I wrote up a trip report about the mobile camping safari I went on in Botswana, Sept 29 - Oct 16, 2005. There are so many different ways to see Africa – luxury lodges, luxury tented camps, hotel-like lodges with many people, small tented camps with less luxury, camping where you participate in pitching the tents and cooking the food etc. This trip was mobile camping and we didn’t have to lift a finger except to put our luggage outside our tent on moving day. I apologize in advance for misspelled words, incorrect tenses, bad grammar, being in a totally random order etc.
2 nights Livingston
2 nights Chobe
2 nights Savute, the last afternoon a leisurely boat cruise on the Chobe River
2 nights Khwai community campsite on the border of the Moremi Game Reserve
2 nights in the Xakanaxa region of the reserve
1 night at a remote island in the Okavango Delta (they called this the fly camp - we only had "bare essentials" which mainly meant smaller tents and no cots)
1 night in Maun at a guesthouse (we stayed in chalets)
1 night in the Makgadigadi pans, fly camp
2 nights on the Boteti river (dry) on the border between the Makgadgadi and the Central Kalahari
2 nights in the panhandle area of the Okavango Delta at the Xaro Lodge
There were 6 of us on this trip. We did not know each other but we did all know the lead photographer, Charles Glatzer of http://www.shootthelight.com/. We all met the first time when we arrived in Livingstone late on the afternoon of the 29th. We spent the first 2 nights at a place called Maramba. Not bad but nothing to write home about. We visited the falls one morning. Before I left I read on Fodors that the Zambia side was dry and that you should go to the Zim side. I tried to convince them to do that but none of them had researched about this trip and they were all afraid to go to Zim. So we didn't. Plus, the $30 Visa kept some of them from wanting to cross the border – even though we all spent thousands and thousands of dollars to take this trip they wouldn’t spring for $30 bucks to see the falls from the right place. So we viewed the falls in Zim from Zam. Also ended up on a party boat cruise down the river instead of a small photo opportunity boat. The only photo opp we got on the party boat is when the drunk guys on the other party boat mooned us. Hah!
On the second morning we set off with our guide, Nick Langton, in The Beast for our safari. When we entered camp and it was just like the picture on their website. Big tall trees with the tents. http://www.gametrailsbotswana.com/ We met the camp staff of 6 young men and they showed us around camp. There were 4 tents and 2 showers and 2 toilets. We were assigned to a tent number and the guys delivered our luggage to our tents.
The food. Breakfast was cold cereals, fruit, coffee and tea. A tea/coffee stop around 9AM with rusks. Lunch was either served in the camp or in a picnic hamper if we were on the road (we were usually on the road). Lunch in the camp was a hot meat dish and a couple of different salads, fruits, breads, crackers, cheeses, butter etc. Lunch on the road was very similar but the meats were cold and varied from fried chicken to lunchmeats. Dinners started with soup, followed by a buffet and a dessert. The food was pretty good and I did not notice anyone not eating much except one guy wouldn't eat vegetables. We had many vegetables so his meals were pretty limited. The table was always set as if we were in a nice lodge (including the napkins being folded into a bird) and the food was served buffet style. Wine, beer, G&T's, water, coffee, tea, fruit juices and soft drinks were included in the price. We stopped at a bottle store for anyone to pick up any other alcohol they wanted to drink. Amarula, of course!
The tents. Since I was the only female I had my own tent. (The others 5 were dbl, dbl, single) We had a cot with a thin mattress with regular bedding (bottom and top sheet and a blanket). It was so hot I sincerely doubted I would ever need that blanket. There was also a bath towel and a kokoi (to use as a “robe” to walk to the shower tent). The tent had a canopy over the front, a canvas "patio" in front, and a wash basin and pitcher of water that was filled early every morning and in the evening with hot water. There was a little nightstand with a flash light, bug spray, room bug spray, a water mister, soap, toilet paper and a mirror. Since there was only one bed in my tent I used the extra space for my luggage. Had there been another bed I would have needed to store my luggage under the bed. There was also a battery operated lantern hanging from the ceiling. At night, the staff lit lanterns and placed one in front of each tent, another at the shower/toilets and a couple around the camp. During the afternoon breaks you could drag a chair over to the covered patio in front of your tent and read a book or spread out your kikoi for a nap (great idea but it was usually too hot).
