Tag Archives: Botswana

Planning a 4×4 Trip in Botswana

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Earlier this year, we were made an offer we could not refuse when we were asked if wanted to join a 4×4 trip to Botswana and Namibia.

We had been to Botswana before and knew how incredibly difficult and expensive it can be, particularly if you don’t have the right equipment. If you don’t own your own 4×4 the best (and sometimes only) way to see the country is to join an organised trip. These seem to be run for people with lots of spare dollars or pounds and not for your average traveller! So… this opportunity – to jump in a ready-owned 4×4 and join a planned trip into unexplored Africa – was a definite yes for us!

For any of you wanting to do the same, here are some tips we picked up along the way:

1. Go in a 4×4
If you want the freedom of going anywhere then you will need a 4×4. If you don’t have one you can still see some spectacular parts of the country but be aware that you will be limited. There are 2 main tarred roads in Botswana – one to Maun and one to Chobe. When we first went to Botswana in 2009 we took my Ford Focus and easily made it to both these places. However, once we were there we had to rely on tours to explore the delta and the parks. With your own 4×4 you can seek out new spots and park yourself in a campsite in the middle of a game reserve for as long as you want.

The look on Chris' face says a lot about how he feels about this

2. Take plenty of spare parts and repair kits
Even the hardiest of 4x4s will take a beating on those roads and you do not want to be left stranded in the middle of nowhere trying to get help. We found having a someone with a keen knowledge of fixing cars also helped!

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3. Always have lots and lots of water
Be aware (particularly if you are wanting to stay at campsites within the reserves) that you run a high risk of ending up somewhere with no running water. The best thing to do is to have plenty of water with you at all times. Our trailer had a 50 liter water tank and we also took about 25 liters of bottled water in the car. What you need obviously depends on where you are going and how often you move.

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4. Find out where all the vetinerary check points are

Famously, Botswana is very strict on what you are allowed to take into the country – no meat, no oranges etc etc. However, once you are in the country, you can’t relax as you will be stopped at vetinary checkpoints along your route fairly frequently. These stops are desgined to stop the spread of foot and mouth so you can expect to drive/walk through a pool of some type of solution and to hand over all your meat (and sometimes fruit and veg). In order to avoid having all your supplies confiscated, find out where these are in advance. This will save you a lot of time and money.

Another tip, although raw meat can’t be taken through a checkpoint, they have no problem with you stopping on the side of the road and cooking it before proceeding. We had a very cheerful roadside braai on our way to the Okavango Panhandle.

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A checkpoint between Maun and the Okavango Panhandle

5. Invest in a rooftop tent
This is not an essential but for any of you who have a little bit of a fear of being trampled by elephant in your sleep or dragged out by hungry lions (disclaimer: I have no clue how likely either of these are) then the feeling of safety,  sleeping up above the animals is priceless! We spent many nights lying in bed listening to the hippos chomping and the elephants growling (yes, they do growl!) right next to our tent, able to enjoy it only because we knew we were not underfoot.

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6. Check whether or not you will have to pay park fees to transit through a game reserve.

Reserves are everywhere and sometimes your sat nav will suggest you drive through them en route to your next destination. We drove through one assuming we would not need to pay if we were just transiting – mistake. We ended up on a slow and dusty route through a reserve (with not an animal in sight) only to be hit with pretty steep park fees upon exit and then an extravagant ferry fee to get back onto the main road. If we had just stopped and asked we would have been told about the fees and could have taken the much faster tarred route around the edge of the park.

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Watching the unavoidable ferry between the reserve and the main road

7. Check the rules of each game reserve before you start exploring
Some of the reserves are much stricter than others. So, while you may be able to sit on roof racks and drive off road in the Caprivi, if you try that in Chobe you ill find yourself quickly removed from the Park.

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8. Book ahead!
Some game reserves (Suvuti, Moremi) require proof of booking before they let you into the park. These campsite are small and far between so don’t delay and make the booking with plenty of time to spare. Remember to carry printouts of all your bookings – internet access and cell phone reception are luxuies you won’t find in the African bush.

A map of the campsite - we were 'upgraded' to CK4 and were quite happy with it.

