Days 12-16 – Mankwe and Savuti
Mankwe is an upmarket lodge, but has several well-located campsites for the likes of us. With its nifty open air shower and a flushing toilet it was quite luxurious by camping standards. Being on the border of the Moremi Game Reserve we saw constant reminders of the abundance of elephants and other wildlife. The elephants are quite destructive, pulling trees down and we quite expected to have them wander through our campsite. We positioned our vehicles into a laager to make ourselves feel safe and to provide some warning of approaching animals.
The flies proved a problem when we sat around in the heat of the day. It helped a little to douse ourselves in insect repellent, but in no time they had returned with reinforcements. Hillary kindly lent me a net, designed to protect food in the kitchen, and I was able to have a snooze next to the car in relative peace.
Botswana has been divided into sections by cut-lines for agricultural and management purposes. They are usually dead straight and although they are not specifically demarcated as roads, we could follow them for many kilometers. There were a couple of these cut-lines near Mankwe and we used them on our game drives. They were sometimes quite overgrown with bushes, or impassable because of muddy patches. Where elephants had trampled in the mud, they left enormous craters that were difficult to drive through when the mud has set as hard as concrete in the baking sun. Rob managed to negotiate these obstacles pretty well, but in some places we were forced to seek al alternative route. We didn’t want to get stuck along one of these lines as it was quite obvious that no other vehicles had driven there for many months and we would have had little hope of being rescued in an emergency.
We did have one minor emergency – when we got out of the car to look at some tracks, Hillary got stung by a bee. Jon reacted very quickly because she is allergic to bee stings and sometimes reacts very badly. Before we could even offer a word of sympathy we were bundled back into the car and raced off back to the campsite as fast as the tracks would allow us. Once Hillary had taken her anti-histamine tablets we could all relax again.
As we were now well north, water and mud were quite a problem. In Botswana they have this weird black mud that is known as cotton mud. I can find no reference to it on the internet, but it is to be avoided at all costs.
On our drives we came across several shallow watering holes – probably no more than 50cms deep, but very muddy and slippery. They were quite pretty though and we spent many hours watching the animals and birds that came down to the water to drink. We were excited to see a roan antelope at one watering hole, but it took off at great speed as we approached. Roan are not all that common in this area and one very seldom gets a chance to see them in the wild.
Although we heard a lion roaring near our camp on at least three occasions, we couldn’t locate him and had to be content with seeing elephants, zebra, giraffe and various buck while we were at Mankwe. We did have a bit of excitement one evening when we went to a bird hide and spotted a puff adder swimming with great difficulty across the water towards us. We wondered if it had eaten one of the little ducklings that we had seen on the water the night before, but couldn’t be sure.
The birdlife here is abundant and bateleurs numerous. Unfortunately they were always flying high above us. We finally managed to track one down quite close to the road, but as luck would have it, it was early evening and the light was poor for taking photographs. Nevertheless a lot of excitement was generated by such an up-close-and-personal sighting of this magnificent bird.
We were all quite apprehensive when we left Mankwe after three nights and made our way to the private lodge a few kilometers up the road where we could cross the River Khwai on their wooden bridge – the only bridge over this little river that remained functional. The approach to the bridge was rather sandy and quite a challenge, which did little to ease our nerves as we came to the river. The bridge turned out to be wooden logs tied together in two strips of four – just wide enough to take an ordinary vehicle. Part of the bridge was submerged in the river. My nerves were shot when Rob drove over the poles and I almost missed taking the photograph because I was anxiously watching to see if he would make it safely across the river. Although the Khwai is narrow at this point it is quite deep and to slip off the bridge would have spelled disaster.
It was even worse when Jon had to drive the caravan over the bridge. He was gripping his steering wheel and concentrating deeply as he followed Rob’s hand signals to go straight over the logs. We found, once we were all safely over, that we all wanted to pee from sheer nervousness! But this was just the first hurdle we were over – we still had the infamous sandridge road ahead of us.
One consolation about the sandridge road was that we had been told that the really bad section where most people got stuck was only about five kilometers long. We’d handled the bad twenty-two kilometer Xade section in the Central Kalahari without hassle, so surely this would be a cinch.
The road to the Chobe Game Reserve from the wooden bridge was very undulating and sandy but not impassable. As Rob and I were to return on this stretch on our own (Jon and Hillary were going on to Zimbabwe after leaving Savuti), I was frantically writing down landmarks so that we wouldn’t get lost. With all the twists and turns in the unsignposted road, we really wished we had invested in a GPS before our trip.
As is often the case, the anticipation is usually worse than the reality. The sandridge road was a test, but we kept our momentum and once we had safely negotiated the narrow sandy section, we stopped to compare notes. Jon had even managed to stop in the middle of the loose sand to pick up the remains of a picnic hamper that had fallen off the back of a safari vehicle. Most of the contents were broken, but he did manage to salvage a couple of rather expensive wine glasses, which Hillary and I put to good use on our last evening together.
