Monday, November 11, 2013

Adventures with Landy: Botswana Edition

Warning: monster post ahead, which is the reason I've been stalling on it and the blog hasn't been updated in nearly 2 months. There will be only one more short post on our Africa trip after this before I return to aviation content!

We left South Africa with mixed emotions. On one hand, we were happy to leave behind the crime and security concerns, poverty, racial tension, and frenetic pace. That said, we ended the SA portion of our trip with an incredible visit to Kruger National Park, and there was no denying that the country was very pretty, cheap, and tourist-friendly, with good first-world infrastructure. After two and a half weeks, it was becoming familiar. Now we were headed north to the wilds of Botswana, the unknown.

We needn’t have worried. Botswana was absolutely fantastic, the highlight of our trip. I’d go back in a heartbeat. It’s far less crowded than South Africa, with less apparent poverty, no legacy of apartheid, very little crime, an actually effective, non-corrupt government, surprisingly good infrastructure for its low population density, and a very chill vibe. True, the landscapes aren’t as dramatic as South Africa, but have an understated wild beauty of their own (think eastern Montana). And there are huge national parks and game reserves, all much less developed than Kruger, and with even higher wildlife densities.

The one thing Botswana is not is “cheap”. They made a conscious decision early on to embrace high-end, low-volume tourism. Consequently the majority of visitors come on packaged luxury safari tours, spending $500+ per person per night to sleep in full-service exclusive bush camps, eat gourmet food, and view game from open Land Rovers driven by experienced guides. It sounds quite lovely to me, but it doesn’t sound terribly adventurous, and I can’t even countenance spending that kind of money to sleep in a really nice canvas tent.

Fortunately, Botswana has another option for the daring and the cheap. Scattered through their enormous game parks are a smattering of wild bush camps open to the general public – about 35 individual campsites in all. There are some provisos. The paucity of public campsites means that demand is sky-high, and bookings must be made 8-12 months in advance. The administration of the camps has been contracted to three private operators, so booking is a byzantine process involving faxes and international wire transfers to three different companies. The campsites are cheap only in comparison to the packaged safaris, running up to $50 per person per night. Unlike Kruger, wild critters can and do roam through these camps, so one must keep their wits about them. And the campsites are connected by rutted two-track trails, by turns sandy and muddy, making a capable 4x4 a must. Botswana is where our hired Land Rover shined.

We crossed the border at Martin’s Drift, found the road immediately filled with enormous potholes, and dodged our way a further 100km to spend the night at Camp Itumela in dusty little Palapye. The next morning we set out early for Maun, arriving in late afternoon after a long drive over unbending roads most notable for wandering cattle, donkeys, and goats, and thankfully few potholes. Our first order of business in the bustling tourist center was to find the airport and inquire about a flight tour over the Okavango Delta for the next day. None of the operators had open seats on their scheduled flights, so we booked a C206 charter at Mack Air for the rather reasonable rate of $290/hr; I figured we’d find another couple at our camp to share the plane with. That complete, we drove 10km up the river to Audi Camp. The camping itself was not very private, but had plenty of shade had nice facilities including an excellent bar & restaurant overlooking the river. We stayed there two nights.

The following morning we ventured back into Maun to collect the various government permits and confirm our campsite bookings. There was some confusion as to whether we actually had the required paperwork beyond the first two nights, but I figured at that point we’d be deep inside the park and nobody would turn us away to drive off into the lion-prowled night. We visited all four major grocery stores and between them were able to adequately provision for our week in the bush. Finding firewood was a little harder, though the next morning we discovered it was readily available on the drive into the park. We tried in vain to find a place we could top off our cooking stove’s LP tank, and finally decided to just make do with what we had plus the firewood. As it turned out we did a lot of cooking over the fire and used very little LP gas. The last order of business was to top off the Landy’s diesel and fill both 20L jerry cans. It was 400 km as the crow flies to the next fuel station and I knew we’d be doing a lot of winding and backtracking, much of that in fuel-sucking deep sand besides.

At 4pm we showed up to Mack Air and were quickly whisked through security and shuttled to our waiting C206. We had failed to find anyone who didn’t already have their flight plans sorted, so ended up having the burly six-seater to ourselves and Ryan, our pilot. I sat in the right front seat but didn’t fly at all; Dawn had the backseat to herself so she could shoot photos through either side window. The hour-long flight was enjoyable but slightly disappointing in that I couldn’t really get a handle on the geography involved and critter sightings were fairly sparse at first. Eventually we spied some larger bands of elephants and then some absolutely enormous herds of water Cape buffalo, as well as the occasional rhino, zebra, giraffe, and wildebeest. After landing, we enjoyed a very nice last dinner in civilization at Audi Camp.

