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Road trip to Botswana: Cowbells, expanse and splendour

Khama Rhino Sanctuary. The pans there were bathed in a warm late afternoon glow and made it feel that we were part of a Disney landscape. Compared to where we had been it was like an upmarket complex for wild animals. Khama Rhino Sanctuary, Botswana. 27 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
By John Hogg
02 Feb 2022 2

The build-up to our first trip to Botswana in December 2021 was a draining mix of anticipation and anxiety: Covid-19 and the fluctuating travel ramifications that are but one side-shows of the pandemic; there were three of us, my wife Nicolene, Adele du Toit (friend and wife of the late Duif du Toit) and I. The trip was in memory of Duif, as he and Adele travelled through Botswana in 2009.

Booked and packed, a fully equipped 4×4 with rooftop tents (more about them later) we were ready to roll, although anxious about the fact that you need a Covid-19 test no older than 72 hours to cross the border. But with three negative tests the day before our departure, we had the green light. 

I had our route planned using the Tracks4Africa map, it gives distance and time — the time in Botswana is the important bit. The downside of this map is that it’s huge, the size of a ’59 Ford Fairlane’s bonnet. We also used the service offered by the vehicle hire company to book our accommodation. 

Herewith oversight number one: Research and calculate the park fees and be aware that they only accept cash, Pula only, at the gates. I somehow missed this, and the added expenses came as a shock.

In the late morning, we headed north to the Groblersbrug/ Martin’s Drift border. My second mistake was to go via Mokopane, driving through the outskirts on the N11 was like wading through treacle: it just seems to go on and on. On the way back, we took the R33 via Modimolle, I much preferred that route. Also, you can pull in at Lephalale and buy good biltong, something we oddly battled to find in Botswana

We crossed the border in about 45 minutes and checked into the adjacent Kwa Nokeng Lodge and with our tents pitched, we enjoyed a few beers and dinner on the deck alongside the flowing Limpopo river. Relieved and starting to relax more, we went to bed and heard our first sounds of Botswana at night: the hissing and grinding of trucks at the border post, which only closes at 10pm. “Tomorrow night”, I thought, as the sound of airbrakes rattled my spine.

After all the anticipation and anxiety, searching the plains, Botswana is mostly a flat country. It’s worthwhile stopping at the pans and through your binoculars watch life slowly show itself. Makgadigadi Pans National Park, Botswana. 19 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
Blue Wildebeest on the hoof in the wet at the Nata Bird Sanctuary. Botswana’s rainy season goes from November through to March. The pans were filling and it’s here that I could practice a bit of off-road driving to get the feel of the bakkie. Nata Bird Sanctuary, Botswana. 17 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg

The next day was a long haul to Nata Lodge, with shopping along the way, in Francistown. The larger centres in Botswana have much of what we have in South Africa, as far as shops go. 

Palapye, the first town you get to from Martin’s Drift has a few new shopping malls that wouldn’t look out of place in Bryanston. But it was in Francistown I learned of the infamous alcohol tax in place there. I bought a case of 24 Windhoek Draught cans (easier to pack) at the cost of R479.00 once converted. This was the price also on the SMS notification from my bank, the eventual amount that came off my account was R513.14. As I write, the price in South Africa for the same product is around R340.00. Another lesson: beware of the bank charges. 

This is also where much of your savings from the cheaper fuel over there go, I suppose. Further on, it was a pleasant and uneventful journey to Nata, but if you take that road, remember to watch the speed limits; both those imposed by law and the less informally imposed by wandering livestock. Slow down and switch on the hazard lights to warn others. You may also see a wake of vultures next to the road as we did. The carcass was out of sight in a ditch just off the verge. 

We were the only campers at Nata Lodge. It was starting to feel more like the Botswana we’d imagined. That night we were ‘lulled’ to sleep by the intermittent sound of cowbells. 

The third night, we camped at Planet Baobab, in the rain. Fortunately, the sites have thatched shelters, equally as welcoming in the heat, I’d think. Looking at the website, you could be forgiven for thinking that it might be a bit gimmicky but it isn’t. Funky and pleasant, I thought it the perfect type of stopover to have in between more remote places where the only facilities are long drop toilets and bucket showers (own water to be supplied). The pool is magnificent as are the baobabs and the rooms met with Nicolene and Adele’s approval. They had the management show them one.

