For a desert country, it seems strange that half of Botswana’s landscape is dominated by water features. Almost all of Botswana is part of the Kalahari desert, yet it’s most famed features are rivers, a river delta, and lake beds. As we drove through the border post from Namibia, it struck us just how flat Botswana is. We drove past the turn off for the famed Tsodilo Hills, and couldn’t see them. They must be fairly short hills, and are famous for the Bushman rock paintings found on and in them, not their elevation. We didn’t stop as we were keen to get to Maun, the major town in northern Botswana due to it’s central location to most of the National Parks and scenic settings that draw tourists. After changing the wheel bearings on the trailer, I wanted to check that axle again, I was worried that it may have been damaged, and Maun had parts shops and mechanics that could repair or replace ruined parts. We would also make arrangements to go to see some of these National Parks and sights that draw people in from all around the world.
We pulled into the first camp on our way into town, which our research showed gave a discount for foreign registered vehicles on long term trips. Sitatunga Camp is run by Delta Rain Safaris, and had room for us. As a matter of fact, we were the only campers they had! It turns out that they were feverishly working on renovating their ablution block, as the building with toilets and showers are called here in Southern Africa, for a massive rally coming through in a weeks time. They had stopped taking bookings for that week, but were still open to any walk-ins. This was nice for us, as we got a chance to meet the folks that own and run the place, and get recommendations from them for where to shop in town. They even had their mechanic come up and look at the axle on our trailer. As it turns out, it wasn’t as bad as I had feared. It is almost as good as new after I filed down the scar the bad bearing had put in it. We also had their canvas guy (when you run a big safari operation, it makes sense to have a guy on staff that can make and repair tents, shade covers, game drive vehicle awnings, and the like) build us a better screen door for our trailer. They are a great group of folks that we would get to know better as we spent more time in Maun.
One of the recommendations we were given by the staff at Sitatunga Camp was to talk to the manager at one of the local auto parts stores. We wanted to see if we could find a way to get rid of the bulky adapters that we used to allow us to put 8 lug wheels on the trailer, which came with 6 lug hubs. Wynand, the manager, made one phone call and found that he could get the very same hubs we had made to fit our wheels! The factory, in South Africa, would pull a pair off the line and drill them for our 8 lug pattern and send them up to Maun for us, all at a price less than half of what it would cost in the USA. I went through all the details with Wynand and he ordered them. He said it would take a week to a week and a half, so we made plans to get out of town to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve while the big rally came through Sitatunga. After stocking up and topping off our water tank, we headed out to one of the most wild places in Botswana.
Central Kalahari Game Reserve is a massive (over 21,000 square miles), wild, game reserve right in the middle of Botswana. It is mostly desert bush savannah and pans, or ancient dry lake beds. The camps there are unfenced and rustic at best, with no water and only a long drop toilet. It was exciting to think that the wildlife could come right through camp at night. We got to camp a little later than we would have liked, just after dark. The next day, we hopped in the Jeep for a drive around the area. Our drive took us around a couple of the northern pans, Sunday Pan and Leopard pan, where we saw a bunch of wildlife. Bat Eared Foxes, Oryx, or Gemsbok, Springbok, Black Backed Jackal were pretty common. We also saw pairs of Secretary birds and Kory Bustards, beautiful big birds often found in the Central Kalahari. Topping the list for the day though was the pair of Aardwolf we saw. They are normally nocturnal and quite shy, but these two were out at mid-day and didn’t run and hide when they saw us watching them. Only later did we find out just how shy they usually are, one of the guys at Sitatunga, who has lived in Botswana since the 1970’s, has never seen one in Botswana! The next day, we decided to drive the far side of the reserve. Just as we were ready to turn back we talked to a professional safari guide and his clients as they had lunch. They had seen lion tracks, big lion’s tracks, at