Botswana: Maun & Moremi Game Reserve
Botswanan border post formalities dealt with, we struck out on the sand road towards Nakaneng, a small town which marks the start of the tar road to Maun. We had expected (and been warned of) deep loose sand as far as the tar road, but this never materialised and we were pleasantly surprised at how easy the going was. It was still a long slog though often with only sandy ruts and corrugations marking the way. At the intersection with the tar road we switched from 4 wheel drive to 2 wheel drive and enjoyed the smooth sensation of being back on tarmac. This is a defining feature of Botswanan highways – whereas even main arterial roads in Namibia are usually gravel, Botswana now has long swathes of asphalt between its major cities.
Maun is the safari capital of Botswana, with a mind-boggling selection of tour operators and safari agents touting their services. Of great benefit to them, is the fact that the Botswana National Park system is a complicated affair and enough to put most people off trying to arrange a trip independently. Basically, access to all National Parks is controlled by Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP), but campsite accommodation in the parks is operated by a number of privatised companies, all of which are located in different places in Maun. So, in order to put together your own itinerary, you have to first visit the office of each company whose campsite you want to visit, check their availability sheets, and then pre-pay the bookings, hoping in the meantime that the office you first enquired at has not sold out by the time you get back to it. Only then, as you clutch your three or four different campsite reservations, are you ready for the final stage of the process, which is to present them at the office of the DWNP and there prepay the daily National Park entry fee. But we had time on our hands and limited funds, and so undertook this process rather than deal with the agents and tour companies. With 4 nights accommodation booked and our entrance fees paid, we were ready to leave town and head to one of the world’s greatest wildlife hotspots – Moremi Game Reserve in the Okavango Delta.
The road to the South Gate of Moremi Game Reserve is dusty and uninteresting, although the vegetation becomes thicker and taller as you head towards the delta. Here the water table gradually rises and the delta itself is a massive convergence of waterways, irrigating the Northwest corner of the Kalahari Desert. As we were visiting late in the dry season, many of the trees were devoid of leaves but others were lush green, providing a stark contrast to the parched landscape of Etosha.
Botswana operates a strict “low volume, high quality” approach to tourism which was apparent as soon as we arrived at the park gates – we were the first car through that day. From that moment on, Moremi lived up to its reputation as a world class game reserve. The diversity and concentration of game here has to be seen to be believed. So its probably better to try to convey this with pictures rather than words, although no photo can really do it justice…
It was also in Moremi that we had our first experience with water crossings. The Okavango Delta is in the main part only accessible by plane or boat, and even the relatively dry roads of the eastern section where we were staying are criss-crossed with waterways over a metre deep. These can only be forded by high clearance 4x4’s and getting it right takes some practice. Unfortunately we had no chance to practice before we were faced with a 50m wide crossing, where the tyre tracks on the bank disappeared ominously quickly into the murky water. Given Josi’s considerable height advantage, John had always considered it reasonable that, faced with such a situation, it would be she who would carry out the all-important pre-crossing depth check – wading & probing with the long stick that we had brought just for that purpose. Needless to say, when the time came, height did not come into the equation and for the sake of maintaining marital bliss it was John who took it upon himself to save the day. And so it was, trusty staff in hand and putting recent images of crocs sunning themselves on the bank to the back of his mind, that John waded out into the water. At about waist height, with the 6 foot pole extended at arm’s length but the bottom still sloping away below him, he determined that his duty was done and retreat was not unreasonable. Back on dry land, despite having failed to complete his mapping of the riverbed, he declared his verdict – “I don’t think it gets much deeper than that.” And based on that scientific assessment, ignoring Josi’s pleas to retreat, John guided Tonka into the water. The key to successful water crossings (as John had learnt from youtube) is to keep the revs high enough to stop water being sucked back up the exhaust but the speed low enough to prevent a large bow wave swamping the front of the car. So a low gear is essential. For a first attempt, we were just pleased to emerge at the other side, with Tonka giving a triumphant gurgled snort as he exited. There was just one moment when our hearts were in our mouths which was when we reached the middle of the channel and the water rushed a third of the way up the windscreen – if you have ever stood next to Tonka, you will appreciate just how deep that is. We were certainly glad to have the snorkel fitted. It was only later that Josi noticed the footnote highlighted on her map – the route we had taken was closed due to high water levels and not recommended. Oh well, all good experience.