A map of the only campsite in Savuti

9. Be prepared to see lots of animals
These are wild animals but with a certain amount of luck and lots of respect you can have incredible encounters with a variety of animals. We had elephant walking though our campsite, hornbills landing on our laps, hyena visiting our campfire and hippo joining us at our dinner table.

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10. Be on the lookout for animals at all times
Sometimes the best times to spot wild animals – especially elephant – is while you are driving on the freeway. So keep an eye out even while you are doing 120km/hr.

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Moremi National Park, Botswana – 7 lessons from living in the African bush

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Moremi National Park, Botswana – 7 lessons from living in the African bush

After 1 night in Savuti we were all a bit tired of all the sand and the long walk to the ablutions so were looking forward to moving on to Moremi. We had no idea what type of campsite we were heading to but all had dreams of it being something like Dan’s place in the Caprivi (private bathroom, kitchen, dining room, clean sand etc etc).

Accommodation in Moremi is limited and in high demand. We had ended up booking on the edge of the park in Magotho campsite on land belonging to Khwai Development Trust. The journey there turned out to be incredibly slow and bumpy and was made even slower when our trailer broke (luckily not permanently).  In the early afternoon we arrived at the co-ordinates for Magotho campsite and our hearts sunk.  There was no office, no person to tell us where to camp, no running water, no ablutions. To put it simply, there was nothing. Suddenly the sand and distant toilets of Savuti seemed like luxury.

We drove around looking for someone to help us and eventually found some campers who said that no one from Khwai Development Trust had been around for a few days. They suggested we should just find a camping spot and set up. We looked around for a bit and found a few potential spots – some had numbers on a tree and others just had the remains of another campers campfire. We chose one of the latter on the main road with a lovely bunch of trees behind us and a beautiful open view to the front of us. It later transpired that where we had camped was not an official campsite (still not sure what made a campsite ‘official’) but we were settled there so we stayed.

Be under no illusion, although I may make references in the above paragraphs to ‘campsite’, ‘official’ and ‘booking’ this was no ordinary camping holiday. We were completely on our own in the middle of the African bush. So, should you expect to find yourself in a similar situation one day, here are our ‘7 Lessons from living in the African bush’.

1. A campsite is sometimes just a bit of land around a tree.

When in the wild, do not expect modern luxuries of buildings, a roof, lighting, electricity, toilets, showers or water at all. Do not expect the security of a fence, an armed guard or even a sign telling you that you are permitted to be there.  Instead, content yourself with a flat, dry area of land and hopefully a tree for shade.

Our beautiful yet rustic campsite

Arriving at our beautiful and rustic campsite

Camp set up

Camp set up

2. Elephant walk along ‘corridors’ and camping within these mean elephant will walk through your campsite

We cannot help you identify an elephant corridor as our experience of Botswana is that elephant are everywhere. While the sight of 5 large bull elephants suddenly emerging from the trees behind your tent and passing by your campfire may be quite alarming, we found that they generally just ignored us and continued with their eating / drinking / walking. We had about 2 hours of the one herd hanging around and, with us keeping a respectful distance away from them (and close to the car) they were an absolute delight to watch.

The first of many elephant to wander through our camp

The first of many elephant to wander through our camp

Sitting around the campfire with a pretty amazing view

Sitting around the campfire with a pretty amazing view

3.  Camping next to the water means hippo

While a campsite with a view is always in demand, remember that a watery view comes with the risk of grazing hippo (one of Africa’s more dangerous beasts). We had a lovely view of a river from our campsite which meant elephant and buck came down to drink during the day. However, as the sun set we would start to hear the now familiar grunt of hippo as they readied themselves for their night time graze. During the night you could hear the ‘chomp chomp’ of the hippo as they wandered around near our camp eating. Definitely important to stay in your rooftop tent until morning! Although, saying this, I believe hippo can travel up to 10km at night while grazing so even if you chose a campsite without a water view you may still see them.

Do not be fooled by their cuddly appearance

Do not be fooled by their cuddly appearance

4. Be prepared to build your own toilet 

When in the African bush and faced with the prospect of no formal ablutions, be prepared to build your own. You will need a spade to dig the hole and to put sand back in the hole after every visit. Choose your location  carefully. It should be far away enough from the campsite for some privacy but close enough so that people can hear your cries for help if you are at the toilet and come across a lioness. Ensuring good visibility is also a good idea – I never feel comfortable having my back to the African bush.