the water hole nearby, and figured they were pretty fresh. While we did check them out, we did not see the lion. No matter, we enjoyed the drive and the stark beauty of the dry scrub scenery, and the wildlife. It is amazing just how much lives an area with so little water. For our last full day, we had decided to drive around the area known as Deception Pan, so named for the mirage of water it creates until you are right on top of it. The first half of the drive saw us in thick brush, where we did see giraffe in the distance and Steenbok, a small antelope about the size of a medium dog. The latter part of our drive was along a couple of pans where we saw more Oryx and Springbok. As we were getting on to the main road back to camp, I looked to the right side of the road and saw a male lion, just laying under a bush! I stopped so quickly Jen asked what was wrong as I shut off the Jeep. I pointed to the lion, just a couple of feet off the road and about fifteen feet in front of us. He intently stared at us for a couple of minutes, then started washing his face, as if he were just any cat. We sat watching him for a few minutes, Jen taking pictures and nervously rolling up her window. He didn’t seem to care about us and kept cleaning himself. Jen asked if I could move forward just a bit, a tall bunch of grass was in the way of getting a good photo of the lion. As I started the Jeep and inched forward a couple of feet, the lion must have thought we were too close. He got up and walked away from the road about ten feet and laid back down. After a bit more cleaning, he flopped over for a nap. Once we could hear him start snoring, we knew the show was over and headed back to camp. As it turns out, the lion was only about 4 miles from our campsite. That night, we shone our flashlights into the bush at any little noise, curious, if not eager, to find out if the lion had followed us back to camp. As we checked out of the Reserve the next day at the main gate, we talked to another couple that was camped near us. They had also seen lion right near where we did, but they saw two males. As we watched the lion, his brother was most likely watching us!
We made the drive back to Maun, and Sitatunga Camp. This time we got a site where we could pick up the WiFi from the bar while we lay in bed. Sometimes, it’s the small comforts. Talking to Wynand, a mix up at the factory delayed our parts, and they hadn’t left yet. We determined that, due to shock absorber bushings wearing out far too quickly, we wouldn’t go anywhere until we had the new parts and gotten rid of the adapters. The adapters were too hard on suspension parts and tires to keep using them. We filled our days getting chores done that we took for granted at home. Laundry, other small repairs on the trailer, even trying new recipes while we had good grocery stores nearby. We had fallen for an Indian condiment, lime pickle, while traveling with Paul and Julie in Namibia, but couldn’t find any so Jen decided to make some. Having time where we stayed put made this much easier. The Jeep was due for an oil change, and the guys let me use the pit in their shop for the task. We got quite a bit done while we waited.
Our time at Sitatunga also gave us a chance to meet fellow travelers. We met Fanie (pronounced Far-nee) and Gunilla, a newly retired couple from South Africa who were out getting used to not working anymore. They wanted to take a flight over the Okavango Delta and invited us after making all the arrangements. We learned that the Maun airport is one of the busiest in all of Africa for take-offs and landings. They take visitors and supplies in to and out of all the camps in the Delta by plane, since they cannot be reached by road. This leads to a lot of small planes operating out of Maun. The flight was amazing, we saw all kinds of animals in the swamps, and could really get a perspective of just how massive it is that would have been impossible to get from ground level. A lot of water comes down the river and fans out into the delta swamps only to go nowhere. It is all absorbed back into the ground and the river ends where the swamps do. Fanie and Gunilla also cooked us dinner one night, everything over the fire. He made a delicious beef lion, and roosterkook, bread baked on the BBQ grill! We also met Rudy and Gabi, a German couple on their motorcycle and side car. This is their third trip through Africa on motorcycle, and second with a side car. Russ and Julie, a couple we have been digital pen-pals with and talking to on FaceBook for over a year about the details of Africa by Jeep came into camp too. It was nice to chat around the camp fire with fellow Americans.