Early the next morning we headed up the gravel road into Moremi Game Reserve. Past the veterinary control fence the road became increasingly rough, and then at South Gate turned into the sparse two-track we would be following the rest of our time in the park. I had downloaded OpenStreetMap files for my Garmin 76cx GPS, and they turned out to be quite accurate and impressively complete; combined with an excellent Shell map purchased in Maun and the occasional signpost, navigation in this maze of waterways, stunted forest and grass was much easier than I’d thought. Based on the sightings board at South Gate, we detoured into the newly opened Blackpools area, and were rewarded with immediate sightings of giraffe, zebra, warthog, hippos, wildebeest, kudu, impala, and elephants in larger numbers than we’d seen in Kruger. The side loop complete, we proceeded northwest through miles of deep sand and across several creaking log bridges to our campsite for the next two nights, Third Bridge. This site is nestled between a lagoon and a creek and is known for being frequented by hippos, lions, and hyenas. We discovered that we were sharing our site with a couple from Hamburg, Gabriel and Simone. The next door campsite was occupied by four college friends from Georgia starting out on a two month expedition to Kenya and back. Their Land Rover was identical to ours and turned out to be rented from the same place. We had a late lunch and then went for a sunset drive along Motlaba Island. It was quite beautiful but we only saw a few zebra and kudu. 

We returned to the campsite shortly before dark and cooked over the campfire, chatting with our new German friends. As it got dark, we would occasionally shine our flashlights into the bush just beyond the firelight, and were greeted by numerous pairs of glowing eyes. We assumed they were hyenas; every time they would start to edge closer, a shout or thrown rock was sufficient to sent them scampering away. Eventually the fire died to the point that we would have had to waste valuable firewood keeping the critters at bay, and so retired to our rooftop tent around 9pm, bringing our emergency mason jar with us to preclude any risky late-night treks to the ablution block. The bush was quieter than I would have guessed and fell asleep quickly. At about 4am I woke to something walking through our campsite. It let out a low growl as it passed almost directly beneath our tent, and I suspected it was a lion. I wasn’t able to get back to sleep after that, and an hour later got up for good. Sure enough, there were large cat prints crossing the camp just beyond the tent’s ladder.

We quickly folded up the tent, nervously shining our flashlights around the perimeter of the camp, and then fired up Landy and drove several kilometers east to Fourth Bridge in the pre-dawn darkness to stake out a promising-looking waterhole. Alas, very little wildlife presented itself with the sunrise, and we drove slowly back to camp, exploring interesting-looking side roads that yielded few sightings. Back at camp, we made breakfast, wrote postcards, and relaxed for a while before heading back out at around 11am, this time headed west for the Mboma Island loop. The island was actually quite beautiful and there were some very nice sightings, but none of the big cats we really wanted to see, particularly the cheetahs rumored to be active on the island. The west side of the loop was quite overgrown and involved a bit of bushwhacking around downed timber. At one point we came around a densely leafed corner and suddenly found ourselves face to face with an enormous bull elephant. He was as surprised as we were and jolted backwards, reared, and then started advancing on us. I had no doubt he would come out ahead in a skirmish with Landy and quickly reversed back around the corner. The bull followed us, paused, seemed to give it some thought, and finally bolted into the bush.

Shortly after that we came across a group of three other 4x4s stopped alongside the track, observing a herd of 40 or 50 impala. One man whispered to me that he had seen three cheetah cross the road a few hundred meters ahead and then double back towards the impala. We climbed on top of Landy and waited, scanning the area with binoculars. The impala were definitely on edge, and it was interesting to note how they posted sentries on the edge of the herd while others, particularly the young, grazed. No cheetahs presented themselves, though; they may have just been passing through, as it is rare for them to hunt in groups.

