Botswana: Savute and Chobe

Moremi to Savute

More photos: https://flic.kr/s/aHskmWa3r4 and https://flic.kr/s/aHskj6QJs2

 

While Kilos and LT packed up camp, Custard whisked us off on a final game drive at 6.30am as usual, promising the guys we’d be ready to roll to Savuti by 8.30am. I really think Custard got as much out of the drives as we did, despite this being what he did most days of his life.He loved the bush; was eternally fascinated and thrilled by the animals and birds as much as we were. He had been delighted when he heard we were into bird-watching – he liked ‘birders.’ Any murmur from us about a bird even when we were driving across country and he would stop to check out what it was.

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The race to find leopard was on too but it felt a bit like finding a needle in a haystack. We weren’t too bothered but I know Custard was.

Had a great final moment in Moremi when we came upon the lion pride again only this time a young bull elephant was making his way towards them, unaware that they were in his path. He eventually spied them and began to threaten them – and the despite these being ‘elephant killers’ this remnant of the Savuti pride was far too small to take him on.  So off they ran,  pronto.

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Got back to camp later than we’d meant as this encounter was one we just had to watch unfold.

Then was goodbye to camp and off we headed through the Park gate towards Khwai village. Chris and I walked on ahead for a leg stretch as there was 10 minutes or so of the usual paperwork to complete and found ourselves literally walking across the Bridge over the River Khwai.

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Through Khwai village , stopped at a shop then followed a well-marked sign for Savute.

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The village had some nice rondavels, brightly painted, some shops and a smart new supermarket being built. But overall, it was quite  littered and untidy; Custard remarked on how poorly it was being looked after.

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It was the usual deep sand road, bumpy and rutted in places but not as bad as I’d thought. It was reasonably signposted (until Custard took a short cut he knew) and seemed to me more straightforward to navigate than the road into Moremi.

 

The air was like a blast furnace, incredibly dehydrating.The sun was relentless in a sky hazy and almost white with the heat. My words at the airport had come back to haunt me several times and never more so than during this journey.

It took about 4.5 hours to reach Savute,  including a half hour stop up on the Marsh for lunch.Lasagne, salad, juice, fruit – wonderful cooking as ever from Kilos.

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Savute Marsh and a first Game Drive

The landscape had changed considerably now and I liked it  – initially. Big wide empty vistas – the Savute Marsh, now bone dry.Different birds appeared ; ostrich, kori bustards, secretary birds, korhaans. Small hills nearer camp, but it a very blasted, parched landscape.Drought had hit since the floods of 2010.

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Custard had made phone calls ahead (there was a signal in Moremi which I’d wished I’d known about before we went.I was missing my usual texting and messaging to the boys.Didn’t enjoy being so out of touch) and we breezed through the paperwork in the National Park office in a jiffy. He never liked waiting around.

Another 10 minutes took us to our camp, a clearing in the bush, quite open. Blinding heat though we had good shelter from some big trees for the tents.I’d noticed a sign for Rock Paintings nearby and hoped we’d be able to explore that too.

We headed off almost immediately on a drive while the camp was set up.I wondered how he did it – a tough drive pulling a big trailer and then total enthusiasm for a 3  – 4 hour game drive.

Artificial watering holes were dotted around, keeping the game supplied.Elephant were bathing and drinking at one and a roan antelope galloped off as we approached.

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Chris and Custard briefly caught sight of a leopard heading for scrub bush but we couldn’t follow given the off road rules and the chance of being spotted by the regular Ranger patrols. A cluster of other vehicles had seen it too ; he’d come down out of a big fruit tree just minutes before.Drats.

We spent about three hours or more cruising around, heading way up into the Marsh area itself, full of buffalo herds (they can do without water for some time), zebra, elephant everywhere, lots of giraffe (desert creatures).Cruised around Leopard Hill but no sign.Drove round and above the dry Savuti riverbed and suddenly there they were – the Marsh Pride, about 16 lions sleeping under bushes and on the sand itself.

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To Custard, they were like old friends. This was the pride which had learned to bring down elephant – full size ones at that.He had witnessed 19 kills and we saw that evidence every day; it’s not often you drive past so many elephant remains , enormous bleached white skulls and giant leg bones which even the hyenas can’t make their way through.The pride had numbered around 48 at that point; completely formidable.Drought and lack of other game had made them turn to elephant.

