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BOTSWANA : September 2018 – EARNED OUR STRIPES by: Lynne Stevens
“It looks like fun! Come on.” Bruce’s excitement is tangible as I scan the brochure.
‘Two nights at Sedia Lodge with restaurant facilities, Two nights at Chobe Big Five River Lodge, One night at Cresta Marang with restaurant facilities…
Okay I can do this! There’ll be a little bit of camping together with a little bit of pampering in a lodge…perhaps a croquet lawn and high-tea with side-order of colonial guilt….And so we prepare for an epic 2 week – 3500 km safari through Botswana.
A rooftop-tent is bolted to our Nissan Navara and we’re warned about the unstable ladder that has already been repaired once before. Then I’m introduced to my new BFF, a spade called Doug. Apparently after he has dug me a 40cm hole, I’m to set fire to the toilet paper before I cover up the hole like a cat in a litter-box. OMG! What have I done?
We pack an industrial quantity of ‘stuff’ …just in case…and head for ‘the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River’ that separates South Africa from Botswana. There’s not a drop of water in it. (it’s…Just So, sorry Rudyard Kipling).
There’re no ‘Go ahead vehicles’ to set up our tents or to serve us ice cold G&Ts on our arrival at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, so 7 couples choose a suitable spot under the acacia trees and we pitch our own tents… except those with rooftop tents – we can only do that once we’re finished driving for the day (one cannot drive with an open tent on the car roof!).
We mix our own G&Ts and head off in search of the Khama rhinos. A great leathery juggernaut is standing in the middle of the road, its horn trained on us like a gunsight. He’s stamping in his own dung getting his scent on his feet – like prehistoric Facebook. He’s marking his territory, and we’re in it! There may be a 1000 ways to die in Africa, and this is our first!!
The second is in the shower block. A thirsty gerbil is looking to share a shower so that he can get some water. But I’m not so generous and I scare him off with a tight little scream and a flick of my towel. Then I feel so bad – it was such a mean act.
It’s our first ‘real bush-braai’. There’s no power-hum from electricity, no music, no generators and no cell phone signal…just bush-noises. As the red wine purls in our glasses, the stars gather in clusters and it’s time for bed and to deal with our first night in the rooftop tent. Bruce nimbly climbs up the ladder and reaches down to give me a helping hand. I’m halfway up when the ladder snaps in half!
I rip my trousers, scratch my arms on the acacia thorns and wrench my ankle as I tumble to the ground. I want to cry. I’m also tired and hot and I want to go home!
Bruce jumps down and makes a makeshift ladder with the broken pieces and a table, and so we spend our first night smelling not the scent of the wilds, but Dettol and Germolene as I attend to my injuries.
Sunrise is announced by the bush-alarm…guinea-fowl, who run about aimlessly cackling. We have an early start if we want to reach The Makgadikgadi Pans in daylight.
Gerald (Leader of the pack) has handed each vehicle a 2-way radio. He tells the convoy of 7 vehicles to halt. ‘Why, what’s wrong?” I’m already tense. ‘To let down our tyres,’ says Bruce. ‘What are you completely mad? Of what use are flat tyres?’ Bruce ignores me and climbs out the car into the 33C heat.
‘Headlights on!” commands Gerald. ‘Really? It’s 1o’clock!’ But all the drivers obey and now I think that the heat has got to all of them and they’re all stark raving mad!
Clouds of white dust billow out behind each car. Visibility is virtually nil.
The Makgadikgadi Pan was once a vast inland lake. Now it’s 12 000 sq kms of absolutely…nothing.
As the dust settles, we discover that some vehicles have been left in the dust, literally!!
Gerald turns back to find the stragglers while the guys get into a huddle and crack open St Louis Beers.
The girls are unperturbed about the lost vehicles and discuss books to read, movies to see, places to go … but I’m beginning to unravel, emotionally and physically.. My fingernails are torn and filthy, my scratches are tender and my ankle is throbbing. My toes are also grimed with dirt and my hair is so stiff with dust and ash that it appears to be lacquered in place. Princess Fiona is beginning to deteriorate as I slowly become Bride of Shrek
Raye kindly offers to bandage my swollen ankle.
Note to self: white pants are for beach holidays only – in the bush, khaki is your friend.
