Botswana – The Other African Safari
If you’ve always dreamed of going on an African safari to photograph tourists by water holes and Land Rovers rumbling across the savanna, Kenya is the place for you. For a more remote alternative, slide your finger down the map a few countries south until you reach Botswana.
This summer, my thirteen-year-old cousin Philip, his father, Doug and I decided we’d avoid the crowds. We’d take a pass on the guided tours, too. We’d rent a four wheel drive vehicle and explore Botswana ourselves.
Living in Los Angeles, I know all about what four-wheel drive is for. It’s so SUV’s have enough power to make it to the top level of the mall parking garage. Turns out it’s also the only way you’re going to make it through the sands of Chobe and the swamps of the Okavango Delta.
We flew into Johannesburg and picked up our vehicle at a place called Campers Corner. Ours was the only one which hadn’t been rented yet. It was obviously the runt of the litter, a sky blue Toyota Hilux, model year sometime around when Stanley stumbled into Dr. Livingstone. The rental agent demonstrated how to assemble the tents, which were mounted on the roof. He showed us the tool box, the two twenty-liter fuel cans and the high lift jack and spade we’d need if we got stuck in the swamp. He pointed to the water tank and the high lift jack and spade again. I think this is what they call foreshadowing.
Heavily jet lagged may not be the ideal condition to be in when you’re adjusting to driving on the right side of the road with a steering wheel on the right side of the car. Every time I wanted to turn, I signaled my intention by turning on the windshield wiper. Many of those turns were the wrong ones anyway, so instead of reaching the Botswana border, we had to stop for the night at Zeerust, where the proprietor of our bed and breakfast was a strange mixture of last outpost racist and flamboyant guest services provider. “Us whites are still in charge here,” he said before reciting the list of sumptuous dinner specials that simply had to be tasted to be believed.
The next morning we crossed into Botswana. Seventeen percent of Botswana consists of game reserves, with lots of wilderness and animals but few amenities. Our first destination was the Moremi Wildlife Preserve. You won’t just see the big stars from the National Geographic documentaries in Moremi. The supporting cast is all here too – zebras, wildebeest, warthog, impala – some which never even made it off the cutting room floor, rare animals like puku, red lechwe and sitatunga.
To get there, we first had to drive past mile after mile of farmland. Our Big Five consisted of cows, pigs, donkeys, chickens and goats.
“If we wanted to see farm animals, we could’ve gone to Wisconsin,” Philip said. “Are you guys sure this isn’t Wisconsin? When I fell asleep on the plane, maybe the pilot turned around and flew back to Milwaukee.”
Gradually, the farmland started giving way to unfenced savanna. We were still over fifty miles from the entrance when Philip called out, “giraffe!” They were everywhere and so were herds of zebra, wildebeest and impala. No cages, no signs, no ice cream carts, no baritoned nature show narrators. We were here.
It was another hour before we reached the park entrance and paid our camping fees. Reservations are very definitely required in Botswana. They are also difficult to get unless you call months in advance. If you don’t have a reservation, your only option is to go for a day drive, show up at the campground near dark, smiling and shrugging stupidly about how you got lost and/or stuck. We had to resort to this second method later in the trip, but the first night we had reservations, so we headed toward our campground.
Heavy summer rains had closed the road, but the sign makers hadn’t gotten around to notifying visitors of this fact yet, so we drove merrily on, taking photos of the hippos and crocodiles in the swamp to our right and the impala and hartebeest in the brush to our left. Each pool of water along the road was getting progressively deeper until somewhere along the way, it stopped being a road and attained full fledged swamp status. We were now lost.
Lost and stuck. We got the spade out and started digging the mud away from the tires. Philip was in charge of scouting for crocodiles. When we freed the wheels and tried moving, we noticed for the first time that only two of the wheels were spinning. The four-wheel drive wasn’t working. We pulled out our high lift jack, only to discover that it too was defective.
Since the sun was starting to set and we couldn’t move an inch, this seemed a good place to make camp. We started gathering wood for a fire. From seemingly out of nowhere, a big tour truck drove up. The driver jumped out, assessed the situation and with the aid of his jack and five of his tourists, our vehicle was freed. I thought his tourists might be annoyed, but the woman who fell face first into the mud was giggling like a schoolgirl.
Since driving at night is both prohibited and impossible, we needed to find our campground quickly, so we took a more direct route. After stopping briefly to watch a python cross the road, we arrived at the Xakanaxa campground.
