive at Letlhakane but are unable to refuel here. They have run out of diesel. We drive 15km further, to the modern, highly westernized diamond enclave of Orapa. To gain access to this closed society one needs a permit. It doesn’t cost anything, except time and documentation. Inside we find a highly functional operation, complete with Woolworths, Wimpy and What not. Well, we’ve never seen Orapa town so as often happens on a trip a negative turns out to be a positive.

We ride past Mopipi located on the south east edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans and northwards parallel to the Boteti River. The Boteti for the last 10 years has been mostly dry riverbed, except a few pools. We pop in to check out the river at the entrance to the Makgadikgadi Game Reserve near the main road. The river is in flood. Trees are under water and the park inaccessible from this side. We recall one of our first trips, perhaps 20 years ago when we crossed the Boteti as a swollen river. Our trailer actually floated as we crossed.

We’re back on the long tar road north to Maun, wondering what the water level is going to be like there. At 4pm on Day 2, we enter Maun, on the eastern fringe of the Delta. What used to be an almost derelict outpost, a frontier town leading into the Okavango, the tar road that has brought us here has also brought bustle to Maun.

“I remember when we used to get stuck in Maun.” Hennie remarks and he’s referring to sand, not traffic. Now Maun has parking fees. Maun has attracted, as in RSA many Zimbabwean refugees, and also, crime, though not enough for South Africans to sniff at.

Botswana is a hand gun free society, and its government is virtually corruption free and proud of the fact. Ian Khama, the President, changed the liquor laws so that stores open later, at 10am, and bars close earlier, at 10pm. He is a disciplined man and avid supporter of wild life. This bodes well for Botswana.

The river flanking the Okavango Safari Lodge where we’re spending our second night is also flowing strongly. It has already risen about 2 meters, since the fence alongside peeps occasionally through the flowing dark green. All this water isn’t endemic either. The summer rains in Angola, have gradually flowed south from those distant drainage basins through to the Kalahari Thirst land, the Delta and beyond to the Boteti system and also to Lake Ngami.

The Selinda Spilway, north of the Delta is flowing and the two river systems of the Okavango and Zambezi have now joined up at Linyanti. The Savuti Channel is running for the first time since 1983 but has not reached Savuti yet at the time of writing. The sandy river bed is very dry and sandy so the progress is very slow.

Lake Ngami, about 100 kilometers south west of our position in Maun [due south of the Okavango watermark] is full of water after being a dust bowl for 20 years or more.

60 years ago, the explorer David Livingstone described the lake as a "shimmering lake, some 130 km long and 15 wide".

“The locals laughed at you few years ago if you asked them for directions to this lake filled with water,” I say to Hennie. “As far as they’re concerned it was always just an endless dust bed. Until now.”

Contemporary maps show the lake has shrivelled to no more than 35km in length. But the history of the area is worth remembering.

Livingstone scribbled a few cultural notes at the time, describing the locals (Missionary Travels, chap. 26) as being in pursuit of a Tower of Babel experience, but this plan was scuppered [like all the other Babel Projects] when scaffolding fell onto large numbers of builders and ‘cracked their heads’. There’s further evidence of other African traditions particular to this Babel story thanks to research conducted by Scottish social anthropologist Sir James Frazer. In Ghana the Ashanti’s unfortunate quest involved the piling up of porridge pestles. Frazer also fingers folks along the Zambezi, in the Congo and Tanzania, where trees or poles are stacked in a failed bid to reach the moon.

With the half moon floating overhead, the fading African sunset reflecting in the water slowly flowing past the lodge, Hennie and I walk through the semi-submerged braai places to the pleasant casual atmosphere of the local lodge restaurant. Over Hennie’s chicken schnitzel and my spaghetti bolognaise, we debate the copious water flows around us.

What is Hennie’s opinion on this? “It might be part of a bigger cycle and changes in the flow of the various channels in the Delta,” he says.

One thing is certain; we’re in a Botswana that is exceptionally wet this spring.