I soak my torn, blood-stained trousers in a 10kg chlorine bucket with tight fitting lid. The bouncing action of the car will wash my clothes…voila! A bush washing machine!
Kubu Island is a rocky outcrop in the middle of this vast white desert. “Kubu” is Setswana for ‘hippo’ but this is definitely not hippo territory. The Makgadikgadi Pans appear to be inhospitable – ‘Only snakes and lizards here,” says Gerald. Thanks Gerald, I feel a lot better now.
A long-drop as squat as a troll, sits sullenly in the bleak sand.
Night falls quickly in Africa as we sit among the huge granite boulders and the giant ‘upside-down’ baobab trees with branches that appear to claw the sky as if begging to be turned the other way and to be given an anchor in the scorched earth below.
We raise our G&Ts to a sunset that blazes with the colour of life and watch as the sky turns the boulders pink, as one planet bows to another as if paying homage to each other.
The Pans are eerie, lunar-like and hauntingly beautiful.
The convoy lines up in a staggered formation while the dust swirls behind. Each driver stays in formation while we capture the most superb photos as they drive across the crust of the lake.
‘Loosen your seatbelt in case you start to sink.’ There’s a joker in every pack and this one’s Neal. I’m not sure whether he’s kidding or not….but just in case…
Gerald leads the convoy out of the pans and we slot in behind Neal and Raye. Headlights on and we follow a dust-cloud. Neal loses sight of Gerald but 6 SUVs have faithfully followed each dust-bowl in front of them, so now we’re all lost.
Once again the guys get into a huddle and crack open St Louis Beers.
Note to self: Check if St Louis is the Patron Saint of Botswana
The girls are calm and climb out of their cars to chat. Okay, I’m getting the hang of this now. My gut is starting to unknot. I can do this!
Note to Bruce: Make sure that you’re 2nd in the convoy tomorrow, right behind Gerald
It’s taken almost 5 hours to travel 100kms across the terrain but we must be getting close to civilisation. We can see forlorn donkeys and skittish goats. Pitifully thin cows are huddled under the sparse shade of an acacia tree. A large untidy nest rests on the bare branches where a vulture lifts his wings briefly, just biding his time, waiting for an easy meal.
Gerald finds us and once again we’re on our way this time to Maun, “Place of Reeds”
Maun is 38C, dusty and a frenzy of khaki clad people with enormous SUVs and tourists piled into game-viewing trucks. A woman shoos a warthog out of her shop with a broom and pedestrians hastily step off the pavement to let it pass. Donkeys and goats wander down the main road at will.
The rear window of Neal and Raye’s car has been shattered by a stone and needs to be replaced. And finding someone to weld the ladder is our first priority before we find Sedia Lodge. Neal, has already christened our tent, “Stairway to Heaven.”
Note to self: Read all brochures carefully before committing to a holiday. I re-read it – Yup! It says Sedia Lodge with restaurant facilities – it doesn’t say ‘camp next to Sedia Lodge!’
While Bruce is attending to the ladder, I browse through the market. A little beaded striped zebra stares at me with a quizzical smile, as if to say, “What were you thinking?”
We’ve camped on the banks of the River Thamalakane. The balmy night brings visitors more deadly than the Big 5…malaria-carrying mosquitoes. An extra dollop of quinine is needed in my G&T tonight!
At first light a flock of guinea fowl appear to think that the sun has risen just to hear them cackle as they run through the campsite.
Our excitement is palpable as we board a 6 seater Cessna to fly over The Okavango Delta. Our fly-guy assures us of a memorable flight – he spots a friend in the sky and the show-off aerial acrobatics are on!
He wiggles the wings, banks the tiny plane and swoops down low startling the game. It’s exhilarating stuff as he skims the treetops giving us magnificent views of herds of buffalo, elephants, zebra, various antelope, giraffe, hippos and crocodiles.
The Okavango Delta is 15 000 sq kms of clear water that winds through channels and islands. It’s lush, verdant and the life-blood of the thousands of species of mammals, birds, reptiles, insects and plants that thrive here …and then it mysteriously just disappears, fan-like, into the soft Kalahari sands.
Back at the lodge we prepare for Xakanaxa . Gerald gives us another briefing: You must be self-sufficient for the next 6 days! Stock up on alcohol and food and WATER Refuel the vehicles and jerry-cans. There’ll be no electricity or plug points for the next 6 days. Discard all citrus fruit
“Why?” I ask.
