By guest writer: Trevor Sparks
Our first night was booked at Molosi in the Khutse Game Reserve (the 2500 sq km pimple at the bottom of the 52 800 sq km Central Kalahari Game Reserve). It is a five hour drive from Gaberone. The road in the park is comprised mostly of deep sand, but was in reasonable condition. The road from Letlhakeng to the gate had recently been graded and was in fine condition. At the waterhole a pride of 14 lion welcomed us, allowing us to drive up to within about twenty meters.
Molosi and Moreswe (at the south-western end of the road network of Khutse) have artificial waterholes which seem to have attracted year-round game populations of springbok, gemsbok, giraffe, red hartebeest and steenbokkies along with their lion and leopard predators. With the exception of the lions and to a certain extent the springbok, the game is all very skittish. The male gemsbok, springbok and red hartebeest had already claimed their territories in preparation for the rut. There is also a healthy bird population, including many birds of prey (martial and tawny eagles, secretary birds, owls, hawks, lappet-face vultures etc).
The campsites at Molosi are situated on a dune to the east of the dune street containing the waterhole. Camp 1 is 1 km southeast of the waterhole with the rest being spread along the dune at 1+ km intervals. A scene which was repeated throughout the Kalahari was of the large numbers of namaqua sandgrouse and turtle doves coming in to drink just before sundown. We heard the lions that night, but did not see them again.
It rained a little on our first evening which cooled things down nicely. Day temperatures, peaking at around 15h30, were between 37*C (99*F) to 42*C (108*F) throughout the trip. Mornings were cool at between 18*C (64*F)to 25*C (77*F). I calculated on one particular day that I lost about 3 litres (5 pints) in sweat. I found that a pack of rehydration fluid once a week perked me up noticeably. Not only is it hot, but the sun burns, so hats and suncream are very necessary. We found that spraying water over ourselves helped to ease the heat, but still from about 11h00 to 16h00 found us sitting in our chairs in a shady spot. Neither of the dominant trees, the camelthorns (acacia erioloba) or shepherd’s trees (boscia albitrunca), provide dense shade, so one has to move around with the sun.
The EU, I believe, donated funds for erecting slatted shelters on cement tiles for bucket showers (they provide a bucket with a rose and tap and you provide the water) and longdrop toilets (they provide the hole which you fill). It seems to me that the longdrops have caused the fly population to explode. I think that the longdrops need to be treated with earthworms, lime or something to alleviate this problem. Not cigarette ends which I understand can cause an explosion (and the shit to fly). Those ‘Zap Em’ tennis racket type fly electrocuters come in handy. (In the south and eastern cattle areas of Botswana the flies are also a serious irritation).
There still seem to be few visitors to Khutse outside of the school holidays, Easter etc, which makes a visit more at one with Africa. The people who are there are more serious bush lovers and are more respectful of proper bush lore. We met a Chech couple who had started a business producing food for domestic fish. They have handed the business over to their children and spent a lot of time on the road. The wife told us how a lion had come into their camp licking water off the shower floor (I think). She got up, fetched a bowl, filled it with water and put it down in the campsite, The lion soon went over and drank the water. Then she told us that she was terrified of the rats running around the campsite! I have never heard of anyone being attacked by a rat. This is a good example of why we men have such difficulty understanding women! We also met Veronica Roodt who was measuring all the tracks for an updated Shell map.
After two nights at Molosi we left for Moreswe for three nights. It is a 25 km(16 mile) drive south through quite thick bush including a crossing of the Tropic of Capricorn. Camps 3 & 4 are located to the east of the pan in the bush. Camp 1 is in the bush on the dune on the northern side and camp 2, where we stayed, is lower down the dune with a broken view of the pan. The waterhole is on the pan between camps 1 and 2. We drove around the Moreswe pan (5 kms) regularly as well as around Mabuakolobe pan which is a 11 km roundtrip. Although the game was mostly very skittish, it was very peaceful. The two pans lie in a depression which seems to me to be the fossil remains of a large river. The dominant tree is the witgat or shepherd’s tree (boscia albitrunca) which form all kinds of twisted shapes to tell of the hardships of live in the Kalahari. We started getting a bit nervous about our water supplies here. I was drinking over 4 litres (7 pints) a day, it was difficult restricting a shower to 4 litres and then we still needed to wash dishes, hands etc. The 160 litres (280 pints or 35 gallons) was fast running out.