Mopane Madness in Moremi

On Day 3 we leave Maun and the final strip of tar road at Shorobe, and begin to enter real wilderness. We’re skirting the wet fingertips, the easternmost fringes of the Okavango on our way to Moremi, and with each passing kilometre the vaal yellow tones that have been with us since the Free State are becoming increasingly luxuriant, with tall Mopane and Acacia trees dominating the landscape. We arrive at South Gate, the Maun side entrance to Moremi Wildlife Reserve.

Now our surroundings become tall, lush woodlands mixed together with lily-filled waterholes. Some of the forests are stunted, and it isn’t long before we see how this happens.

At around mid-morning we watch from the vehicle as a medium sized bull elephant pushes over a 10 metre Colophospermum, or Mopane tree. The Latin name means oily seed. A few seconds after a sharp KA-CRACK of hard wood snapping, two or three other elephants immediately advance steadily towards what must be a delicacy to them. While we watch the elephants graze, Hennie shares his thoughts as to why the elephants should favour the content of the branches and leaves of the fallen tree as opposed to the Mopane shoots that sprout everywhere from previously fallen tree stumps.

“These guys like it,” he says, nodding to the chomping elephants, but many other animals need time to get used to the sharp turpentine smell of Mopane resin.”

When we replay the video recording it’s clear that these elephants do have a strong appetite for the Mopane’s compound, butterfly-shaped leaves. It’s an entirely African product, this tree, as African as the African elephant.

Why are these trees not found in abundance further south? Because they’re neither cold nor frost resistant, and they prefer the ‘Cotton soils’ of the area which have a higher clay content than the adjacent sand areas. The name ‘Cotton soil is derived the soil where cotton grows so well in the southern states of the USA.

“Did you know,” Hennie says, “that the Mopane is part of a broad family of plants [Fabaceae] related to peas, acacias, even the red bush tea plant?’ Hennie’s expert knowledge always adds a lot of depth and insight to our trips; he’s a great guru to have at your campfire at the end of the day.

Mopane trees are not only eaten by elephants, but by an entire spectrum of creatures. Hard-nosed hornbills nest in the cavities of the Mopane’s durable, termite resistant trunks. Various creatures even smaller, are specialists when it comes to the Mopane. There’s the honey making mopane bee for example, Plebina denoita, and the sweet, waxy sap-sucker Arytaina mopani. These transform from succulent worms into leaf-hoppers. Mopane worms, a delicacy of the locals, are the caterpillar of the emperor moth, but many other species of moth and butterfly nourish themselves on this remarkable tree.

We drive further through the reserve; the abundance of wildlife is enthralling but not unusual. Although we’d booked ourselves into Camp 6 at Kwai Gate which is in front and overlooking a clearing where the animals congregate, when we arrive we find other people there. We decide to set ourselves up at Camp 4 instead. All the sites are relatively close to one another, set around newly built modern ablution facilities.

Towards sunset we watch impala and a small herd of buffalo congregating in the clearing in front of us. In the background we are aware of new arrivals, coming in apparently from Savuti. They appear to be Hollanders. While the buffaloes are congregating I notice a fellow moving off into the bush wielding an axe. It isn’t long before his efforts start echoing around us, and the buffaloes aren’t the only one’s getting irritated by this. Finally I get up and approach the guy, and point out that his chopping is chasing away the wildlife. We offer him some of our wood which he accepts gracefully. Problem solved.

When I return I find Hennie is setting camera traps for the night. After a braai under the moonlight and some discussion over gin and tonic and the odd whiskey, we sit with our backs to the Land Rover and the fire, listening to the haunting calls of hyenas. People often sit around a fire with their backs exposed. Fire is no protection from hyenas, worth noting since two people have recently been grabbed from behind by hyenas in Moremi. Hennie has awesome night vision, so I feel safe, but in the day, all day, he hides behind sunglasses. That night I sleep in a roof top tent and Hennie in the Land Rover.

After going through footage of Spotted Hyena from the camera traps the next morning, we spend our second day in Moremi venturing further east. As we’re driving, talk is around hyenas.

