Botswana tour: 11th to 21st May 2004 BOTSWANA Botswana is marketed as “Africa’s Best Kept Secret” and the country is the size of France or Kenya with Gaborone the capital and a total population of only 1.7m, so not a lot of folk around. The main sources of income are diamond mining, cattle ranching and eco-tourism. In 1885, the Bechuanaland Protectorate was formed to counter Boer expansion from the Transvaal Republic. In 1895, Rhodes’s British South Africa Company tried to annexe Bechuanaland. It gained independence in 1966 with Sir Seretse Khama as the first president. The discovery of vast diamond resources in 1967 resulted in rapid economic growth and wealth for the country. 11th to 21st May: Having travelled from Louis Trichardt via the hamlets of Alldays and Swartwater which is the long way around, across vast plains dotted with scrub and trees, we crossed the border into Botswana at Groblersbrug/Martin’s Drift on Tuesday 11th May. Immigration and customs formalities did not take long, but we had to stand for over an hour in a queue to pay the Road Safety Levy Fee of 40pula (about £5). This was because we were bringing a South African registered car into Botswana. But we were on our way eventually – driving northeast for a further 100kms to the small dusty town of Palapye where we spent our first night at a comfortable enough little hotel, The Savannah Guest House – clean and comfy and it even had satellite TV! As most menus in Botswana have an awful lot of chicken on them (prepared in all sorts of ways), we had chicken for dinner. What else? Palapye (pop. 22,000) means “many impala” in the Setswana language; it is also the birthplace of the current president of Botswana, Festus Mogae. The town is also known as the “Powerhouse of Botswana” because of a huge coal-burning power station built in 1968 at nearby Morupule. The next morning we continued 160kms further north to Francistown, (pop. 92,000) Botswana’s 2nd largest city and oldest at just over 100 years. The discovery of gold in 1867 by the geologist Karl Mauch on the Tati River resulted in the establishment of Francistown. After refreshments and a visit to the Botswana Book Centre – which stocked such quaint titles like Illustrated Classics, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys on its shelves – only Biggles was missing! (I remember reading Hardy Boys books when I was at school and that wasn’t yesterday!) There was some sort of conference on in Francistown, so no rooms to be had anywhere! We pressed on for a further 180kms to the tiny hamlet of Nata where we stayed at the Nata Lodge for 2 days. The lodge is set in a green oasis of monkey thorn and marula trees and mokolane palms. We had a very comfy thatched-roofed chalet and in the evenings after dinner would sit around a roaring log fire chewing the fat and supping a dram or three. Despite daytime temperatures of between 28-32º C, at night it got quite parky. Remember the countryside is a virtual desert up here and we were on the edge of the vast Makgadikgadi Pans – at 12,000 sq. km, the largest saltpan complex in the world. We even went on a quad-bike outing (each driving our own quad-bike) accompanied by two local guides on their bikes on the nearby Sowa Pan and Nata Delta flats. Once we got the hang of these things (both being first timers) it was great fun roaring along! Driving on Botswana’s roads is certainly an experience: there are herds of cattle, goats and donkeys on the roadside verges, on the road, crossing the road – just about everywhere. People do advise you not to drive at night! But the roads (especially the further north you go) are in an amazingly good condition: recently tarred with road markings, signposts, cats-eyes – the lot. A far cry from what passes for a road in Kenya! We even came across one section of the road which obviously doubled as an aircraft runway for about 1 km – evidenced by the touchdown and end-of-runway markings on the road’s surface and the fact that this section was double the width of the regular road! Strange!!! The other thing you come across at regular intervals are the Veterinary Cordon Fences: with roadblocks in place to stop the spread of FMD between buffalo and cattle. But this network of 3,000km of 1.5m “buffalo fence” criss-crossing some of Botswana wildest terrain (dating from 1954) has prevented the migration of wild animals to their traditional water sources. Thousands of migratory animals die because of thirst and the government is reluctant to remove the fences or create migration corridors. This is odd, especially as eco-tourism is such a big revenue earner for Botswana (after mining and cattle). And visitors do want to see living wildlife! From Nata it was a 365 km haul to the frontier town of Maun in the far northwest of Botswana. We drove through the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Park – vast expanses of saltpans as far as the eye can see – the flatness of pans, grassland and savannah interrupted by the occasional baobab tree and mokolane palms, whose solid white nuts are very popular with elephants and the palm’s sap is distilled into a local brew called “palm wine.” We did see some elephants and giraffe grazing right next to the road as well – just in case