“Because the elephants will smell it and will come and fetch it!” he says.
“Really? Even sealed inside my cooler-box? But what about my G&Ts? I need them to ward off malaria!”
Marsha has more comforting news. “If the solar panels are damaged, there’ll be no hot showers.”
Okay, I can live with that. It’s so hot that a cold shower is a welcome relief. But Marsha’s not finished, “And if the elephants have broken the pumps and the tanks are dry there’ll be no showers at all!” Thanks Marsha. I needed to hear that!
Once again tyres are deflated as we tackle the rough corrugated tracks that rattle one’s teeth. The tracks soon change to soft sand. The Nissan Navarra does ‘the Kalahari shuffle’ as it twists and sways in the soft sand making clouds of dust. Our white cars are now ash grey.
Gerald calls us on the radio: ‘Engage 4 WD – keep momentum – don’t stop or you’ll sink into the soft sand.’
It’s 09:00am and 32C .Coffee is discarded and G&Ts sans lemon are mixed in the flask…for my nerves.
We head deep into Big 5 Territory towards Xakanaxa, Moremi Game Reserve. It’s13:00 the temperature has now reached 40 degrees.
There are 2 large elephants grazing in our campsite. ‘Ignore them,’ I’m told. Really?
I can hear their stomach’s rumbling. Apparently that’s how they talk to each other…inviting the herd to join them for a snack. I stand a safe distance watching as the guys crack open St Louis’ and the girls begin to unpack their ‘stuff’.
Note to self: Do not pack your stuff in the bakkie first. You cannot reach your stuff over tool boxes, compressors, gas bottles, jerry cans, groceries, an industrial quantity of water, booze and cooler boxes the size of coffins.
Bruce excitedly points out a campsite on a swathe of green reeds but a pathway of flattened reeds tells its own story. I flatly refuse to set up camp there and select another spot. Marsha hurries over and points out a jackalberry tree above my head. ‘Not here,’ she says, ‘More elephants will arrive later on.’ She’s right!! OMG what have I signed on for?
Note to self: Make sure that you take everything, EVERYTHING that you THINK you MAY need during the night up to the rooftop tent with you on what must be your final climb up the ‘Stairway to Heaven’. You cannot come down again until daylight!
The last torch is switched off and the darkness swallows the campsite. Muffled grunts come from Phil and Bev’s site as two hippos further flatten the reeds.
My body is aching and sore from being tossed about in the car, and I thankfully snuggle down to watch the stars and the winking fireflies from our rooftop eyrie.
Suddenly a loud crash startled the camp awake. A huge hyena has swung a powerful paw and tipped over the rubbish bin. It gobbled up our braai-bones and slinked over to the dying fire where it licked the grid clean. Marsha has left a greasy pan outside her trailer – the bush-dishwasher licked that clean too. Then with a hysterical laugh it loped off into the cover of the darkness.
I spend a fitful night listening to the bush sounds through the thin canvas walls of the tent. I want to go home!
‘Dead Tree Island’ is so called because all the trees have drowned because of too much water. Really? Too much water? In Africa? That should have been my first clue… for to reach the dead trees, one must first ford the river!! I’m adamant, I won’t. “Call Gerald on the radio and tell him we’re turning back,” I demand.
Bruce ignores me and engages low-range gear and slowly drives through the river.
Muddy water pours over the bonnet and my profanity knows no boundaries. …and then we’re through and climbing up the bank on the other side.
‘Did you get that? Did you film that?’ Bruce asks excitedly. ‘No!” I snap, “I was too busy praying!”
We stop for coffee and Tess waves away the dancing dragonflies and gathers a posy of fallen sausage tree flowers. “Did you smell their fragrance?” she asks. Bruce laughs. “No, the stench in our car is rather overpowering!”
But my torment isn’t over yet! The only way off Dead Tree Island is back across the river. Terry gives me a reassuring pat on the back, but Bruce is still learning the tricks of the Nissan and fails to check that the low-range gear is fully engaged as he falls into formation to ford the river once again.
He stalls the car mid-river.
The muddy water surges over the bonnet and begins to seep through the door wetting my feet. I screech in utter panic. I want to cry! I want to go home!