On to a truly wonderful campsite, Tree Island site No 1 in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. No cowbells, perfectly silent, and the sky opened enough for us to watch a full moon rise. On entering the park at the XireXawa gate on the eastern side, we found it deserted so we drove on. On exiting at Phuduhudu gate we, of course, didn’t have a permit to exit, nor enough Pula; it was there and then that the park fees hit home. After much deliberation, my name and passport number were taken down and we were told to pay at the wildlife offices when we got to Maun. 

First, we had to go to the millennia-old Baines Baobabs at campsite No. 1. It is 700m across a pan from the famous trees. After a muddy crossing we had another perfect night and, the following morning, a distant sighting of three lions gingerly crossing the pan some distance away.

Looking across the pan, that you have to drive across, towards Baines Baobabs from Campsite No.1. It was fortunately still accessible. Nxai Pan National Park, Botswana. 19 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
Tree Island Campsite No.1. It overlooks a pan and here the weather cleared long enough for our first braai of the trip. Meat in Botswana is cheaper than in SA but I guess you need to know where to buy the better cuts, ours was rather chewy. Makgadigadi Pans National Park, Botswana. 18 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg

On to Maun where we paid our fees and those for Moremi at the wildlife office (behind the police station); we also stocked up and headed north. After the split towards Moremi from the main road, we encountered our first water and soon got stuck. 

My 4×4 driving experience is patchy. Rule number one, which I’m pleased to say I remembered, is do not switch the engine off. It can suck water in and cause damage. There was mild to wild panic: from me wondering how long we’d sit before help arrived to, ‘we’re gonna die here’. It didn’t take long for help to arrive and in no time, we were on our way. In retrospect I could have driven out, we weren’t the first vehicle stuck there that day. The water wasn’t deep and only came up to just above my knees; it was even a little embarrassing because soon there were at least five safari vehicles watching us, with cell phones held high, as one does nowadays. There was a wedge under the water, I was informed by one of the safari vehicle drivers. He’d been stuck that morning but got out using the low range. Herewith is the valuable lesson for the trip.

As we jolted to a stop, the front wheels jammed slightly to the right, the Land Cruiser trying to rescue us hopped around a bit while pulling, but we didn’t move. Another bystander pointed out that my front wheels weren’t straight. I straightened them with his guidance and with slight acceleration we started moving! I quickly eased off as I didn’t want to look even more foolish by driving out by myself at this stage, so with the towing and my driving we were pulled out, to cheers all around. 

If you do get stuck, someone will help. How long this might take will depend on how remote you are. I was asked why I didn’t take the detour around the water. If you get to a hazard, look around and if there’s a detour, take it; it was made by smarter drivers. We never had another problem after that innocuous-looking pool. 

As we were running late, we camped at South Gate where that night we had our first visitor, a young hyena. The next day, we travelled to Third Bridge via a detour because of a problem at Second Bridge. Third Bridge campsite is magnificent and the trees there are huge; it poured with rain for almost two hours that afternoon, but thankfully we took the option of hiring an awning with the bakkie. The night sounds were mainly hippo, one was right next to our camp, blowing in the water. We had more hyenas’ visits while we were sitting around the fire that night, and later, I was awoken by the sound of one of them licking the table outside; we were thankful to be in rooftop tents.

Moremi Game Reserve. The trip from South Gate to Third Bridge, a little more than 46km took us a leisurely five hours, due to game watching, smoke breaks, and water. Some of the detours had detours and this was only the start of the rainy season. I estimated that during the trip there and back we must have traversed more than a hundred pools, all without further issues. Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. 21 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
Third Bridge campsite No.2 at Moremi and another visit by hyenas. Firstly as we sat around the fire and later once we tucked up safely in our rooftop tents. I had to push my ISO to a ridiculous number and with a handheld torch took this picture through the green gauze, I didn’t open the zip then in case I frightened them off. I opened it later and was better prepared but never reappeared. Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. 21 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
A trip to Botswana could be divided into two categories, bad braai days and good braai days. This is at Moremi’s Third Bridge. Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana. 21 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg

Talking about rooftop tents… what a pain. The obvious advantage is the safety, but one has to put them up and take them down, daily. Going up they’re easy, it’s the folding that is a challenge. Trying to tuck the sides in, while balancing on the back wheel and having to hold on, is a three-arm job and was mine for the trip, besides making fires and taking care of the braai. (Although rooftop tents are preferable to washing dishes while camping). I did have a stiff lower back and a pinched nerve in my shoulder by the end of the trip. Another tip if you camp, book a chalet for the last night. It’s a treat.

