14 Nov. First stop this morning is Hemingways in Livingstone to pick up Dad and Chris’ car. We have used this company before and found them to be efficient with good cars. In fact the car we collect is one we have actually driven before. After going over everything to make sure they are happy with how everything works Dad and Chris set off with us to their first African border crossing – Kazangula again – we brace ourselves.
But, after employing a helper again, it actually isn’t too bad. However Dad is absolutely gobsmacked at how disorganised it all is. It is certainly a shock welcome to your first African holiday, but we assure him that it should be a little more relaxed from here on in. Back in Kasane we have a lovely lunch at Chobe Safari Lodge and get some shopping for the next few days as the next place we will get chance to buy food is probably going to be Maun.
Our campsite for the first night is Senyati and this is our first time here. It has a lovely bar which is up high and overlooking a waterhole. Interestingly the owners have built an underground tunnel which leads to a view point of the water hole which is at ground level. This means that you are only a few feet away from elephant feet and it is quite a disconcerting, if unique, view. This was dads first elephant sighting so it was fantastic to see one so close and it is great to experience these first sightings through someone else’s eye.
During the night we hear hyena which keeps us awake and then the storm starts, with torrential rain hammering on the tent. It seems we are destined not to sleep at the moment. We had planned to set off at 5am but as the rain was still heavy we stay in bed to see if it will stop. It seems not. We finally have to get up, rain or not, and we all get thoroughly soaked in the process of packing up, but at least it is cooler.
Driving through this park is always special and we are excited to wonder what we will see here. The deep sand tracks are a little firmer due to the rain and there are plenty of deep puddles to drive through; a taste of things to come in Moremi perhaps. Driving slowly along the tracks, each of us scanning the bush to find game, we decide that no matter how many times we go on a game drive it is always a very special experience. With the windows down we can smell the air and damp ground and the sounds of the bush are all around, even with the sound of the car engine. There is a fair amount of game but it is evident that this rain is much needed as there is very little grass and leaves around for animals to eat. Hopefully this much needed water will kick start the growth and make life a little easier. A lot of animals have their young at this time of the year so we should see some cute babies. As we bounce through the deep sand we spot plenty of animals, including a small group of elephants where several of them were lying down, something we don’t recall seeing before and it is something we will have to find out about. Other sightings included a couple of lionesses, some kudu, waterbuck, lechwe and even a sable antelope which was particularly beautiful.
Bird life here is prolific too and we clocked up 58 species including the very pretty southern carmine bee-eater which is probably my favourite bird in southern Africa.
Altogether a productive day.
We have booked a campsite just outside Chobe on the western side of the park which overlooks the river flats. It is functional but a bit tired looking, but we just need somewhere to cook some supper and set up the tents for the night.
It was really sad to leave everyone in Mashatu this morning; we have made lots of friends in the last two months and we are going to miss them. But we are pleased to be on the road again and we have ten days to explore northern Botswana and the Mgkadigkadi Pans before we head to Livingstone to meet my Dad and his partner, Chris for a two week holiday. We are very excited, it has been seven months since we have seen any friends or family.
On the way out of Mashatu we have to cross the river bed and its very deep sand here. A little car is stranded in the middle and so we come past him and stop to give him a hand. The poor couple have been here for five hours and its 4o degrees now! Apparently several people have come through but no-one has stopped. Landy makes light work of towing them out and they are so grateful for the assistance and the drinks of water we gave them. It never ceases to amaze me though how chilled out people are when in this sort of situation. At home, being stuck in this heat with no water or food and miles from anywhere would be so stressful, especially as undoubtedly it would make you late for something as we are always rushing about. I think I like Africa time.
