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Botswana On a budget

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In search of an African adventure, but not so keen on breaking the bank to make it happen? Derik le Grange and his family set about exploring the diamond in the African crown, Botswana, and they did it all on a very modest budget!

Words and photography Derik le Grange

At the ripe age of 64 my retired father-in-law Phil decided to start a business as a safari tour operator. Africa is in his blood and he loves sharing this passion. And, as part of his legacy, he also wanted to show his grandchildren the awe-inspiring beauty of northern Botswana and Zimbabwe.

So we were the dry run for his new business on a route he believes is the chocolate pudding of African safaris. He likes roughing it: camping, 4x4ing, collecting his own firewood and planting himself within licking distance of the lapping tongues of the campfire. He can make a killer putu pap and enjoys keeping a hair’s breadth beyond the reach of the long arm of the law, just skirting the grasp of its fingers. It’s not that he goes out of his way to bend the rules of Africa, but it’s in his nature to test their boundaries.

Here’s an example: before we entered Botswana, I told him that the indicator globe of his trailer wasn’t working. Somewhat blasé, he pointed to his cubbyhole, remarking nonchalantly, ‘I’ve got a spare, but we’ll put it in when they force us to.’ Sure enough, just outside Maun he was stopped for a routine check of his trailer lights.

The policeman stood behind the trailer, pointed left and right and shouted ‘Brake lights!’ Phil switched everything on and off at once – left indicator, brakes, headlights and whatever else worked – except, of course, the malfunctioning indicator.

Perhaps a tad overwhelmed, the policeman eventually let us go on our way. Africa is renowned for its tricky and sometimes infuriating border officials, but it’s an entirely different story with Botswana immigration. A myriad smiles and welcomes greeted us at the Stockpoort border crossing, and I must admit to never having felt so welcome upon entering an African country. And it wasn’t only at this control point: we received the same treatment at the Pandamatenga and Kazungula crossings. When I told them that they were the friendliest border control officials I’d ever met, the humble reply was always the same: ‘We try to make all visitors feel welcome.’ Once you’re inside Botswana, there are only a few things that make it apparent that you’re now in a different country.

The donkey carts are the most noticeable, with their own designated lanes next to the busy road. Also conspicuous is the dust. There’s dust along the sides of the roads, around the houses and hotels, even circling the government buildings. It’s like a token of pride. The Tswana people must have 257 words at least for different types of dust, just like the Inuits of northern Canada have for snow. Then there are the mopane trees, with leaves like butterflies, that keep you company along the roadside at least half the time as you drive through Botswana. Now and then a towering marula breaks the brown and green monotony of the mopanes.

Then there’s the spectacular traffic disaster of Francistown. The traffic lights seem as unsynchronised as a preschool concert, and the traffic circles make the Arc de Triomphe in Paris look like a meditation labyrinth. There’s just too much traffic and too many cars. It’s worth making the point here that the drivers in Botswana are supremely friendly, courteous and considerate. Not a bird was flipped in anger or a word spat in disdain. Rules were observed and indicators used. On the main roads people stuck to the speed limits and hazard lights were employed when possible danger approached in the road ahead. Everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, except South Africa, truck drivers have a quick and easy way of showing motorists behind them whether it’s safe to pass or not: a right indicator tells you it’s not safe to pass, and a left one gives the goahead. Why has this practice never reached the South African side of the Limpopo?

We overnighted at Woodlands Stop Over on the outskirts of Francistown. It was bitterly cold, -3° C to be exact, which made camping rather interesting, to say the least. The following day we lunched at the Nata Lodge, which turned out to be more affordable than our Wimpy meal the previous day. The setting was tranquil and the food rather appetising. After Nata, Africa proper really begins, with game foraging along the roadside – mongoose, ostrich and the occasional steenbok. We set up camp just outside the unassuming town of Pandamatenga, our base for the next four days. Phil’s master plan was to be based in a central spot from which we’d drive out to various destinations, so we wouldn’t have to pack away and set up camp every day. For this purpose he chose Panda Rest Camp, from where we’d be able to visit Chobe and Vic Falls, with a day of R & R thrown in for good measure – we were on Africa time, after all.

The stands at Panda are huge: you’d really have to go out of your way if you wanted to get on other campers’ nerves. The ablutions are fine, and there are some welcoming lion roars with a hyena chorus at night. There’s a really cool bar, which is essential for a campsite. Somehow a bar can magically put small camping niggles like a cold shower, uneven campsites, power cuts and other camping inconveniences far into the background. The first time I strolled into the bar I found eight men and a woman, all local farmers, watching a ladies’ singles game from Wimbledon. I sat with them and watched the tennis, and later we discussed, among other things, travel in Africa. The lady asked about our itinerary, and gasped in surprise when we said we planned to go to Zim: ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ Phil retorted with his famous line: ‘The most dangerous part of travelling in Africa is the bit between Johannesburg and Pretoria.’ But Zim had to wait – Chobe was first.

