“An understanding of the natural world and what is in it is a source of not only a great curiosity but great fulfillment”
Clouds had been building all day. The throngs of tourists that had filled the beach chairs and the massage tables earlier in the day probably expected rain. The locals knew this respite would not come today, not tomorrow, not even in the weeks to come.
Sunset brought relief from the oppressive heat, yet the air remained thick and muggy, making both mind and body sluggish. The rusted ceiling fan slowly whirring overhead did little to help the conditions, the ice cold Chang’s helped a little more.
As had been customary on Tuesday evenings the four friends had met at Panna’s Bar, a small, nondescript, homely beach-side restaurant, close to where they lived in Cha-am. It was like so many of the rundown, family run, shacks that line the beach-side resorts of Thailand. The ones that, after all the weekend tourists have headed back to Bangkok, are left to the ex-pats to whilst away their retirement. The four friends sat idly chatting over dinner an as the number of empty bottles steadily grew, the conversation wandered to memories, to bucket lists and to Africa. Unusually for these Tuesday evenings the conversation became more passionate, more animated and after a couple more Chang’s the four friends had agreed to ‘bugger it’ let’s do it, let’s take an African Safari’.
In the sobriety of the next morning at the clubhouse the four friends confirmed that it was not just the booze talking and that the plan really was to go to Botswana.
The safari would give Tim and Kirsty the opportunity to relive the memories they had gathered thirty years ago as a young couple living in Gaborone, spending weeks at a time in the ‘Bush’. For Tanya and Lars it was a chance to tick off one more item on the bucket list.
As the sweltering, sticky, Hua Hin dry season built up to the sweltering, sticky, wet season, neighbours of Tim and Kirsty heard about the planned safari and began asking questions. Really? You are definitely doing it? Is there a spare seat in the truck? As the wet season set in, brothers of neighbours began asking questions. Really? You are definitely doing it? Is there a spare seat in the truck? As the wet season finally abated, friends of brothers of neighbours started asking questions.........
By the start of the dry season the four adventurers had become a band of nine.
Tim, Kirsty, Lars, Tanya, Karen, Tracy, John and Us
Over that summer emails flew and plans developed. The easy questions - itinerary, cost and accommodation were solved efficiently. The more difficult questions, how many crates of gin would be required and what this season’s safari fashions would be, took considerably more time.
Eventually all was resolved and on the first weekend in July 2017 the adventure began.
5th of June 2017
We arrived in Johannesburg a day earlier and while we explored a sleepy Sunday Jossie on the red bus, Tim, Kirsty, John, Tracy, Karen, Lars and Tanya trickled into the Protea Airport Hotel.
That evening, as John slept off the effects of 12 hours of business class champagne, the rest of us met in the lobby bar to introduce ourselves (OK, most have been friends for years) and enthuse in anticipation of the adventure ahead.
The semi arid savanna of central Botswana stretched to every horizon below as we flew toward Maun the next morning, the occasional long straight scars of tracks or bush airfields the only signs of human habitation.
Maun International airport, not much more than a largish shed, had long been overwhelmed by the demands of the growing safari industry. Passengers queued outside under a makeshift canvas structure patiently waiting their turn to be welcomed to Botswana by a single, cheery, though disillusioned official and his temperamental turn of the century computer. Neither of whom were enjoying the early summer heat.
Having finally made it through customs we bundled into three beaten up old cabs for the short trip to the Discovery Guest-house and settled into our mud huts.
6th to the 8th of June 2017
After a breakfast that saw the first fractures in the party (team crispy bacon vs team soft bacon) we headed out along a potholed highway, passing bush camps, donkeys and giraffes toward Nxai Pan and the start of our safari adventure. At the gate we were met by the team that would become the part of the extended family for the following two and a half weeks. Voice- Lead Guide, Baker- Guide, Captain- Camp Cook & System- Camp Hand
Five hours and six baobabs later we arrived at the camp that would be home for the next three days. The tents were erected and the pit dunny operational. The smell of the first camp meal bubbling on Captain’s cooking fire was a welcome end to a long day on the road.
Nxai Pan is a large salt pan topographic depression which is part of the larger Makgadikgadi Pans in northeastern Botswana. The Pan covers an area of approximately 2,500sqkm and lies on the old Pandamatenga Trail, which until the 1960s was used for overland cattle drives. The Nxai Pan was added to the National Park System to augment the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, thus providing an enlarged contiguous area of natural protection.
Nxai Pan National Park is a seasonal home to large herds of zebra, elephants and wildebeest. In the rainy season between December and April the pan becomes grassy and attracts these animals in their tens of thousands, along with smaller numbers of gemsbok, eland and red hartebeest.
The National Park is also home to the cluster of millennia-old baobab trees, which owe their name to Thomas Baines, the man known to have discovered them. While Baines’ Baobabs maybe a sight sought by many travelers venturing to Botswana, for us they were a convenient lunch stop and a diversionary tactic to allow Captain and System time to set up camp!