In his book ‘African Adventurer’s Guide to Botswana’, Mike Main mentions that in 2000 there were 105 00 elephants in Botswana, mostly around the Linyanti and Chobe rivers and the Savuti channel and plain. The population was growing by 5% pa. Contraception and translocation had proved unsuccessful. Hunting accounts for 3-400 of the largest tuckers, thereby disturbing the demographic balance, per annum. I doubt that the carrying capacity of that area is more than about 70 000 elephants. The riverside vegetation has been decimated and the elephants are now looking further afield for browsing material. The Okavango is roughly at the end of the unstable Great Rift Valley geological system with its concomitant movement in the underlying geological plates. This caused the Savuti channel to dry up for +/- 25 years before it started flowing about six years ago again. Interestingly it sometimes flows west to east and at other times east to west depending on water levels and ground slope. The Boteti river also stopped flowing for about 30 years (just after Con Cadle planted his first mielie (corn) crop). It too started flowing again a few years ago. The elephant bulls have found these ‘new’ sources of water and are moving into these areas to feed mostly on the mopane thickets. The cows do not yet trust the continuation of the water’s existence and no doubt fearing that their calves would not be able to survive a return trip, are still staying away. The artificial waterholes in Khutse will very likely be the next attraction for the bulls.
The drive north to Xaxa waterhole in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (‘CKGR’) was 238 km (148 miles), but it took us 8 hours – that’s 8 US hours, too) of hard driving. The road twists and weaves through thick sand between the trees. There were no tracks over the rain from 5 days previously, so clearly it is a road less used. Signs of elephants became more frequent as we travelled north, starting just north of the Khutse border. The elephants, like many of the larger game species, make frequent use of the tracks as these are easier to traverse than the thick bush. As elephants are want to do, they had pushed over many trees, a number of which had fallen over the track. Many of the turns in the track are quite sharp and blind through the trees. Not much fun being confronted with a tree over the road less than 10 meters ahead after rounding a blind bend! The mopane trees (dominant in the area) are very hard too. The last 15 kms into Xaxa was through very deep sand.
After setting up camp at the waterhole, I got a fire going about 20 meters north of the Land Rovers for the evening braai. The waterhole, itself about 30 meters across, was another 40 meters north and behind the waterhole was quite thick bush. As I got the meat out to put on the fire, just after the sun had gone down (our twilights last about ten minutes), there were two mighty roars from behind the waterhole. The lions were on their night prowl! Hannes & Albertus got to the LR’s before I had even sussed the situation out. I grabbed the meat and joined them. I closed the meat in the back of my LR. When I asked for volunteers to braai a few minutes later, there were no takers. After a few minutes my hunger got the better of me, but we kept torches flashing into the bush throughout dinner.
We didn’t sit around too long after dinner – tired from the long day in the saddle. The next morning Hannes & Albertus were talking about the lion roars about 40 m to the west of us – I had heard nothing!
The next morning we passed through the game scout camp Xade. It has a gate leading out west to the tar road near Ghanzi. When I asked a ranger about the elephants, he said that there were no elephants near there. I have news for him – we saw signs just a few kms east and north of their camp! We filled up with water (a bit salty, but good enough for showering, washing up and coffee). When we got to Piper Pan, we found other people in campsite 1 (which we had booked), which is ideally located right on the pan. We had to settle for campsite 2 which is about 2 kms south in the bush.
