A detour of 700km is not exactly something you want to undertake when you have just completed a 3 300km tour through Botswana. But when one gets news of a rare bird species – one that has never been recorded in the southern hemisphere before – that has arrived in Phalaborwa, all rational thinking flies out the window. Anton and Natasha Schutte share their adventure.
Two weeks earlier, our group of four vehicles gathered at Motipi, approximately 3km before the Groblersbrug border post and right next to the Limpopo River. It’s the perfect campsite to kick off your Botswana adventure, with convenient kitchen and bathroom facilities and strategically placed lights in the trees that will quickly make you forget about your worries. There was no easing into it for our field guides, Rushada Schutte and Pieter Kruger, who were peppered with questions about the birds and animals we would encounter from the get-go. It’s always nice to have people with you who are visiting Botswana for the first time, because then you get to experience everything afresh through their eyes.
Our first destination was the popular Elephant Sands Lodge, just north of the birdwatcher’s paradise, Nata. This is the place where one is likely to come closest to wild elephants, with Benny the Elephant being one of the biggest attractions at the lodge. During drier seasons, elephants flocked to Elephant Sands looking for water. Because there was only a small water hole, these majestic giants sometimes had to wait up to 18 hours for a turn to quench their thirst. In 2015, during one of the biggest droughts in decades, the elephants began digging out the pipes of the lodge’s chalets and even broke walls looking for water. The campsite was virtually overrun… so much so that Mike Toth, co-owner and manager of the camp, had to start chasing the elephants away to keep campers safe. However, one of the ellies – dubbed Benny – could not be bothered by Mike’s attempts. He often visited a pool, which Mike filled with water to try to control the influx of elephants.
Benny was not deterred by Mike spraying with water him while filling the tub, but rather pointed his trunk in Mike’s direction and then rubbed his paw. Mike sensed that something was amiss and called a vet. After Benny was sedated, a huge piece of wood, which had caused an abscess in his foot, was removed. From then on, there was a special bond between Mike and Benny, who still visits the watering hole regularly.
The next day we headed back to the A3 in the direction of Maun, on our way to our next destination, the Nxai Pan National Park. If you’re not in a hurry, it is worth stopping at Planet Baobab or even spend a night here. The service is friendly and the refreshments ice cold – we will certainly stay there for a day or two on our next visit to the area. From here, tours to witness the zebra migration can be undertaken. We were lucky to encounter a real “zebra crossing” when about 500 zebras wanted to cross the road and we had to slam on the brakes. Here it is also not uncommon to see elephants and giraffes along the road, so just keep your speed low and your eyes open!
4×4 fan awaits… or not?
Nxai Pan, and its surrounding areas, have a rather sad history and biologists and wildlife researchers are only now beginning to understand the impact humans have had on the area. About a hundred years ago, large wildebeest and zebra migrations took place here, but with the arrival of Europeans and the burgeoning cattle market, long vet fences were erected in the 1950s to meet the standards of European meat producers. The fences essentially closed off the migration corridors and hundreds of thousands of zebras and wildebeest died. According to Dennis Sizemore, of Round River Conservation Studies, the decay and removal of the fences resulted in something truly special – the zebras and wildebeest started to migrate again. This not only increased their numbers, but also attracted a variety of other animals back to the area. Feel free to read more about the area and its history on Round River Conservation Studies’ website (www.roundriver.org).
Arriving at Nxai Pan, we immediately deflated the vehicles’ tyres as we had already had to deal with the deep sand on the road on previous occasions. In the run-up to our adventure, we shared stories about how bad the road was during our previous visit and as such we were ready for some challenging 4×4 driving. However, recent upgrades to the road spoilt our intended 4×4 fun, but fortunately the surrounding grasslands yielded plenty of game and there were quite a few lion sightings. In fact, the curious cats inspected our camp closely during our stay, with hyenas and elephants usually close on their heels.
A visit to the world-famous Bains Baobabs – captured on canvas during the 1862 Livingstone expedition by painter Thomas Bains – is a must-see stop. This wonderful scenery resulted in some boisterous energy and the group decided to have a race – the young guns against the old ballies. After much laughter and a few minor injuries, the young ones claimed victory… or did we throw the game? No one will ever know…! From here, we headed in the direction of Maun. It is the tourism capital of Botswana and a very important place for overlanders who want to explore the delta. This is where you should buy all your necessary supplies and make sure that the jerry cans are full since it is the last reliable fuel station on the route. Popular places such as the Okavango Delta, the Moremi, Savuti and Linyanti are accessible from here. We decided to skip the Delta and Moremi this time and headed for Magotho, in the Kwhai district.
A trailer – sans wheel hub – that rolled and was left deserted on the side of the road is an indication of how bad the road is, but the campsite makes everything worthwhile. This was our first tour to Magotho. The area is part of the community trust outside the Moremi National Park conservation area, and we were unsure of what to expect. However, it exceeded all expectations. Yes, there is no water, and the facilities are primitive, but the biodiversity, wildlife, and birdlife more than make up for it. Elephants and lechwe are plentiful, but a sighting of the rare Pel’s Fish Owl was a definite a highlight. The three days we spent there were not nearly long enough and with heavy hearts we bid the area farewell, our next destination beckoning.