The convoy continues but Chris and Sonia are soon bogged down in thick clayey mud their tyres spinning futilely deeper and deeper into the sticky mud. Gerald wades through the goo and his Cruiser yanks them out with a kinetic recovery rope.
4th Bridge looms. It’s made of loose logs that roll as if one were walking on a barrel. We clatter over it…and shred a tyre.
Oh God! How many times have I sworn, cried, blasphemed, cussed or prayed this past week. I still want to go home!
The men spring into action: car-jacks, spare wheel, spanners, advice and St Louis’s.
Once again the girls are unperturbed about this mishap. Kath and Tess browse through a Botswana Botanical Book, Sonia sets up a lunch table, Bev hands out homemade rusks and forty minutes later we’re all back in convoy.
But Phil and Bev’s car is starting to lose parts of its under-carriage. A quick duck underneath with a few cable ties and duct tape and we’re on our way again.
Then our Nissan begins to lose part of its bumper trim. It’s caked with hippo poo but Bruce pulls it off and tosses into the back of the cab, onto our bedlinen!! Now I’m beyond crying or praying. Now I just want to hit him!
Later that night neighbouring adventurers pay us a visit. “Didn’t you hear us hooting when you stopped to change your tyre?” “Nope, why?” “Cause there was a lioness and her cub at 4th Bridge,” he tells us.
Back at the camp, safe at last …aah but not so fast. An elephant with a broken tusk and a bad attitude mock charges Marsha and Gerald. They move calmly to the relative safety behind their car, leaving the elephant to finish his supper.
The bush telegraph buzzes. “There’s a leopard in a tree!”
It’s only 500m from our camp and our excitement is tangible as we grab our cameras. But wait! This is Big Five territory and everything here is dangerous. We leap into cars to drive 500m and there perched on a branch is the most exquisite animal on the African continent. It lazily flicked its tail at us and its muscles rippled like water as it descended to a lower bough. It’s our first wild leopard. We feel so blessed.
Majestic African fish eagles throw back their heads and call to each other. The evocative “Call of Africa” awakens us.
Another river to ford and this time Kath and Gavin need to be pulled out. Their car has now lost its front number-plate somewhere in the depths of this murky river. It appears that we each take turns to experience this bush-pain.
The outside temperature sensors on our cars no longer appear to be working. They’re all registering the temperature of the river we’ve just plunged through… 20C River weeds drip as they dry and clog the radiators.
A dead buffalo lies bloated in the shallows and an old lion is tugging out yards of pink entrails.
A journey of giraffe are ahead and we stop to watch two lofty young lovers ‘necking’. Long necks tenderly intertwine obliviously to our presence. Herds of buffalo, zebra and impala pass by, also unnoticed by the young lovers.
A kori bustard, Botswana’s National Bird struts passed us like a giant regal chicken on steroids. Intent on catching something to munch for its lunch, it also ignores us.
There are more log bridges to cross and more rivers to ford. I’m nervous as we no longer have another spare tyre and more mishaps seem certain.
At Paradise Pools we disturb a colony of bats from their roost in a hollow dead tree. They swoop upwards silently, weaving and looping as if they’re trying to stitch the sky back together.
Later that night in our airless tent, we hear our first lion roar.
There may be a 1000 ways to die in Africa, but there are a1000 ways to pray too.
Now bridges and gates are unimaginatively named. 1st Bridge, 2nd Bridge, North Gate, South Gate and so on, but we soon learn the necessity for this, for although Botswana is a land of extremes with white deserts, lush wetlands, tawny gold savannahs and mopane veld, it all looks exactly the same to the inexperienced eye. The roads are just sandy tracks of either soft powder or rough corrugations, and fences are only red markings on a map.
It’s scorching hot as we head for Savuti Camp, Chobe Game Reserve. Gerald’s recovery vehicle heads the convoy, and gets stuck!! Once again the guys spring into action to dig him out the soft sand.
The girls chose to walk across ‘The Bridge over the River Khwai’ (seriously) while the logs roll and clatter under the wheels as the guys drive the cars slowly across one at a time. A sign says “Do not speed across bridge”…Really?
There’s a tree, and nature is calling. Neal calls it the lav-a-tree…but 3 lionesses are lying under it trying to keep cool in the scant shade.