Chris digging the hole

Chris digging the hole

5. You will only shower if you make one

If cleanliness is important to you then perhaps living in the African bush is not for you. Water is scarce and swimming in the water channels is downright dangerous. We were fortunate to have one of our team able to safely collect river water and build us an outdoor shower so we could at least feel a bit cleaner. Luckily, some elephant chose to wander down to our camp at the same time providing an exceptional showering view.

Collecting water at a crossing point

Don collecting water at a crossing point

Chris, shower and elephant

Chris, shower and distant elephant

6. Make a big fire, you never know what will try visit you at night

A fire is your friend as it provides light, heat, a place for cooking, a center point to your evening conversation and a deterrence to some particularly scary wild animals. On our first night, we sat nervously around the fire surrounding by a thick blackness like I had never experienced when Don suddenly said ‘whats that?’ and aimed his torch out to the front. There, a mere 8 meters (we measured the next morning) was a hyena. A giant hyena. A giant hyena with a jaw that can crack bones. What amazed me was that it had got that close to us without the rest of us hearing one thing. We reassured ourselves that with the fire it would not have come any closer.

The next night we were setting the table for dinner when a car suddenly came careering along the road in front of us. It slammed on breaks and asked us if we had seen the leopard. Ummm…. no? Apparently it had been walking down the road towards us but when the car came up it ran into the bush next to our camp. Now it was somewhere around us and we had no idea where. The next morning we woke up and found its footprints on the road right next to our fire. Like it had walked through the camp, around the fire and back out the other side. We heard and saw nothing of course.

Leopard prints

Leopard prints

Some beautiful lionesses we found about 1km away from our campsite

Some beautiful lionesses we found about 1km away from our campsite – wonder where they were that night?

7. Be prepared to work hard

Life in the African bush is not easy. Anything you need you have to either have brought with you or be in a position to collect yourself (firewood, shower water etc). The roads (where there are roads) are just marked out of the bush and you must get used to sand, bumps, obstacles and water crossings.

The look on Chris' face says a lot about how he feels about this

The look on Chris’ face says a lot about how he feels about this

Collecting firewood at sunset

Collecting firewood at sunset

It sounds like a cliche but is an absolute privilege to stay in the wild in the African bush. There are not many places left in the world where you can go without the restraints of a reception desk and checkout times and without the security of phones and wifi. If you are lucky enough to experience this, embrace it. Give in to the lack of toilets and showers and relish the chance to walk around a corner and see a family of elephant playing in the water. Be respectful of your surroundings and remember that you are the intruder. Leave it as you found it so many more travelers can get the chance to experience the same.

Savuti, Botswana

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Savuti, Botswana

Getting there:

The road from Chobe to Savuti is a proper sandy 4×4 African track. To make it across in 1 day you will need an excellent 4×4 vehicle, an excellent 4×4 trailer, an excellent 4×4 driver (good levels of concentration essential) and a strong bladder (those bumps do not make it easy). Luckily we had the first three elements and plenty of toilet breaks in the reserve to get us through the fourth element.  We left Chobe around 7:30am and were in Savuti by mid afternoon feeling quite pleased with ourselves at our speedy progress. However when we came to set up camp those bumpy roads came back to haunt us as we discovered that all of our food containers in the trailer had been shaken open and all our food had been broken up and dispersed across everything else in the trailer. With the high temperatures and dry conditions this was not a good start to our stay in Savuti. (Tip: Secure all boxes of food as if they are to be placed on a roller coaster)

The road from Chobe to Savuti

The road from Chobe to Savuti

Some of the food that stayed in the box

Some of the food that stayed in a box

Accommodation:

If you want to camp in the reserve then your only option is the SKL campsites. There are 14 campsites of varying size and a few tented camps.  Each campsite has their own braai area and a tap with fresh water – which was an absolute blessing with the ‘food splattered through our trailer’ disaster. There is one adequate communal bathroom but, unless your camp is right at its door, it is a long walk and is useless after dark when you aren’t supposed to walk around.

A map of the campsite - we were 'upgraded' to CK4 and were quite happy with it.