On moving days we packed up our own luggage and left it outside the tent. The guys would pack the luggage in the trailer that we pulled behind The Beast to the next destination. They then packed up the camp in a different truck. They kept the personal items (from the nightstand in the tent) separate and you would get your own bar of soap back when they set up the camp at the next spot.
Showers and Toilets. The shower tent and toilet tent were the same - a metal frame with heavy canvas on all sides. A 5 gallon bucket with a shower head was hanging by a rope and was filled anytime you wanted a shower. The staff must have kept hot water all the time because you never had to wait on a shower. The canvas around the shower and toilet was heavy enough that when you showered at night and had the lantern inside there was no silhouette (that's a good thing). The toilet was a chemical toilet and served its purpose. I really worried about this shower thing before I left but it was fine. I never ran out of water and my hair was clean. (It looked like hell with no blow driers/curling irons but there weren’t many mirrors around and after a day or two I didn’t care.)
Sundowners. Most of the places we were did not allow night drives and we had to be in camp by dark. Of course, we were taking pictures until there wasn't any light left in the sky (low f/stops!) so we usually had sundowners in camp around the fire.
Moving days. Normally we would be up at 5 and leave for game drives around 5:30 (our choice – they normally get up a little later). On moving days we left around 6. After we left on the game drive, the guys would pack up the camp and radio us when they were pulling out. They usually were ready between 8:30 - 9:30. They headed to our next destination the quickest way they could get there. We "game drove" as far as we could and then did the Beverly Hillbilly thing on the "highways" until we could start game driving again. By the time we arrived in our next camp the guys had everything set up and ready. The person that planned our itinerary must have been trying to punish us or something because we did lots of driving. I will say we didn't miss any (or hardly any) games drives because most of the driving was done during mid-day when we wouldn't have been doing anything anyway. But all that driving in that heat (did I mention it was hot?) was just miserable. But the bad part was even when you got where you were going there wasn't any relief from the heat. It was still hot.
Before I signed up for this trip I knew it was going to be hot. I was oh-so-right. It was so hot. So very hot. During the mid-day breaks when we hung around camp it was so blanking hot. Too hot to take a nap. Too hot to look at pictures on the computer. Too hot to read a book. Too hot to breathe. I finally got the spray mist bottle out of my tent and just sprayed myself, face, arms, legs - whatever was exposed - and just hoped for a breeze to cool me off. I ended up carrying that bottle on game drives too. BUT, we would leave for the afternoon game drive around 4 and shortly after it felt like someone turned down the heat. Not that it got cool. It just wasn't quite so hot. So by the time we returned at dark you could actually sit around the fire and have sundowners. (Far away but still around the fire.) It usually cooled off enough around 1AM or so that you could fall asleep pretty good. Some nights I would have to find the blanket (that I had kicked off the bed) before morning. The 2 days we knew the temperature it was 120 and 122.
I'll go ahead and get my complaints about the itinerary out of the way and then talk about the good stuff. Without a doubt we did too much driving. I'm not real sure what I would eliminate except: 2 nights in Livingston was way too long (for all 6 of us). The 2 nights on the Boteti River could have been skipped. I haven't plotted all of this on a map (I'm really afraid to find out how much we actually drove) but this place was not worth driving out of the way for. (Maybe we didn't - who knows.) We arrived at the camp after a long, hot drive and found this camp was on a high bank of a dry river (dry for 10 years now). At the bottom of the bank they had a bore hole and there was a huge herd of zebra and some wildebeest. Very cool perspective, looking down on them. It was so hot we couldn't stand out in the sun any longer so we moved to the shade of the huge tent they had over the main area. Still hot but the sun wasn't beating down on you. The sky had a few clouds so as soon as a cloud blocked the sun we would go out and take pictures and head back to the shade as soon as the sun was out. In the afternoon so Nick took us around in The Beast. We didn't see much except a dead zebra with some vultures around it and a very long black mamba that slithered back into the brush as soon as we saw it. The next day we did an all day game drive with our guide and vehicle. 9 am until 7:30 pm. Hot. Hot. Hot. We saw a few oryx, a few zebra, a few eles, a few ostrich, the only secretary birds we saw on the trip. Everything we saw here was far, far away. Maybe they weren't used to vehicles here in this plains area. Back in time for dinner and showers and bed. The camp itself was very nice. Permanent tents, bathrooms in bomas etc. You could hear the zebras making noise all night long.
