Escaping reality: Botswana bound

An article by Dr Steve Boyes, “Into the Okavango”, published in the Botswana Tourism Board’s magazine during 2020, claimed that the Okavango Delta – Africa’s last remaining pristine wetland wilderness – is visible from space. The shining Delta in northern Botswana is often referred to as “the Jewel of Africa”, more valuable than gemstones to the world’s largest diamond producer. This vast area is stranded in one of the driest deserts in the world and depends almost entirely on floodwaters from the eastern Angola highlands.

Words & Pictures: André van Vuuren

It all started with a phone call from Jo Lambinon, an old safari client who travelled with me to the Okavango Delta in 2018. He told me they had enough of the pandemic, the subsequent lockdown and all the depressiveness that went along with it. They were eager to go on safari and since Botswana is one of the wildlife destinations that one can visit over and over again, I started to work on a tailor-made trip for them. At that point, the Botswana borders were still but, ever so hopeful, we pencilled the school holidays during April/May 2021 in our diaries.

The itinerary would take us via Nata Lodge and Maun to Third Bridge in the Moremi Game Reserve and, from there, to the Magotho Community Camp and Savuti before ending the safari in Kasane. The bookings and all other arrangements were made, but as COVID-19 cases continued to rise, the borders remained closed. At one stage, a very concerned Jo phoned me and suggested that we should possibly consider rescheduling the safari to April 2022. Since I was going stark raving mad with cabin fever, I asked for a few more weeks before making a final call.

We were all elated when Botswana lifted international travel restrictions from early November 2020, eight months after borders were closed. But it was by no means business as usual as our neighbour opened only a few of the more prominent commercial border posts, obviously with some requirements and restrictions in place. Tourists arriving into Botswana would be screened for COVID-19 symptoms and be required to have a negative PCR test result (not issued more than 72 hours before crossing the border).

Just as we started to count the sleeps to our first post-lockdown safari, another curveball hit. The Moremi Game Reserve was closed due to very high water levels and pole bridges that were damaged by the floodwater. I decided that this would not rock the boat too much and simply changed our two-night booking at Third Bridge to a Mokoro safari on the waterways of the Okavango Delta.

Safari bound

Excitement levels were very high when our group finally met up at the Bongela Private Game lodge, about 15 km west of Vaalwater. Bongela belongs to André and Melanie Sullivan, one of the couples on our safari, and they invited all of us to spend the first night with them.

After a hearty breakfast and armed with our negative COVID-19 test results, the convoy left Bongela for the Martin’s Drift border post. All went smoothly on both sides at the border, although it took a bit longer on the Botswana side. Everyone was screened, and PCR test results checked. After all border post procedures were done, we took advantage of the cheaper fuel on the Botswana side (R12.50 per litre, compared to the R16.10 per litre in South Africa) and headed out, finally breathing in the fresh Botswana air.

We spent the afternoon and night in the luxury safari tents at Kwa Nokeng Lodge, with dinner served under the most beautiful Nyala Berry tree (Xanthocercis zambesiaca) on the deck overlooking the Limpopo River… Gosh, how we missed this!

From here, the route took us via Serule and Francistown to Nata Lodge. Curiously, our convoy was not stopped at any roadblocks or veterinary control points, giving us the impression that everybody was so weary of COVID-19 and did not want to unnecessarily risk exposure. The amiable atmosphere wherever we stopped made it clear that tourists were welcome back with open arms. We reached Nata Lodge where we stayed in the campsite which boasts power points and good ablution facilities. The lodge also has a restaurant and a lovely sparkling blue pool.

An adventure a minute

After breakfast the following day, we packed up and travelled via Planet Baobab, a few kilo’s west of Gweta, to Maun. Planet Baobab is home to one of Botswana’s funkiest pubs, called the Kalahari Surf Club. It has become a tradition to stop here for some refreshments and admire the beautiful Baobab trees. The distance from Nata to Maun measures around 300 km, and except for a small section here and there, the road condition was surprisingly good.