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The big lionesses were stretched out on the sand, the males more hidden. Only two other vehicles were there : Desert and Delta which specialises in Savute and a BBC vehicle.

Then we were off again as word came in that a leopard was resting nearby! Actually I didn’t want to leave the lions and would have been happy to just stay and watch them start to get on their feet as the heat left the day.But this was the Quest for Leopard! No time to lose!

Sure enough – about 6 other vehicles were sitting further along the road, everyone looking towards a distant bush where a BBC vehicle sat overlooking the subject of their next film.Leopard. Well hidden. No chance of any of us seeing it so we all moved on fairly quickly.The frustration of not being able to go off road! Nightmare.

Passed a Giant Eagle Owl perched on a tree, a fine sight.

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Then back to camp for a much needed shower and drink.

Dinner was announced as usual – butternut squash soup, beef casserole and mashed potatoes, fruit and vanilla sauce.

Dehydration finally catches up with me

But I was feeling pretty dodgy by now – utterly exhausted and nauseous; splitting head and quite shaky.Dehydration. The game drive of 3.5 hours on top of the drive here, had just blasted me with too much sun and I’d clearly not drunk enough during the day. Stupid, stupid.Tried to eat, couldn’t and had to go to bed at 7.30pm, completely spent. Drank as much as I could without bringing it all up.Biggest regret – missing Kilos’s cooking.

Woke around 2am, feeling much better.Vowed to force myself to drink more water and juice during the day as I tend to skimp on this.(It’s either tea or nothing for me.)

Saw the lions again next day and the usual suspects re other animals and birds.Lots of Roan antelope and also Sable.  But oh….that heat. Custard agreed it just wasn’t the most comfortable time to be here. I was beginning to wish we’d factored in more Chobe time instead of just one night for the sunset cruise.As if reading my mind, Custard suggested that we pack up tomorrow morning, cut short Savuti by one night and make for Chobe. Add our night on there. He’d sort it all out.Brilliant.

 

 

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Cutting short Savute

Kilos  – using the bush oven – made chocolate cake that night for dessert and was good.I say that as an avid home baker myself.Oh the food we ate! Safari is a very sedentary holiday – sitting about most of the day.Yet I was eating for Scotland, indulging my love of good food big style.There would be tears! In your late 50s you can’t get away with gorging without it adding to the jelly belly.But portion control had gone out the window this trip. Plus the minute I feel the effects of a small glass of Cava, self discipline withers on the vine of good intentions.

Hyenas were calling close by later that evening but then a deep growl from a lion, very close by, seemed to send them packing. I hoped the lion would come back! No chance however and I was aware of them around camp but not for very long. There were other groups camped nearby – Kerr and Downie; Desert and Delta – so I guess they had plenty more choice.I was also getting used to them and managed some decent sleep.Whatw as a joy was a Nightjar churring away each of the 2 evenings.Beautiful.

Up for a final Savute drive at 6.30am and back at 9am. Watched hyenas on an old buffalo kill. Found lion tracks on the sand road and had some excitement tracking them for twenty minutes way out on the Marsh. Time constraints meant we had to turn back though. Custard briefed a self driver and some other vehicles re where he thought they were and I enviously watched them head off.

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Found the lionesses near the camp watering hole. Caught sight of a herd of Eland in the distance, ethereal in the early morning light; a very special sighting. One we’d hoped for.The San people revered Eland, though they also hunted them

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Custard and Kilos had warned us that the road to Chobe was probably the worst of all and so it proved. Deep orange sand, lots of very rutted road; it must have been exhausting to drive. I didn’t find it too bad as the vehicle was so comfortable and you just got jolted about a bit. Basically, we were driving across the Kalahari.

 

Out past Ghoha Hills, a private lodge sitting atop a ridge, about an hour from Savuti. Then slowly the landscape changed and in the far distance we saw Namibia and the Caprivi Strip, a much more arable and very flat land. Lots of Baobab trees and small villages and then we were on excellent tar road with good signposting.

 

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Oh the joy of reaching a tar road and whizzing along!

Chobe Riverfront – overwhelming game 

And then the Chobe and Kasane signpost loomed and in no time the ? Gate.

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Through it with barely a few minutes stop  and immediately we hit the worst sand road yet. Very wooded now, teak forest I think, as we drove down to the riverfront – a part of the Park that most visitors never get to.

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Stopped for lunch near the river, elephant dung everywhere. Enormous herds of zebra and buffalo across the water.