For our evening drive, we headed back east across Fourth Bridge, this time detouring south on the Xhoro Pools road. We saw more elephants this evening than any time thus far, five large bands plus a few solitary families totaling perhaps 150. Between Xhoro and Audi pools the road traversed a thick Mopane forest in which there were quite a few solitary elephants feeding; we crept along and kept our eyes on the bush, not wishing to repeat our close encounter from earlier in the day. Back at camp, we found that Gabriel and Simone had seen several lions, as well as a recently-killed elephant, up near Xaxanaxa. We told them that we were heading to Savute in Chobe National Park the next day, and they said they were planning to go there as well. We agreed to convoy. That night as we were talking, there was a loud crashing on the perimeter of our camp, we shined our lights on it, and a huge hippo came ambling out of the reeds, across the camp, and into the pool on the other side. Gabriel said that a park ranger told him this particular hippo visits our campsite nearly every night. Indeed, he came waddling back across an hour or so later. This concerned me more than lions or hyenas, for hippos have a reputation for blindly charging whatever they cannot see well – which is nearly everything. This one seemed at peace with our presence, though.

Early the next morning we and Gabriel and Simone convoyed northeast to Xaxanaxa gate and turned eastward to Khwai. The track was in better condition than I expected and we made good progress, notwithstanding the occasional offroad detour around fallen timber. Outside Khwai village we stopped to make breakfast and several local children came out to investigate, followed by their father. Gabriel produced a Polaroid camera and took a picture, which the kids hammed it up for & then responded to his gift of the Polaroid with loud demands for more. On the road again, we found the water crossings I had been worried about given their reputation for being occasionally uncrossable. I needn’t have worried, for we barely got our tires wet on one, and the other had a brand new bridge over it. After that the road was practically a gravel freeway on which one could do a blistering 90 km/hr until Mabebe, the southern entrance to Chobe National Park. Here the road turned exceptionally sandy at times and jarringly rutted at others, the solution in both cases being to keep the speed up. We made it to Savute Camp before 3pm. My lack of paperwork for the camp was not a problem. Gabriel & Simone didn’t have a reservation at all, but the rangers didn’t seem too concerned. We invited them to share our campsite as it was quite large for just us.

For our evening drive we ventured south along the eastern side of the Savute River and marsh. We saw large herds of elephants and buffalo on the western side and tried to find a good place to cross. I made it across a few pools and streams – one crossing involved a good three feet of water, no problem given the Landy’s safari snorkel – but couldn’t find a good route across the main channel. They all looked intimidatingly deep, with a steep climb up the opposite bank. I finally found one that looked marginally passable, and took off my pants to wade it first. I was starting to doubt its feasibility when the water went above my hips – and then I spied bubbles coming up in the murky water about 20 feet away! I beat a very quick retreat to the safety of the Landy and decided to stick to the eastern bank for our return. We arrived back in camp just before sunset and found that Gabriel & Simone had seen three lions on the western side of the marsh. We hadn’t seen a lion since the prior week in Kruger. 

We had enough time for one more game drive the next morning before heading north to the Chobe River. We left camp 30 minutes before sunrise after bidding farewell to our German friends and worked our way down the western side of the marsh, crossing to what I thought was Motsibi Island, where there were reputed to be multiple lions. To my surprise there were no lions and no other wildlife besides. I continued down the road; the island seemed much larger than on the map. I belatedly realized I had crossed back onto the main marsh road and was not anywhere near the island. We were backtracking when a guy in a Toyota Hilux stopped on his way past us to tell us there was a female lion a half-kilometer off the next junction. We hurried and spotted her just where he had described, resting under a tree. After a while she jaunted off across the marsh. We continued eastward, on the actual road to the island, and stopped to tell a group about the lion behind us; they told us there was a pair just ahead alongside the road. Sure enough, there was a huge male and a female snoozing; they paid us no mind as we parked maybe twenty feet away. Presently the male rose, stretched, paced around behind the female, squatted, and mounted her! We later found out this mating pair had been occupying this spot – and putting on a show for safari groups! – for nearly a week.

Our lion spotting for the day was not finished. I finally found a passable route across the main channel that only involved two feet of water and was working my way up the east bank when I spied a female lion walking through the tall grass on the other side. We followed her at a distance, and then I found another good place to cross the channel back to the west side, again in no more than two feet of water, albeit for a distance of a good 150 meters. We caught up to the lioness just as she was about to cross the road we were on. Instead she looked around at us and the other 4 or 5 vehicles that had converged on the spot, flashed an annoyed look, and plopped down in the grass for a nap! We watched her for a few minutes and then headed out for the day’s drive to the Chobe Riverfront, quite satisfied at having seen four lions in 45 minutes and completed several water crossings besides.