“They don’t have the presence of lions and herein lies the danger,” I say.

“They’re very ‘skelm’, “ adds Hennie. “They come into camp looking for food, whereas lions are more inquisitive, especially the sub-adults who like teenagers often come to see the bright lights only.”

“Lions may be safer than hyenas,” I say to Hennie, “but they’re still wild animals. I’d like to sit one night around the campfire while lions walk around, but I haven’t managed to do that yet. When you see them, they give you that look, and there’s no question. It’s into the car, pronto. ”

“Which is why you’re still sitting here,” Hennie grins.

“The other thing is when you’re drinking you’re less vigilant.”

“You’re braver than normal, and that’s dangerous.” Hennie agrees.

We’re seeing plenty of waterbuck, impala and kudu grazing in the underbrush. There are also plenty of elephants and lechwe everywhere. There is lots of water, so vehicle tracks are often blocked by flooded pans, but we manage to avoid getting stuck this time. Actually it’s no sin to get stuck. You should take calculated risks, and enjoy the adventure if something goes slightly wrong.

We spend our second night in camp 7 and Hennie once again sets up his camera traps. There are no buffaloes tonight, just a flock of hornbills turning the sand into a feathery carpet.

The next morning Hennie shows me images of more hyenas and black backed Jackal and a lion that passed the camp that night. We go along the Kwai River. This area of Moremi is so beautiful we decide to call it ‘Eden’. The elephants here are having a ball; swimming, climbing over each other, fully submerging with only their trunks above water, generally having an absolute – er – whale of a time.

“I don’t think I’ve ever seen elephants having so much fun.” I say to Hennie. He simply nods, without saying anything.

Hennie begins photographing the impressive scene in front of us. One other vehicle saunters by slowly and the driver gives a thumbs up to me through the window.


For perhaps half an hour we absorb this beautiful African scene; 15 hippos lazing the daylight hours away, the elephants, playing and splashing, the sparkle of water flowing off their wrinkled, glistening black bodies.

And then, for no apparent reason, we watch this tranquil scene turn to mayhem. In a moment, the elephants collectively and inexplicably charge out of the water trumpeting. A hell of a din. All of them seem to have panicked at the same time. They turn the waters into seething white spray, and over the roar of heavy legs galloping through shallow water we hear shrieks and bellows. They continue, perhaps thirty of them, altogether, charging through the water to the opposite bank, along the river in front of us and then 200m upstream; storming at full speed back across the river again and then storming off cross country, still trumpeting into the thick bush until they are out of sight. Our tranquil scene, in a matter of seconds, has turned to dust and the violent churning of muddy water they’ve left behind. You can almost see the eyebrows of a few dumbstruck hippos lifting quizzically over their partially submerged heads: “And now?”

Despite the elephants having gone, we can still hear a commotion of branches cracking and distant shrieks of utter panic as those still wet bodies continue lumbering en masse through the woodlands.

Hennie and I spend the rest of the day conjecturing as to what set the elephants off on such a dramatic stampede.

“Maybe they caught our scent, as they were down wind of us…”

“And at the same time caught a glimpse of the reflection of the camera’s lens in the late afternoon sun…

“Which awakened memories of telescopic gun sights used by hunters…perhaps in neighbouring Zimbabwe?”

“To have triggered such a response they must have remembered something tragic to the herd……and they don’t forget! “

“Maybe a submerged hippo was disturbed and nipped the matriarch who panicked and set off the rest…” Maybe, maybe we will never know.

The hippos though aren’t complaining. About fifteen of these quizzical animals are still in the water, moving, snorting: ‘oim, oim, oim’

When the sun begins to set we’re still here, sitting in our camping chairs overlooking the same hippo-filled scene. It has been a helluva day and we’re reluctant to return a moment too soon to camp 7. We decide instead to soak up as much as we can here before driving back to camp.

The sky is turning orange, then pink, and all this reflecting in the hippo’s darkening day time refuge. Over several minutes we notice these big beasts beginning to leave the water in the cool evening to graze maybe as far as 3km into the bush.