you were wondering. A bit different to driving up the A9 in Scotland where you get excited if you see deer! We duly arrived in Maun and booked into the Sedia Hotel for 2 days whilst we made plans. Maun (pop. 35,000) was originally a rough outpost for graziers, hunters and poachers, but today is a sprawling town of modern concrete buildings sprouting around traditional huts made of mud and beer cans: a curious mix of the old and the new. The tiny airport resembles a car-park but for small planes not cars! Maun is the gateway to the fabulous Okavango Delta and so we booked ourselves a 2-day trip to the Tubu Tree Lodge on an island in the northwest of the Delta. This was our special treat – it cost P5,600 (£700), but this included return flights, luxury accommodation, all food and all drink (yes, all drink), game drives, ranger led walks and mokoro (dug-out canoe) rides. The Okavango Delta sprawls like a huge open palm across north-western Botswana. The 1,420km long Okavango River is a lifeline, rising in central Angola, flowing south across Namibia’s Caprivi Strip before entering Botswana, spreading and sprawling across the delta, before being absorbed the thirsty air and Kalahari sands. Described as “the river that never finds the sea” the Okavango disappears in a maze of lagoons, channels and islands. Sunday 16th to Tuesday 18th May were spent in absolute heaven – i.e. at Tubu Tree Camp in the Okavango Delta! With our pilot Greg at the controls we took off from Maun airport (well a small airport anyway!) and flew northwest for 40 minutes over the most beautiful landscape below. We were the only 2 passengers in the wee 6-seater plane operated by Sefofane Air Charters. From finger like projections at first, the thin furrows of water increased in size into larger bodies, channels and inlets interspersed with tree and shrub-dotted islands: all as a result of the rising floodwaters of the mighty Okavango River seeping inexorably southwards into the Delta and gradually flooding it. We flew at about 600ft and en route we also spotted other camps and their airstrips. Once 7 elephants had been chased off our airstrip by ground staff with their Landrover we duly landed on Hunda Island – gently bouncing along the gravel runway before coming to a halt in a cloud of dust to be met and welcomed by the staff from Tubu Tree. What an experience and we had only just arrived! A 10-minute Landrover ride along a very sandy track and fording through bonnet-deep delta waterways (just as well the vehicle has a snorkel) and we were in Tubu Tree Camp. Oh yes, I almost forgot – we encountered the 7 elephants on the drive, but they did not apologise for having slightly delayed our landing. But it does go to show that the airstrip is Jumbo capable – although not of the 747 variety! Tubu Tree Camp is situated on Hunda Island in the Jao Reserve in the Okavango – habitats range from the dry Kalahari sandveld, mopane forest and riverine forest on the edge of the permanent waterways. Tubu Tree Camp is the last word in luxury: it only sleeps 10 people and has a staff of 16. All the fixed tents, comprising proper big beds, ensuite facilities and an outdoor shower and front deck, are on raised wooden platforms offering great views over the floodplains. You could be forgiven for thinking you were in a room in a luxury hotel on the mainland somewhere, until you looked out through the insect netting and saw the delta stretched in front of you with elephants, red letchwes, baboons, etc. grazing or splashing through the waters. Red letchwes are a species of antelope that are very much at home in the water as they seek sanctuary there from predators. The dining room, lounge and bar are all on raised platforms under large marula trees and connected by raised wooden walkways. The whole place looked like a still from one of the brochures except for one thing: it was real and we were in the brochure! The staff were very friendly, attentive, knowledgeable and could not have done more to make our brief visit memorable. Each person is very much made to feel that they are the only person there and everything is solely laid on for them alone. A difficult feat to achieve but they did. The food – of which there was plenty – ranged from huge hearty breakfasts with porridge, even bigger brunches, afternoon tea with fresh baked cakes before embarking on afternoon game drives, followed by dinners on creaking tables after the evening game drives! Blackie the chef had even baked an elephant-shaped bread with a cherry for its eye! The activities were afternoon, evening and early morning game drives in an open-topped Landrover enabling you to see the wildlife much better, mokoro (traditional dug-out canoe made from the ebony or sausage tree) along the delta waterways and a powered flat-bottomed boat into the more deeper and faster flowing channels of the vast waterway network, where we saw hippos wallowing and snoozing amongst the reeds and water lilies which grow in profusion. However, there is nothing more relaxing than sitting in a mokoro with the trusty poler in the rear of the craft gently poling it along the papyrus-lined channels – spotting a multitude of birds, fish, hippo and wee frogs on reeds! Mekoros, being