A map of the campsite – we were ‘upgraded’ to CV4 and were quite happy with it.

The view of our campsite from across the channel

The view of our campsite from across the channel

In our 3 week holiday this campsite was by far the most expensive. I can only think that it is because accommodation is in such short supply that they can up the price. In 2013 one night was R250 per SADC adult and $50 per international adult. This campsite really is in the middle of nowhere. There are no phones, internet, shops etc anywhere nearby. There is a tiny little supply shop open for a few hours during the day that sells the essentials like cold coke and “tinned stuffs”. They also sell firewood but we would recommend bringing in all of your the firewood you think you will need and only relying on this for emergencies. You are not allowed to collect firewood in the reserve so will face very steep prices for firewood (wood that other people have collected outside the reserve and driven to the campsite).

Rations at the tuck shop

Rations at the tuck shop

Wildlife:

The campsite is along the Savuti channel. When we were there (granted it was the middle of the dry season) there was only a single little watering hole and nothing as majestic promised by the word ‘channel’. However, just in the first few hours of setting up and cleaning out the trailer we saw elephant and buck coming down to drink so we were pleased it was there.

The campsite has no fences and is just plonked in the middle of the park. We had a rather terrifying moment when a large Bull elephant decided to wander through all the campsites during the time when 2 of our party had taken the only car out for a drive – there are high panic moments when there is no vehicle to hide in and elephant wandering up towards you! I had stupidly read that elephant had destroyed the last Savuti campsite and was concerned they were on their way to take on this one. Other than that our more regular visitors to our campsite were some very cheeky hornbills.

Elephant on the channel next to our camp

Elephant on the channel next to our camp

Little hornbill wanting to share my mom's breakfast

Little hornbill wanting to share my mom’s breakfast

We took several game drives around Savuti. The fabulous thing is that you hardly have to drive very far to see anything. We had been told that Savuti was cat country so we were desperate to find some cats. We didn’t have to wait long as mere minutes after driving out of the campsite we found a beautiful male lion. It was thrilling to know that lion was less than 1km from our home and we were constantly reminded of it that night when we were lying in our tent listening to him (and a few others) roaring nearby. This was a unique and unforgettable experience for me.  Another special moment was when we came across a huge clearing and were busy admiring a very definite elephant path when my mom pointed to elephant coming out of the trees along the path. She quickly maneuvered the car off the path but kept it close (closer than I would have liked but further than she would have liked) and switched off the engine. We sat there silently and watched the whole herd walk peacefully by us.

Lion

Lion

Elephant

Elephant

While you’re staying at Savuti or on your way out we would highly recommend stopping by the rock paintings not far from the camp entrance . The paintings themselves are small but scrambling up the rock while you look out for leopard is a lot of fun. Also, the views from up there are gorgeous – we watched giraffe and elephant from above.

Us and the rock paintings

Us and the rock paintings

(Em)

Chobe National Park, Botswana

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Chobe National Park, Botswana

Chobe riverfront is not considered the rolls royce of game viewing for nothing. If you want to see Africa’s animals in a beautiful setting but you don’t really want to spend any effort looking for them then Chobe is the place for you. You can literally place yourself in a spot and watch the animals come to you. It is nothing short of spectacular. The only downside to Chobe is that it (along with the Delta) is Botswana’s premier tourist attraction so you will not be alone. The town of Kasane (the gateway to Chobe National Park) is packed with tourists – many spending big money in one of the many five star lodges and it is sometimes easy to forget that just within the manicured lawns, swimming pools and luxury accommodation is an African town amongst African bush.

Shopping in Kasane (see if you can spot Em)

Shopping in Kasane (can you spot Em?)

We made the mistake of arriving in Kasane in high season with no booked campsite. (Don’t do that.) As soon as we crossed the border from Namibia back into Botswana we got out our Botswana sim card and our Lonely Planet and frantically started phoning all the (now fully booked) campsites. We had our heart set on a place called Senyati thanks to Dan’s glowing recommendation but had already been told by Dan’s contact that it was fully booked. We called anyway and when the lady on the phone didn’t send us away immediately (we took her broken English as a sign that there was space) we decided to head straight there. Senyati is 18km out of Kasane but it is an easy drive along a tarred road so you should not be put off by this extra distance. As we had come to expect with this part of the world, the campsite is a bit of a dust bowl but this is made easier to handle as each site has private ablutions and a covered kitchen area. There are 16 official campsites. We stayed in number 17. It was possibly not the best (the lights were operated from a different campsite’s ablutions and the staff kept forgetting to light our donkey so we had limited hot water) but it was right on the edge and, more importantly, it was a place to stay! The absolute selling point about this place is the watering hole they have built alongside the bar. It is the only water source in the area so attracts animals each evening. Perfectly set up for sundowner viewing.