Pipers is a great site. It is part of the northern section of CKGR, which has much greater populations of more visitor oriented game, but is far enough south for most people to give it a miss. There are many pans in the area. (The grass on the pans and pan edges, because of the high clay content of the pans, is very nutritious). There is an artificial waterhole there too, so there is an abundance of game. On our first night one of the other group & Hannes had left action triggered cameras at the waterhole. The next morning the cameras had been chewed and were found hidden in the bush. I found the lions lying under some witgat trees about a km away. There was one beautiful black-maned Kalahari male, two breeding lionesses and six cubs from two litters (2 and 4) which we estimated to be about five and seven months old. They had full bellies and were content to lie and sleep. The springbok were grazing only 40 meters away, knowing that they could outrun the lions.
That afternoon at about 16h00 it started drizzling. Cooling down rapidly, we all felt like action. Down at the pan the lions were stirring. The cubs were running around, jumping at and on one another and on their mothers, particularly one of the lionesses who played a little with them. It was an amazing sight seeing them romping around in the wet grass. They were licking the water off one another’s coats. The male stirred, stood up, yawned, licked water off his rump and shook his big-maned head, sending spray all around and lighting his head in the low sunrays as if he had a halo.
I drove to the opposite side of the pan and was rewarded by the whole troupe, cubs still running and jumping, moving off into the bush ahead of and behind me. It really was an incredible experience.
After three nights at Pipers, we moved on to Letiahau. On the way out of Pipers we found another pride of lions resting under bushes. The Letiahau valley is probably about three kms wide and we were in the middle. It is a fossilised river, with the banks still clearly visible in places. It gives a clear indication of how much water must have flowed through there in ancient times when the Kavango, Linyanti and Zambezi rivers flowed through the Central Kalahari to form lakes and probably join the Molopo river in SA. A few kms north of our camp we found three cheetahs, two adolescent cubs with their mother, lying under a tree about 100 m off the road. An advantage of game viewing in Khutse and the southern part of the CKGR is that there is unlikely to be more than two or three other vehicles at the sighting.
The next day we moved a little further north to Lekhubu camp. The camp had very little shade, so we spent the afternoon in a glade of trees a few kms north of camp. Since leaving Khutse we had had no bucket showers or longdrops except at Pipers. We had to dig our own toilet holes. I think that they built longdrops because the open places near to camp suitable for digging a toilet are limited and I guess could get used up. Not much fun digging up somebody else’s shithole.
The next day we drove through Deception, which gets quite crowded these days. They have built a lodge behind the dunes on the southeastern side. Last time that we were there a helicopter flew in. In our assessment which we handed in at the gate I stated that I did not find helicopters to be appropriate in a pristine wilderness area. The lady politely informed me that they had flown the State President in to the lodge. Deception is the place made famous by Mark and Delia Owens in their book ‘Cry of the Kalahari’. (If you haven’t read this, you haven’t lived!) We went out through the Matswere gate from which the track leads to the village of Rakops, where after over 1 000 kms (600 miles) we could get diesel again. On the way Hannes’ brake pipe broke and we had to stop to fix it. Hannes and Albertus were heading back from Rakops, whereas I was going on for another ten days.
I then went up northwest to Khumaga in the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. I had to cross the Boteti river in a ferry. Not very pleasant. The operator told me that I couldn’t drive through as, although there was a route, there were also holes which could present a problem. I parted reluctantly with Pula 130 (about USD14). He dropped me off in knee-deep water. The wardens at the gate told me that they dig sand out of the river there when the water is low. Creating a hazard to force you to use their ferry!
The four campsites are all on top of one another and that night I could hear the village cattle and donkeys, but I certainly enjoyed a cold shower! I rinsed some clothes and filled my water tanks even though the water was yellow. I had anticipated wearing clothes for two days so as to get through the trip, but with the heat and sweating this had proved impossible, so it was a relief to get my clothes at least half clean. About 7 kms (4 miles) north of camp there are deep sandy tracks going down into the river bed. The tracks run in the river bed for about another 8 kms. The scene was spectacular – elephants, hundreds of zebra, blue wildebeest, kudu and warthogs. It was quite amazing and I went down in the morning on my way out. The evenings, when most of the game come down to drink, are reportedly much better. I saw hundreds of zebra alongside the track too.