A long day
It‘s only about 190km to Ihaha in the Chobe National Park, but it takes about six to eight hours to drive there. We made good progress through the Linyanti and Savuti swamp areas but started to lose speed at the Zambezi Teak Forest. Two of the four vehicles in the group were towing trailers and at times they handled like tractors with ploughs. The road was getting long and as the energy levels were dropping, we had to stop often to motivate everyone for the next section.
It is also on this route that we again realised the value of a good GPS when overlanding, although even the best ones can sometimes let you down. We missed a turn and the GPSs’ recalculation led us straight into a forest where there was a new cell phone tower right in the middle of the road and nowhere to turn around. Fortunately, a group of workers who know the area well came to our rescue and after we had to trim and chop down a few trees we were able to resume the route. Chobe is probably the place with the largest concentration of animals in Africa and the hydrology of the area also makes it unique. The tectonic line that stretches all the way from the Great Rift Valley forms the drainage of Angola’s highland region. The Chobe River begins as a small stream deep in the mountains, which then becomes the Kwando River and at the border of Botswana the mighty Chobe River, which later merges with the Zambezi to tumble over the Victoria Falls. This water filled the Makgadikgadi pans thousands of years ago. The Zambezi and Okavango Rivers also originate in the same highlands, with the latter draining into the Okavango Delta and never meeting the other rivers. At one stage, the Kwando and Zambezi rivers are less than a kilometre apart but first flow into each other hundreds of kilometres away.
We only arrived at Ihaha seven hours later and after setting up camp in the dark (never ideal, but sometimes it happens), everyone could finally relax. The campsite is located on the banks of the Chobe River and is the only camping facility in the park, making it extremely popular. With Namibia beckoning across the water, this is definitely a bucket list destination, but book early to avoid disappointment! All too soon we had to hit the road again, this time on our way to Senyati. This camp certainly needs no introduction. There is so much to do here – from day trips to Zimbabwe and the Vic Falls, to tiger fishing and sundowner boat cruises on the Chobe. Of course, you can also just relax while you watch the elephants and birds or stretch out on the bench in front of the waterhole… As my grandfather always says: “Another tough day in Africa!” Our camping area was facing the water hole, but there are also chalets for those who are tired of pitching a tent.
Seeing that we were here for an adventure, we decided to cross the border to Zimbabwe early in the morning for a visit to the Victoria Falls. To our surprise, the experience at the border post at Kazungula was very pleasant and fast, something we had never experienced here before. We have been to the falls a few times and just can’t get enough, but for other members of our group it was a new experience. There is only one way to tackle it properly: you start by first driving to the gate of the Elephant Hills helipad, from where you can view the permanent cloud hanging over the falls. Then you drive along the mighty Zambezi, close to Army Camp, to admire the 300m-wide body of water. The next step is to go see the falls themselves. Of course, the best way is to view them from a helicopter to see where the rivers converge in Botswana… Certainly worth every penny!
The walkway to and from the falls runs through a rainforest and we have seen rare birds here on more than one occasion. This time the Schalow’s Turaco was on our list. We could hear its call through the dense green forest and after what felt like an eternity the timid forest bird, with the most beautiful red, blue and green feathers, finally made its appearance. It was almost too good to be true! On the way back to Senyati there was non-stop chatter about all the experiences the day had produced – simply incredible.
However, all good things come to an end, and it was time to start the long journey back home. Of course, we had to stop at Nata Lodge first to see the pelicans at the pans. This brought the number of bird species we saw on the tour to 208.
Alas, that’s not quite the end of our story! As mentioned at the very beginning, two of the vehicles in our group decided to drive a 700km detour to see the rare Wood Warbler in Phalaborwa. Every year it migrates all the way from Europe to the Congo region in Africa, but in this case a reverse migration took place. We hurried to Phalaborwa, hoping that this rare bird would still be there. When we arrived, it was already dark, and we had to wait until the next morning. Binoculars and cameras in hand, we joined the rest of the excited bird watchers. Even the security guard came to help us look for the tiny bird (only 11cm big)… and low and behold, there it was!
It was the perfect end to our trip, and we could return to Marloth Park through the Kruger National Park with full hearts after another successful African adventure!
Anton en Natasha Schutte own and run Sunset Adventure Travel from their home base in Marloth Park. They offer self-drive safaris and birding tours in Africa (as far as Uganda); as well as day and weekend trips into the Kruger National Park.
Did you know?
- Botswana is roughly the same size as Madagascar, slightly smaller than Texas and slightly larger than France.
- The majority of the country lies between 950m and 1 250m above sea level.
- About 70 per cent of Botswana’s surface is desert.
- The Makgadikgadi pans are the largest salt pans in the world and cover around 30 000km².
- The border between Botswana and Zambia is only 150m long and is the shortest border in the world.