Francistown to Kubu Island
We have several hours to drive today to get to Francistown where we need to stock up on food before we head to Mgkadigkadi Pans. It will be very remote and we plan to spend several days in areas where there is very little so we need to be self sufficient. Francistown is bonkers as we arrive when everyone is leaving work and there appear to be lots of roadworks which results in frustrating delays when all we really want to do is get to a campsite and chill out. We eventually find a supermarket and its like Christmas, loading up the trolley with lots of goodies that we haven’t seen for a while. We head out of town slightly to a place called the Woodlands which is popular with overlanders apparently and we can see why. Its clean and has a pool, what more do you want after months in the heat and dust? It is great to cook our own food again too.
We leave the campsite early this morning as we have some way to go to our destination of Kubu Island on Sua Pan, which is part of the Mkgadikgadi Pans. Tracks 4 Africa is telling us that the road out to what is basically a group of trees in a massive flat expanse of nothing is potentially bad. But it is not the rainy season so we are hopeful that we will not have too much difficulty. We haven’t booked a campsite for Mkgadikgadi National Park with the Parks office so we head first to Letlhakane as there is an office there we are in luck; manage to get some campsites booked. (I think we have said before – Botswana National Parks system is a bit complicated.)
The road is a surprise though. The tar section has been extended and so only the last part is deep soft sand and then its onto the pan itself which is pretty solid and great fun to drive on with the horizon stretching out in front of you, seemingly never-ending.
We arrive at Kubu Island campsite and find a nice place to pitch. There’s plenty of space here and although there are a few other cars it is very quiet and peaceful. We put our new found knowledge to the test by strolling around and naming all the trees (well, most of them) and we are camping under a star chestnut tree. Our instructors at Eco Training would be proud!
But its the baobabs lining the island that steal the show. They just feel so ancient, as if this landscape is timeless. Its hard to believe that this used to be a vast lake and edge of this island is an ancient beach. What must this place have looked like then?
We meet a lovely German couple as we are taking a walk in the evening and then join them for a drink or two. They are driving a Land Rover too and are doing pretty much the same route as us but the other way around, so we are able to swap ideas for places to visit and stay. These lucky guys however are shipping their Land Rover to South America after Africa to do the same there – very nice.
The wind really picks up and I should imagine that when it gets really strong here then it would be pretty grim. The sand is blown around constantly and as it exfoliates your skin it is pretty painful and annoying. But at least it is cooler and tonight, after watching the sunset over the pan, we at last get a good nights sleep with the temperature perfect.
Across the pan to Mkgadikgadi National Park.
It is always surprising that places like this have such beautiful wildlife. Once again we are in the territory of the experts of desert living, springbok and oryx. But on the edges of the pan we may also get to see giraffe, zebra and even predators. So we decide to get out of bed early to watch the sunrise and have another walk around the island and a little wander out onto the pan where we find a lone rock to sit on where and gaze at the shimmering haze over the pan. This is a place well worth a visit.
The drive across the pan in a north-easterly direction takes us to a little town called Gweta and the drive is easy enough and the deep sand sections are not too bouncy. Well before we get to the town though, we come to a vet fence which is manned by a few guys and its a very lonely looking place to live. They don’t even get that many tourists driving through even though they also have a pretty good campsite, worth remembering for next time. We stop for a chat and discover they don’t get provisions very often and have run out of a few basics. We find some sugar and oil to hopefully see them through to their next shopping day or the visit from a tourist.
Mgkadigkadi National Park is on the southern side of the main road and and we are heading here for some remote camping. We see some gemsbok and zebra as we drive along the deep sand tracks and also some northern black korhaan which are beautiful birds and plentiful here.
The camping is what it is all about here. We set up under a tree,grab a beer and go for a little wander at sunset. Not too far away, you never know what is out there. It is so perfectly quiet; just the sounds of the bush for company that night.