We also got to know the team at Sitatunga Camp in our time there. Gerald and Karina, the couple that own, with her dad Derrick, were fantastic, dispensing advise on where to get the best meat in town, or where, and how, to book camping in the National Parks. Owen, the maintenance and grounds manager, became a frequent visitor to our camp fire, where we discussed life in Maun, and Botswana, and America. Even the locals that frequent the Bush Baby Bar at the camp we got to know. Andrew and Wynand (not the parts store manager) are pilots for one of the small airlines that service the delta camps. We spent quite a few evenings with them, hearing about another side of life in Maun and trading jokes. We are glad to have had the time to get to know these people, and call them our friends.
Due to the delays in getting our parts, we had decided not to make any bookings until we had the parts in hand. Once they arrived, and we made sure they fit, it was short work to pull the old brake drums off, and install the new drums. With the wheels off, I did the repairs to the shock absorbers too, replacing the bushings on these. Due to it being part of the Delta, we decided to visit Moremi National Park. Most of the camps in the park were booked out, but Xakanaxa had four nights available, within about a week. This was our preferred camp, both for location and price, so we pounced on it. Everyone laughed that we had another week at Sitatunga Camp, and some even began to wonder when we had applied for residency in Botswana! During this time, we were even able to exchange the spare tire we bought for the trailer in Namibia for the right size. Karina helped us book a day trip into the Delta in a makoro, one of our must-do items. Makoros are the traditional flat bottomed, dug out canoes used in the Okavango Delta. They used to be made from the trunks of the Sausage Tree, but are now made from fiberglass to help preserve these trees. The Delta is so shallow and covered in grass/reeds that they pole, instead of paddle, the makoros. We saw just about everything being taken on a makoro, from tourists like us to everything for a camp; tents, food, bed rolls, and propane stoves, to locals out collecting firewood. On our trip, we encountered elephants belly deep in water pulling up lilies to eat their root bulbs. It was amazing to float along through the tall grass where it smelled like we were just in any other grassy meadow or field, only to look down at the 2-3 foot deep water underneath everything. It was a wonderful day, with our poler/guide sharing his knowledge of life in the Delta.
The day came and we said our good byes to our friends at Sitatunga, with promises to be back for a short stay when we were done at Moremi, before moving on to Kubu Island in the Makgadikgadi Pans. We stopped in town to get water as the UV light on our water filter system had quit working, and headed out. The asphalt ended just out of town, giving way to one of the most corrugated gravel roads I have ever seen. This was right up there with anything we saw in Namibia, famed for it’s terribly corrugated gravel roads. The road after it split off to go to the park gate was less corrugated, but not better. The road in the rainy season must be one giant mud pit, as we encountered deep ruts and even deeper puddle holes. I am glad these holes were dry, they were as long as the Jeep and nearly 3 feet deep in some places! Slow going, but we got to camp without problem. We set up camp and drove by the fancy tented camps nearby. As we got back, we noticed an elephant near our campsite, eating jackal berries that had fallen from the trees. We pulled around the other side of camp where we could watch him a bit closer, but not get too close. All of a sudden, he started to come our way! We decided not to start the Jeep, but sat quietly as he walked behind us and down the camp road. When he was far enough away, we parked in our campsite and went about making dinner, occasionally watching to see where he had gone. It is said that elephants will get into cars if they smell citrus, they love it. To get rid of it, Jen wanted to use our last lemon for dinner, so after squeezing it into a marinade, we threw the remainder on the fire. About that time, she did an elephant check, and excitedly reported that he was on his way, as she jumped into the Jeep. I made sure that the lemon rinds were deep in the fire and went to close up our kitchen, not fully understanding just how close he was. As I got the pantry door closed, he silently came around the front end of the trailer, less than 6 feet away from me! He didn’t even slow down as he looked me over, and he didn’t make a sound, not even footfalls. He passed by the trailer and me, then the Jeep on his way to better berry pickings a few yards past camp. I stood out and watched him across the hood of the Jeep as he picked a berries off the ground for a few minutes and then moved to the water’s edge. He reached up into a tree there, plucking off a small branch full of berries and ate the whole thing, then waded out into the reeds. What an amazing, exciting, terrifying encounter.