We are enjoying the sunset in the water when I notice a hippo walking, can it be, slowly but with purpose, directly towards us!

The hippo simply comes closer, and something about the tilt of its head makes it clear that its intentions aren’t benign. A young bull we think. The hippo charges. And stops. A mock charge.

“Hier’s moeilikheid”, I say in Afrikaans (here’s trouble,) While I’m glancing at the door of the land Rover behind us, wondering whether two of us will be able to scramble through that space at the same time, the hippo charges again. Hennie grabs the lid of the trommel, stands up, lifting the lid directly over his head. The hippo immediately stops and hesitates for a moment. Hennie lowers the lid and suddenly the hippo lurches forward. Hennie raises the lid again, and finally after the third time, the hippo decides to walk around our temporary setup rather than going straight through. Hennie nervously explains that the lid above his head makes him look bigger and thus more intimidating to the Hippo. Clever man!

“I think they get nervous when it gets dark,” Hennie – the Gladiator – says, still holding onto the trommel lid.

Once we feel he’s safely out of our hair, we pack our chairs and make haste to arrive back at the nearby campsite before the gates close.

“There must be a temptation for the villagers to shoot these animals, because people fear them, and they destroy their crops.” I say.

“People who live here have to learn to get along with these animals especially, even though they fear them,” Hennie says. He goes on to explain that a community who shot all the hippos later had to move because the channels made by hippo paths upstream got blocked or silted up and they were left without water. Hennie describes the hippos as the “engineers” of the Delta.

To Savuti

The next morning we cross the new pole bridge, not as quaint as the old bridge alongside, but it is well designed, stronger and still has that bush style to it. A new entrance/exit gate as well. Very nice. Well done and compliments to Botswana’s Dept of Wild Life. You do a great job for all your parks.

At Okavango River lodge we heard from a Mercedes 4x4 driver that he was told that from Chobe to Moremi the road is impassable because of flooding and that he must make a detour via Nata and enter Moremi from the south. We were on our way through the flooded area. After making enquiries with the ranger at the gate we were told that if we had a Land Rover Defender diesel we would make it. (No electronics) He said the water is about 1m deep.

“Part of the adventure is a bit of risk,” I’m saying to Hennie, as we get into the vehicle.

When we get to the deep crossing, just past the local village of Kudumane ( Hennie steps out, strips down and crosses ahead. He sinks to chest height into the brown water. OK, a solid sandy river bed. Behind me, a Land Cruiser is parked to one side. I change to low range 1st gear and slowly cross and build up a suitable bow wave and see the water rising higher and higher. It seems to be okay until the vehicle slips even deeper and a small wave swims over the bonnet, splashing through the air vent onto the seats and me. I feel a twinge in my stomach but the Land Rover simply continues on, lifts slightly out of the water, dips down again and finally emerges. I give a single shake of the fist as I draw alongside Hennie, who has captured the crossing on video. We leave the white Land Cruiser behind on the other side, and continue on our way.

Further on we encounter a white hilux bakkie with two German teachers inside, their bikini’s attached to the rear-view mirror. They want to go to Moremi but have been warned about the deep crossing, and told to make the wide, roundabout detour through Chobe back to Maun.

“You guys got through right?” one of them asks.

“You might need to put on those bikinis when you cross,” I laugh.

They seem to have already made up their minds. They have a rented a Toyota diesel bakkie. I suggest that we, at least, spray all the electrical components in their engine with water repelling Q20. We wish them well and both vehicles depart in opposite directions.

“They’re very brave,” I say to Hennie.

“It’s funny how you see Germans here, and people from the Netherlands, but never Americans.”

Early on we find a pair of whattled cranes wading in the shallow water. There are no more than 8000 of these rare birds in the world, and only an estimated 2185 in Southern Africa. Here it is a critically endangered species, all due to the destruction of wetland areas, principally in South Africa’s KwaZulu-Natal midlands. The most serious threats to this elegant crane are destruction of the wetlands, damming, deforestation, road building and overgrazing.