Another issue was the refrigerator. It worked off the battery. Or should I say tried to work. Nick had to turn it off every night to keep from running down the battery in the truck. It didn't work properly and never got cool. The drinks were cooler than the air temp but never cool. He complained to the safari company but they didn't have another to swap it out with.
The good stuff. There was lots of good stuff. The camps were great. The camp staff was great. Anything you asked for they took care of it right away. The tents were cleaned at least once a day. One thing this trip did not include was laundry. We all washed our clothes out in the little enamel sinks we had outside our tents but they weren't clean. The second time I needed to do some laundry I asked Ralph, the head guy of the staff, if any of the guys was interested in making some extra money by doing my laundry. Someone did so I left my dirty clothes with some cash. Came back that afternoon to clean clothes! They did a great job. (I didn't have them wash the underclothes.) I should have done that from the start. None of the men took advantage of this.
Nick was great. He doesn't work for the safari company but just works for whoever calls him. He's probably in his 60's and has retired from his regular job. He's originally from Great Britain but has lived in Botswana for 30 years or so. He knew so much about everything. He was also very patient with us - pull up 2 feet, pull up 3 feet and then turn to the left, can you move around to the other side so the sun is behind us, can you get closer, can you move further away etc. I'm sure we drove him crazy. You could tell he was perturbed a few times but he didn't ever say anything and was never rude. He did apologize for being short with us and blamed it on the heat. Did I say it was hot?
None of us really kept up with the itinerary so we would quiz Nick every day or two about what we would be doing. When he got to describing the trip to the Makgadigadi Pans, we were all looking at each other thinking - we are going to drive how long (5-6 hours) to spend one night in a place where there is no game and get up and drive 5-6 hours to get back out of there? How dumb is that and who put this trip together?? Nick kind of got upset and said you come all the way to Africa and you don't want to see anything you can't take a picture of? So what the hell. Off to the pans we go. (Like we could really change the itinerary now.) It is a long, long hot, hot dusty drive with intense sun. I was on the sunny side of the vehicle and used the kikoi to try to block the sun. Boy, we were so wrong in thinking the drive wasn't worth it. This place was so amazing. It's a dried up lake bed (2,000 years ago) that is nothing but crinkled white ground, 50 km by 100 km. During the rainy season it fills with water (3 or 4' deep) and then it evaporates away/soaks in and it's dry again. The drying ground leaves bubbly areas on the very top layer of soil (salt? I never did taste it) so it "crunches" when you walk where no one has already walked (pretty likely out there). It's hard to describe this place. (We passed Jack's Camp on our way out here so you don't have to bring a sleeping bag and sleep under the stars.)
The first thing we did was pick a place to camp. That's pretty funny. Here we are in the middle of nowhere and there isn't a blade of grass and nothing on the horizon in all 360 degrees. What's the criteria for picking a spot to camp? It's all the same! Nick was visiting with the staff about setting up the camp and he asked who wanted their tent set up. No one did. One guy was a little worried about what might "get us" but Nick assured us there were not any animals. So the guys just set up our bedding in a huge semicircle around the camp. We would just be sleeping out there in the open. Cool! Then Nick wanted us to hurry because he wanted to show us something before the sun went down. Turns out to be this 3000 year old baobab tree. It was beyond huge. Simply amazing. We took pictures there until the sun went down and then back to camp. Nick surprised us with ice in our G&T's! We were so excited. Here we are in this totally awesome place, we've just seen this immense tree that's 3,000 years old and we get ice for the first time on our trip. We went to bed early (9 or 9:30?) after dinner, lots of wine and then Amarula to top off this unique experience. The moon went down around midnight and then you could really see the stars. During the night it got really cold and windy here. The next morning we woke up around 5:30 and took pictures of the sunrise and "stooged" around (a word we learned from Nick) and the camp guys cooked a real breakfast for us. It was the only full breakfast we had while mobile camping. The Makgadigadi Pans was a great place to go.