After we calmed down, and Jen washed the lemon off her hands, we finished dinner and sat around the camp fire. Wayne seemed like a fitting name for our elephant visitor, and after his visit, we were definitely in Wayne’s World! As we sat watching our fire in the dark, we heard a hippo splashing around, getting closer. I shined my flashlight to the far end of camp and we watched the hippo come out of the water there and head inland, paying us no mind. We put away our dishes and kitchen should the hippo come back when we heard something on the other side of us. I shined the light again to see a gigantic porcupine coming down the road. He must not have liked the light and retreated into the dark. As we sat watching the last of the wood burn down, we heard what we thought was another hippo heading in to shore. When I shone the light down where the last one came out, we saw nothing. I swung the light along the bank toward camp, only to find Wayne, wet up to the bridge of his trunk, coming out of the water right where he went into it. He stopped, looking a bit surprised that we were still up and would shine a light on him. He turned and went off down the camp road, again, paying us no mind. At this, we decided it was time to go to bed and leave nighttime to the animals.
The next morning, we inspected camp for prints as we drank our coffee. I even stood over one of Wayne’s prints, and could reach out an touch the trailer while standing straight upright. The same for the print nearest the Jeep. He was close! We saw a few prints from a hyena in camp too. We set off for Paradise Pools, a spot nearby known for good game viewing. We saw more elephant, some zebra and impala, all before we left the campground. The park rangers had warned us to turn around at any water, they had someone stuck the night before in the Paradise Pools area. The wet season had been one of the wettest in recent years and water was high throughout the park. Driving through the park, it was easy to see why it was called Paradise Pools, the area was beautiful. Tall trees with minimal undergrowth and lots of water everywhere. Red Letchwe were abound, and we saw Waterbuck and Kudu too. As we turned to complete the loop, I saw a giant snake crossing the road. I backed up and we were able to identify it as a Rock Python. It was easily 8 feet long. When we got back to camp, I noticed that the top of the trailer was down, and asked Jen if she had pulled it down. I got my answer as I opened the door, it was baboons that had pulled it down! They had broken into our trailer to steal food. When we popped up the top, we could see that they had pushed in the Velcro holding the tent to the hard metal top and gotten inside. Once inside, they got into the back of the pantry, which is accessible by a zipper from inside, and stolen a box of granola bars. We noticed that they had peed on the floor, in one spot too. Jen inspected the inside while I put the tent back on the top, making sure they hand’t made any other messes. Luckily, they hadn’t, and had only ripped about 6 inches of seam near the zipper to the pantry. After pulling everything off the floor and pulling out the carpet, we wiped down the floor and put laundry soap on the carpet. As Jen sewed the zipper back into place, I took the carpet to the shower and gave it a thorough rinsing. By the time we started cooking dinner, everything was clean, repaired, and back together. The mess was small, the damage was minimal, and they stole very little; we got lucky! That taught us to seal up everything when we were going to leave the trailer alone in baboon territory.