On arrival in Maun, we settled in at Audi Camp for the next two nights and again noticed, with sadness, the true impact of this pandemic on Botswana’s tourism industry. Some of the shops in Maun closed down and one of my favourite spots, Island Safari Lodge, is also currently closed. However, Audi Camp is a good alternative with good facilities and is, surprisingly, quite empty.

The next day we hit the road early, leaving for the Boro Poler station, which is supposed to be about an hour’s drive from camp. We followed the sandy road to Boro Prison and, from there, drove all along the cutline until we reached a point where the water got so deep that we could not proceed. Fortunately, we bumped into two local herdsmen who explained an alternative route to us, and after almost another hour’s drive, we eventually reached the Boro Poler station. Botswana is nothing if not an adventure a minute!

One can book Mokoro excursions through most of the lodges, campsites and local tour operators. I have been warned, though, that it can become quite expensive and that most of the money sadly does not reach the Mokoro operators, so I opted to book our Mokoro safari through the Okavango Kopano Mokoro Community Trust (OKMCT).

Located in an area of approximately 1 225 km², OKMCT operates in six villages: Ditshuping, Boro, Xharaxao, Xuoxao, Daunara and Xaxaba. These villages are inhabited by the local tribe called Bayei, and the trust consists of board members from the various communities within the area. OKMCT has benefited its communities from tourism, and the tribes have adapted to using these natural resources to sustain their living. We paid the park entry fee of 68 BWP per person at their offices in Maun and the polers their fee of 200 BWP directly at the Boro Poler Station.

Botswana has an estimated population of roughly 2.5 million people and is one of the world’s most culturally and linguistically diverse populations. The country has approximately 30 different indigenous ethnic groups, and its unique history has shaped its people’s diversity, cultures, and lifestyles.

We climbed into seven Mokoros and left for the waterways and lagoons of the Boro River. The water was extremely high and the main channel very deep. Traditionally the Mokoros, or dug-out canoes were made out of Sausage Trees (Kigelia Africana). However, due to the fear of extinction in the Okavango Delta, the Botswana Government is now promoting fibreglass Mokoros. We stopped at a beautiful island where we had a delicious lunch of fresh boerewors rolls, admiring the many hippos all around us. It was one of our tour member’s birthday, and back at camp, she treated us to a lovely dinner in the restaurant at Audi Camp. The staff, ever willing to please, set up a festive table and even baked a special chocolate cake.

Wilderness calls

The following day, we were up early, rearing to get the six 4×4 vehicles – packed to the brim with gear, fuel, firewood, food and water to sustain us for at least six days in one of Africa’s largest remaining wilderness areas – on the road for some wild exploration and adventure.

We drove in a northerly direction to Shorobe, where we bid the tarred road farewell. The gate at the Buffalo fence was unmanned, and we just drove slowly through on our way to Mababe and Magotho, the community campsite on the bank of the Khwai River, where we pitched camp for the next three nights. The camp is located in the heart of the Botswana wilderness, situated to the north of Moremi Game Reserve and the south of Chobe National Park.

This campsite is a favourite in Botswana. Quiet, beautiful and with game aplenty. With elephants, hippos, lions, hyenas, and monkeys strolling around all day and night long, this is as close to paradise as it gets. There are small ablution facilities with two toilets and two showers each but no water. The pump at the Khwai River is not there anymore, and the water tanks were empty. Two of the ladies in our group put on some surgical gloves and cleaned two toilets for us. We took our own bucket of grey water with and ran it through the cistern every time we used the toilet. ‘n Boer maak ‘n plan, after all!

We spent our days game viewing and exploring the banks of the Khwai River, which is without a doubt one of the best game viewing areas in Botswana. There is cold beer and firewood for sale in the Khwai Village, and we also managed to fill our water supplies with clean water. The resident elephants were in and around our camp almost all the time, and simply staying at camp to enjoy the wildlife was also an attractive option for some of our travel companions.

From Magotho, we left for Savuti in the Chobe National Park. Located in the centre of the park, Savuti is Chobe’s enigmatic gem. In the space of a few years, the area was transformed from desert to a wetland and back again as the Savuti Channel first started flowing in 2010 after a 30-year drought and dried up once again in 2015. It is almost impossible to imagine that this desolate, harsh landscape was once submerged beneath an enormous inland sea. The Savuti area is one of the most photographed areas in Botswana and feature in many Africa Wildlife videos, like Derek and Beverly Joubert’s “Eternal Enemies”, amongst others. We stayed over in Savuti Camp for three nights.

