Cruise in Chobe National Park

Kasane, Botswana

We were on the road by 7 a.m. this morning for our 400 kilometer drive northeast to Kasane. Compared to Namibia, the roads in Botswana have been in surprisingly good shape — although that quickly changed once we hit the so-called Elephant Highway. This highway has been named because of the frequent and close animal sightings. But given the pockmarked road and potholes the size of elephants, it might as well have been named because of its lousy condition.

After refueling and stocking up on essentials in Kasane (and laughing as a warthog searched aimlessly for food in the parking lot), we set up camp inside the electrified fence of Thebe River. The fence was for good reason; nearby Chobe National Park, which is the second largest national park in Botswana, has one of the highest concentrations of game on the African continent.

Thor dropped us off on the banks of the Chobe River where we boarded a pontoon boat, sat back and were taken into the national park for an afternoon river safari.

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And almost immediately, the animals appeared, including crocodiles, monkeys and several types of antelopes.

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We also got a chance to get a closer look at the hippos — which we had to keep a safer distance from when traveling with mokoros in the Delta.

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The star attraction, however, was the Chobe Elephant. These elephants comprise what is probably the largest surviving continuous elephant population on the planet, covering northern Botswana and northwestern Zimbabwe. The Chobe Elephants are some of, if not the, largest elephants in the world and their numbers are currently estimated at 120,000. As we navigated the river, dozens of them lined the shores while others ventured into the water, snacking on grass and allowing us to get extraordinarily close to these magnificent beasts.

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The “sundowner” is a rite of passage here in Africa. Everyday, like clockwork, locals and tourists alike gather to watch the sun lower into the sky in a dazzling display of color and light. Sundowners are best enjoyed with a cold beer or cocktail in hand. And today was no exception.

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For me, this afternoon’s activity was the highlight of my time in Botswana. Relaxing on the slow winding Chobe River, coming within feet of the massive African elephants, experiencing another spectacular sunset — all with a cold Windhoek Lager in hand.

It honestly doesn’t get much better than this.

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Vomit rocket over the Delta

Gweta, Botswana

We saw another family of giraffes as well as an elephant on this morning’s wildlife walk. The timidity of the former and dangerousness of the latter prevented us from getting closer than a couple of hundred feet though.

Back at camp, everything was packed up and we loaded the mokoros with our gear. It was a relaxing ride to our 4×4 transfer; we snoozed most of the way. The hot water showers at Sitatunga were much welcomed; just as quickly as we arrived, we were leaving again though, this time for Maun’s airport.

Twelve of us had signed up for a scenic flight over the Delta with Mack Air. On the tarmac, we hopped into a Gippsland GA8 Airvan. It was a tiny seven seater. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

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The first half hour of the flight was fantastic. From just 500 feet high, we spotted herds of elephants bathing at water holes and hippos lazing around.

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From above, we were also able to get a real sense of just how large this flood plain is — literally, for as far as the eye could see.

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But then suddenly, a wave of nausea. A large lunch, bumpy ride, confined space, baking sun and eye glued to my camera hit me like a ton of bricks. Sweat started pouring down my back and my fingers tingled. “Are you okay?” my seat mate asked. Barf bag in hand, I whispered, “No.”

Ten minutes later, music to my ears. “I can see the airport,” she said. I’d be able to keep it together for that much longer — but barely.

Back in the truck it was a 200 kilometer drive east to Gweta. We passed through the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, the remains of what was once one of the largest lakes in Southern Africa. Today, it’s the largest salt dry flat in the world.

When we saw the giant anteater, we knew we had arrived at Planet Baobab, a quirky campsite and hotel midway between Maun and Kasane.

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Planet Baobab is named for the gigantic baobab trees that line the property. The average age of these beasts is 4,000 years old. Given the two-night bush camping experience and my unhappy scenic flight experience, it seemed only fair to upgrade myself to a room. The hut had an en suite bathroom and comfortable bed. It would be nice to sleep without a sleeping bag.