The first thing we noticed was the bathroom, which was surrounded by an ornate cement structure. It seemed like an unnecessary touch until we realized it wasn’t decorative at all. It was designed to keep the marauding elephants out. This bathroom was reserved for campers, who paid good money for their camp sites.
The campground contained eight sites, and almost all the campers were from South Africa. Herbert and family in the next site said they were going to gather firewood. Would we mind shooing the baboons away from their tents? These baboons, it turned out, could smell the apples in Herbert’s tent and thought he should share. Philip drew baboon-chasing duty, but the baboons held all three of us accountable and started throwing pods at us from the trees above. When Herbert and family returned, they invited us over for drinks. Their Philip-aged girls asked Philip if Americans liked having such strange accents.
We made our fire and learned our first secret of camping in Southern Africa – Mopane wood burns forever. If Prometheus had been more on the ball when he stole the fire from the gods, he also would’ve grabbed an armful of mopane wood to keep the fire burning. We ate dinner and stared up at the stars. Canned peas and bad wine in a box never tasted so good. We got into our sleeping bags wondering what strange dreams our anti-malaria pills would bring us this night. Serenaded by the lullabies of grunting, sloshing hippos, we fell asleep.
We were in the middle of making breakfast the next morning when an elephant sauntered out of the bushes and walked through the campground. Then two – no six – no a whole herd – twenty or more – walking unhurried, with a stately grace you wouldn’t expect from the world’s heaviest land mammal. One of them looked over and acknowledged us with a contemptuous toss of the head.
Little did we know that in less than two weeks we would reach and pass our elephant threshold, blinded by our greed for lions and the other big cats. Elephants? They were just big and opaque and they blocked our view of the water holes. Lion-obscurers! That’s what they were. But on this first morning in Moremi, we just watched them go by in open-mouthed awe.
After spending a few days at three different campgrounds in Moremi, we returned to Maun for fuel and supplies then headed north to the Grand Canyon of Botswana’s game reserves, Chobe National Park.
In guidebook-ese, Chobe contains the biggest diversity of habitat in the country. You’ll find everything from lush flood plains to tropical swamps to deep desert-like sands. Don’t even get the guidebook started on wildlife. Chobe’s got huge numbers of everything, including the largest population of elephants in all of Africa.
Our first stop was desert-like Savuti. With each mile, the sands became deeper and the driving more treacherous. Pretty soon, we were stuck again. Instead of thinking about crocodiles as we tried digging ourselves out, we thought about lions. After a few hours with the spade and jerryrigged jack, we got in the car, crossed our fingers and tried moving forward. It worked. We were becoming legitimate bushmen. We celebrated for the next ten feet then we got stuck again.
Our savior this time was Johan Pretorious, manager of the Savuti Safari Lodge. Stay there, it’s really good. (That’s the least I can do to repay him). Johan tried towing us out, but we wouldn’t budge.
After a few hours, he said, “Guys, my wife will think a lion got me unless I get back to the lodge. But I’ll be back. By the way, guys, if you collect wood for a fire, wear gloves so you don’t get bit by scorpions. I learned the hard way. It was worse than anything I’ve ever felt. But I’d taken a course in antivenin and so I gave myself a shot and felt better.”
We hadn’t taken a course in administering antivenin, but we collected wood anyway. Wood gathering and fire building became a nightly ritual. Out in the bush, fires aren’t just for cooking, warmth and sitting around listening to fellow campers’ exaggerated stories. Their more important function is to keep hyenas and other predators away until you’re safely inside your tent.
We were about to begin cooking when Johan drove around the bend, followed by two high-clearance trucks. They managed to free us, but by now it was too dark to enter the park, so Johan said we’d make camp outside the gates. With all he’d done for us, we were very happy to be able to share some of our food with him. Over dinner, Johan told us how he’d given up his desk job because the lure of the bush was too strong. He’d been chased by just about every animal in our guidebook. He’d climbed trees to escape buffalo, dove into the brush to avoid a rhino. He’d even had his tent flattened by a produce-seeking elephant.
This made him just the person to teach us more about the some of the animals we’d be sharing our campsites with over the next few weeks. Like, say, lions.
“Lions,” Johan assured us, “do not enter tents.”
“But can they enter tents?”
“Sure, with a flick of the paw if they want to.”
“Well, isn’t a sleeping human being an easier meal than a lightning fast gazelle, like having a fast food burger served up at the drive-thru window rather than having to cook a meal from scratch?”
“Lions do not enter tents,” Johan said again, “only hyenas do.”
