A loud rumbling tummy awakens me in the dead of the night… I lie stiffly staring into the velvet darkness, then gingerly lean across, drawing my ear to my husband Glen’s stomach. No – it’s not him! I catch my breath – the realisation that a large nocturnal visitor is grazing silently outside. This is wild camping, and this is what we came for – the ultimate Botswana adventure!
Words: Filly Crouch | Photos: Glen and Filly Crouch
We were first introduced to Simon and Des from Ultimate Adventures on social media. The various trips they offered to exhilarating destinations around the world caught our attention, particularly their December tour to Botswana. As passionate bird photographers, and having only visited Botswana once before, there was no hesitation. We booked immediately and then had to endure eight long months of excited anticipation until our departure.
Finally, the big day dawned. Like boisterous teenagers, with our Land Cruiser and off-road caravan in tow, we hit the open road two days after Christmas (thankfully, the road north was open as the entire Gauteng was heading south to the coast). Our two-day trip from Kloof in Durban to Elephant Sands in Botswana to meet Simon and Des and the rest of the group was thoroughly enjoyable, especially while witnessing the metamorphosis of the terrain. Green bush, rolling hills and twisting roads soon became flat plains interspersed with a much drier vegetation. The dead straight sweltering tar vanishing into the horizon – the occasional baobab standing majestically – a welcome sight! And of course, the elephants… the excitement of seeing such magnificent creatures unperturbed and roaming free on the side of the road is quite something!
On arrival at Elephant Sands, we claimed our site and set up camp while elephants ambled amongst us, unconcerned by the presence of humans. The watering hole alongside the bar and restaurant is the focal point, where wild elephants quench their thirst and wallow in the mud, allowing guests to get extremely close to these spectacular animals – a photographers’ paradise!
At last, we met Simon and Des – our tour guides and coowners of Ultimate Adventures. What an impressive and friendly couple! As the days unfolded, there was no doubt in our minds that we had made the right choice to book this adventure with them. Their vast 4×4 and overlanding experience made the trip exceedingly comfortable. Finally, we also met up with the rest of our group – like-minded strangers from all corners of South Africa (and even one from Germany), from different cultures and all walks of life – coming together with a common purpose… to experience the Ultimate Botswana Adventure.
As the dusky sun descended into the horizon, a large group of delightful young travellers arrived in expedition vehicles from Kenya, having been on the road through numerous countries since before Christmas. Their stories, enthusiasm and friendliness were encouraging. Sitting around the campfire that evening and learning more about our group was enlightening. We were treated to our first delicious dinner of kudu lasagne and homemade cheese and onion bread, accompanied by a fresh green salad – all meticulously prepared by Ultimate Adventures’ travelling chef Master P, who is trained in bush cooking on open coal fires. A gentleman of many talents. Simon officially welcomed us all and ran through our itinerary, expectations, important information and convoy protocol. A good night’s rest, and we were ready to start the tour!
Let the adventure begin!
The pastel dawn turned to brilliant blue as our convoy headed off to our first destination, Muchenje Camp. The 320km brought relatively easy driving on tar, apart from dodging the potholes, cattle and goats! We stopped at Kazungula to refuel and stock up on some groceries as this was our last stop before heading to the bush. Nestled beneath beautiful shady trees with well designated campsites connected by manicured pathways, camping at Muchenje is an absolute treat. Once settled in, it was time to head out on our first game drive into Chobe National Park a few kilometers away.
After gaining entry via the Ngoma Gate, our convoy travelled through soft red sand, with Simon in our ear (via two-way radios in each vehicle) giving advise on how to navigate the tracks. The radio chatter offered constant entertainment – whether from Simon and Des imparting their vast knowledge of various interesting facts, or the banter between guests which cemented friendships for life!
As we manoeuvred over the boulders and dongas, there it was… Stretched out in front of us was a scene reminiscent of The Garden of Eden, with herds and herds of impalas, zebras, buffaloes, elephants, regal giraffes, mischievous baboons, flocks of birds… What a sight to behold! In awe we stopped and absorbed the magnificence of the scene. Our four-hour game drive snaking along the water’s edge and adjacent bush, admiring and photographing the prolific birdlife and vast wildlife species was spectacular. Stumbling upon the lions and observing them rouse at dusk was special.
We soon realised that Simon is a lion man, forever on the lookout for the king of the jungle. As we returned to camp, the fiery orange ball of the sun radiated behind the stark silhouette of dead trees… Is there anything better than an African sunset? Our evening around the campfire was jovial, accompanied by yet another creative culinary delight prepared by chef, Master P. Guests were getting to know more about each other, with Des encouraging us to share highlights of our day before Simon briefed us on the next day’s itinerary.
The following day’s game drives in Chobe were equally dramatic. The sheer beauty and tranquility of the dawn as the light engulfed the awakening bush and all its creatures. Simon led us on a loop through lush dense green bush. A father and son in our group, having travelled from Kathu in the Northern Cape, were totally overwhelmed by the prolific emerald green vegetation since their home town is basically on the edge of a desert.
Chobe touched us in different ways. For me it was the magnitude of sprawling space – the magnificence of the vast numbers of wildlife, with the harmony of various species coexisting together (although, this being Africa, there would always be the threat of predators on the prowl!). The silence that was occasionally shattered by the calls of the wild. That evening around the campfire, we celebrated Des’ birthday! One guest, having been on a few previous trips with Ultimate Adventures, surprised her with a cake, complete with candles. What a way to celebrate – in the heart of Botswana!
