26 Sept-8 Oct, 2000
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ROUTE and COUNTRY INFO for Botswana
Unspoiled African WildernessBotswana is a true African success story. Lying directly north of South Africa and bounded on all sides by other southern African countries, this landlocked, arid place could just as well be another poor, isolated sub-Saharan nation. Not so. When Botswana gained its independence from Great Britain in 1966, it was one of the world's poorest countries. But just after independence, the timely discovery of the world's richest diamond fields were made in the country. Since then, Botswana has become one of Africa's most prosperous nations. Its people enjoy a relatively high standard of living, with excellent healthcare and a good educational system. Its foreign reserves are such that it actually lends money to the IMF. And while many of its people are far from rich, the country is not impoverished. You can't help but notice the country's relative affluence as you cross the border from poor Zimbabwe -- the Botswanan people in general are dressed neatly, the border posts are modern, the streets and the public bathrooms are clean. Also, the entire country has a population of only 1.4 million people, so population pressures, while present, aren't yet a major concern in this vast country. Diamonds (and beef, another important export) have allowed Botswana to pursue a "low-impact, high cost" policy of tourism. The result: pure, unspoiled African wilderness throughout much of the country. Especially in the north, in places like Chobe National Park, Moreme Game Reserve, and the Okavango Delta.
Most of Botswana is covered by the Kalahari Desert, a region that stretches from southern Angola in the north, south into Namiba, Botswana and northern South Africa. Throughout the country, the ground is composed mostly of Kalahari sand -- fine-grained stuff which can make travel off the main highways (of which there are few) very difficult. Botswana is a wild place, difficult and time consuming to travel through, but very rewarding for those who persist in seeking out the remote reaches of the country. Considered by many naturalists as having the best game viewing in all of Africa, Botswana doesn't disappoint. We spent two wild weeks here camping pretty much in the middle of nowhere, and while at times it was quite a challenge, we will always look back on our experience as being very special.
A Giraffe at Moremi
Shhh...What's that Noise?!...Hyenas in the Camp!Sep 27-29
Savuti is a part of Chobe National Park, a huge wilderness area in the northern part of the country. The Savuti area very much fits the stereotypical image of harsh, desolate African savannah landscape. It's very hot here -- too hot, in fact to do much of anything in the heat of the mid-day sun. After a drive of about six hours over very bad roads full of deep Kalahari sand (we nearly got stuck several times, despite having a very high-clearance 4-wheel drive vehicle), we arrived at our campsite at the Savuti Channel. There were no other people for miles around. We were truly in the middle of nowhere.
The Savuti area is mostly open savannah, studded with woodland and the occasional rocky outcropping (or "kopje"). Here, we saw lots of wildlife: zebra, elephants, ostrich, many types of antelope, giraffe, warthog, even a huge pride of 18 lions lounging lazily near the road! One morning, while on a game drive, we came across a group of three big bull elephants drinking from a waterhole right next to the dirt track we were driving on. They didn't seem to mind us too much, which was nice because they allowed us to sit there for about 30 minutes, taking pictures and observing the huge beasts, totally at ease in their natural environment.
One of the bull elephants at the waterhole
In Savuti, we settled in to the routine that would become our standard for the next two weeks. Every day went something like this: a wake up call at dawn (about 5:30am), a quick and boring breakfast of tea or coffee and toast, then a morning game drive which usually lasted 2-3 hours, returning to camp for lunch and an afternoon siesta (there's really nothing else to do in the heat) before heading out for a late afternoon game drive. After the afternoon drive, we would gather firewood for camp, then return to camp for dinner and some sleep, before we would get up and do it all over again the next day. On transit days, the morning game drive would usually be replaced by a long half-day drive to our next destination.
Hearing random animals creeping up on your tent in the middle of the night is a disconcerting experience. No matter how many times you've heard them before. Both nights in Savuti, we had to ask ourselves on several occasions what the hell is that noise just outside of our tent? On our first night, we heard some noises in the bush while we were all gathered around the campfire over dinner. Our guide, Anton, picked up a flashlight and put its beam on the source of the noise. There, just outside of the range of our campfire's glow, a fat hyena lurked, its eyes glowing a freakish yellow-green in the torchlight. It waited until we were all in our tents to come inside the camp area, hoping to find something to eat. That night, we learned how insecure you can feel inside a flimsy canvas tent when you've got wild animals sniffing around your door. It took us both a few days of adjusting to the reality of wild beasts in the camp before we could sleep regularly! Over the course of our Botswana camping experience, we would have not only hyenas but also hippos, lions and even cobras lurking just outside of or near our tents. Who needs the rush of bungey-jumping or whitewater rafting when you have carnivorous mammals larger than you are sniffing around your tent's fly? Now there's an adrenalin rush for ya!
We had other visitors at camp during the day that were less intimidating but just as entertaining. Yellow-billed Hornbills liked to hang around in the lower branches of the trees around camp at mealtimes, hoping to snatch up any food that might get dropped in the process of people eating. In the mornings, beautiful Blue Waxbills would flock to our camp trailer to drink water from the small puddles which formed beneath our water tank's spigot. The hornbills were pretty comical, with their downturned beaks looking like forlorned frowns and their funny way of hopping around on the ground. Then there were the many Gray Louries, or "Go Away" birds, so called because of their loud, pronounced "go-awehh!" call which they would emit whenever they felt bothered by us pesky humans.