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We had a chicken stew back at the camp before heading to Baobab’s funky “Afro-centric” bar. It was nicely decorated and served up ice cold beers at a pretty reasonable price. After a slight disagreement with our tour leader over the wake-up time, we returned to our hut for bed.

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It’s safe to say the sheets felt like 600 thread count.

My first mokoro beer run

An island somewhere in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

It was still pitch black out when the wake-up call came at 5 a.m. By this point, I’ve grown accustomed to early mornings in Africa and these pre-dawn starts are fine by me — as long as an afternoon nap is involved.

We set out on another wildlife walk as the sun slowly started to break across the horizon. As I’ve mentioned before, early morning and early evening are the best times to view wildlife; the less heat, the more animals out and eating.

Walking through thick bush, we followed OT along a charred trail. Some of the grasses had been burned overnight; the locals hoped that the fresh grass would attract additional animals to the region. We passed a nearby water hole where herds of wildebeest and zebra had come.

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But the highlight of the morning was the giraffes, which were everywhere. We spotted a herd of two-dozen galloping across the plains. A few minutes later, a family of 12, including several babies. All together, we pegged the number at over 60, more than our guide had ever seen.

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Back at the camp, we rested up and assessed our rations. Food was good; drinks not so much. Last night had put a serious dent in our beer supplies and we needed to restock. (Perhaps it was due to the fact that it was Memorial Day weekend? At least we could tell ourselves that.)

But how does one buy beer while on a remote island in the Okavango Delta? Precious, one of the polers, offered to give me a lift to a village that was about 45 minutes away. He pushed me in the hot afternoon sun on the empty waters. It was my first beer run in a mokoro.

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After landing on shore, we walked the final 10 minutes through a foot and mouth disease checkpoint and entered the village. It wasn’t the cleanest of places but the people waved and were friendly as Precious led me to the “liquor store.”

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The shopkeeper had exactly 36 beers for sale — not wanting to completely buy her out, we took back 24. She was quite happy. I’m not sure the same could be said of the village residents, who had only 12 beers to split for the evening.

The ride back was quiet; not a single other boat was spotted. We arrived back just as the others were loading into their mokoros for a late afternoon viewing of the hippo pool. Hippos are dangerous animals so we had to keep out distance but we enjoyed watching them chomp down on grass and surface with their massive bodies.

Newly purchased beers in hands, we witnessed another fantastic Botswana sunset. The colors were just something spectacular.

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Our guides and polers sang traditional songs as we sat around the campfire this evening drinking local beers — ones that had been fetched from a village. Forty-five minutes away. In a canoe.

You have got to love Africa.

Walking with wildlife in the bush

An island somewhere in the Okavango Delta, Botswana

This morning, we packed for our two-night trip into the Okavango Delta with Delta Rain. We each brought a small daypack, sleeping bag and a 5-liter bottle of water. Also making the trip with me was a bottle of Harvey’s, an amazingly cheap South African whiskey.

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A little after 7 a.m., a large Mercedes truck came to our campsite. We loaded it with our personal belongings, the tents, sleeping mats, cooking utensils and all the food we would need for our trip. We jumped on board, and in the brisk morning cold, made the 1.5 hour drive to the launch point for our trip into the Delta.

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The Delta is one of the world’s largest inland water systems. Its headwaters start in Angola’s western highlands; these tributaries form the Kavango River in Namibia, which flow into Botswana’s Okavango. Each October, rains in Angola and Zambia flood 18,000 square kilometers of plains in the south, creating an ecosystem brimming with some of Southern Africa’s most diverse wildlife.

We would be making our way into the Delta by mokoro, a traditional dugout canoe made with 70-80 year-old sausage trees. The mokoros are driven by polers, who stand at the rear and propel the boats using long wooden poles. Kind of like Venice in Southern Africa.

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Our poler, Joyce, filled the mokoro with our gear and then made us these comfortable seats to recline in. The journey then began; lying back, eyes closed, lapping water against the boat, calling birds in the distance, reeds brushing by our legs. It was the most relaxed I’ve been the entire trip.