The road northward from Savute was surprisingly one of the worst yet, with some very loose, deep sand interspersed with deep rutting and washboarding. We saw some kudu, impala, and sable along the way, but mostly it was just a straight out slog. At one point I stopped to reclose the rear hatch, which had worked its way loose and was rattling; unfortunately the latch was frozen shut and I could neither open nor completely close it. Finally we made it back onto pavement, which lasted for about 40 kilometers before our turnoff into the Chobe section of the park at Ngoma Gate. Here the road turned very rocky and jarring for the last 10 km to Ihaha Camp, but we stopped often as we were spotting wildlife with increasing frequency. 

Ihaha Camp was much nicer than I’d heard, and our campsite had a very good view of the Chobe Riverfront and Namibia’s Captivi Strip just across. I got out the toolkit and disassembled the Landy’s rear hatch latching mechanism; it had been packed chock-full of dirt on the trails and merely needed cleaning out and regreasing. Repairs complete, we took a short drive on the riverfront before returning to camp for a very relaxing night watching wildlife on the river, cooking over the campfire, and an Amarula nightcap before turning in.

The next morning we took a three-hour wildlife drive on the main road set back a half-mile from the riverfront; we mostly saw Buffalo, Zebra, Giraffe, Kudu, and Waterbuck. At the end of the park we ducked back into civilization in Kasane to drop off laundry, refuel, pick up a few supplies, and check our email. It was here that I got the email from Flying’s Robert Goyer offering me a monthly column. The second surprise of the day was running into the four college guys from Georgia who we had camped next to in Third Bridge. We chatted and wished them well on their trek to Kenya. And then, just after reentering the park, we ran into Gabriel and Simone again! Botswana is a big place but the world of safari self-drivers is quite small. After a short chat we continued back to Ihaha, this time via the riverfront, which throughout the afternoon became more and more congested with wildlife. We saw some of the biggest herds of the trip here. Of particular note was a herd of 30-40 elephants that we parked about 40 meters from and watched as they bathed in the river, rolled around in mud, guarded for crocs, and charged a few passing Zebra.

Our last night in the bush was a memorable one, though I wouldn’t care to repeat it. A troop of baboons decided to occupy the tree next to our site for the night, occasionally sneaking down to attempt to steal food as we cooked dinner. Each time I chased them away with a big stick, though they’d occasionally advance menacingly, showing their teeth and growling. Finally they got very upset and crawled out on the branches over our heads and attempted to piss on me! When that didn’t work, they started pooping on our tent – and continued to piss and poop on it for the entire night, along with howling loud enough to wake the dead every 15 minutes. The next morning, the Landy was absolutely trashed. I scraped off the excrement as best I could and choked back my gag reflex as I folded the shit-covered tent. Our first order of business back in Kasane was to take the Landy to a car wash where, for $10, some poor soul scrubbed it till it sparkled. After this we picked up our laundry and checked into a room at Thebe River Lodge before heading down to the river for a sunset cruise of the Chobe River. The cruise was quite nice and relaxing, though the high concentration of wildlife was old news by now. It was entertaining to see tourists scramble from side to side on the upper deck, jostling for the best photos of animals that had been literally roaming our campsites for the five last nights.

I enjoyed our time in the Botswana immensely, especially the wildlife drives through the bush. The Landy was immensely helpful for this kind of adventure, given the rooftop tent and how well-equipped and organized it was for camping. Of course many of the people I’ve told about our Botswana bush adventure are convinced that we’re crazy for camping in the open with predators about, but most of these people wouldn’t think twice about camping in the Montana Rockies with its high concentration of brown bears. The same sort of common-sense cautions apply.

The next day we were headed east to a very different sort of potential danger. A decade of severe mismanagement by Robert Mugabe and the ruling ZANU-PF party had reduced Zimbabwe to an economic shambles; only widespread brutality kept them in power after a contested election in 2008. A power-sharing agreement and adoption of the US dollar as legal currency halted the violence and stabilized the economy, but Zimbabwe is still way, way off the tourist trail for now. While we were in Botswana, Zimbabwe had their first election since 2008. In its uncertain wake, we’d be heading to the former tourist mecca of Victoria Falls and then southward on a drive down the breadth of the country to see for ourselves a place that's in the nightly news all too often and for all the wrong reasons.