Travelling on roads and on water in Botswana

Although Brian spent five years at Plumtree, right by the border, he has actually never been to Botswana before and neither have I. We were both looking forward to it, except we  knew it’s pretty expensive to travel there. Our first stop was Francistown, just on the other side of the border. We searched the gps for a campsite and found a place called River Lodge and they apparently offered camping too. It seemed quite fancy (we were taken in a golf cart from the reception to be shown the campsite on the other side of the premises!) and sure enough it turned out to meet our expectations of Botswana, being a bit pricy. Long gone are the 5 USD per person camp sites in this region as we were used to from eastern Africa…

One night and filling up with fuel and doing some grocery shopping in Francistown, then we headed west. We wanted to visit the Makgadikgadi salt pan and drove to Gweta where we spent one night at Planet Baobab. It was a cool, slightly quirky and different place. We had some time in the late afternoon so we enjoyed a dip in the big swimming pool before starting up a fire and having a braai with steaks, boiled sweet potatoes and roasted butternut, carrots and onions.

From Gweta we headed off towards the pans but had done zero research beforehand and had no idea what to expect. All we knew is that we were in the rainy season and that the salt pans would be a little greener than usual. The gate to the Nxai pan (yes, it has a click sound in it!) came before the Makgadikgadi so we decided to turn in there and speak to the park staff to find out some more info and then maybe go to Makgadikgadi after. But it was already late morning so we got a bit stressed realizing how big these parks are and how little time we had left that day. The guy at the gate office told us Nxai is better than Makgadikgadi and we decided to take his word for it. We thought about camping inside but the camp was privately owned and they charged something ridiculous like 270 pula per person per night. To sleep in your own tent! After complaining a bit to the poor guy at the desk – who obviously didn’t have anything to do with their rates – he eventually sighed and offered us to camp in the parking lot next to the office. We thanked him and said we’d come back to the gate by the time the park closed.

Heading into the park it was just vast bush land in all direction and we quickly realized we wouldn’t get to see much wildlife as the grass was tall. It was simply the wrong season if you wanted to get the “real” experience of the park. But soon we were pleasantly surprised when we started spotting quite a few gorgeous gemsbok (also known as oryx), which neither of us has seen before. They’re truly one of the most beautiful antelopes if you ask me.

We headed towards the pan area to see a place called Baines baobabs. Not knowing much beforehand we had no idea who this Baines might be but figured it must be some special baobabs worth seeing. And sure enough, as we entered the pan we could see some major sized baobabs on a little green island in the middle of the salty gray flatland.  But how would we get there? We tried to follow the most recent tracks we could see on the ground ahead but ended up driving around in the pan quite a bit, reluctant to just cross the open areas as there was water and mud, and rather stay around the edges where we had a good grip. Eventually we had to make a run for it and go across. Was this going to be the first time we got stuck during the trip? And would there be anyone there to pull us out in that case? Most likely not. We’d have to dig ourselves out and it could get messy, with the merciless sun as well. But we made it across with just a few skids in the mud and eventually reached the Baines baobab island. Just to find another overlander vehicle parked just beneath the trees. ”Why did you come from that side?” they asked surprised and we realized we should have gone the other way around, which was much easier. We were invited to have coffee with this nice Austrian couple who had rented the car in Johannesburg and was now touring Botswana for a month. It turned out Baines was a guy called Thomas who had painted the baobabs during a long expedition on foot in 1862. The trees are believed to be around 3 000 years old.

It’s amazing how just some simple facts can make you feel quite enlightened and having learnt about Baines we took off to see some more of the park. We had told the Austrian couple that we hadn’t seen so much wildlife yet but that was about to change. As we came around a bend on the island we spotted two elephants pretty far away. Then one showed up maybe 100 metres away. Then another turned up in the bush maybe 50 metres away. After that we just saw elephants everywhere it seemed as we continued driving. A bit tired from the sun and the heat we soon set direction back towards the gate. Arriving there between 3 and 4 in the afternoon we figured we didn’t have to spend the night in a car park but could push on for Maun, our next stop about 1,5 hours away. So we said cheers to the guy at the office, pumped up the tyres again and went.

Maun is a bit of a tourist hub for people wanting to go to the Okavango delta or the Kalahari. In the Lonely planet book we found a place desribed as a bit of a party place where backpackers, bush pilots and locals mix. As it was Friday we thought it could be fun to meet some people so we headed for this place, Old bridge backpackers. And boy, was the guide book right. Surveying the crowd in the bar and chatting to some people we had soon met some travellers, some locals and a couple of pilots who had just arrived looking for a job in Maun. Oh, and they were right about the partying too. It didn’t take long before the locals had taken us under their wing and challenged us to games of pool. The place reminded us a lot of Smuggler’s, our old favourite place in Vilanculos, so we felt quite at home.

We had a nice little campsite and as always when we spend more than one night somewhere, it was so nice not having to pack up camp everyday to drive somewhere. We did the whole thing, table and chairs, the big Primus stove out and even the awning to get some shade. Unfortunately I started getting a cold so I was quite tired for the rest of the weekend. We had been thinking about going on a mokoro trip in the delta (dugout canoe) but hesitated when we saw the prices (sorry I keep mentioning about prices and money all the time, but that’s a big part of a trip like this, especially towards the end of it). We figured we might be able to do it cheaper somewhere less touristy. So we just chilled over the weekend as I tried curing my cold. There was wifi but only by buying vouchers and trying some just to do some necessary emails I realized it was quite expensive, so no blogging at that stage – plus my head was heavy and groggy and pretty worthless at the time.

We then drove around the Okavango delta and up to western side of it. Again, we had done very little research and made the mistake of heading for a campsite without checking our options. As we turned off the main road it was another 20 km through the bush, crossing rivers and everything. As we finally got there it turned out to be a fairly posh bush camp with safari tents on stilts in the delta. The campsite wasn’t anything special though, on the contrary, so we regretted not having looked at some options as the managing lady charged us the highest prices so far in Botswana. Having come all the way out there we didn’t quite feel like working our way back through the bush that evening.

The following morning we went out on a mokoro trip but decided to only do a half day. I had a terrible runny nose and wasn’t looking forward to sitting in the sun but at the same time I was really excited to do something completely different to everything else on the trip so far. Petzi, our guide, started by pointing out that a mokoro capsizes easily. Ok cool, thanks for letting us know, considering the amounts of hippos and crocs in the water. I made sure to sit dead still as he pushed us out and we were gliding through the water. It sure was quite wobbly but I soon got used to it and relaxed. And that’s when I realized how nice it was. Gliding silently past water lilies and reeds, listening to fish eagles crying around us.

And I realized it wasn’t so different from the gondola trip we had done in Venice! Except a bit different after all. No crocodiles in Italy as far as I know. And the surroundings a bit different too, of course. And the boat, from the massive gondola with painted ornaments and velvet seats to a narrow carbon fibre canoe with plastic chairs. But still! For once I was very relieved we didn’t see any bigger wildlife. The idea of pushing the mokoro over to keep it between us and an agitated hippo, treading water with crocs lurking around, didn’t appeal to me. Petzi did a great job guiding, clearly knowing everything worth knowing about every bird species in the area and most plants too, characteristic to the delta. All in all it was a very cool experience.

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