We went on a few river boat trips (not counting the party boat!). One afternoon while in Chobe we had a ride in a small aluminum boat. My notes say "It sure was nice on the water. Just the sounds of the water lapping on the bottom of the boat made you feel cooler than it was." On this ride we saw lots of game and birds. Nick stayed with The Beast and drove to a prearranged spot and picked us up from the boat ride. No backtracking.
The next boat ride was several days later. We packed a small bag with stuff for 1 night and the staff packed small tents and 2 boats took us and the gear to an island in the Okavango. My notes say "took a LONG ride, 1pm-6:30pm and saw birds, pampas grass, papyri and lots of ferns. Then we came across an ele. He gave a mock charge and splashed into the water. Scary. But the boat driver never even started to motor so I guess he wasn't too scared." Anyway, the boat trip wasn't that exciting other than the elephant. When we finally got to camp they had it all set up (they were 4 or 5 hours ahead of us so they had plenty of time!). The tents were tiny. Tiny tents for the 2 singles and a little larger tents for the doubles. One tent was set up under a sausage tree that was full of sausages. We teased the guys that the sausages would fall on them at night and knock down their tent. Didn't happen but I think they were worried. Dinner was all cooked on the fire - beef fillets, vegetable kabobs, corn with tomatoes and a pudding. We slept late here (6:30) because the boat couldn't drive back in the dark. The drive back was faster, 7:15 - 9. Didn't see much on the ride back to The Beast. I probably wouldn't do this trip again. Lots of travel for an overnight and nothing that spectacular to see.
Khwai. Notes say "As always, hot as hell. There have only been a couple of nights that I slept well. Most nights I start waking up at 10 or 11 and then wake up ever hour or so all night long. 2 mornings - both at Khwai, hyena in camp awakened us. VERY LOUD NOISE. Not scared - maybe too tired. Lion tracks in camp one night and ele tracks another." In Khwai we saw the giraffe necking, 3 cheetah brothers, the bridge over the river khwai (nope, not the one in the movies) as well as all the usual game.
On the road to Maun. Notes say "another long dusty ride from Khwai to Maun. Half on dirt/sand roads and half on tar roads. Who would think you could get excited about tar roads! Nick said in some of the sandy places the sand is 1 km deep. Imagine that."
More notes about the trip from Meno A Kwena Lodge to our last lodge, Xaro Lodge in the Okavango Delta. "Nick said tomorrow is a long driving day. I don't know how it can be longer than today. He said we won't need cameras. Not a good thing. But it is tar road. The most brutal thing about the driving is the sun. It just beats down on you." next entry is "Okay, we've reached the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow! This last camp is heaven!"
For this part of the trip we ditched The Beast and moved over into an unairconditioned van. How smart is that? We did have an ice chest with ice in it so the drinks were actually cold. In the ride to the last camp, we talked about how we could translate to our spouses how hot it really was. We decided we would sit them in front of a 400 degree oven (to simulate the heat) and turn on a fan (to simulate driving in The Beast) and mist their face (to simulate the sweat) and then throw some baby powder in the fan (to simulate the dust). They would have the perfect example of what we went through. We stopped on the side of the road under a big tree for lunch. Almost too hot to eat. We did later stop at a gas station and the guys bought us all an ice cream - heaven! Xaro Lodge was a permanent tented camp. The tents are huge (they all have an 8' sliding glass door installed in the front of the tent), they are on leadwood decks. They all have a water view. There is a separate room at the back of the tent that has all the bathroom fixtures but they haven't been installed yet. Until they are installed there were real bathrooms with showers and flush toilets across a path from the tents. They have 8 tents, a real nice bar area and dining area. The dining table is probably 8 x 20'. Huge. The camp itself was like a tropical paradise. Plants and trees everywhere. And it's on the water so our game drives were in boats. The boat driver had obviously had taken a few photographers out before because he knew how to handle the boat to get us where we needed to be. We got lots of bird pictures here - kingfishers, bee-eaters etc. Saw several "flatdogs" (what they call crocs) and a water monitor. One afternoon I was sitting by the water's edge in camp, waiting for the malachite kingfisher to land, and the owner of the camp came by to give me a warning. He pointed upriver to where a croc was sunning in the sand and told me to watch the croc. He said if it disappears then I need to get away from the bank because he might be coming after me. Alrighty then. Needless to say I watched the croc.
