Buckle up and rev your city car! We are off to an astonishing short trip just a few miles north of Botswana’s capital city Gaborone. To enjoy our adventure to its fullest, we decided to leave behind the luxury of flight connections to our main destinations and explore Botswana’s road network to reach the cities of Maun, Nata and Kasane.
A smooth nine-hours-drive through the inlands of Serowe and Orapa introduces us to the vastness and secretive aspect of the country’s landscape. The suggestive trail of the N14 unravels between Northern Kalahari and the lunar scenery of the Makgadikgadi Pans. Occupied by a sea in ancient times, the Makhadikgadi (literally ‘dry thirsty place’ for the San people) dried up to become a massive salt desert. The region is scarcely inhabited, with the exception of a few mining hubs that rose over its rich silicon deposits.
The size of the Makgadikgadi Pans forecasts the majesty of the Okavango Delta, which used to be the main emissary of the ancient sea and has now turned into a whopping 2,000 hectares wetland. We reach Maun, the region’s capital city, in the afternoon. Since it’s dry season, we hardly notice any change in the landscape. The Thamalakane river, which cuts through the town, has shrunk completely. As we reach the Old Bridge backpackers, we start thinking we might not to get to see a lot of water or any wildlife in this portion of the trip.
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But we’re obviously wrong! Right next to the camp there is a small pond populated by crocodiles and rock monitors. We spend the evening observing cows and donkeys drinking from the reservoir while wisely avoiding the toothy predators.
The following morning, we hop on a 4×4 and let a local guide get us into the wet area of the Delta.
As the landscape progressively changes colour from white to a bright green, our driver describes to us the ancient ways of the local bushman tribes. While in most Southern African countries the Khoi-San populations were annihilated by genocide or forced to become marginal urban minorities, the many San peoples of the Delta chose to be part of modern society without forgetting their heritage.
Alexander and Ismail are waiting for us at the mokoro (pl. mekoro) boat station. The two ‘polers’ are seasonal workers and spend half of the year in Maun and half in a village in the Delta. This is a privilege reserved to members of the Kopano Mokoro Community Trust, a community owned portion of the Okavango that tourist can visit abiding to the local ways. Located next to the five star destination of the Moremi Game Reserve, the area is off the beaten track and here we are allowed to live like the Yeyi (meaning ‘from the Delta’) people for a couple of days.
The Yeyi people used to build their own mekoro boats from the bark of a tree, but the mekoro of today are made of moulded fibre-glass for environmental purposes. The mokoro nimbly proceeds on the narrow channels of the Delta. We stop from time to time as our polers ‘give way’ to elephants and buffalo herds. During our stops, the two guides teach us how to row the mokoro and what to eat in the Delta: none of the locals go hungry, as there is plenty of fish to catch and the roots of the water lily flower make an exceptional staple.
We finally reach our base camp. We set up our tents and a small fire. Alexander lays his nets in a nearby pond and instructs us on the house rules: if we come across elephants or buffaloes, we must keep our distance, while if we bump into big cats we must stand our ground – or get eaten, pretty much.
“Life in the wild is safe”, ensures Alexander. “You just need to know and respect the animals’ rules, and they will respect you”.
We start walking unarmed in one of the wildest places in the world, but we feel incredibly safe. Our guide uses termite mounds as landmarks and follows the footsteps of the animals to tell us about their incredible life. We follow a herd of buffaloes and notice we are not alone: a pride of lions has been on their tail too for the past three days, as the footprints confirm. Chewing a root known as the bush toothbrush, he inspects an elephant dump to find traces of sage, a perfect insect repellent.
We wade into an island to observe populations of hippos and crocodiles in the river. On the banks, we stumble into a family of giraffes and elephants all around. As we walk into the open field, we ask our guide if any lions or leopards could notice us there. “They sure do”, he replies. “That’s why we are safe. We are not their prey and they would only attack us if we catch them off guard”.
At sunset, we grill the delicious catch of the day and then zip our tents into a safe haven that the wild animals will ignore. Elephants munch on tree leaves inside our camp, while the buffalo herd is marching at the nearby stream. The pride of lions is following them: we hear the big cats roar and see a pair of red eyes in the dark. The hunt will continue in the following days.
At dawn, we march in a different direction to bump into hundreds of elephants and get acquainted to the local flora. On our way back to Maun by mokoro, we stumble into a heavy-weight pachyderm that blocks our way across the stream. After a long wait and several attempts to scare the animal away, we manage to get past and reach the land at night.
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We’re back on the road, but the trip is far from over. We are moving east on our way to Nata. We quickly stop in the town of Gweta, which houses the spectacular Planet Baobab resort. We sip coffee in the baobab forest and munch on the tree’s sour yet nutrient fruits. We pass Nata and drive north for a few kilometres.
Our next stop is the ultimate tourist destination. Elephant Sands is in fact a tented camp with a water-hole in the middle of the sandy pan. Nothing too fancy, if you exclude that the local elephants got word that free water is provided to those who weigh more than a couple of tons. We are lucky enough to reach the place during the Independence Day of Botswana, so we get to eat all the local delicacies at the restaurant while the elephants literally walk around the camp. The menu includes grilled impala, mopane worms, morogo, sheep head and a lot more. As the sun goes down, the elephants get restless and some start trumpeting and brawling. The old African saying goes, “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers”, but we also get to witness a couple of chipped tusks.
Our last destination is the Chobe River, at the border between Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. We reach the northern city of Kasane, where people and animals live in idyllic harmony. Elephants use the main road and crocodiles chill on the banks of the mighty Chobe. A fisherman confirms that crocodiles are not too dangerous: “We see them and avoid them outside water. Those in the river are scared of our canoes”.
The Kazungula ferry is a busy border post transporting people and goods across to Zambia. Some tourists use the facility to reach the near town of Livingstone and the Victoria Falls. We choose to find out more about the source of the falls and embark on a boat tour upstream. The branches of the Chobe are an African Paradise where wildlife stacks up in huge numbers. Surrounded by hippos, Nile crocodiles, eagles and kingfishers, we discover the elephants’ talent to swim, as families of the pachyderm cross the river looking for greener reeds. Monkeys play tricks on the big mammals and have fun with baby elephants.
At dusk, we sit at a deck bar to enjoy the setting sun and see the elephants return to the river bank. In the morning, we will drive back to Gaborone. For best deals and tour packages to Botswana click here. To compare, search and book affordable hotel & flight, visit this website here.
Source: Nomad Africa Magazine