We expect Savuti to be drier than Moremi. It’s an area well known for their bull elephants, and it’s also home to the only pride of lion in Africa known to kill elephants.

Once upon a time the local Kwai village was a small bushman settlement, but that has since grown into a larger community. The first non-hunting lodges in Botswana were started here along with the first photographic safaris.

We’re following the Kwai River, along the easternmost branch of the Okavango Delta on our way to Savuti. There’s not a single elephant around today. Not only are the stampeding elephants gone but also all the others and there were hundreds. In the bush the word...err…trumpeting gets around.

We see some lions who have recently fed on a kill. The lions are sheltering in the shade away from the heat of the sun. But the smell and the blood on the lion’s faces have attracted hundreds of small flies, which we see caking unpleasantly around the lion’s fleshy nose and eyes. We snap a few pictures, but can’t help feeling sorry for these noble cats. The male has a nasty gash on his thigh, we speculate from a fight or during the recent kill.

It’s about a 4 hour drive to Savuti. We cross the soft sand ridge formed by the vast and ancient Makgadikgadi Lake. It stretched 300km in length from beyond Mopipi to Savuti, where rounded water-eroded pebbles can still be seen against the hills there. We check in through the Mababe Gate into Chobe.

At the Savuti campsite gate we check in; but back in the vehicle I turn the ignition and…nothing happens. It’s hot outside, and the engine is also hot. Fortunately though, the area at the gate is under thatch and cool. An hour later the engine starts and we proceed to our campsite. Hennie gives me a look.

“It’s happened before. You just need to wait for it cool down.”

Safety of course is a concern in Botswana, and some might question the logic of travelling in one vehicle through what can be an unforgiving country. Even if you do break down, it can take a long time to be rescued. A satellite phone and a GPS are essential for those unexpected incidents. Insurance is vital. We’re insured by Outsurances ‘ Out of Africa Policy’ which covers you in the whole of Southern Africa. For towing in as well. An emergency helicopter is probably best for serious injury, but it might cost you around R30 000. But on your own it’s also a more genuine wilderness experience, and we think, worth the risk.

As the vegetation thins, so do the animals. After the excitement in Moremi, we find Savuti quite tame. That evening, at camp, Hennie hauls out his UV torch and yellow glasses to shield his eyes. It does not take him long to find several scorpions in cracks in old tree stumps. Most species glow in the dark like neon lights. Amazing. Hennie tells me that even fossils of scorpions do this. Very early the next morning, at around 5am, Hennie watches four honey badgers enter camp, sniffing around. These are very single-minded, very brave animals for their size. They eat snakes, lizards and mice and if a lion or human is unwise enough to attack one of them, they lunge for your soft spots, I believe.

“And you know where that is,” Hennie says.

We have our usual rusks and coffee for breakfast. And as usual at this time of the year hornbills share the fare. Hennie raises his eyebrows when I feed the birds. We live so apart from nature that to commune with them is a heart warming experience. Holistically more good comes from it than bad. But there are boundaries. Feeding predators like hyenas is dangerous as they lose their fear of humans and serious injuries have occurred due to this practice.

My mantra out here is: Respect Life, All Life, All-ways.

The next day we return to Maun and find the two German teachers, safe and sound at the Audie Camp Restaurant. They made it through. They told us that the water reached high up on the glass of their windscreen. But according to an Italian tourist, a Land Rover TDi “drowned” there when his immobiliser short circuited and the engine cut out. Incidentally, Audie restaurant is a local name for ‘Fish Eagle’; so it’s not an exclusive watering hole for only a certain kind of car owner. We’re served very tough steaks that night but being in the company of fellow adventurers more than makes up for that.

And then the dry…

From Maun we turn due south over the flooding Boteti at Makalamabedi, making our way to one of the more desolate parts of Botswana, the Central Kalahari Game Reserve. We pass through a Vetenary checkpoint. There is foot and mouth in Zambia and Zimbabwe. They take all red meat and dairy products. The cars wheels are sprayed and you disinfect your shoes by stepping on a treated sponge mat. A local jokingly told his lady friend to kiss the mat as well, since it is “Foot AND Mouth”.