More good stuff. We saw so many great things. Huge herds of elephants. Baby elephants. Baby elephants nursing. Baby elephants trying to go into the river and moms and aunts making sure they didn't get in the water. Lots of baboons. Huge pride of lions at Savute. We saw 16 at the waterhole at one time. Lions mating. Sub-adult lions playing/fighting. Lions on a young (appx 2 year old) elephant kill at the same water hole we had seen them drinking at the night before. Giraffes necking. 160+ different birds (I think the "birdman" of our group memorized the whole book about birds in southern Africa). Kingfishers fishing. Bee-eaters flying in their holes in the riverbank. The kori-bustard displaying (Nick was even excited to see this). The baobab tree. Hippos. Cheetahs. Leopards. Wild dogs. All the big stuff (except rhino).
The safari company we used doesn't use generators. With 6 photographers that had 2 cameras each, laptops and portable harddrives for downloading pictures, we needed lots of electricity. We had 2 inverters running off the truck battery. Poor Nick had all that stuff charging in the front seat with him nearly all day every day! But it worked. We didn't ever have to listen to generators and all of our stuff did get charged. We waited patiently in line with the highest priority items going first (camera batteries first!).
Random thoughts -
Drank quarts and quarts of water every day but only needed to use the toilet 2 or 3 times a day. Usually 2 (wine and coffee).
I took 5 or 6 books to read and didn't even finish the shortest one. Either too busy or too hot to read.
The people really live in the mud huts like on the cover of Alexandar McCall Smith's book. These huts are everywhere. Nick said they are free to build. They cut the grass to use on the roof, they cut the mopane trees to use as the frame, tree bark cut in strips to hold it all together, mud for the walls, and ashes from the leadwood trees are white so they use that to whitewash them. The animals have the "right of way" on the roads. We saw many cows and goats on the highways/roads and we had to slow down for them. There aren't many fences along the roads so the cows and goats just roam around. It's very dangerous to drive at night because you can't see the animals. If you hit one, you have to pay the owner for it. Nick said there may be several owners of each animal and can cost alot.
Most of the birds we saw sitting on branches had their beaks open. I'm not all that familiar with birds so I asked on of the guys if it was because they were hot. It was.
A guy on the plane from Maun to Joburg pointed out the advertising on the back of a beer can. The beer company was having a contest by collecting the ring tabs. Instead of winning a trip to Disney like you would in the states, you could win a herd of 6 cattle. How cool is that! He drank the beer and gave me the can to take home to my husband who is in the cattle business. His bride (newlyweds and they stayed at Jack’s Camp) noticed the guinea feathers I had found and just oohed and aahed over them so I gave her some. She was excited about the feathers.
One night while mobile camping, we drove up to a campsite with a big fire. It wasn't our camp because there weren't any tents. We were a little confused about why we were there and I realized what it was. They had prepared a bush dinner for us! Rice and pork stew, salad, fresh baked bread, Tiramisu for dessert, lots of red wine. Very nice.
Probably saw the most game in Savuti. One morning the waterhole was just full of lions. There were probably 10 or 12 on the ele kill, and still another 15 or 20 laying around. Nick said this huge pride of over 30 has been killing many elephants. There were quite a few males in the group and we watched as this one male approached 3 females and some cubs. He walked up to each one and rubbed noses (or smelled or whatever he was doing) and it was like he was greeting each one. Very cool.
Nick was awesome. I remember when we arrived in the Makgadigadi Pans, someone asked him a question about the area. He had all of us get out of the vehicle and he gave us a history lesson by drawing a map of the country in the dirt in front of The Beast. He told of all the changes in the rivers, lakes etc over the past couple of thousand years which explained the Delta area, and the pans and changes of wildlife migrations etc. Very, very interesting man. We loved to hear his stories.
So, in a very roundabout way, that was the trip.