Nxai Pan and Baines Baobabs
Today we are off to Nxai Pan National Park and the drive takes us the best part of the day, bumping along in deep sand but on the way to the main road we see plenty of elephants, zebra, kudu, wildebeest and giraffe, along the river bank on the western side of the park. At the main road we travel a few miles before turning into the National Park on the northern side of the road, Nxai Pan. We have been here before, a few years ago and we are really looking forward to it. We camping at South Camp, direct with the company running it at the gate which is a much less stressful way of doing it than in Maun. But of course we are lucky they have space I suppose. The drive through this park is seriously deep soft sand and the its pretty tiring. As we approach the camp we drive right past a large pride of lions, we count about twelve, although they were sleeping in the shade and so it was tricky to see them all. They seem pretty laid back here so we are able to sit and watch for some time. When we arrive at the site it is to find lovely big pitches and clean shower blocks – luxury! The shower blocks are surrounded by concrete with metal spikes in as a deterrent to the elephants which, during the dry season, will investigate sources of water at every opportunity. Just imagine sitting on the loo when a trunk appears over the top of the wall!
After a quick sort out we head of to the water hole to see what is about and we are very lucky. The sun is setting and there is a large herd of elephants coming down for a last drink, its picture perfect and we could sit and watch for hours but we need to be back at camp before dark. As we sit around our fire eating dinner we are hear the soft trampling and rumbling of elephants and unbelievably they walk right behind the Landy on their way to the shower block where they find an overflow in the ground to stick their trunk down. They stay around all evening and when we walk to the shower block it is with some trepidation and frantic torchlight searching. All night we hear them, so close to the tent we can hear them breathing and one even takes a sniff of the tent. A quick glimpse through the window confirms how close they are – we are eye to eye! Eventually nod off but its an unusual night.
This morning the elephants are gone, leaving only their footprints all around the camp and the car – so close! We head to Baines Baobabs where Landy is dwarfed by their huge width and height. They are in flower and these beautiful blooms are only out for one day before dropping off and then the fruit begins to form, supposedly very tasty and slightly citrus flavour.
At this time of the year there is a track across the pan which is great fun, (for Top Gear fans – you would recognise this!).https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OETj9aTYO2Q Although the bit about cars never having driven across it is clearly inaccurate – we did and we followed the track! All the driving through this park is great, the scenery is amazing and you never know what you are going to see. It’s not like some of the more famous parks, it just feels more wild and there are few fences. The wildlife in Botswana is truly wild; you are as likely to see an elephant on the road as you are in the park.
There are a couple of places near here which are worth a mention for a stop over. The first is Planet Baobab which is a funky little place with a pool and a great bar area. Its a handy stop between Mkgadikgadi and Nata.
However a really special place is Elephant Sands where we decide to take a chalet and spoil ourselves. The chalet overlooks their waterhole which is supplied by the owners and water is brought in by tankers when it runs dry. For many elephants migrating from Botswana over the border to Zimbabwe this place has the only water for miles and they do a great job in helping them. One male was caught in a trap several years ago and came up to the bar area and stood whilst the owner helped him. That elephant now comes back regularly and seeks the owner out. It is a very special story and a very special place – check it out here http://www.elephantsands.com
We have a drink in the bar watching the elephants and then, in our lovely chalet, we watch as herd after herd comes down for water. It is a continuous procession and there is always something interesting to watch.
We are heading north now to the border crossing into Zambia where we will meet up with Julie’s dad, Roger and his partner, Chris. After so long away from home it is very exciting to have family out to join us for a couple of weeks. Next stop Kazangula Ferry – we have been here before and its a bloody nightmare! We are bracing ourselves and Keith has taken a chill pill! See you on the other side.
4 Oct. We are looking forward to driving in Landy again and it is strange to leave the camp and go back into civilisation after living in the bush for so long. We decide to leave earlier in Landy than the rest of the guys in the Eco Training Minibus as we want to get some shopping from Tzaneen on the way to the border crossing. As we head north the terrain begins to change as we arrive in the beautiful area around Mapangubwe.
After a quick stop in Alldays for a milkshake with our instructor Graham whilst we wait for the minibus, we are back on the the road and soon at Pontdrift Border Crossing. Landy makes short work of the deep sand dry river bed crossing and we soon complete formalities at Customs at surely one of the quietest and quickest border controls in South Africa (apart perhaps from the one at Richtersveld).
