Driving from SA to northern Botswana was a three day stint this time. The mad schedule we set for ourselves lately is starting to take its toll and we are slowly slowing down. So we thought we could do Selati-Selinda in two days – so it took longer…..
We always vow never to drive in Botswana after dark because there are so many cows and donkeys on the road that you just can’t see until too late. We hit a cow once. Ever since we vowed never to drive at night again, we seem to have done it more than ever.
This time we were two hours short of Nata when darkness fell. The rest of the journey was an exercise in concentrated night vision, scanning the sides of the roads for monochrome creatures that find their ultimate camouflage in the glare of headlights – and even more so when the headlights approach from both directions at once.
What stimulates them to amble slowly into the path of oncoming vehicles?
Donkeys too stand hopelessly in the middle of the road, heads hanging slightly, ears flopped forwards – like the donkey in the Pooh stories – they look depressed and even suicidal. But that’s projecting; in reality they are just having a little snooze on the warm tarmac.
We were lucky to find a bed in Nata, and happy to be off the road for the night. Nata is a small dusty town of palm trees, and thatched houses, and a river runs through it. A dry one that is for most of the year – only when it rains in Zimbabwe does the river flow, bringing chalky brown water to the Makgadikgadi Pans.
Makgadikgadi Pans are vast salt pans that are said to be the remnants of the lowest point of an ancient lake that once covered a large part of this country. Today they are seasonally flooded by rainwater, and present a mystical enigmatic vista of mirages and reflections. Important breeding site too for flamingos and pelicans as well as desert species such brown hyena, and bat eared fox. The yellow spiky grasslands that surround the pans are home to the black breasted korhan – those turkey like birds that fly high and then close their wings hurtling to earth making a noise like a football rattle – only opening their wings at the last minute – in a dramatic effort to impress their brides to be.
Once during the night I heard a truck start up and presumed it was dawn. Having set my alarm for 6am, I peered blearily at my watch, saw the long hand at ten to the hour and presumed it was ten to six. Leaped out of bed, started running a bath, KJ started making coffee. Got dressed and packed, peeped through the curtains to see it was still as dark as night outside. Something wrong here. Found a light and some readers – lo and behold it was 10 to 2 am; aagh – false alarm on a desert cold winter morning. Dive back into bed and try to catch some more zeds.
The second try was more civilised and we headed north on the well beaten tarmac road to Kazungula. This shy and retiring piece of elderly tar is just not shaping up under the onslaught of mainstream commercial traffic. It is falling apart, crumbling like an old biscuit and pitted with yawning potholes. White powdered calcrete billows up as wheels slip off the receding edge of the road or slam down into unforeseen gaps in the tar. With Zimbabwe in crisis this is now the arterial route to the north
Parts of the road are being tended to by private contractors, but the healed sections are sporadic at best, and contracts have been awarded by kilometre sections. People die on this road regularly – driving too fast and falling prey to the unforgiving nature of the potholes – they lose control and spin off into the bush, often flipping over several times. It’s horrific.
Just across the Nunga River we find a small herd of buffalo, and just on the edge of their vision, a male lion under a bush. We stop to look and he eyes us with suspicion – finally leaving the edge of the road for some deeper cover. A tourist bus slows down to see LION. Somehow, no African safari experience is truly complete without some evidence or sighting of this super predator.
We arrive at last in kazungula and spend the afternoon with friends in Lesoma Valley. Ha they thought they could hide away there…..
Fairly early start next day. Fill up with diesel – shocked at price increases again. Head west across the top of Chobe National Park, Ngoma transit road. Rattle on corrugated dirt roads through Kavimba and Katchekow villages. Stopping at the High Life Bar to buy a case of beers. Rolling over the sand ridge in 4WD, down the cut line where the sand has been ploughed by safari vehicles into a mass of furrows.
Come across a scene where the Defence Force is lined up to pull a tourist vehicle (with caravan attached) out of some thick sand. As we approach, a very agitated lady in fashion khaki rushes out waving madly ‘DO NOT STOP DO NOT STOP etc’; we can see she is serious so we get to the end of this particular sandy stretch and stop there. Facing the other way another vehicle is attempting to dig itself out of another deep sand pit. An elderly tourist is filming everything with a camera on a tripod. Some people are shovelling sand, and some people are issuing instructions. We check it out to see if we can help at all, before leaving this particular activity zone receding in a wide landscape of white sand and mopane trees, under an arc of cloudless blue sky.
On through the Linyanti Gate and into the private concession areas. Rungrens road is named after one of the first professional hunters to beat a path into this northern area – Eric Rungren from Kenya I think. Anyway his original road followed elephant paths that led from pan to pan. During the summer rains this road can be a quagmire of mud and water. Now it is dry so the main hazards are fine dust, and fallen trees pushed into the road by passing elephants. We bob and weave through elephant country, more grinding through soft sand, and finally arrive at the Savuti Channel.
After all the dry country we stop and take in the scene as bright water coasts over sand and grass, creating islands and bird heaven. The air is alive with the calls of glossy starlings, and a herd of impala graze peacefully on the other side of the water. Paradise found.
The channel bed only started to flow again in recent years. This last season has seen the water levels rise considerably at this crossing point, and we must drive through to get to camp. It’s the last hurdle on our journey and always an unknown quantity. At the deepest point water comes to the height of our bonnet, seeping in through the doors. There are some hippo holes in the middle too so we just hope we don’t accidentally dip into one of those, as the dark tannin coloured water keeps its secrets well.
The afternoon sun highlights the grasses and the water around us reflects a deep tanzanite blue as we edge our way slow and steady along unseen underwater tracks to the other side. Now we are home in what must be one of the most beautiful places on the planet. Time to unpack the vehicle, beat off the dust, crack a frosty, soak in a bath, and sleep while hyenas call loudly from the dark night.
One last thought – monkeys on the roof is a little like bats in the belfry – which also makes it appropriate…