The watering hole

The watering hole

Our first evening there was incredible. I have never seen so many elephant at a watering hole. They were mere meters from us (although we were safely sitting in the bar) drinking and playing. I was captivated by a baby elephant who spent the whole time trying to reach the waters edge but just couldn’t make it not matter how much he tried to stretch his trunk. It was a very special place to sit and have a drink. Even better, was that the route the elephant took to get to the watering hole was around the campsite so, as lucky number 17 residents, they wold walk right passed our camp all evening.

Elephant at the watering hole

Elephant at the watering hole

Our campsite

Our campsite

Our experience with the elephant on the first night became even more special on the second night when no elephant appeared. That first night had seemed circus-like – almost like the camp hired elephant for its guests – that it was good to be reminded that these were wild animals and their presence at any watering hole was not guaranteed. However, not to be left with nothing to watch, a friendly troop of baboon passed by. The highlight was watching another display by a baby animal – this time the tiniest little baboon I have ever seen who spent the whole time at the watering hole climbing to the top of a little sand mound alongside it and then sliding down into the dust.

Cutest little baboon in the world

Cutest little baboon in the world

Baboon

Baboon and water

You will be pleased to hear that, as lovely as it was, we did not spend the entire time at our campsite. We had one full day in Kasane and we were set on spending that in the Chobe National Park – along the riverfront. My mom commented that, for her, Chobe was everything she imagined the Serengeti would be like. We continuously came across endless plains that were littered with different species of animals – the scale of which could simply not be captured on camera! There were elephant, giraffe, kudu, impala, nyala, sable antelope, baboon, hippo… as far as the eye can see. In particular, the giraffe put on spectacular shows for us. We saw them mock fighting, eating, running and drinking in their very awkward stance. Spot of the day goes to Chris, who ignored the hippo we were watching and found a little jackal in the bushes alongside our car.

Cue a very small selection of our photos of animals…

Can't resist a baby elephant

Can’t resist a baby elephant

Crossing paths: giraffe and elephant

Crossing paths: giraffe and elephant

Giraffe and sable antelope

Giraffe and sable antelope

Tangled giraffe

Tangled giraffe

Jackal

Jackal

Fish eagle

Fish eagle

Buying fish in the Okavango Panhandle

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If you love fresh fish, the Okovango panhandle is a place for you. Forget about the local shops or even the local fisherman markets and head straight out onto the water. Without wanting to state the obvious, the freshest fish will definitely be the ones you catch but I have been on many a ‘fishing’ outing and never seen anyone catch a fish. So, ignoring that option, the next best thing is to simply relax on your boat and watch the wildlife while keeping an eye out for mokoros in the reeds. Here, you will find fisherman waiting with their rods in the water and fresh fish in the mokoro to sell to you. A small bream (to feed 1-2 people) will cost about 10 pula (80p)  and a larger bream or bass (2-4 people) will go for 20 pula (1.60) – what a delicious bargain!

Fishman amongst the waterlillies

Fishman amongst the waterlillies

Buying fish

Salvation our guide showing us a 20 pula bass

Salvation our guide showing us a 20 pula fish

The Okavango Panhandle – animal spotting from the water

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The Okavango Panhandle – animal spotting from the water

I remember doing a school project on Botswana when I was about 10 years old. It was a handwritten single page document showing a map of Botswana (undoubtedly hand drawn as well) and three facts: 1) the capital is Gabarone; 2) The currency is pula and; 3) a tourist attaction is the Okavango delta (I think I may have termed it the Okovango swamp back then).

