Hours of hot inactivity were forgotten as our vehicle rolled to a stop under a large raintree in the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, SE Botswana. We tumbled out to create a comfortable camp laughing at the perverse Go Whey! Go Whey! welcome of a Grey Lourie. The thrill of finally being in`the Botswana bush’ was heightened by piles of rhino dung on the path to the ablution block. My family scoffed at my calls for caution while a pair of hornbills shouted What’s up! What’s up! and eyed me dismissively.
Dark falls quickly in these latitudes, but bolstered by a cold beer and a bright fire, the bush was not a scary place. Big eyes reflected our enquiring torch light as a tree dormouse rushed on overhead while an eagle owl hooted softly in the distance. Our holiday had finally started. After years of talking we were on a self drive safari in Botswana headed for the Okavango Delta, Savuti and their legendary wild campsites. We have enjoyed camping holidays in the Kalahari and Etosha where big game is eagerly sought on drives but fenced out of the campsites. This would be quite different.
“Camping with wildlife is not really risky as long as you sleep in your tent”, done-it-before-friends informed us. “If you are there first animals will respect that and move away” These words came back to me at Savuti Camp, beating a tattoo in time with my racing heart, as two Hyenas sniffed and salivated around our tent.
“The only creature that I know of that actively goes for human blood is a mosquito!” warned another friend whom I suspect of laughing at my anxiety. Peaceful sleep does not describe my first night in the bush. I lay bug-eyed inspecting the shadowy shapes for teeth and tusks that the moon projected onto our tent. My hearing switched from its filter-most setting for coping with the city and family to hear-all. That I could still hear acutely was lost on me as my brain tried to find a safe explanation for each new sound. Defying science my whole body stiffened into a bio- aerial!
Shifting attention from the Toktokkie pushing past the ground sheet with a sound not unlike the tent zip being surreptitiously opened one tooth at a time I focused on what sounded like a serious stick fight getting closer and closer. “Impala rutting”, came the weary answer from my husband, Chris, who had been tossed awake as I frantically searched our air mattress for the torch. “Ok! Wow! I flopped back with waves of relief setting the mattress and my man in motion again.
It felt like only 30 min after I finally fell asleep that the dawn chorus woke us. I stuck my head out to test the new day and made out the reassuring shapes of Franco & Lin scouting beneath the table for fallen crumbs.
During the following nights and days new animals introduced us to the sounds of the bush. The Pearl Spotted Owl was a surprise! It took a variety of campsites before we managed to capture the diminutive screecher in our torchlight and allay fears that it was a lost soul on its way to hell.
Small creatures made big sounds. With Rhinos still on my mind, I spun round in fright as one sneezed in the bush behind us, sending large flights of queala finches into the air. After a few more sneezes I realized, sheepishly, that the whooshing sound was made by the skittish finches taking off in mass. Please say that you would also have been tricked by the clan of mongoose that set me up. As I contemplated the sky from an open air loo at Mankwe I distinctly head the sound of a large animal approaching. My first thought was to sit still, but with pants lowered, so were my options. Quietly I stood up, zipped up, and stepped onto the loo to peer over the screen. I could hear its confident progress through the leaf litter and scanned the bush for something large, dark and foreboding. There they were small, dark and cute, an extended family of dwarf mongoose following each other nose to tail to their den in the roots of a Mopane behind the loo. Phew!!
At Third Bridge camp we found the Hrummpff, Hrummpff of our hippo neighbours companionable. At least they informed us where they were coming ashore – thereby saving us an unexpected meeting between tent and toilet. Instead, hyena eyes shone back at Claire and I as we clung to the female tradition of going to the loo in pairs. As we grew in confidence, we became blase and quipped that city girls on a mall crawl were probably more at risk in so called Civilization. Don’t tempt fate in the bush. Reckoning came in the shape of a woolly mammoth poorly disguised as a caterpillar. It crawled into Claire’s shoe while she was showering and evicting it was a two woman task. As alph female I was tasked with removing it while she did the screaming. On the way back our torch beams honed in on the Hyena again. Pumped up after our handling of the woolly mammoth we shouted something loud and unfriendly – and it scrammed.
Nothing can describe the spine tingling roar of a lion at close quarters. By this stage Chris had opted to sleep with our air mattress semi-deflated. He claimed that the contact with the ground gave him an anchor when I set the mattress in panicked motion. His anchorage meant that we could really feel the reverberating complaint of the lion just across the river. I heard the Toyota rock gently as the kids moved in the rooftop tent. The lion called for ages awakening in all of us primordial memories of life before technology and tents.
We had a number of elephant encounters especially at our camp on the Savuti Channel, but one in the Khwai Community Trust lands was a turning point for me. We were setting up camp when we noticed two large bull elephant browsing their way steadily toward us. Once again my senses were in overdrive as we angled tent, trees and Toyota in a way that would give us a contained space from which to be watchful. At about 80m distance the two bulls became aware of us. After flapping their ears undecidedly they moved off the agitated thicket marking their progress past us. “Mom!!!” I saw the third elephant at 20 paces behind our tent at the same time that I heard the warning. Claire and Anton were sitting at the table making sandwiches when a teenager with small tusks appeared from nowhere and walked into our clearing. We became statues. So did the elephant. Then slowly it came closer. From its body language, we read that it knew we were there but wanted a closer look. 10 paces from the table the elephant stopped and as its trunk twitched I wondered if it was going to indicate a preference for peanut butter or cheese. Claire must have gone to fetch the cheese because suddenly she was sitting on top of the Toyota. The rest of us still statues. After pretending interest in the grass at its feet, the young elephant moved to stand behind a tall acacia where it appeared to be considering us or perhaps the peanut butter vs. cheese choice. By now the situation was not just unthreatening but becoming comical. The elephant had noticed Chris photographing it and peeped at him from around the screen provided by the tree trunk. Yes peeped, if that is possible with 7/8th of its bulk clearly visible but its head hidden behind the tree – until it peeped out. Then as suddenly as it had appeared it left. Its memory will remain – a highlight of our Botswana Safari.
On one of the ensuing nights, we were playing cards in our small pool of light suspended over our table when we heard elephants breaking Mopane branches. We became statues for a brief moment before relaxing. Minutes later Claire let out a squeal of laughter as she went out first round and caught us all with full hands of cards. From just beyond our light the deep tummy rumble of an elephant responded in greeting or warning. Either way I now trusted the advice. “If you are there first animals will respect that and move away” Sadly humans generally do not show wildlife the same respect.
PS: Finally. I would like to thank Botswana Wildlife for the hospitality services provided by Franco & Lin. The feathered pair faithfully inspected every campsite shortly after our arrival and their unflappable presence provided me with a sense of calm especially in the first days before I found my wild feet.
Maun Backpackerswas comfortable, very cost effective and chilled in wonderful african adventure setting. Hearing hippos from the deep pond below Old Bridge while enjoying a cold beer at Maun Backpackers even beat showering there while being watched by a red legged treefrog!!!
Kirk of Selfdrive Drive Adventuresalso based in Maun provided us with a comfortably kitted out Toyota Landcruizer that was supurb to drive through the rough stuff. With books to identify everything from trees to birds, a GPS and maps and a Satelite phone we were well equiped to relax and enjoy our first self drive adventure in 4×4 Botswana.
The beautiful setting and curious elephants at the Khwai Development Trust campsite.
The Eco- friendly Kaziikini Campsite run by the Shandereka Cultural Village is clean and well organised. The solar showers were great – well done. So was the birdlife and the entertaining families of dwarf mongoose.