From the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park I crossed the tar road and went into the Nxai Pan National Park. The track was again very deep sand. When I got to the campsite I found that the sites were all together even though they were fairly large at about 40 m x 40 m. I had been booked into site 3 which was right next to the ablutions. I did not like this as people from the other sites would likely walk through my site to get to the ablutions. I told the game ranger that I wanted to check the other sites to find a better one. Well as you came into the camping area, the pan was on the left, campsite 1 was down a track on the right just before and behind the ablutions. Camp 2 was on the road with some trees around it just past the ablutions. It had something of a view of the pan. Camp 3 was behind 2 and next to the ablutions and so they went on to number 10. My LR had been making some noises on the way in so I wanted it to cool down before I started scratching in it, so I left it in camp 3 & walked back along the road. As I passed the ablutions, I had just turned towards the track to camp 1 when a bull elephant strode out of the bust at the top of the track. I veered slightly right to pass him when the ranger came rushing up in his bakkie (pickup) and told me to get in. He dropped me at my vehicle and forbade me to walk around any more. I am not sure how he came on the scene so quickly, if he had perhaps been trying to frighten me, but anyway I got the message.
I chose camp 2, although I need not have worried as besides me there were only two other campsites occupied, both by professional photographers. That evening coming back from the bathroom I had to walk about 25 m along the fence before turning right into a little path to my camp. An elephant was standing about 40 m in front of me. (I found that they came to drink the bathroom runoff water from a manhole about 10 m in front of the fence of the ablutions). When I got to about 10 m before the path, the elephant growled at me, saying ‘no further’. I stopped, waited a few seconds, spoke gently to him and moved kind of sideways to the path. He let me go! That evening whilst sitting next to my LR eating supper a couple of elephants passed about 20 m from me to the manhole. On his way out one stopped to eat on the trees at the bottom of my camp. I thought that this was a bit provocative, so I shone the torch on him to let him know that this was human territory. He growled at me to say all territory is elephant territory! Fortunately he did not seem to care for baked beans and cold braaied boerewors (sausage). I finished eating and climbed into bed.
The animals at the artificial waterhole in the early mornings and evenings were amazing – elephant, zebra, impalas, springbok, kudu & ostriches. It is the first time that I can recall seeing impala and springbok together. It was interesting to see how the springbok quickly deferred to the longer-horned impala rams. I estimated one herd of springbok to contain over 500 animals. As at Pipers, the springbok herds contained young of probably 3 – 4 months old along with others who were only days old. There seemed to have been two very distinct breeding periods. It was interesting watching the nursery herds being minded by a few ewes and watched by jackal and it seemed bat-eared foxes.
Apparently a lioness had given birth a few days before, but they hide pretty well at this time and I did not see them. There were some impressive baobab trees in the park. Some elephant holes in the track were about 1 m deep and up to 10 m long.
I stayed there two nights and then went down to Baines’ Baobabs. They are on the edge of a pan, but everything was very dry and apparently lifeless. The Baobabs are very impressive. My camp was across the pan, about 1 km away, under another baobab looking across the pan at Baines’ baobabs. A magnificent setting. The next day I went in search of Green’s and Chapman’s baobabs near Gweta. Nobody in the tourist trade wants to help – they want you to hire their services at exorbitant rates. There are dozens of very minor tracks some petering out at villages or cattle kraals, so it is quite confusing. I found Chapman’s, but not Green’s. Chapman’s is very big – most impressive.
I camped at Planet Baobab which is an acceptable overnight stop with clean ablutions and electricity. The cost of Pula 93 (USD10) is reasonable compared with the Pula 288 (USD31) per person per day plus vehicle of Pula 50 per day (USD 5,42) charged for camping in the parks. Throughout the first 11 days I had been operating both a fridge and a small freezer on my auxiliary battery, but in the intense heat it had been struggling. I always welcomed an opportunity to recharge the battery and run the appliances from an external power source. Through Khutse and CKGR I had had to leave the LR idling for 30 mins + per day to keep the battery charged.
I found it interesting to note that even those species which are said to be able to exist entirely without water such as gemsbok and springbok do not occur at any distance from water. The Kalahari was very dry and perhaps the browse did not provide sufficient moisture for them.