The road to Central is along the Vet fence. The ‘Swarthak” trees are covered in flowers. Inside the park they have graded the roads and the first 30 km are very sandy and difficult to drive on. But some have evidently had worse to worry about. We come across a burnt out Mercedes 4x4, its windscreen and aluminium engine block almost entirely melted down. Only the bonnet catch still works. It appears that often bad roads with corrugations cause the electronics – and there’s a lot on these modern vehicles – to short and spark. Grass also packs around the exhaust and when you slow down or stop well…fires that consume the entire vehicle.

Botswana is littered with many burnt out wrecks that were once a lot fancier than our Land Rover. By the way, don’ forget to take a fire extinguisher along. During its service, our Land Rover has passed many of these statues littering the desolate roadsides of Botswana. My old Range Rover has caught on fire twice already due to grass lodged between the exhaust and chassis, but thankfully we extinguished the flames both times. The secret is to drive slowly in long grass so that the stalks don’t break off. Diesel exhausts also seem to be cooler than petrol. Botswana Wildlife Dept is very diligent as they regularly mow the “middelmannetjie” in the parks.

In Central we come across Gemsbok, including a mother with her young calf. The chocolate brown baby antelope looks remarkably different to its grey and black mother. We also photograph finches bathing in a metal plate in the sand at camp that we didn’t fully rinse off.

In Central we find more lions, but these are with their cubs on a track. We stop about 20 metres from as not hassle them. The cubs come sauntering up to the vehicle and gaze in awe (of the Landy perhaps). It is here that we reflect on the injured lion we saw in Moremi. We hear the lions roaring most of the night. Fear to some, music in the night to others.

“Wild animals seem to heal very quickly,” Hennie observes.

We recall a zebra I photographed on a previous outing that had mismatched stripes, the sign of a scar possibly inflicted by lion’s claws.

“It must be a survival mechanism. An adaptation. Because those who can’t heal in a hurry here, perish.”

To bravely go…

Our two days in Central are quiet and peaceful, a soothing end to a busy trip. The finale is intended to be even quieter, as we make for the moony wasteland that is the massive Makgadikgadi Salt Pan.

At Letlhakane we make for the mystical island of Kubu. We arrive late in the day and while setting up camp a guy from the local village arrives with his bicycle, asking for camp fees. He tells us it’s not safe to drive on the pan. He says he worked ‘the whole day yesterday’ trying to dig and push a stranded vehicle out. The pans are soft and wet he says, although the salty crust surface appears to be dry. The Makgadikgadi can be a hazardous place, but ancient civilisations once lived on Kubu. The name for this haunting outcrop means ‘Hippo’. It was once under 40 metres of water. The white on the boulders are minerals deposited on them when the ancient lake dried up to 10 000 years ago. The site has ancient stone walls and you may be lucky to find pottery shards and stone arrowheads. Kubu is a magic place with massive round boulders and old Boabab trees. There seem to be no young Boabab trees here. The leaves and stem of young trees are different to the adults.

The next day we drive at a steady 70km/h over the salty surface, keeping to the track. Only the surface layer, about an inch thick, is dry. In parts the wetter, softer surfaces, slows the vehicle down. The secret is to drive in a straight line and avoid dark smears. We find tracks belonging to ostriches and hyena on the pan.

At one point we stop and Hennie examines a debris field of black stones.

“I once followed a small track and got into trouble here,” I say to Hennie. I only realised later it was a Quad-bike trail when we got stuck in the mud. Some caring people were moving flamingo chicks using a quad bike and trailer to an area with water. Sometimes their feet get caked in mud and the chicks aren’t able to walk the 50 odd kilometres to the water near Nata.

That night, Gautengers descend on Kubu and have a rip roaring party under the full moon. We take to the long road home and as darkness settles in South Africa we find the headlights have filled with Delta water, so whenever the vehicle lurches upward, the headlights dim ‘automatically’. But we can’t complain. We’ve had our fair share of adventure on this trip.

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