Since then Botswana has held a special place in my heart and visiting the Okavango Delta has been an important item on my bucket list.  In 2009 Chris and I visited it for the first time. In my little Ford Focus we headed to Maun and then (rather nervously) hopped into a Mokoro so we could experience the Delta like a local – first, dangerously close to the hippo in our little dug our canoe and then camping under the stars in the middle of the reserve.  It was both terrifying and exhilarating at the same time.

Chris testing out his mokoro driving skills in October 2009

Chris testing out his mokoro driving skills in October 2009

This time, we were bypassing the ‘delta’ section and heading straight to what is known as the ‘panhandle’. (Literally, if you look at an image of the delta it has a long inlet and then a circular bit, looking a lot like a pan with a handle!) We stayed at Drotsky’s Cabins, a lovely campsite with a beautiful bar overlooking the river. Although we were a few days into our Botswana holiday we had so far had no real close encounters with animals. Kubu Island was fairly barren and the ‘holiday home’ at the Makgadikgadi reserve had a large fence between us and Africa’s wildlife. It was,  therefore, with great excitement that we found our campsite was right on the river – no fence between us and the hipos and crocs this time.  Although we experienced nothing near as close to what we would come to experience with animals later in the holiday, it was wonderful to be woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of grunting hippo and then in the morning to the iconic sound of the fish eagle.

Our shady campsite on the edge of the river

Our shady campsite on the edge of the river

The river

The river

The Okavango Delta is the perfect place for animal and bird spotting in Botswana. Especially in the dry season, Africa’s wildlife flocks to the edge of the water. We decided to take advantage of this and spend the afternoon on a  boat with our wondeful guide, Salvation. As expected we saw many crocodiles and hippos in the water – both were a bit skittish of the boat and as soon as we got close they would make themselves scarce. The one animal that seemed to be very relaxed with the boat was a fish eagle. As soon as one flew close, Salvation mimicked its call and the bird responded. It flew closer and took up position on a tree close to the boat. Salvation then took out a small tiger fish he had with him and told us that this was our chance to take a photo of a fish eagle hunting. It seemed unlikley to me but, then again, the fish eagle did seem to have been chatting to him only a few moments earlier. Salvation got the fish ready and tossed it into the water close to the boat. Within seconds, the fish eagle took off from the tree, swept down and took the fish right in fromt of us. Sure, it may have been a planned hunt but it was still spectactular!

Hunting fish eagle

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Bee eater

Prehistoric creature on the water

Prehistoric creature on the water

Elephant peering out at the boat from the bush

Elephant peering out at the boat from the bush

You don't only get to see wild animals... there are also plenty of domestic cows wading through the water

You don’t only get to see wild animals… there are also plenty of domestic cows wading through the water

At the end of any boat ride the best thing to do is relax with a glass of wine and watch the predictably stunning African sunset. So, what would a post about Africa be without a photo of a sunset…

Going with the flow – an unexpected night on the edge of the Makgadikgadi National Park, Botswana

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Going with the flow – an unexpected night on the edge of the Makgadikgadi National Park, Botswana

We left the Kubu Island and the Makgadikgdi pans having abandoned our planned route. We were travelling with two other families who knew someone who happened to be heading to their holiday home in the Makgadikgadi National Park that night. So, instead of heading to Maun as planned, we were persuaded to join them there.

The whole journey started badly. There were immediate concerns in our camp about last minute changes. Maun was supposed to be a halfway point between Kubu Island and our next destination, the Okavango panhandle. Now, we were leaving the majority of the driving for the second day. The bad feelings were then compounded when, instead of the first short journey we had been promised, the drive to the holiday home turned into an all day affair. It was here we learnt a valuable lesson about communication. Instead of looking at a map and seeing exactly where we were camping, we headed straight into the Makgadikgadi National Park. This resulted in an extra 2 hours of driving and an extra R1000 of cost in both park fees (even though we were just transiting!) and a hugely overpriced ferry (180 pula for a 1 minute journey – half of which you drive in the water yourself!) to then get out of the park. Frustratingly, all of this could have been avoided by simply taking the quick (and free) tar road around the park directly there.

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When we arrived there, any hopes we had had of home comforts were quickly dashed. I am not sure where this ‘holiday home’ notion had come from. The place we were camping was nothing more than a field covered in thorns and goats. We did manage to find an outdoor toilet and mom showed her camping prowess by working out how to get hot water into a little shower so at least we had moved up from the ablution situation in Kubu Island.