That was not the only excitement for the day. Later that afternoon John noticed, quite by chance, that both front suspension shackles were broken. Miraculously one of them was still holding despite missing the entire middle section of the side strut. In layman’s terms that means that the front of the car was close to collapse. It was a mystery when exactly this had happened, as we only noticed when we pitched camp for lunch. All credit to Tonka for having pressed on regardless. With any other car this could have left us stranded – we were deep in the bush about 50km from the nearest recovery point. But after spotting a local lodge worker with the same model Toyota, John soon returned with, not only said worker, but also replacement parts! These took 20 minutes to fit, using precision instruments – a crowbar, a hammer and a spanner. £30 and 2 cold drinks from the fridge later, and we were all done.
The drama continued. That evening, as we had already become used to, a herd of elephants passed through our campsite en route to the nearby water. But this time they came closer than usual, passing within just 3/4 metres of the car. Only at this distance can you fully appreciate the size of them – the way their feet spread with each step as the huge mass is transferred to them, and the side to side lolling of the enormous head, from which protrude impressive tusks. They are truly awe-inspiring and, as we were about to learn, demand great respect and patience. Reluctant to leave the campsite, one of the young bulls became preoccupied with eating the branches from a tree close to our car. Eating is a full time job for them, as they need to consume around 170kg per day! Thinking that he was already sufficiently aware of our presence not to be startled by us, we began to move away from the car towards the shower block. But we had not factored in his poor eyesight – an elephants weak spot. While we had stood next to the car, he had probably only seen one large outline of Tonka. But now that we were out in the open, he suddenly became aware of us. Spinning his enormous bulk 180 degrees in a split second, he glared at us before trumpeting loudly, spreading out his ears and shaking his huge head – classic pre-charge behaviour. From about 10 metres away, with only a towel and shower gel to defend ourselves, this was a terrifying moment and we had to fight the urge to run. Fortunately the half eaten tree proved more interesting and, after eyeballing us a moment longer, he returned to stripping branches and delicately pushing them into his mouth.
In the night we had another reminder of the sheer size of these animals. As the herd returned to the campsite to feed, we had a Jurassic Park moment when we peered out of the tent and saw the huge outline of a bull just feet away, dimly illuminated by the moonlight. This really put its size in context – sitting up in the tent we have a vantage point nearly 3 metres off the ground, but even from this height we were barely level with its shoulder.
By day 5 in the bush, overwhelmed with animal sightings but running low on both food and fuel (neither of which are available in Moremi), it was time to head back to town. But even this was not uneventful. About 20km down the bumpy sand track that leads back to the main gate, we found a 6 month old Land Rover with the bonnet up. We had already met the two Belgian drivers (Guy and Gary) a few days before, and offered to drive behind them once they got it going again. They were only able to make it a few more kilometres though before it died completely, spewing an unhealthly looking cocktail of oil and water from its cooling system. Still in the middle of nowhere we had no choice but to offer to tow them out, which we did, for about 50km until they were able to call for a pickup truck.
They were extremely grateful and, in addition to giving us 40L of diesel, they offered to buy us dinner and drinks back in town. We were just pleased to have been able to help them, but naturally we didn’t decline their kind invitation…
Having previously pulled a tour guide and his clients in their Land Cruiser from the sand a few days before, Tonka was also rewarded with a visit to Toyota in Maun for an oil change and a little pampering. And so concluded our trip to Moremi Game Reserve.