The next morning we were up early for our first true game drive of the safari. An ever vigilant and excited Tracy made the first big ‘spot’ of the trip, a flash across the horizon which she accurately called as cheetah. It was in fact three, a mother and two cubs. Voice and Baker bee-lined the cruisers to the best vantage point, and from there the team watched as the mother taught the young cubs how to hunt impala. Well in-fact that days lesson was actually what not to do as she completely bugged it up!
For the next two weeks Tracy put those same keen, spotting eyes to great use spotting a range of leopard like branch structures!
Our focal point in Nxai Pan was a waterhole located in the midst of a large grassy plain dotted with short Umbrella Thorn trees. Here, and within the Mopane woodland, we viewed large numbers of giraffe, springbok, impala, ostrich and elephant as well as good populations of jackal & bat-eared fox who are permanent residents.
One of the many highlights of Nxai Pan was watching Tanya re-dressing the gaping wound and hook in Lars’s finger each afternoon. A wound sustained in a gruesome animal attack in the wilds of Hua Hin only days before.
Another was finishing the evening game drives at the waterhole. As the day drew to a close herds of elephants could be seen trekking along the ‘elephant highways’ to the watering hole. Once there they would drink and bath then dust themselves to protect against insects and parasites. The elephants would be joined by jackals, giraffe and vultures, while wildebeest and ostrich hung back a short distance patiently waiting their turn to drink.
As the sun set there were wonderful opportunities for some nice photos and even nicer G&T’s.
10th to the 12th of June 2017
Oddballs is situated on the edge of Chief’s Island deep in the heart of the Okavango Delta and only accessible by light aircraft, a prospect that Tracy was not particularly in-amid with. However after a scenic, 20 minute flight, with hubby John as the attentive co-pilot, Tracy and the rest of us arrived safely at the rough bush airstrip and were welcomed to the island by our host and professional mokoro guides.
Oddballs is a permanent tented camp and luxurious after the more ‘agricultural’ Nxai Pan camp. The bar, lounge and restaurant all had wonderful views over the main channel with elephants and hippos regularly being sighted. Each of the raised tents had an en-suite and great views over the wetlands.
Not much sleep was had as night time brought a wealth of nightly visitors making their way down to the river stopping for midnight snacks by each tent and providing much entertainment for us all. Kirsty was far too excited to sleep or even disappear into her tent each night. Most nights she was spotted sitting on her balcony with pillow and blanket eagerly awaiting another nightly visitor.
The Okavango Delta is large, swampy inland delta formed where the Okavango River reaches a tectonic trough in the central part of the endorheic basin of the Kalahari. Each year approximately 11 cubic kilometers of water spreads over the 6,000-15,000 km2 area.
The scale and magnificence of the Okavango Delta helped it secure a position as one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa, which were officially declared on February 11, 2013. On June 22, 2014, the Okavango Delta became the 1000th site to be officially inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
The days at Oddballs were spent taking mokoro rides to the nearby islands that were then explored on foot or lazing about in the afternoon spotting wildlife from the private decks. Lazing that is for most of us, Karen decided to continue her marathon training by running up and down the runway while the guides patrolled to ensure she wasn’t eaten.
Chobe National Park
13th to the 20th of June 2017
After a short flight and reuniting with Voice, Baker, Captain and System the team set out on stage 3 of the safari.
The next seven days would see us travel from Xakanaxa to Kasane via Moremi game reserve and the Chobe National Park. This was to be a mobile safari only stopping for one or two nights in each location, Xakanaxa, Khwai, Savuti and finally Ihaha
Moremi Game Reserve (Xakanaxa & Khwai) rests on the eastern side of the Okavango Delta and was named after Chief Moremi of the BaTawana tribe. Moremi was designated as a Game Reserve, and not a National Park, when it was created. This designation meant local people, the BaSarwa or Bushmen that lived there were allowed to stay in the reserve.
After a night at Xakanaxa camp, listening to the roar of a lion, we woke with anticipation of the early morning game drive.
Not disappointed, just two minutes from camp Kirsty spotted the healthy young adult lion who had been roaring that night. According to Voice he was on the way back from a ‘night with the ladies!!” The roars that had been heard in the early hours was a warning to any other males who might be considering cutting his rug!
The team managed several minutes cruising alongside while he completely ignored us except for a eyeball to eyeball stare-down with Tanya.
A short distance from our Xakanaxai camp was Paradise Pool, a small wooded glen that felt more like the new forrest in England than the bush-lands of Africa. Here impala and red lechwe grazed peacefully while the pool itself provided for a bounty of bird-life, a fact that allowed Tim to hone his ‘twitching’ skills.
Not long after leaving camp the next morning someone spotted a dog on the road ahead.
We banged on the cab and excitedly pointed it out to Voice who promptly stopped to chat to a passing car (these chats we realised were the bush telegraph). W hile we all went apoplectic in the back Voice casually caught up on all the news, latest soccer results* and the price of eggs in Xanaxkxanaxa. Having finally exhausted the conversation we, unhurriedly, made our way to the dog which, by a miracle, was still there.Actually it wasn’t a dog it was a hyena and it wasn’t a miracle, it was a large, very dead and half consumed buffalo and Mr Hyena wasn’t going anywhere while diner was lying there and the vultures were circling.