Kasane: Chobe

I’d been to Chobe National Park once before, and I’ll always remember it as the only place I’ve seen all of the Big Five in a single day. We left Panda at 05:00, to start the game drive from Chobe Lodge at 06:00. Amazingly, the first animals we saw were lions. Next were some birds – a few ominous vultures and a lone marabou in a big tree. Then there were more lions, dining on a young elephant carcass. After a few hours, the drive ended with even more lions. This was the first ever game drive I’d been on where I saw more lions than impalas! Definitely another record for Chobe.

The most notable lion encounter of the day occurred when the Land Rover’s radio burst into life with an excited guide shouting that a pride of lions was stalking a buffalo. He gave a blow-by-blow account in Tswana, but we followed it, captivated, all the same. Our guide, spurred on by his colleague’s excitement, promptly accelerated to breakneck speeds to get us to the scene. The combined power of four lions had the buffalo on its knees, and then over onto its back. Three of the lions worked the head and torso while the lioness attacked the nether regions. The poor bull was turned into an ox, right there in front of our eyes. Even the most avid Animal Planet nut would’ve cringed to see such a brutal castration. The guide was, if anything, more excited than we were, as the buffalo lay there uttering unearthly, stomachchurning groans.

But the action wasn’t over. A tough bull from the herd, who must’ve heard the noises, came storming in like a whirlwind and chased the four lions away. Our guide and Phil guessed that enough damage had been done to the wounded buffalo for him to be unlikely to see the end of the day, but as we left, he was alive – and kicking!

The game drive ended at 09:00, and we’d already had enough excitement to rate the day a success – but we headed straight on to our next adventure: tigerfishing on the Chobe River. Our guide, ST, supplied all the gear and the boat, and off we went trolling for tigers. As we were there out of season, any kind of catch would have satisfied us. The kids each had a rod in the water, but kids cannot let a line lie in peace: they have to reel it in every 26 seconds. Surprisingly, this method soon produced our first catch – not a tiger but a tilapia, with a false hook through its tail fin. I think the poor fish had been merrily swimming along when a Yamaha propeller scared it away with its whirring rumbles of death. As it fled it must’ve got hooked by our bait – with no fewer than nine little hooks in the water, I guess it didn’t stand a chance.

Our eldest, Zoë, then hooked a catfish. She was tremendously proud to be winding it in, but as it broke the water’s surface, the ugly bugger gave her such a fright that she dropped the rod and scampered to the back of the boat. ST caught the rod just in time, but as he pulled the fish onto the boat amid screams of fear from the girls, he dropped it into the depths of the hull, where he couldn’t retrieve it. So no photo, which means no proof. ST took us to some rapids at the bottom of the river, where we cast into the white bubbling water and reeled in, time after time after time. Eventually I hooked my first ever tigerfish, to great cheers and much delight.

Of course there was also the big one that got away. I thought my hook was nested in the reeds when ST shouted that it was a tiger. I reeled till the sweat was dripping off my face, but when it was about 20 metres away it wriggled loose and swam away. ‘Oh, that one was at least six kaygees,’ ST enthused – but I’m sure he would have said that even if it had been a single kilogram. We weren’t done with this river yet, but the fishing was over. Off we went to Chobe Lodge for the famous Sunset Cruise.

There were tons of ellies, a zillion buffaloes and enough birds to make an ornithologist gasp. Everybody had a camera and a beer as we floated into paradise. The guide spoke now and then, but his comments were probably designed for a foreign audience, because we knew most of the stuff, except for one rather interesting observation: ‘The African elephant, as you can see on your right, shakes its food to rid it of all sand particles before chewing, to prevent damage to its teeth.’ This seems credible, because, as we know, elephants often die of starvation when they’ve expended the six sets of molars they have to make do with in their lifespan.

Then, the sunset. Oh, my word! The captain steered the ferry in behind a tree just before the sun dipped below the horizon. The sky turned into a purplish, pink soda fountain with the dying fiery sunbeams bursting out through a fabulous tree (the guide said it was a brown ivory) that was reflected on the velvety water. The clicks of the two thousand cameras on board sounded like a Khoisan symposium. All in all the day was phenomenal: it was one of those days that you’d put in an old wooden Zanzibari frame and hang up in the memory banks as one of the best. The drive back to Panda took place in something like a dreamlike daze.

Panda

After a long day filled with such excitement, we spent the next at leisure. Late in the morning we wandered through town in search of ice, a rare commodity, and wood, which was even rarer. Finally we found a vehicle mechanic with solid blocks of ice, which we were thankful for, but obviously not ideal for camping purposes. Wood, on the other hand, was simply nowhere to be found. Someone later advised us to adopt a ‘DIY’ approach and go into the bush to collect it ourselves. Very logical and quite tempting, but it’s not something you’ll readily do in a foreign country, especially with roaring lions roaming around as night settles in. We gave up the search in the end, but fortunately the campsite had wood.

Late that afternoon we drove along the boundary line between Botswana and Zimbabwe. There’s no fence, and the sable and roan antelope roam the plains with authority. The bush offers a majestic simplicity that is quite simply stunning. As the sun set, a million queleas flew overhead. (Well, if our Chobe guide can claim there are four million termites per mound without being able to prove it, why shouldn’t I say there were a million queleas? In Botswana a rough guess is fine.)