The next day I drove along the main Maun Nata tar road to Nata. We crossed the Ntwetwe Pan. From Nata I travelled south more or less along the eastern edge of Sowa Pan. After the vet fence just before Dukwe, I turned right and travelled down the vet fence to the Kwadiba gate. I intended passing through the gate and turning north up the pan edge to find a camp site overlooking Kokoro Island. The guy on the gate said that he had been there for 10 years and had never gone that way. He said that the pan was dry and that I should cross it and go to Kokoro Island. Well the pan had no water in it, but it was not exactly dry! Just before turning around, I stopped got ou and walked around. The dark patch in front of me which I had thought was water turned out to be rock, so I got back in and drove the last bit to the island. The island is about 5 km (3 miles) long and 2 km wide. It has a rocky hill. The view over the island and across the pan is incredible. On the west side Lekhubu Island can just be seen through the heat haze. Whilst driving around, I came across a guy who looked like a Bushman carrying a bag over his shoulders that seemed to contain cow dung. Cattle obviously graze there, but that day there were just the two of us on the island. I camped under a baobab. (The trees were amazing showing how the dryness, wind and salt had weathered them). This is a wonderful desolate island with amazing views and very interesting weathered flora. A bonus is that it is free to camp there.
The only negative was the number of flies. Like the other flies in Botswana they were very persistent and aimed the wet areas of the eyes, nose and mouth. I was constantly reminded of Herman who had travelled with me on a previous trip into the Kalahari. After a long hot drive we eventually reached Springbokpan, near the Tsabong / McCarthy’s Rest border post, in early evening. Sipping his first beer, a fly flew behind his spectacles to briefly touch on his left eye. Apparently the bot fly, mostly prevalent among wildebeest populations, being rather large lays its egg on the foot of a small fly. As soon as this fly lands on a moist surface the egg attaches itself to the moisture. The maggot is quick to hatch and burrow into the flesh working its way to the brain. Herman returned home, consulted an eye specialist, but has now lost 95% vision in his eye.
Whilst eating just after sunset I heard a leopard. It only called once, which chilled me a bit, and as I was not concentrating on any sounds I was not at first convinced that it was a leopard. On reflection however, there is no other sound in the bush anything like a leopard’s call. I went to bed early.
Next day I explored the island further before continuing south along the pan edge to Mea Gate. A number of water-smoothed stones have accumulated along the high water line of the pans and, although mostly quartz, I found some agates among them. There I turned inland (east)to Mean Pan. It was difficult to find and I headed down a cattle track leading in the right direction through the mopanes. The pan is attractive, fringed with low mopanes, but it was bone dry. Cattle and donkeys were grazing on whatever they could still find in the dry baked mud. It was very hot and the flies were still very problematic. The next day I went to Mokubilo Pan. Both these pans are renowned for their bird life, but being dry were devoid of birds. Mokubilo was similar to Mea, so I decided to head for the border. These pans could be quite spectacular when they have water in, but when dry they do not offer much besides free camping. I travelled for 24 kms on the tar road to the Tlalamabele gate. Here I turned left, then right and followed the fence most of the way to Mmashoro where I rejoined the tar road to Serowe. This detour had saved me about 110 kms (65 miles).
The flies continued to be a problem throughout my trip. Somebody told me that a fly epidemic means that rain is imminent. Well I hope so, because the entire area which I travelled was very dry. I found that the continuous heat also knocked me out after about two weeks. The cold showers and rehydration fluid helped enormously.
I arrived at Kwa Nokeng on the SA border at Martin’s Drift quite late and stayed over in their campsite (Pula 85 or USD 9,21). After filling with diesel the next morning at Kwa Nokeng, my LR would not start. The engine had been immobilised. With the help of various passing motorists and the personnel at the filling station, we tried disconnecting the battery, confusing the immobiliser by repeatedly pressing the remote, fiddling with the wiring – nothing helped. I read up in the handbook, but nothing there helped either.
Well …the rest is another story for another day
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