We had to move on quickly as another vehicle had drawn up behind us and the driver was in a hurry to get to the Zimbabwean border. As there was no way he could pass us we proceeded with our journey to a spot where we could pull off the road and let him get by. When we stopped Jon was really angry because apparently the other vehicle had tried to pass him on a narrow stretch and had clipped the side of his caravan, causing some damage.
The rest of the journey to Savuti was very pleasant with us stopping occasionally to move tortoises from the road or take photos of animals. We were allocated a rather nice campsite under a dead tree and were soon spotting birds and squirrels as we set up camp. The squirrels proved a great source of amusement for us as they were really bold and weren’t afraid to get into every nook and cranny to pinch food.
The camping area at Savuti is often visited by elephants and it is not uncommon to have them wandering around looking for water. Because of their destructive ways, the ablution block has been surrounded by an elephant-proof wall, built at a slant and with a very narrow doorway. I’m sure that many visitors have sought refuge in this area when these enormous pachy’s come roaming the campsites. Even the tap at our campsite had been built in such a way as to prevent elephant tampering. We saw some tourists draw up to the campsite next to us, only to drive away again in great haste because there were elephants present.
Jon and Hillary have always found Savuti to be animal-rich, but we were not as lucky as they had been on previous visits to the area. We drove around the Park for two days and saw mainly elephants and buck – no predators to talk of. Of great excitement though, was the sighting of a magnificent Verreux’s Eagle Owl that obligingly sat quite still for ages while we photographed it and admired its beauty. On the marsh plains we were also lucky enough to spot a pair of Teminck’s Coursers – ‘lifers’ for us.
Our holiday was drawing to an end and we were sad to think that our special time together was over. On our last evening Jon cooked a delicious roast chicken for us under extremely trying conditions. We had been experiencing drizzle on and off for most of the day, but just when he wanted to start cooking the dinner, a big storm came up, drenching everything and sending canvas flying in the wind. Rob and Jon tied everything down as best they could and ended up having to dig a trench to take the run-off from the tents. Hillary and I watched the proceeds from the relative comfort of the caravan, downing some special wine that we had saved for the occasion. It was great to watch the guys at work while we relaxed and chatted.
That night it poured and I lay awake for hours wondering if we would ever get over the little wooden bridge that we had crossed on the way north and would have to croos again on the way back. We were also less confident as we would be on our own. At least with Jon and Hillary around we would have had additional help if we got stuck.
We took our leave of Jon and Hillary fairly early, to give us enough time to be out of the Park by 11h00. It was with very heavy hearts that we said farewell to them. It had been such a wonderful experience traveling with them and we would miss their company tremendously. What was heartening though was the thought that as we had enjoyed the holiday so much, we would definitely be doing it again as soon as we could.
The sandridge road back to the Park entrance was less sandy because of the rain, but the undulations had filled with water and Rob really had to concentrate to keep from getting us stuck in the mud. About a kilometer from the gate we stopped for a coffee break, only to discover that one of the sand tracks that we’d stashed under the running board, had broken loose and got lost along the way. It was a blow but not too serious as we didn’t anticipate getting stuck once we left the Park.
The Park employee at the gate asked if we knew the way back to the little bridge and told us not to take the first turn out of the Park, but the second. I misunderstood his directions completely and we ended up on the old road in a quagmire of cotton mud and puddles. Within minutes of leaving we were bogged down in thick mud – now minus one sand track (and Jon’s help) to get us out. It took us about forty-five minutes to extract ourselves from the mud. We used sticks, car mats and the one remaining sand track, as well as a lot of digging. By the time we were out, Rob was covered in dark mud – it matched his mood perfectly! He then asked me to walk the 800 meters back to the Gate to ask for directions again, which I did. We had seen an enormous snake on this road on our inbound journey, so I was walking very warily keeping an eye out for any others.
Two Park employees were standing at the Gate watching me walking towards them. I saw that one had a rifle in his hand and as I approached them I jokingly said: “Don’t shoot, I’m innocent.” I was not greeted with any joviality, however, but reprimanded for walking so far away from our car. Apparently there were wild buffalo in the area and he had picked up his gun to shoot if it attacked me. Thank God I didn’t know about the buffalo! I was then escorted back to our vehicle with an armed guard and set on the right road.
We found our way back to the little bridge and to our great relief the river was not flowing any harder or deeper than when we had crossed it earlier. When we got back onto the main road to Maun I realized how tense I had been on our little journey that morning. We now had nothing daunting to challenge us on the drive back to the Island Safari Lodge where we were to camp until we went back to Namibia. To be quite honest, I was rather glad about that.