No elephant visits that night. The next day, we decided to drive down the Third Bridge and look for Wild Dog. The group camped next to us had given us coordinates for a den near there that someone reported seeing pups at. The bridges in Moremi are unique pole built causeways over channels that aren’t usually too deep. However, sometimes, the water is deeper than the bridge and vehicles are crossing the “bridge” in water as deep as their wheels. While the water was high, it wasn’t that high and the bridges were dry. Just before Fourth Bridge (the bridges are named for the order they are crossed coming the opposite direction) we met some Germans that reported lions near Third Bridge, though they had seen the lions move off into the bush. We missed them, but enjoyed the drive. At Third Bridge, we met our camp neighbors and followed them to the dog den, though the dogs were out while we were there. We bumped into our neighbors again up the road, they were watching a leopard eat an impala it had killed. Leopard are usually shy and nocturnal, so to see one on the ground at 1:30 in the afternoon was a treat. He cleaned himself a bit, ate a few more bites, and moved the kill under a different tree where he covered it with leaves to hide it from hyena or lion while he took a nap. It must have been too heavy for him to carry up a tree to keep it from the scavengers. Somewhere on the way back to camp, we took a wrong turn and ended up at the airstrip servicing the tented camps. Along the way, I had noticed what appeared to be a pile of snow or ice on the ground around a corner. I wondered what it was until we rounded the corner and I could see it was pee foam around some elephant dung, then I saw the elephant only six or seven feet away from the road. Luckily, he was also well behaved and left us alone.
As we got back to camp, guess who was back in our campsite? Our buddy Wayne was back! We watched him from afar, until he had passed on by our camp and was snacking on jackal berries further into the campground. It was a pleasant afternoon as we sat in camp reading and playing Scrabble. Suddenly, Jen looks up and says “Uh-oh, here he is!” Wayne was headed our way, just at the neighbors camp. We didn’t have time to jump into the Jeep, we stood by the trailer as he came around the end, slowed down a bit to look us over, and carried on looking for berries. He sniffed at the ground with his trunk, moving it back and forth until he found one, which he then popped into his mouth. Sometimes, he would stretch his trunk up into a tree, with his head tipped back to extend his reach to find a particularly delicious clump of berries. That night, we heard him, or other elephants, nearby breaking off branches or even small trees. We saw the carnage the next day, freshly broken trees and branches around the area.
For our last full day in the park, we drove back to Paradise Pools. This time, we saw a colony of Banded Mongoose basking in the sun. The rest of the time, we just enjoyed the scenery of the Delta. That night, we woke up to something sniffing around camp, and something big. We were sure it was hyena, which can get mean and naughty. Nothing happened, and funny enough, we saw no tracks in the morning. It couldn’t have been a dream, we had both heard it. Mystified, we packed up and headed out of the park. The drive back to Maun was uneventful except for spotting a couple of Sable Antelope off the road outside Moremi. They are pretty, and we hope to see some closer sometime later. As we stopped to inflate our tires back up to highway pressures, Gerald stopped to check on us! He was headed up to restock and join a safari they had just outside of Moremi. When he saw us on the side of the road, he thought we may be broke down, and was reassured that we were OK.
Arriving back to Sitatunga, we planned on staying just a couple of nights before moving on towards the Makgadikgadi Pans and Kubu Island. Before we left though, we had to get our UV light fixed for our water filter. Prior to leaving for Moremi, we had, with the help of a local electronics repair “shop,” determined that a transistor in the ballast for the light had blown. He was going to search for one while we were in the park. I called him to see what he had found, but his search turned up nothing. Maun may be a small town, but it seems to have just about everything, and we found another electronics repair guy that could order the part we needed from the capital, Gaborone, and have it in Maun the next day. We paid him to order the part. He called the shop in Gaborone and paid them by transferring cash to one of their employees on the same cell network as he. Both Jen and I were impressed with his ingenious solution. That night, Owen, Andrew, Wynand, and us had a braai, what we would call a BBQ. Owen showed us how to cook lamb ribs over the fire and Jen introduced them to salsa and guacamole. Owen wanted the recipe for both. He even had a couple of the cooks come out and try it. The next day, I ran into town, paid the courier for bringing the part to Maun, and took it to the electronics repair “shop.” The shop is just a small cinder block shack alongside the road, stuffed full of old radios, TVs, computers, cable/satellite control boxes, and other assorted electronics. He pulled the bad part out of the ballast, put the new part in, and continued to troubleshoot the problem until he had the unit back up and running. It all cost about $10 less than buying a whole new ballast, and that is before adding in shipping costs from America!