Stocking up on drinks at Khwai
MOREMI WILDLIFE RESERVE
Forget the Hyenas...Hippos are Much Scarier!Sep 29-Oct 1
After two amazing nights of camping in the Savuti wilderness, we packed up and hit the (sand) road for another gruelling six-hour drive, this time southwest to the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. Moremi is an officially protected part of the Okavango Delta, one of Africa's unique wetland areas. Our first night was spent camping at the Khwai River (no relation to the river in the movie, thanks). Unlike at bone-dry Savuti, the wildlife concentration is very high here because of the amount of water. For the first time in Botswana, we saw zebra and many different types of birds congretating around the river.
On our first afternoon drive at Khwai River, we got very lucky. We came across a large pack of Wild Dogs -- a rare, endangered animal which has come close to extinction throughout much of the continent. There were 30 or more of the animals of all sizes -- adults, sub-adults, and babies, just lazing around in a golden field of dry grass. Anton stopped our vehicle so we could observe them for a while. Suddenly, the whole pack got up, following the lead dog. Their giant ears perked up, and simultaneously, they all began to march off in the same direction. We were about to witness the pack on the hunt! Anton started up the truck and we followed them as best we could. The lead dog went in the direction of a grassy plain filled with zebra and impala; the others broke up into a wide line, each animal about 10 meters away from the next. They were spread out into a "net" formation, waiting for the signal to descend on the first unwary victim their leader might find. Watching the hunt was really something extraordinary -- it was like a top-notch military operation. The organization was unbelievable! Unfortunately, we lost track of the lead group in the pack in a thicket of trees; by the time we drove around to the other side we realized we would not see a kill today; they had missed their quarry, a sole impala that had gotten separated from the herd. So, we drove on.
Wild dogs going on the hunt
The next morning, however, we were more fortunate. We awoke to shouting in the camp.
"Wake up, everybody, wake up, we're going for a drive! Fast!" somebody shouted from outside the tents.
We all did our best to throw on some clothes and stumble, wearily, into our big safari vehicle. Something was up, but we weren't sure what. Bibi, or local guide, started up the truck and we were off to see whatever it was he was so excited about. As it turned out, a different group of wild dogs had taken down an impala very near our camp site. We arrived on the scene to a lot of noise -- not just wild dog noises but lion growls as well! A pair of lions had apparently pirated the dogs' fresh kill. The two cats sat in a thicket of trees, ripping at the impala carcass while the small pack of dogs, one of them bloody around the throat as a result of a tussle with the cats, growled and circled nervously, unsure of what to do with these two much larger creatures who had stolen their morning kill. We watched the scene for about 20 minutes before it was all over. The lions got the kill. The dogs would have to go hungry for another day. High drama in the Botswana bush!
Near the Khwai River camp, we saw plenty of action. On the same afternoon drive that we saw the wild dog hunt in action, we came across a dead young elephant lying by the side of the track. Our guides, Anton and Bibi, hopped out of the truck to see if they could determine the cause of death. The animal was not quite a baby any more, but was much too young to have died of normal causes. Anton's best guess was that the animal had anthrax. It looked as though it keeled over quickly into a nearby bush, which lay flattened under the beast's great weight. The "dead dumbo" (as we would refer to it in the coming days) hadn't yet fallen prey to any scavengers; the body was fully intact. Anton explained that it would take the strength of a lion or a pack of hyenas to rip open the elephant's tough hide; we would come back the next morning to see what had occurred overnight. We did come back, and indeed, hyenas or lions had gotten to the dead Dumbo...the giant belly had been ripped open and a feast had ensued over the course of the previous night. It really wasn't a pretty sight, but, as disgusting as it seemed, it was fascinating to watch. Vultures crowded around the carcass, one tugging intently at an eye socket until it pulled the huge eyeball free. This was nature at work -- ruthless and unforgiving. The food chain in action.
Dumbo's Dead! (Warning: not for the weak-stomached)
After our action-packed night at the Khwai River camp, we moved south to Moremi's Third Bridge Camp, a place well known for its lion and hippo populations. Our camp was on a finger of land, surrounded on three sides by hippo-infested waters. We were told not to leave the tent area at night because several lions regularly used the nearby bridge as a late night crossing. That night, Mike woke up to grunting and shuffling noises just outside the tents. Hippos were cruising around, grazing just outside of the tent site. Okay, forget what we said about hyenas being scary -- hippos are much worse. Hippos actually are responsible for more human deaths than any other big animal in Africa. It seems that, if you surprise one while it is foraging on land at night, and you're in between it and the water, you're dead. They will simply run you down in an attempt to get to safety. They also have no aversion to attacking smaller boats that have encroached on their territory. Freaky stuff. We learned to respect hippos the most while on safari -- it's best to stay far away from them.
Uhh, it's hard not to use the word "cute" to describe this picture...
The morning after the night of the scary hippo wanderings, we came across two huge male Kalahari lions lounging by the roadside. They were obviously brothers, as male lions who aren't brothers usually don't hang around each other for territorial reasons. The brothers were fond of each other, and acted like to big kittens lying in the brush, licking each others' faces and playing around in the shade of a big acacia. The regal beasts were oblivious to our truck, and allowed us to get very close to them. An excellent close-up photo opportunity!
Savuti and Moremi were, by far, the "wildest" places we visited on safari. Our next destination, the Okavango Delta, seemed tame by comparison...
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