Hyenas also like a good campfire, especially when there’s chicken on the grill. We shined our flashlights in an arc along the perimeter of the campsite and the glowing eyes shined back at us. We could see their spotted, arched backs and the faces only a demon could love. Each time we beamed a light, there were two more eyes.
“Okay, guys, the meat’s attracting them,” Johan said.
He threw a rock in their direction and shouted. They retreated a few steps then started moving forward again. I now counted twelve eyes, six hyenas. They started howling.
“Okay, guys, it’s time to go to our tents,” Johan said.
We fell asleep to the soothing sound of hyenas gnawing on our tire rims.
The next morning we followed Johan to his lodge. He insisted on making us breakfast while his mechanic inspected our vehicle. It was now official. Our CV joint was broken. We had no four-wheel drive. The mechanic didn’t have the necessary parts, so the only thing to do was return to Maun and get it repaired at the Toyota dealership.
If you ever have to sit around waiting for your defective vehicle to be repaired in Maun, I recommend the bar of the Sedia Hotel. We drank Hansa beer served on five-star cocktail napkins while reading the Ngami Times. “We all know Americans like adventure,” the editorial stated, “but they have to learn when enough is enough.” It then went on about the American father who thought the back of a sleeping rhino would be the ideal place to photograph his child. There wasn’t enough space in the editorial to describe the outcome of this unique Kodak moment.
Armed with our now functional four-wheel drive, we returned to Chobe then continued up into Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls. We’d all seen photos of the falls, but they did not prepare us. If you’re going to visit Victoria Falls, be warned. You will lose all control of your expressions of awe. They’ll come out like drool. Incredible. Amazing. Mind-boggling. Unbelievable, you name it, the falls have heard them all.
The majority of visitors – and there are lots of them – go to the Zimbabwe side of the falls. It’s less developed, less visited, less hyped, with great views of the falls.
If you go to Zambia, you can be rich for a day. Take one of your American dollars and you’ll get something in the neighborhood of thirty eight hundred kwacha in return. Hold the stacks of rubber-band bound bills and strike your best I-just-won-the-lotto pose. They make ideal pictures to show people who think you should be home earning money instead of out on some jaunt in Africa.
No trip to Africa would be complete without viewing a busload of American missionaries, and we saw ours at the border crossing from Zimbabwe to Zambia. This particular busload was from Abilene, Texas. The script on their busses informed us that they were in Zambia to “reach the unreached.” We could only wish they’d gotten their bus from Campers Corner.
After returning to Botswana and camping beside the Chobe River, we had just enough time to cross into Nambibia to visit Etosha National Park and the sand dunes along the Skeleton Coast.
To get there, we had to drive the Caprivi strip, which stretches along the Angolan border. Because of occasional rebel activity in the area, personal vehicles are only permitted to drive this section of the road as part of a convoy led by the military. One of the soldiers decided he’d ride with us. I wondered how effective he’d be in repelling a raid, passed out as he was beside Philip in the back seat. Maybe he figured the potent rum fumes would be enough to keep any rebels away. One thing for sure, the snapshot of Philip, the soldier and the AK-47 would not be mentioned in Philip’s next postcard to his mother.
Etosha turned out to be a little less primitive than the parks in Botswana. The roads were paved and the visitors wore clean clothes. Water was pumped into artificial water holes to attract animals. The campgrounds were filled with power generators and appliances.
“Why didn’t they just bring their butlers, too?” Philip wanted to know.
Still, it was here in Etosha that we experienced the crown jewel of our sightings – the solitary, elusive leopard. He crossed the road in front of us like an illusion, glanced back then vanished before we even had a chance to fumble for our cameras.
Next, we headed west toward the coast and the Sea of Dunes. The launching point for the dunes is the unlikely city of Swakopmund. It was as if somebody asked a Las Vegas architect, “Hey, can you build a city that is so out of place in its surroundings that it boggles the mind?” Swakapmund is a little German town, complete with little German pubs and little German bed and breakfasts. Tour operators can help you arrange a day of sand surfing or hang gliding. Or, you can spend the day running up and rolling down the dunes. You can also step on one of the Nambib sidewinding adders buried in the sand like Doug did, but this isn’t recommended.
After a month on the road, it was now time to return to school, work and unemployment. We’d become kind of fond of our dysfunctional vehicle and were actually going to miss it. The tree-shaped concavity in the rear bumper, the severed mirror and other assorted scratches and dents would cause our deposit to be withheld. So what! Driving back, we all agreed we might have seen more animals on an organized tour. We wouldn’t have gotten as dirty, exhausted, frightened, worn down, pissed off or fed up. And we wouldn’t have had anywhere near as good a time.