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The wonderful thing about life is that just when you have given up on a situation, something amazing happens. The land where we were camping overlooked a river that bordered the reserve. Trying to make the most of our day, we got out our chairs and poured a glass of wine. We had only been there a few minutes when someone spotted an elephant walking down towards the water. This was soon followed by about 5 other elephants, including two babies. They ambled down to the river and stopped directly in front of us. What followed was a simply marvelous display of playful elephants in action. They all started in the water, drinking and splashing themselves for a good 30 minutes. When they tired of that they moved to the dirt where they used their trunks to shower themselves in sand. It was like we were watching a live, well-edited, wildlife video – the best thing of all was that the entire show was just for us. The family stayed there for an hour or so – basking in the setting sun and reminding us of how glorious it is to just relax and settle into an African way of life.

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Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana

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Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, Botswana

A few months back we visited South America and had the chance to see salt flats for the first time in either of our lives. First we marvelled at them in Chile in the Salar de Atacama and then we spent a day on the spectacular Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia. My mind was, as they say, blown away by the unique and unbelievable landscape presented to me – it was something I had never seen before and never thought I would see again. It was forever to be associated with the foreign Andean life I had experienced in South America. You can then imagine my surprise when I heard our itinerary for our Botswana holiday and that, in this African adventure, we were also going to be visiting a salt flat.

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Salt flats (or salt pans) originate from prehistoric lakes. Essentially, as the lakes evaporate, they leave behind salt deposits. The Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flat at about 10,582 square km. The Makgadikgadi salt pans in Botswana’s Kalahari desert is a network of separate pans – the largest pan is only 4,921 square km but the total area of the whole network is about 16,000 square km. The Bolivian Salt flats are on the altiplano – those high altitude planes in the Andes – sitting at about 3600m above sea level. The salt crust on the salar is a few meters thick and tucked within it is the word’s largest lithium deposit. The Botswanan pans have a dry salty crust most of the year but the rest of the time it is covered with water and grass – a place of refuge for birds and mammals in this desert landscape.

When we arrived on the Botswana pans, the main difference that struck me was that where the Bolivian salt flat had been a bright piercing white as far as the eyes can see, see the Makgadikgadi pan had a duller, more brown-white appearance. However, the Makgadikgadi pans give you that same sense of eternity we had experienced in Bolivia… the flat empty nothingness of the pans rolls out before you, inspiring in you, equally, a sense of unfettered freedom and the fear that if you move you will never be able to find the same spot again.

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Where Uyuni has its cactus island (Incahuasi Island), Makgadikgadi has its baobab island (Kubu Island). In the local language of Setswana Kubu means hippopotamus and Lekhubu (something of an alternate name) means rock outcrop – the latter definitely being a more appropriate name at this stage of the salt pans life! Kubu Island is not very big – it only takes about 10 minutes to walk from one end to the other – and is completely surrounded by the flat white pans. Kubu Island is the only place to stay if you want to stay on the pans. This island became our home or 2 nights – our dusty oasis in the middle of a salty landscape.

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It is not an easy place to get to – the best places aren’t. You will need a 4×4 and an excellent gps system (preferably with a maps programme like Tracks4Africa loaded to show the many unmarked paths en route to the island). A compass may also be of help! You will also need to be entirely self sufficient to stay there. There are no ablutions (except for some old long drop toilets) and absolutely no running water. Take more water than you need and plenty of firewood. The website asks that you take all rubbish away with you but when we were there, a little rubbish dump seemed to have been set up that campers were using. There are 14 campsites that are dusty but gorgeous. They are nicely spread out and you can persuade yourself that you are the only people there. When you arrive, have a look around for the best spot for you – there are plenty surrounded by beautiful big baobabs. My particular favourites were the ones on the far end right next to the salt pan. The campsites cost 100 pula per person per night (SADC members) or 150 pula per person per night (international rates). Advance booking and payment is required. This may seem expensive when you are essentially being provided with no services but remember that you are in a national park enjoying what of the most extraordinary places on earth.

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When you get tired of lounging in the shade of the baobab trees or exploring the island on foot – then the pans await you. We easily filled hours walking, driving, photographing, exploring….

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