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Country 74 – 9 Days in Botswana
At the end of 2014 I flew to South Africa with my mate Rich to begin a 3 month tour, then just before Christmas we hired a car in Johannesburg and drove across the border into Botswana. We spent a couple of days driving about 900km through the Kalahari Desert to reach the beautiful Okavango Delta, one of the few inland deltas where the water doesn’t reach the ocean but instead evaporates and is absorbed by flora, fauna and the salt pans.
As we drove through Botswana we were instantly struck by the number of animals walking at the side of, and on the road, it’s because there are no fences to allow the different species to continue on their migratory patterns. We had to slow down for donkeys, cows, vultures and even some ostrich and we only drove at night if we had to and when we did we couldn’t go that fast in fear of hitting a big beast.
On Christmas Eve we took a speed boat into the delta passing a whole host of birdlife along the way, then we met our guide and jumped into a makoro (a wooden canoe and a popular mode of transport in this part of the world) to start floating along the channels through the lilies and reeds. It was a really cool thing to do; very peaceful and you really get the sense of visiting somewhere special and off the beaten track.
Just before lunch we arrived at our campsite and our guide went for a siesta so we threw up the tents and went for a play on the canoes. We very quickly found out that it is a hell of a lot harder than it looks to steer and maintain balance, so we gave up and when the sun went down, and more importantly it cooled down, our guide took us for a walk to see what kind of critters we could find. We didn’t find all that much, a few zebras, little deer type things, a load of termite hills and some holes that anteaters had dug out looking for ants, then we went back to enjoy the sunset and see if we could see Santa flying through the sky.
I woke up Christmas morning in my tent listening to some monkeys and lions roaring, then we packed up and started floating out of the delta a little earlier than planned as I was pretty badly sunburnt and hoping to avoid being out in the open in the midday heat. There were quite a few planes flying overhead, carrying tourists that must have been treating themselves for Christmas, then after lunch we began driving towards the northeast. We came to a sanitation checkpoint which sprayed our feet with chemicals in an attempt to prevent the spread of disease. This is considered necessary due to the lack of fences and the free movement of the animals, it was quite a surreal thing to have to do. To end Jesus’s birthday we ended up camping at a beautiful spot next to the river where we had a few beers watching another sun set.
In the morning we drove north to visit a Unesco world heritage site, the beautiful Tsodilo Hills National park close to the Namibian border with 5 sacred hills rising up out of a hard to reach plateau, hard to reach in a little 2-wheel drive car anyway. The area has unique religious and spiritual significance to the local people, as well as a unique record of human settlement over the millennia with an estimated 4500 cave paintings. We asked the guide to take us to a specific site that we’d read about online called the Serpent cave, with a big rock that looks like a snake and a number of geometric patterns painted on its walls.
From the park we slowly started heading east stopping off in a pub to see what goes on, on a Friday night, it was great mixing with the locals and made quite a change as we had spent a lot of time in posh hotels and lodges due to the lack of shops or restaurants in Botswana. In fact the country was hard to travel around on a limited budget with a 2 wheel drive car as we not only spent time in posh lodges looking for food but we also needed to buy tours to get to places the car couldn’t reach. We didn’t stay that long in the bar as we were sleeping in the car that night so had to find somewhere to park.
In the morning we visited Lake Ngami, a lake which acts as an overflow to the Okavango delta meaning it disappears and reappears depending on the amount of rain and the water level in the delta. The water level was pretty low when we were there so it looked a bit like a swamp but there was some interesting birdlife to look at and a few locals out fishing. We did some filming then got back on the road spending the rest of the day driving across country to the East, where we found a lodge and arranged a morning tour of the Sowa Salt pan area. It is also a bird sanctuary with ostrich, pelican, flamingos and loads of little ones the guide pointed out to us, it was here at the largest area of Salt Flats in the world that I had my Corn Flake eating moment.
From the flats we drove north and when we arrived close to the Chobe national park the animals near the road started to get a lot more interesting and also a lot bigger than the car. We stopped to film the first few groups of elephant and giraffe but after a while they became pretty frequent.
We arrived in Kasane in time to enjoy the beautiful scenery as the sun was setting over the Chobe River, then in the morning we set sail again on a boat trip into the park to see if we could spot some elephants. As we floated along the river we started to see some of the wildlife we had been hoping for; we saw a number of crocodiles, little deer type things and hippos hiding in the water. Then the air temperature rose and the hippos started coming on to the land and we got lucky as the river became too tempting for the elephants in the extreme heat of the day and huge herds of them started coming to the river. I could have watched them all day as they had water fights and played in the mud, it was an incredible moment and one of the greatest on my travels with around 10 herds dotted along the river each with between 30 – 50 elephants. After a few hours the boat trip ended but luckily we had arranged a jeep tour in the afternoon so after a spot of lunch we set off into the park for a close up look of the elephants from the land.
We must have seen about 500 elephants by the end of, what turned out to be, one of the most enjoyable days on our trip around Southern Africa. Next morning we drove about 70km to the Namibian border, which we crossed to begin a couple of weeks driving around one of my favourite countries with some amazing things to visit and great variety (click for my Namibia blog ).
So Botswana was a really cool country with some exceptional things to visit – the Okavango Delta, the Tsidilo Hills, the World’s largest collection of Salt pans and the Chobe National Park with the world’s greatest concentration of elephants. It is sparsely populated, comparable to Mongolia or Mauritania with a distinct lack of amenities, both a good thing and a bad thing. Good because it feels untouched but bad because places are hard to visit and you have to spend the majority of your time in hotels and lodges. I also felt a divide between the general population and the tourists, meaning that the tourist dollar basically goes into the hands of the few wealthy owners of the tourist facilities. For these reasons as we drove across the border into Namibia I felt like I needed to return with a better 4×4 vehicle, to be able to reach the hard to get to places myself and arrive a bit more prepared so that I could avoid the touristy places and go mix with the locals.
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