This area is famous for its predators, especially its resident lion and spotted hyena populations. Only 38 km northwest of Savuti and off the main tourist track lies Botswana’s best-kept secret: Linyanti, on the western banks of the Savuti Channel. The Linyanti and upper Savuti areas are among the most beautiful in Botswana. The game viewing can be exceptional and make this an area a must-visit for any adventurer.

Back to reality

Then it was time to head back to civilisation. We travelled through via the Sandridge Road and through the most beautiful teak forests to Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane, where we camped in their lush green campsite on the bank of the Chobe River for the next two nights. We embarked on a self-drive game drive in the Chobe National Park and had the most beautiful lion sighting in years. We also saw ellies, buffalo and other plains game in great numbers. In the afternoon, we enjoyed a three-hour sunset cruise on the Chobe River.

Botswana has an elephant population of about 140 000, representing roughly 25% of the elephants in Africa. This specific area is famous for its abundance of elephants, with tourists from all over the world heading to the Chobe National Park and adjacent wilderness areas to see Africa’s most productive and ideal elephant habitat and large elephant populations. The park is also famous for its huge herds of buffalo, its rich birdlife and, not least, for its exquisite sunsets.

We had almost reached the end of an extraordinarily successful and memorable wildlife safari to Botswana. The following day, we had coffee at the eclectic spot in Kasane, Coffee Buzz. After breakfast at Elephant Sands, we headed further south to Woodlands Stop Over & Lodge, 12 km north of Francistown where we stayed in the luxury river rooms on the banks of the Tati River.

As we spent our last night reminiscing and sharing our highlights from this memorable trip, I again realised just how special Africa is, bounding people from different walks of life together and cementing life-long friendships.

About André van Vuuren Safaris

Intrepid explorer and avid nature lover André van Vuuren have offered overland excursions and safaris throughout Southern Africa for the past 24 years (since 1997). He owned the only South African Safari Company in possession of a Category C Tourism Enterprise Licence registered in Botswana for a while and specialises in guided self-drive safaris to Botswana, Zambia and Malawi. He also offers fly-in safari packages to the Serengeti and Zanzibar.

He is a highly experienced and qualified safari guide and knows how to take the best that Africa offers and create a memorable experience for his clients. All his guided self-drive safaris for 2021 are unfortunately fully booked, but be sure to secure a spot on one of his 2022 adventures:

Turtle Tour iSimangaliso Wetland Park
15 – 21 January 2022
Cost:
R7 000 per person sharing
Accommodation: Self-catering chalets

Namibia
16 March – 10 April 2022
Cost:
To be advised
Accommodation: Self-catering chalets & camping.

Transkei Wild Coast (Pondoland)
30 April– 8 May 2022 / 18 – 26 June 2022
Cost:
R7 000 per person sharing
Accommodation: Self-catering chalets or camping

The Jewel of Africa (Moremi, Savuti and Chobe National Parks)
22 May – 4 June 2022 / 3 – 18 September 2022
Cost:
R10 350 per person sharing
Accommodation: Mainly camping

Luangwa Valley – Zambia
1 – 21 August 2022
Cost:
R 16 250 per person sharing
Accommodation: Self-catering chalets and camping

Snow Safari to the “Wild Side of the Drakensberg”
12 – 17 July 2022 / 19 – 24 July 2022 (snow dependent)
Cost:
R7 000 per person sharing
Accommodation: Hotels and B&B’s

Meander to Malawi
8 – 26 October 2022
Cost:
R 9 350 per person sharing
Accommodation: Mainly camping

Liuwa Plains (Western Zambia) and Chobe National Park (Botswana)
9 – 20 November 2022
Cost:
To be advised
Accommodation: Mainly camping

CONTACT: andrevanvuuren@postnet.co.za | +27 82 935 7405

*Please note that prices are subject to change.

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