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We arrived at a deserted island and set up camp. Soliwe used an overturned mokoro as a table and prepared lunch. Meanwhile, some of our guides grabbed a shovel and dug the toilet. It would be an interesting 48 hours.

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Much of the afternoon was free to laze around camp. Some of the group went for a swim, others took naps and read. At 4 p.m., we all met back for our first guided wildlife walk.

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Up until now, all of my wildlife viewing has been from the safety of a vehicle. If for some reason an animal were to charge or attack, there was some level of protection. All of that gets thrown out the window when going on a wildlife walk. This afternoon’s took us through thick grasses, some of which were at chest-level. As we passed some grazing antelopes, there was a certain level of excitement and anticipation.

Then, our guide OT spotted some elephants off in the distance. “Let’s go after them,” we urged. He glanced at his watch. “Okay,” he said. “We go quick.” We walked fast but the sun was falling faster. As we turned back, the sky exploded in colors in an absolutely fantastic sunset.

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But soon our attention turned to more pressing matters — like getting back safely to camp. As darkness fell, we heard the grunting of grazing hippos, which are some of the most aggressive animals on the Delta. When one snorted dangerously closed to our trail, we stopped. “You must keep walking!” OT yelled back.

Back at the camp, we breathed a sigh of relief and sat down to a traditional Southern African meal. The bottle of whiskey was broken out and we spent most of the night talking around the campfire.

Hunting and gathering with the San

Maun, Botswana

It was nice waking up after the sun had risen this morning — not just for the extra sleep but also because it was quite cold. We gathered around the camp kitchen for a simple breakfast of toast and some instant coffee before the San people returned for a hunter-gatherer walk.

These Bushmen are fascinating people; they once roamed Namibia and Botswana in search of food and water. It is known that they made it as far as the Atlantic coast, where they collected salt to preserve their meats. The San — like Native Americans in the States and the Aborigines in Australia — have faced considerable challenges in clinging to their traditional culture. Many now have turned to alcohol and drugs; there is a real concern that numbers will dwindle and the people that once ruled this part of Africa will vanish.

In the fields just outside of our camp, we walked with this group of Bushmen, their faces wrinkled from age and years in the sun.

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They spotted and dug up many of the plants and roots long used by their community for every imaginable medical condition — from liver disorders to erectile dysfunction — and explained their use through a translator.

The Botswana government has recently outlawed the San from continuing to hunt wild animals so the elders only demonstrated how they used to kill with poison-tipped arrows and reused ostrich eggs as canteens. A small Bushmen fire was started the old fashioned way — rubbing two sticks together.

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We loaded up the truck and set out for Maun, about 300 kilometers east of Gweta. About an hour into the trip, someone realized that they might have forgotten their mobile phone at the camp. Thor turned us around and we headed back. Searching the huts, we realized it might be a good idea to call the phone — a ring came from back on the truck. It had been in the lockers the entire time.

Set back an hour and a half, we hit the road again for Maun, which has had a reputation as a Wild West town. Recently, however, with the growth of this country’s tourism industry, the town has lost much of its old character and now serves as a base for trips into the Okavango Delta.

We had some time to stock up on essentials at the supermarket and visit the Internet café at Riley’s Garage before setting up camp at Sitatunga. As a tent-raising novice, I’ve got to say — I’m actually not that bad at it!

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We had another hearty dinner and then headed over for some drinks at the buzzing bar. A few other overland trucks had arrived and everyone seemed to be gathering around the human water hole. One beer turned to many, making it a late night.

The Bushmen of Botswana

Ghanzi, Botswana

Of the few vehicles seen while driving through Namibia, one of the most common were these hardcore overland trucks ferrying travelers from one remote place to the next. This morning, after calling Budget to ask if they planned on picking up my car (they were supposed to do so last night), it was time to test one of these trucks out myself with an 8-day Nomad camping trip through Botswana to Victoria Falls. At the meeting point, there was only a couple from Germany waiting so we weren’t sure if we were in the right place.