From Moremi, we headed back to Maun, paid our park fees for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, stocked up and booked in at Sitatunga Lodge, 12km outside Maun on the Ghanzi road. 

It sounds easy to find but it took us a while. Road and information signs are not much of a thing in Botswana. I now know why many travellers use GPS coordinates when they’re there. We ended up staying an extra night at Sitatunga, a lovely camp with two pools and an independently run bar and restaurant. 

In Maun, I was surprised by Nicolene with a scenic flight over the Delta, it was my Christmas present and was magnificent. I can only imagine how spectacular it must be further into the rainy season. The Okavango Delta, Botswana. 23 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg.

Refreshed, we left for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) the next morning. The CKGR was our highlight: game-wise it was fairly quiet but that didn’t really matter. We camped at Motopi 3 on the first night, where it was a bit too bushy for our liking as the expanse of the terrain is lost. From there to Passarge 1 for Christmas Day — the pans are but five minutes away. We had to use the shower bag supplied in the bakkie, as the bucket part of the shower was gone; this was also where I lost the braai grid and stand. Perhaps they’re still hanging in the tree where I put them to cool and prevent hyenas from carrying them off while we went for sundowners. (Note to self, put equipment where you can always see it, to the point of tripping over it, and pack away as soon as possible).

A trip to Botswana could be divided into two categories, bad braai days and good braai days. This is at Passarge 1 on Christmas Day. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.
25 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
We stopped close to some water in the Passarge Valley, a fossilised river, it was Christmas Day and we watched the passing game while sipping mimosa’s and nibbling on fruit cake.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 25 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve, scanning the horizon as we drove it was often that we saw showers in the distance. Do as we did if it rains while you’re in camp, take the best outdoor shower you’re likely to ever have. You also save your own water that way.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 25 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
Christmas Day sunset. I mostly avoid photographing sunsets. But this one, eish!
Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 25 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
They’re everywhere, the ubiquitous Gemsbok. To the Central Kalahari Game Reserve what the Impala is to the Kruger National Park. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 26 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
Another camp visitor in the late that afternoon at Sunday Pan, a rather tame and young-looking Jackal. It seemed to be a regular visitor to the campsite. It was scared off as it got darker and we tried a cellphone picture with flash. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 26 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
In the summer months, water is likely to be more of an obstacle than the thick sand. On and off rain helps keep things compact. The tyres on our vehicle were deflated to 2 bar which was perfectly fine. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 26 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
With all the travel and being on the go all the time, there’s not much time for reading.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 26 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
Sunday Pan No. 2 and time out in the hammocks before the rain.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 26 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg

Sunday Pan No 2 was the best site of our trip: close to a water hole that the animals didn’t bother with while we were there, there was water all over. We had a heavy downpour in the late afternoon which Nicolene and I took advantage of and had a shower to remember; certainly the best outdoor shower we’ve experienced. I can’t show any photographs of this because, obviously, I’d have damaged my camera.

Our trip was ending. 

One of the lions we found resting next to the road, we watched them for about ten minutes when they got up and ambled off in the direction opposite to ours. A nice bonus on a memorable visit. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 27 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg
A Dwarf Bittern, I’m told that this was a lucky sighting. Both Moremi and CKGR seem to be marvellous destinations for bird photography. I don’t really have the lenses required for bird photography but it helps when they fly up from a pool of water in front of you and sit in a tree next to you. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana. 27 December 2021. Photograph: John Hogg

We left the next morning and as a farewell from the park, spotted two lions resting on the side of the road (thanks to Adele). The drive out took five hours to get to the main tar road at Rakops, two hours longer than I’d ‘worked out’. Due to the rains the previous day, there was a lot of water again. We made our way down to a verdant Khama Rhino Sanctuary. It’s a nice campsite, with shabby ablutions. We had to abandon our drive through Khama the next day to have Covid tests in Serowe for our border crossing the day after. 

While looking for the clinic I came across someone selling cowbells, naturally, I bought one. It sits on my bedside cabinet with a small, beaded Botswana flag attached. Nicolene thought I paid too much for it but you can’t put a price tag on such good memories. DM/ ML

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  • Thanks for sharing memories of your Botswana trip, we were there in early January… a belated 40th wedding anniversary treat… flying between Moremi, Savute and Chobe and the bush and bird life was magnificent, definitely one for the bucket list!
    Your aerial photo of the Delta reminded me of our flight from Kasane, the Airlink pilot gave us a superb treat by banking over the Chobe river and the waterways were spectacular… ahh, good memories.

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