First impressions of Mashatu? Unbelievably beautiful. Huge rocky outcrops, large trees and lots of open space look perfect for game drives and bush walks. I think we are going to like it here.
Eco Training Mashatu Camp
Even on the way to the camp we see plenty of wildlife including elephants at a waterhole where a baby was having great fun harassing a warthog. The terrain becomes more interesting as we approach Eco Training’s camp as it is right on the banks of Motloutse River and very close to a feature known as Solomans Wall, a 30-metre high and 10-metre wide basalt dyke. This unusual feature once formed a steep-sided natural dam wall across the river and held back a vast lake, with water spilling over it, until it finally gave way and the river began to flow. Of course now the river flows only occasionally and for now it is dry.
When we arrive at camp it is to find that the lecture room overlooks the dry river and it couldn’t be a more idyllic place to live and learn. We are pleased to find that we can park Landy right next to the camp so it seems logical for us to set up our roof tent and sleep in comfort and leave the small ground tents with accompanying bugs to the young ones. We try not to feel smug!
After everyone has settled in and we all have a look around our home for the next month we set off on a game drive. Sad to say that the vehicles here are Toyotas, not Land Rovers but you can’t have everything. The vegetation here is very different to that which we have been used to so far. Huge appleleaf trees and Mashatu Trees line the river and majestic Baobabs cling to the side of the hills. There are Mopane forests which are loved by the large herds of elephants that can be found here and there are so many different types of flowers and plants that we are going to have our work cut out remembering them for our game drives.
As dusk falls we arrive at Mmamagwa Hill which is an extremely important historical place, formally part of the Kingdom of Mapungubwe (1075–1220), the first stage of development that would lead in the 13th century to the Kingdom of Great Zimbabwe.
We climb up the hill as the sun begins to set and the colour of the sky is beautiful, a lone Baobab tree silhouetted against the orange is the perfect place to sit and contemplate our surroundings and how much we are going to enjoy living here. Cecil Rhodes even carved his name into this tree, its clearly a place that has intrigued visitors for a long time. An extra treat on the way back to camp though; Springhares. I have never seen them before and I just wish I had the ability to take good photos of animals in the spot lights at night.
The night proves to be exciting too. We have elephants wandering around the camp during the night. So close that we can hear them breathing outside our tent as well as their low rumbles and soft footsteps through the undergrowth.
7 Sept. As part of our travelling experience we decided, whilst planning our trip, that we would enrol in a two month training course with Eco Training on their Field Guide Level One course.
Now is the time. The idea is that the knowledge and experience we gain whilst living in the bush and receiving training from experienced Field Guides will help us to appreciate and understand all that we see in the coming months. It is also a really good and cost effective way of living out in the bush, surrounded by animals and having the opportunity to walk in areas where there is game. We are very excited!
We arrive at the gate of the Selati Game Reserve in South Africa and meet our instructors Graham and Norman and our fellow students. We are, as expected, the oldest in the group and most of them are doing the 1 year Professional Field Guide Course where they go on to do tracking and advanced Birding, followed by a 6 months placement. Our Instructors and the other students are all friendly and great fun and we both feel that we will have a fantastic time here.
Our Bush Home
The Eco Training Camp is set in a large private Game Reserve and consists of a dozen two man tents, a communal area for lectures and meals, basic showers and loos, a kitchen with fantastic cooks, and an area for a campfire each night. It is not fenced and the animals are free to pass through if they wish. The Nyala are pretty much here all the time, as are the cheeky monkeys, and there is evidence of occasional elephants passing through too.
We start as we mean to go on and are straight out on a night game drive after settling into our tents. The vehicle we use is a Land Rover and the plan is to take it in turns to “conduct” a game drive as if we are Guides and the other students our customers. Immediately it becomes apparent that we are going to be working hard. Graham points out trees and birds constantly and we have to learn these. In addition we have to identify bird calls, uses for the various trees, know about the geology and ecolog of the area, interesting information about animals, insects and plants and loads more. It’s going to be tough.