At last our campsite looms. The ablution block looks like a bomb-shelter – it’s elephant proof, but cute little mongooses and squirrels scurry in and out. Baboons and monkeys too…and lions can saunter in and out at will as discovered by the Americans pitched next to us! Never ever leave your tent after dark!
Note to self: Rubber flip-flops are ideal for wearing in public showers. However closed shoes are needed to walk back to camp through sand grimy and grey from a 1000 fires.
It’s 2 o’clock and 42C. We find some shade and Bruce pours me a G&T. A beautiful butterfly settles on my glass sipping the condensation droplets. A hornbill suddenly flies up and snatches the butterfly in mid-air causing me to spill my drink!
We’ve been up since dawn, breaking-down camp, setting up camp, climbing up and down that blasted ladder and I’m now exhausted, hot and thirsty. My back is aching from being tossed about in the car and the boerewors intended for our lunch has gone vrot! The ice has long since melted so my drinks are warm and I’m fast beginning to lose my sense of humour. According to Marsha, that was the first thing that I should have packed!!!
Now the side effects of the anti-malaria pills are causing me to rush my relationship with my new BFF, Doug.
It’s past midnight and to call a spade, a spade, I desperately need Doug’s assistance. But Bruce is groggy with sleep and slow to follow me down the ladder, so I grab a plastic packet.
OMG! I no longer have any modesty or dignity while Bruce stands by fending off the wild life with Doug. My 41 year marriage has now reached a whole new level.
But what to do with my packet? I can’t put it in the cab – that’s where we sit. I can’t put it in the bakkie – that’s where the food is and I can’t put it in the tent – that’s where we sleep…so I seal it up and chuck it in my chlorine bucket. (I leave the bucket under the car – I’ll deal with it in the morning).
I smell it before I see it! It’s rank and foul. I shake Bruce awake and we peer out of the tent.
An enormous hyena is slobbering and salivating as its mighty jaws crunch my chlorine bucket. It roots through the dirty clothes and picks up my packet.
OMG! It gives a cackle like a serial-killer and lopes off into the darkness with its prize.
I’ve had enough. To hell with a ‘bucket list’ – I want to chuck it all in a fuckit bucket and go home!
The vultures are circling – there’s a kill! It’s an elephant – and the lions have already started to devour its trunk. The lions stretch when they’ve had their fill and the vultures and jackals pounce. The Botswanan Army roar up in their trucks and inspect the carcass. Satisfied that it’s a legitimate kill and not a poached animal, they set about removing its tusks. The blood weeps silently into the arid Kalahari sand.
A majestic lion is lying under a tree close to the road. He yawns at us showing huge fangs. He tosses his massive mane and rolls over, turning his back on us in disdain.
Tired and hot, but exhilarated we head back to camp.
Kath is standing waving her arms at us like a demented traffic cop. Everyone else is standing in a line, eyes focussed upwards …on an enormous elephant.
Bruce almost drives into it before he puts the car into reverse and slowly backs away. We’re so close I can see its toenails. Remember! Never run! Only food runs! But an elephant’s food can’t run…it eats trees …and we’re camped under it. It sniffs delicately at our chairs, slurps across our table and wraps a muscular trunk around the cooler-box.
Bruce whispers in my ear, “Are you sure that you threw away all the lemons?” I can only manage a terrified nod.
And then with a small puff of dust the elephant tiptoed silently into the bush as if it were never there.
After supper, Bruce mixes our ritual night-caps and we sit in our tent watching the shimmering stars.
It’s 02:00am and the tent is being vigorously buffeted. Icy feet skitter down my spine. I shake Bruce awake. “It’s that elephant. It’s back! Scare him off!”
Bruce’s eyes are fully alert in the moonlight. “Are you bloody mad?” he asks.
“I’m here aren’t I?” I snap back.
I spend the rest of the night starting at each snap of the tent while listening to the baboons bark and the distinctive ‘yip yip’ of a jackal.
We gather around for morning coffee and our daily briefing. “Did you hear the wind last night?” asks Marsha. Bruce wisely remains silent.
There’s no beating about the bush for us as Gerald leads the hunt down to ‘The Marsh”. A lone elephant is drinking at a waterhole. A herd of wildebeest approach and cautiously challenge him for a space at the hole.