Following Simon’s order for an early start the next day, we departed at first light and headed for Savuti. Once on the dirt road, tyres were deflated, and drivers briefed on the various sand tracks we would encounter and how to navigate them. While travelling with such experienced guides certainly made things easier, the 73km at low speed was challenging for the drivers. White sand changing from red to black and white again – at times like powder and other times compact – was no joke and demanded concentration.
We set up camp at Savuti, managing to fit the entire group onto one campsite which consisted mainly of black soil. Thank goodness the rain held off – the thought of wallowing like warthogs in the mud did cross my mind. The weather played its part as we headed out for our New Year’s Eve game drive. Savuti is definitely big sky territory – a vast open savannah, with trees lining the edges. Swirling clouds ballooned overhead threatening to dampen our year-end celebrations, but to no avail. As we raised our glasses to toast the final explosive sunset of the year, elephants and impala emerged from the bush to drink and frolic at the waterhole. Herds of wildebeest with suckling calves roamed the plains. I had to pinch myself – what an exhilarating way to end the year!
Welcoming a new year
New Year’s Day certainly held a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Glen and I. While out on a game drive in the Savuti marsh area where sky and earth meet, we noticed that the vehicles in front had birds flying frantically around them. Simon educated us – the vehicles were disturbing the insects in the grass, and the Southern Carmine Bee-eaters were euphoric in gorging on this feast. Suddenly we were experiencing this phenomenon for ourselves. In a frenzy I snapped away, trying to capture the darting birds with my camera, while Glen continued driving slowly. Witnessing these colourful creatures flying at eye level next to our vehicle was something we will cherish forever. When the one turned its head and looked me fair and square in the eye, I knew it was something I will always remember… We were indeed living the ultimate adventure!
Savuti was teeming with wildlife. Herds of 50 or more elephants emerged enthusiastically from thick bushes, heading towards water. Hundreds of buffaloes jostled for position with various aquatic birds at water holes. Laughing jackals playfully tumbled while searching for edible morsels. Giraffes, wildebeest, zebras, various antelope, ostriches… You name it, Savuti delivered. Turning back to camp that evening, we were treated to a special sighting we had been searching for – two magnificent lion brothers lethargically awakening for the night. Their synchronised movements were enthralling to observe, as they yawned and stretched before sniffing impala in the wind. The chase was on!
The following morning was yet another early start as we were heading to Magotho Camp in Khwai. While it was a short distance, Simon warned that it would take some time. The sandy tracks soon changed to undulating mud pools, which required intense concentration to navigate. The order of the convoy was critical as always. Upon arrival at Khwai, a vast grassy shaded campsite near the river awaited us. This was to be wild camping at its best! The dead tree forest near where we entered provided a mysterious and eerie welcome, with large aging elephants grazing on the softer short grass. The evening rains brought some reprieve from the heat and enabled our group to spend more time sharing our life stories and entertaining banter.
The bright sun at dawn was a promise of great things to follow. Our first river crossing awaited us! Simon’s briefing was thorough and professional as always. He crossed over and made it look super easy! Some of the drivers were cautious as can be expected, and finally it was our turn! The feeling that you may be submerged is soon replaced by cheering as you exit on the other side. As we made it across the river to Moremi, we were awarded with the most beautiful sighting of a leopard, thanks to Simon’s impressive tracking skills. We were fortunate to watch this stealthy creature cross right in front of us and to Glen’s delight he was able to spontaneously capture the finest of detail as it paused. What a magnificent animal – its piercing eyes windows to its soul.
Sundowners on the banks of the Khwai was great fun, accompanied by yet another brilliant African sunset. Could it get any better? Wallowing hippos, crocodiles, birds, elephants, various antelope, dancing grasses – all caped in the vivid light. Here Simon and Des captured our group photograph – a memory to be cherished forever. The full moon stood guard as we shared another amusing campfire night. Simon, knowing there was a mother hippo and calf grazing up the road, was ever vigilant of our safety. It was sad to bid Khwai farewell – this is truly a place where you are at one with nature. On our departure, we were treated to another magnificent lion sighting. Simon had heard them in the night and was determined to locate them. A large male boldly moved through the undergrowth – what an amazingly beautiful specimen.
Our tracks now led to Maun. More mud pools and detours as roads became rivers and sandy corrugations back to civilisation. A few of us were fortunate to experience a flight over the Okavango Delta. Seeing the landscape and twisting waterways from the air magnified its uniqueness – no surprise that it’s one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World. Overnighting at Sitatunga was festive – an opportunity to gather and reminisce with what by now were good friends. Even the torrential downpour did not dampen our spirits, nor did it prevent Master P from serving beef fillet and kudu wors with all the delicious accompaniments, the crescendo being malva pudding with custard. How did he achieve this on coals in the rain? A master indeed!
Ever conscious that our adventure was nearing its end, we headed to our final destination. A wrong turn (Google’s shortest route) took us in the opposite direction. Simon is human after all! A group decision redirected us to Kalahari Rest. This proved to be the perfect fanfare. A relaxing afternoon in the coolness of the pool and a jovial evening around the campfire followed, shared with our newfound friends. As the rich colours of the sunset faded into the horizon, the full moon took ownership of the night sky. Laughter and banter became subdued – we were not ready to say goodbye.
This trip was certainly a life-changing experience. There is no doubt that travelling with the Ultimate Adventures trio of Simon, Des and Master P is something we would certainly do again. The friendships we forged with the group will be cherished forever.
We had arrived as strangers, but departed as family.