flat-bottomed, are by definition unstable, but the poler balances the whole thing delicately and as long as you do make any sudden movements all is fine. Nowadays mekoros are more often made out of fibreglass, because ebony and sausage trees take over 100 years to grow whereas a mokoro only lasts about 5 years. From the vehicle-base game-drives we spotted elephant, giraffe, zebra, impala, letchwe, gnu, bushbuck, spotted hyena, lion and the undoubted highlight: a leopard that had been chased up a tree by two lionesses just minutes before we arrived on the scene (we heard the commotion in the bushes when the lionesses and leopard met one another). In fact the lionesses were being followed by a big male lion that had thoughts of a carnal nature on his mind! Then they all disappeared into thick scrub, followed by a big roaring commotion, which we initially mistook for the lion having his way with the ladies. But no, it was Mr. Leopard bumping into the ladies instead. So there he was – a leopard in a Leadwood tree: the classic shot of a leopard nonchalantly lying on a thick bough, legs dangling on either side of the bough. After many years of game spotting this was the one scenario still missing from our portfolio – until now. Further highlights were: going on a guided walk with Grant – who armed with his rifle – led us in and out of the scrub following the spoor of a lion. It was a 2-hour walk which certainly heightened your awareness of your surroundings. Every noise was amplified and even the smells were more pronounced – you could smell elephant! Then there was the time when an elephant proceeded to strip the leaves from the branches high above his head – he merely raised his trunk vertically and pulled the branches down to his level. And all this was done not 10 feet from us as were finishing our afternoon tea. The elephant totally ignored us all! Later on he strolled in front of our tent – sitting on the deck we could have stretched out and almost touched him! I cannot find enough superlatives to describe our delta experience. It was pure dead brilliant! Thank you to the staff: Sandra, Kay, Grant, Manie, Moyo, KB and Maule. We were very sad to fly back to Maun on the 18th but will remember this, our first visit to the Okavango Delta for a very long time to come. As we waited for our plane to land to pick us up guess what? Yep, a grumpy elephant (which we had earlier startled on our drive to the airstrip) appeared from the trees beside the airstrip, trumpeting his displeasure. I am not making this up! Sandra had to take the Landrover and chase him away. Back in Maun by 0830, we had coffee and refreshments at Hilary’s Café before setting off on the long drive down to Gaborone. This time we drove down the western side along the Trans-Kalahari Highway – a superb new road through the desert – via the towns of D’Kar, Ghanzi, Kang, Sekoma before stopping for the night at Jwaneng. This was a long day’s drive with long distances between each town and hardly any traffic for hours or hundreds of kilometres at a stretch. Refuelling at every town was a necessity! Jwaneng is where the world’s largest diamond deposit was discovered in 1978. The mine produces 10m carats annually and shifts and processes 500,000 metric tons of rock monthly. From Jwaneng we drove further southwest via Kanye and Lobatse (site of Botswana’s High Court and also the largest abattoir) to Gaborone (the capital) where we stayed for 2 days with Nerina and Manuel, friends of my sister, who lived at Ramotswa Station, about 25kms outside of Gaborone or Gabs as it is affectionately known. It was a great and relaxing time being in a house again and also with people who lived and worked in Botswana (although they are South African). A visit to the local General Dealer at Ramotswa Station was an eye-opener: he stocked everything from pills and potions, shoes and clothes, sweets in glass jars, bicycles, huge pots and pans, stoves, groceries, hardware – everything and anything you could want. Gaborone (pop. 192,000) pronounced Ghah-bah-Row-Nay is a big sprawling city, it lacks a definite character or spiritual heart but is one of the cleanest, safest and uncrowded cities in southern Africa. It has lots of new shopping centres all sporting well-known South African stores, big wide multi-laned roads, busy traffic but not chaotic – unlike Nairobi! Gabs was established in the late 1880s’ and was used by Cecil Rhodes to launch the Jamieson Raid – an unsuccessful rebellion against the Boers controlling the gold mines near Johannesburg. As a result Rhodes was forced to resign as the prime minister of the Cape Colony and the raid was the catalyst for the Boer War (1899-1902). Friday 21st May: we left Botswana via the very quiet and very laid-back border post of Ramotswa – it took 5 minutes for all the formalities! Why can’t all border posts be like this one? There is only one drawback: during the rainy season you need a 4x4 vehicle to make this border crossing as the road goes through a riverbed! Then it was onwards into the North West Province of South Africa en route to the Kgalagadi (Kalahari) for some more wildlife spotting – see South Africa page Part 2 for further news.
Tubu Tree - Okavango Delta
Wilderness Safaris - Okavango