Around 8 a.m., this gigantic retrofitted truck roars to the curb. Out jumped this lanky, but completely badass, South African guy wearing a bandana. “I’m Thor,” he said. “You ready to go?”

“Is this our bus?” I asked. “It’s a truck — not a bus,” he replied. “And her name is Marilyn.” So into Marilyn we climbed. There are rows of seats, large windows and a big ice chest. We chucked our bags into a block of lockers in the back and off we went.

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As we passed through the chaotic streets of Windhoek, introductions were made. There were 14 of us in the group, spanning ages, professions and nationalities. Nearly everyone was well traveled. Most of the group had been together since Cape Town, where they had left from 10 days prior.

Our first stop was a supermarket where Thor and Soliwe, our cook, hopped out to stock up. We walked around, changed money to Botswana pulas and turned down several vendors trying to sell us fake Oakley sunglasses. Once the food had been loaded on board, we filled up Marilyn with diesel and set out on the day’s 516 kilometer drive east across the border.

We stopped briefly at a rest area for lunch, which we all pitched in to help prepare and set up. “Have you washed your hands?” one of the Danish women asked me in almost accusatory manner. “Yes,” I replied. “Okay, it’s just because you’re new,” she said.

The drive was long and, even on the tar roads, not very comfortable. Our truck didn’t have the best shocks and even a small bump sent us flying around in our seats. Yet, finally not having to drive — or worry about directions, gas or breaking down — it’s actually quite comfortable watching the landscape race by. Many say that traveling overland by truck is the best (and only) way to see Africa. You truly experience Africa, they say, instead of simply flying over it from one place to the next. We’ll see if that turns out to be the case.

In the late afternoon, we departed Namibia through the Buitepos border crossing and entered Botswana at Mamanu, setting our watches ahead in the process. After some stressful land crossings in Asia, I’d not known what to expect here. But it was generally uneventful — except for the South Korean woman in our group whom the Botswanan officials almost wouldn’t let in because they thought she was from North Korea. Oops.

Looking out the window, the change in Botswana was almost immediate — villages lined the roads while cattle fearlessly wandered. Yet, looks can be deceiving. This country is actually the wealthiest in sub-Saharan Africa. It is home to three of the world’s richest diamond mines and the government has smartly reinvested much of the proceeds in infrastructure, health-care and education. Experts now say that the mines will run dry within the next 5 years leaving Botswana’s future up in the air.

The country has focused on developing its tourism industry, employing a strategy of high income-low impact. For those without the interest or means of paying for fly-in safaris or $600 a night lodges, the options are limited, which was one of the reasons that I’d signed up for this trip with Nomad and was riding on Marilyn.

Nine hours after leaving Windhoek, we arrived in the small town of Ghanzi, where we were staying at Trail Blazers. The sun had already set as the tents were unloaded from the truck. I eyed them with apprehension as the camp manager strolled over. “We have huts available, five U.S. dollars,” she said. “I’ll take one,” I said without hesitation. Night one of my tented camping trip and I’d already taken an upgrade.

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While Suliwe cooked us dinner, we gathered around the campfire for a traditional Bushmen tribal dance. The Bushmen, or San, are indigenous to Botswana and have lived here for 30,000 years. The word San is said to have meant “wild people who can’t farm” — they were nomadic hunter-gatherers, who moved often in search of food and water.

Today, only about 55,000 San remain and 60% of them live in Botswana. Their singing, dancing and traditional dress offered a glimpse of what life was once like here in Africa.

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After an approving round of applause, the elder approached us. “Tobacco,” he said, making a smoking motion. A couple offered up a few cigarettes and the San lit up. It was a picture of contrasts. A 21st century Bushmen, trying desperately to adapt in a modern world.

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Considering the basic cooking facilities, dinner — mashed potatoes and beef chili — was delicious. Either that, or we were starving.

And, after a few beers and a long day on the road, it was time to retire to my Bushmen hut.