Vic Falls

The border is a tad tighter when you cross into Zim, with a great deal more red tape, so make sure you have all your bureaucratic ducks in a row before you head in for the official stamp of approval. I’d expected the town of Victoria Falls to be a dilapidated ghost town, but was very pleasantly surprised. A few curio sellers were going about their business, and Shearwater was still operating in its same old corner, offering elephant rides, bungee jumping and white-water rafting. There were restaurants with wi-fi, smiling locals and gung-ho travellers – albeit at only about 60 percent of the town’s capacity.

We ate at the cleverly named ‘In-da-belly’ restaurant (for those who don’t get it, it’s a wordplay on ‘Ndebele’), before we stormed the falls – which are simply magnificent. Instead of using superlatives and clichéd adjectives like gushing and monstrous, I’ll just say that the kids really enjoyed the statue of Dr Livingstone: they posed in front of him, repeatedly shaking hands and saying, ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume.’ After seeing the falls themselves, we went to the once-esteemed Elephant Hills Hotel. It still showed signs of its former splendour, but with only a handful of guests. We drove back through Kazungula and were back in Panda before sunset.

Maun

Our final leg was the 400 km drive to Maun, where we stayed at Audi Camp for a couple of days, which was really nice. Warm showers, good-sized stands, the all-important bar and lots of dust. By this time we had become connoisseurs at dust tasting and identification. The dust was undoubtedly of the ground volcanic type, with sedimentary undertones, while the nose had a strong charcoal whiff and nasal compaction was maximal.

Maun is the quintessential safari town, with open game-drive vehicles, a zillion lodges (in town and in the Okavango Delta), shops, expats with weathered faces and Ray-Banned bush pilots checking out the tourists stepping off the planes in their finest Fifth Avenue safari suits. We sat at the Bon Arrivée pub outside Maun Airport, people-watching and eating scrumptious pie.

For the average South African, a trip to the Okavango is pricey: flights, lodges … it’s just too much. Now Phil has devised a great way to have the same experience without the exorbitant costs. From Maun you drive two hours north-west to Morutshe at the bottom of the Okavango Delta, over the buffalo fence and straight into the network of channels. And there’s excellent game to boot. Two people, plus the poler, per mokoro (the traditional dugout canoe). We took some sleeping-bag-stuffed bags to rest our backs on, because sitting cross-legged for three hours can be challenging if you are anything older than 35. And off we went into the narrow waterways of the delta. We saw everything that was to be seen in the Moremi Game Reserve (crocs, hippos, ellies, buff and birds of all feathers) without the usual bank-breaking bill. Plus, the tranquillity and stillness of a mokoro outdoes almost any game drive.

Mokoros are made from the trunk of the sausage tree. After the trunk has been hacked into shape, the boat is submerged in water for several days. Once dry, it’s waterproof and ready for the khaki-clad tourists from all over the world. Our poler, Worm (pronounced ‘Wem’), had made more than five mokoros and was a sage of the bush. After the trip, Worm asked Phil how old he was, and in jest Phil said he was 80. Worm expressed surprise, and assured Phil that he didn’t look a day over 73. (He’s actually 64.)

Our last stage was a short trip to Gweta. But before we packed and departed, Phil had a surprise for the kids: a scenic flight over the Okavango Delta. Blimey! So up we went in a Cessna six-seater, my wife all khaki-feverish next to the pilot and me at the back with Grandpa and the kids. The flight was eye-opening and gave us a better idea of the extent and detail of the delta. So all the money we’d saved was spent on this flight, but it was totally worth it.

Gweta Lodge

On the recommendation of a fellow camper in Maun we dropped in at Planet Baobab, a lodge on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans, before we went to our pre-booked accommodation at Gweta Lodge. Planet Boabab, as the name suggests, was set up by (obviously eccentric) artists. The lodge is stylish and the campsites are first-class. Majestic baobabs tower over it, inspiring awe with their age and size. The restaurant-bar had soul: old pictures from Drum magazine adorned the walls, old airline ads depicting Africa were exhibited behind the bar, and Amstel chandeliers hung impressively from the roof.

Alas, we were already booked at Gweta Lodge, which left a bit to be desired in comparison with Planet Baobab. Fortunately there was a bar, so many of the shortcomings receded into the background. When one visits a country it’s important to see the iconic attractions. For instance, in South Africa one has to visit Kruger, Table Mountain and the Drakensberg. In the northern part of southern Africa the three must-see destinations are Chobe, Vic Falls and the Okavango Delta. All are easily reached by car and caravan on good roads and via proper campsites. If you base yourself at Pandamatenga, you’ll be able to see two of the three, and then a quick detour to Maun gives easy access to the last one. You don’t need a 4×4 or a big budget – just time and a sense of adventure.

People of Botswana

The people of Botswana themselves deserve a mention. Not only are they comfortable in themselves, but they are proud without being bombastic, content without being lethargic and friendly without being desperate. Three cheers for the diamond of Africa!

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