Negotiations for a space continue for another 10 minutes before the alpha male dips his head and takes a drink. His herd follows him and the elephant turns away.
Two cheetahs and two jackals also slake their thirsts.
As far as we can see, a ring of green trees surrounds us. In the middle is a vast circle of yellow grass. But where’s ‘The Marsh’? Apparently we’re standing in it. ’The Marsh’ has been dry since 2010.
Now besides filling a bird feeder for my garden birds, I’ve never really been interested in bird-watching. After all, aren’t they all just LBJs? But not in Botswana! I grab the bird-book and soon I’m eagerly identifying, herons, egrets, marabou storks, eagles, sandgrouse, hornbills, spoonbills, jacana, carmine bee eaters, kori bustards and tiny pearl-spotted owls that hoot to each other above our tents.
We drive along the dry sandy bed of The Savuti Channel. A dead elephant is lying on its side with stiffened legs. We drive closer to snap some photos when it lurches to its feet with a trumpeting bellow.
“We must share photos on Drop-box,” says Gavin. “Is that like a long-drop?” asks Neal.
I no longer wince every time the acacia trees scratch the paintwork of the car. The days are cloudless and scorching. The sand is blisteringly hot. Tiny flies bite and mosquitoes whine. Hats and buffs are soaked in water to encourage cooling evaporation and kisses are sweaty and salty.
But the darkness brings a moon dressed in a silvery borrowed radiance. The stars sigh and the cool breezes caresses.
We’ve seen so much spectacular wildlife, rare roan antelope, shy sables and great herds of buffalo and elephants. A 3 hour sunset cruise up The Chobe River with a glass of ice cold chardonnay gave us close-up encounters with hippos and crocodiles. Namibia lies across the water within our reach….Maybe next year!??
Now all baby animals are cute, but baby ellies frolicking in the water are utterly adorable and we were privileged to see lots of little ones.
Bruce, Raye, Neal, Terry and Phil opt for an afternoon of tiger fishing on The Chobe River. Tess, Bev, Kath, Gavin, Chris, Sonia and I opt to cross the border into Zimbabwe to visit The Victoria Falls. The shuttle bus meets us at the 5 star Chobe River Lodge (the one where we’re camped next door) and we watch in great amusement as the gardeners shoo the warthogs away from their manicured lawns with a leaf-blower.
David Livingstone was probably the first European to gaze upon the Falls. In 1855 he said, “Scenes so lovely they must have been gazed upon by angels in their flight.”
He named the falls “Victoria” in honour of the British queen, but the locals call it ”Mosi-oa-Tunya’…The Smoke that Thunders.
Part of the rock face is dry (it’s the dry season after all) but nevertheless 500 million litres of water per minute cascading over a mile wide rock face is still very impressive
Very brave or very foolish tourists are sitting on the edge of the Falls on the Zambian side in a natural rock-pool known as “Devil’s Pool”. Surely this must be the most dangerous infinity pool in the world!!
Other very brave or very foolish tourists are gearing up for a 111m bungee jump off the bridge on the Zimbabwean side. Really? Why would anyone come to a 3rd world country and jump off a bridge over crocodile infested waters with just a piece of elastic tied to their feet?
An iridescent bridge of hope and promise arcs over the Falls – God’s promise.
Bruce catches and releases a tiger-fish while Raye lands her barbel and donates it to the guide.
My feet are now so swollen from the heat and from traipsing along the footpaths of the Vic Falls, that Bruce taps off some melted ice water from the cooler box into a bucket, and voila! a Kalahari foot-spa.
I haven’t got the heart to tell him that it’s the bucket that I use to wash the dishes! The other girls also have foot-spas…perhaps they brought along 2 buckets…?
It’s our 14th day, and our last night. Bruce kindly offers to book us into The Lodge…a real bed, with clean linen, a bath and a flushing loo.
I’m horrified! “What? And quit now when I’ve come so far!” (No sir-ree, Dougie and me are doing just fine under the lav-a-tree.)
And now we’re home – and nothing’s changed – home is still the same. But something inside of us has changed…and that changes everything.
I place my little striped beaded zebra with his amused smile on my bookshelf. It’s Botswana’s National Animal. I smile back at him – we too have earned our stripes.