The next morning we are up at 5am and we will be taking it in turns to get up at 4.30am to prepare tea, coffee and rusks for everyone else before setting off at 5.30am on a morning game drive. But it is worth it. We are living in the bush and connecting with nature, something we wanted to do and this is going to be an amazing way to learn about African wildlife.
In the afternoon we all have to learn how to change a wheel and take it turns. Keith is number one student at this point!
Learning how to be a Field Guide
As well as the game drives there is plenty of classroom time too but Eco Training have lots of books as well as the four set books we had to buy and bring with us. We can recommend one of these in particular for a good overall field guide, “Game Ranger in your Backpack” by Megan Emmett and Sean Pattrick. It is a lot to take in as we will be learning about ecology, geology, the night sky, environmental issues, climate, biomes as well as all the animals, birds and insects.
8 Sept. Its our second day here and we are now getting to know our fellow students. We are a varied bunch, four South Africans (including Keith), two English (including Julie), two Germans, and one American and the age range is 19 to 50. It is interesting to get to know people’s characters and sense of humour and to observe the group dynamics. We finish off the day with a game of volleyball in the dry river bed and it is surreal to notice the tracks of lions and elephants as we play barefoot in the same sand.
I think our evening game drives are one of the highlights so far on this course. Driving at night in a park or reserve is something you only get to do if you book a guided drive. To have the experience of driving, using a spot light and learning about nocturnal animals, is amazing. It is peaceful and wild here. The night skies are stunning and climbing to the top of a Kopjie to watch the sunset with a beer and good company is something we will never forget.
During our time with Eco Training in Selati we see some amazing animals. One particular night we set off on a night drive and Keith spots some movement in the bush and sure enough, after a short wait, a beautiful black rhino comes into view and stands close to the car watching us. He eventually decides we are no threat and turns and trundles back into the bush. The same night, just after nightfall, one of the students at the front of the car shouts “Aardvark!” We all leap up (the shouting and leaping up is definitely not in the Field Guide Handbook) and fortunately all of us catch a glimpse of this elusive nocturnal animal before it disappears into the night. Amazing sighting.
Another highlight for us is the the night we pack up sleeping bags and food and head off into the bush to sleep out under the stars. After preparing food and chatting around the camp fire we take it in turns to sit up and keep lookout for any unwanted visitors. Although we hear a leopard nothing interrupts the peace and quiet and we all get some sleep despite lying on the hard ground with just a thin mat and a sleeping bag.
Walking in the Bush
There are some lovely animals here and we get to see many of them whilst on foot as several times we go out on a bush walk instead of driving the Land Rover. This is the time when you feel most connected to nature, walking the same ground as the elephants, lions, leopards and all sorts of game. We have another instructor join us for the last week or so here and he, Graham and Norman are all so knowledgeable and keen to share their experience with us. Walking in the bush is where this experience is essential and at no time do we feel in danger, but it is a humbling experience and walking in the bush is something that can only done with someone who knows what they are doing (and has a rifle.) We are so lucky to have had the opportunity.
By now we are taking it in turns to conduct the game drives and sometimes we just don’t see anything much in the way of animals. We don’t see lions or elephants every day and some days you might only see an impala. This is where the training and instruction we receive from the Eco Training guides comes into its own. We have to find, and talk about, the smaller things. We become adept at spotting tracks and identifying which animal they belong to. We can talk about the insects that we see, the birds we can hear and interesting facts about trees and plants. We can identify stars in the sky, different rock types and we can talk about erosion, land management and animal behaviour.
It is amazing how much we have learnt in a month and we still have one more month to experience in a very different environment. We are heading across the Limpopo to Botswana where we will spend four weeks living in the bush in the legendary Mashatu in the Tuli Block.