Our repairs were complete, our goodbyes were said, we were ready to pull out of Sitatunga camp for the last time. We had spent about 5 weeks there, with a couple of breaks, and made good friends. Hopefully, we get a chance to come back at some point. For now though, we were headed to Gweta, then Kubu Island. We got to Gweta Lodge just in time to set up camp and grab dinner in their restaurant. Sharing the camp with us was a group of researchers and anthropology students studying a variety of Stone Age settlements in and around the pans. We checked our Email and found that the agency in America that issued our Carnet reported that South Africa put in a claim against us. We had not stamped out of South Africa and they wanted their import duty. The issuing agency had reported that we did stamp into and out of Namibia, but the South African authority found this unacceptable since South Africa, Namibia, and Botswana are all part of the South African Customs Union, and we weren’t yet out of the Union. They mentioned an extension, and I asked what we needed to do to get the extension. Before leaving the next morning, I had an answer and was able to get all the info they needed sent off before we headed out into the wilds for a couple of days. With the high water this year, we asked around for the best route to Kubu, and found that the road across the pans had recently dried out enough to take that. The pans can be dangerous as the surface dries first, but can be just a thin, crispy covering over hundreds of feet of mud that lay below. If you drive on it before the surface is thick enough to support the weight of your vehicle, you break through and get stuck in the mud below. Then, the best case scenario is that you spend hours getting unstuck and have to backtrack to find a better route. Worst case is that the mud is really wet and your car just keeps sinking, as a couple had happen to their big truck a few years back. They came back from walking to get help to find nothing left, just a mud hole! The folks at the lodge knew people that had made it through without problems and were following in a couple days time should we run into problems.
As we pulled out of Gweta, the road quickly became two wheel tracks through the bush. We followed this to the edge of the pan, where we saw 3 other vehicles. One was broke down, but had come from the direction we were headed, which gave us confidence. The other two where out ahead of us, going the same direction we were. One stopped a bit down the road, and we recognized it as a couple of Oxford geologists we had met at Gweta Lodge who were headed towards Kubu Island. As they gathered their samples, we waved and drove on by. Driving on the pans is a surreal experience, similar to what I imagine sailing may be like. At some points, we could only see the white of the salt flats in every direction and the sky above. We couldn’t see any “land” anywhere. Then, the horizon would darken and grown into a brush covered island. On one of these islands, we saw a car coming our way. We pulled off to the side and then recognized the car, it was Russ and Julie! For nearly an hour we sat, hearing about their trip to Central Kalahari, telling them about our trip to Moremi, and bringing them up to speed on our Carnet woes. They are trying to figure out what to do with their carnet that expires in September. We headed our different ways, promising to stay in touch and meet up again. Kubu Island wasn’t much further and we pulled in as the camp host came out to greet us. He came over to our campsite to settle payment as we set up. He also told us a bit about the birds and trees on the island, and let us know that we didn’t have to worry about baboons nor hyenas. The next day was spent hiking around the island, checking out the baobab trees, and exploring the rock outcroppings. A rock wall dating back to the 1200s rings a hill near a massive baobab tree. When alive, these trees hold so much water that when we found one that had fallen over and died, it’s wood was little more than a pile of pours, rotten fibers. Kubu is a pretty amazing place, a great way to experience the pans, and unlike anywhere else we have ever visited.
After leaving Kubu, we head to Gaborone to look into getting our Mozambique visa at an embassy, take care of our Carnet to get out of the South African Customs Union, take care of a couple of other chore type errands before heading north and crossing into Zimbabwe. While it seems like our time in Botswana has been spent getting repairs and modifications done, we have also met great new friends. It was nice to settle into a place long enough to really get to know people. That said, it is also nice to get back to moving again and see the countryside. We are looking forward to what else we see along the way in Botswana, and getting into Zimbabwe, which holds as many questions as it does destinations.