After a night in Khawi we continued our journey along the edge of the vast Savuti marsh, to our overnight camp at the Savuti gate. According to John, an avid watcher of Big Cat Diaries, this area is the home of the famous ‘Marsh Pride’.
The next morning we encountered several lionesses, which we were informed were not the Marsh Pride but in-fact from either the rival ‘Leopard Rock Posse’ or the ‘Painted Cave Hommies’. Nonetheless they were pretty cool and we were able to patiently watch as they slowly crept from the bushes and, using our vehicle as camouflage, stalked a herd of rather agitated, impala. That is, until Uncle Jockstrap from ‘Delta and Dick-heads Safaris ‘ came crashing down the track and totally screwed their hunt. I spent the rest of the day devising plans on how to lynch Uncle Jockstrap and where to leave his mangled corpse.
The Savuti Marsh is the relic of a large inland lake whose water supply was cut a long time ago by tectonic movements, it’s 10,878 square kilometres constitutes the western stretch of the Chobe national park. Nowadays the marsh is fed by the erratic Savuti Channel which dries up for long periods then curiously flows again. The region is also covered with extensive savannas and rolling grasslands, which made the wildlife particularly dynamic in this section of the park. Being the dry season, we were able to spot warthog, kudu, impala, zebra, wildebeest and the ever present herds of elephants and journeys of giraffe. As the rain season had just finished the area was still rich with bird-life (there are 450 species in the whole park). Lions and hyenas were also spotted.
An amazing feature of the safari was the fact that each camp location was completely different to the next. Each providing spectacular moments and each one building on the other. Chobe was no exception with its vast herds of elephants, zebra and buffalo. It was here that we came closest to spotting the illusive leopard, unfortunately it remained hidden in the bushes and refused to appear. Some of us however were lucky enough to glimpse a rare African wild dog as it flashed across the track in hot pursuit of an impala.
Chobe National Park has one of the largest concentrations of game in Africa. By size, it is the third largest park in the country, after the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Gemsbok National Park, and is the most biologically diverse. It is also Botswana’s first national park.
The Serondela area (Ihaha), situated in the extreme northeast of the park, features lush floodplains and dense woodland of mahogany, teak (though somewhat reduced by heavy elephant pressure). The Chobe River, which flows along the northeast border of the park, is a major watering spot, especially in the dry season for large breeding herds of elephants, as well as families of giraffe, sable and cape buffalo. The flood plains are the only place in Botswana where the puku antelope could be seen. To John’s delight, birding was also excellent here with large numbers of carmine bee eaters spotted along with spoonbills, ibis, various species of stork, duck and other waterfowl.
Ihaha is Chobe’s most visited section, in large part because of its proximity to the Victoria Falls. The town of Kasane, situated just downstream, is the most important town of the region and serves as the northern entrance to the park. This bustling, safari town also marked the end of the safari as a full team. While the main group would head to Gabarone and onto the Motsiwiri game reserve, Peter and Belinda would head off to Victoria Falls.
20th to the 22nd of June 2017
As the main team headed to the airport, we took the short drive to the Zimbabwe boarder and, after boarder formalities were completed, headed to Victoria Falls.
Arriving at the famous Victoria Falls Hotel was like stepping back to a grander more distinguished and elegant era. Plumbing and sanitation being two of the grander inventions that were appreciated after two weeks in the bush.
Built by the British in 1904 and originally conceived as accommodation for workers on the Cape-to-Cairo railway, the Victoria Falls Hotel serves as a reminder of the colonial time to which it was born and has earned its status as the epitome of grand luxury travel. Steeped in history, and as one of the oldest hotels in Africa, its arched loggias and broad verandas that offer stunning views to the gorges and bridge below appear custom-built for a relaxed gin and tonic, something that we did not hesitate to partake in. Numerous warthogs, mongoose and monkeys had also found themselves a lovely home amongst the gardens and manicured lawns of the hotel.
While Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya (Tokaleya Tonga: The Smoke That Thunders) is neither the highest nor the widest waterfall in the world, Victoria Falls is classified as the largest, based on its combined width of 1,708 metres and height of 108 metres resulting in the world’s largest sheet of falling water. Victoria Falls is roughly twice the height of North America’s Niagara Falls
Victoria Falls and the hotel is entwined into the development of the railway system in Zimbabwe. Cecil Rhodes had tasked his friend and colleague Sir Charles Metcalfe with overseeing the development of the railway system and Metcalfe took heed of Rhodes’ dreams of the railway line stretching “from Cape to Cairo,” hence he started plans for the first bridge across the mighty Zambezi. Rhodes was insistent that the bridge should be built in a place that the spray from the falls would fall on the passing trains, which is why the site was chosen just a little below the Boiling Pot, at almost right angles and in very close proximity to the falls. The opportunity could not be passed up to indulge in a seven course dinner aboard the historic sentimental steam train, which at one stage, had to patiently inch its’ way along as an elephant decided the railtrack was a far better path to take home.
courtesy of Kim Steinberg Photography