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Wahlberg’s eagle on the ground. Fish eagles hunting. There was a lot going on.Vultures on a tree – there were the remains of a dead elephant further along the riverside track which we detected by smell once we got underway again.Truly stomach churning.Passed the Ihaha public camp which I’d read was plagued by baboon.

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The whole area was completely empty of vehicles with only an occasional self driver. Then we chatted to an ‘And Beyond’ vehicle which had seen leopard in a tree a little further ahead. But no sign by the time we got there.

The vehicles became more frequent as we approached the main Riverfront area itself and suddenly we were surrounded by elephant.

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They were everywhere. It was around 4pm, the heat was leaving the day and out they came to drink. And they were NOT happy! Skittish and trampling about noisily, trunks going up, ears flapping – I was sure one of them was going to spear us with a tusk, it got so angry. It stepped back a little and trumpeted briefly, then looked for all the world as if it would charge. But Custard stayed calm, steering us past the massed and nervous herd, telling us that mock bullishness what typical of a young male. The last thing it wanted was to get involved with our vehicle.And so it proved.Suddenly it scarpered to the side and headed past us towards the river; in desperate need of a drink right enough. I know that feeling…..

 

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I have never seen as much concentrated game as I have in Chobe Riverfront. It was astonishing. Not the loveliest landscape and chock full of vehicles and people – even a one-way system on the track! – but if this was your first ever safari or you only had a day, this is the place to tick things off.

It is over-run with elephant; they are everywhere.

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Hippos grazing on land, big buffalo herds. Marabou storks aplenty – one of the Ugly 5. Big herd of Sable antelope, beautiful creatures.

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It did feel much more touristy however –  a bit like entering an enormous zoo on a Saturday in peak season. Day trippers from Victoria Falls whizzing through to soak in the wildlife spectacle all around. A far cry from and a bit of a shock after the wilder, unspoiled Africa we had left.

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We needed to set up camp ( or rather Kilos and LT did, not Lord and Lady Muck.It had taken us some time to get used to not being allowed to do ANYTHING around camp.Camping in Scotland,we were so used to setting up the  tent , getting gear unpacked and Trangia stoves lit, food made.Water carried from the burn.Wood gathered for a fire perhaps.) So headed out of the Park just as even more vehicles were queued to get in.And then – LT shouted ‘Wild dog!’ and we did a brisk U-turn and pulled up onto the verge beside the main tarmac Kasane road to find a pack of wild dog, dozing in the shade. Right beside the speeding traffic. Four or five pups too.It was an incredible sight.Of course, in no time other vehicles realised we’d spotted something special and soon we had company. But what an amazing view. About 300 metres outside the Park Gates – typical!

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I liked Kasane much better than Maun. Bustling,  buzzing, lots of shops – good ones too – lots of people milling about, friendly atmosphere. Very compact and colourful and alive.Stopped to change some cash and pick up some wine and snacks then headed for camp . Thebe River camp was excellent.Custard and Kilos negotiated a big site for us with our own dining/braai area (the original site we were allocated was very small). Kilos had worked there years before so knew the score.

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We headed off for a hot shower in the spotless shower block and then for a drink in the attractive bar with its thatched roof and – Chris was delighted –  the World Cup Rugby on a big screen. Ah, the joys of being back in contact with the outside world.Caught up with messaging of the young folks back home, got their news, sent some photos and generally enjoyed a much lovelier set up than we’d expected.It was on the Chobe river but well protected from hippos and crocs and other animals by electric fencing.Lots of Afrikaner voices in the bar at 5pm, discussing SA’s defeat by Japan.Chris was in his element (his own claim to fame was being on the bench against the All Blacks in the 1980s.) I was in mine – back in touch with the family.

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It was a quiet peaceful night in the tent  –  a few owls calling, lovely.No hyenas. Had hoped to hear more owls during the  trip and see a Pel’s Fishing owl but no joy.

 

Last safari drive

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Breezed through the Gate about 6.45am – hardly a vehicle about. The day trips queue up to get in from 6am onwards so thankfully we’d missed them and all seemed quiet.And then as we headed towards the river, a big lioness ambled up towards us, followed by her male companion. Superb.

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Watched them saunter past us up into the shade of a large bush 100 yards away. Aargh….if only we could follow! A few other vehicles had arrived by now and after a bit of getting themselves comfy, the lions settled down to rest, half hidden by the foliage.

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Minutes later and another young male appeared, coming up from the river, calling, grunting. Then he headed up in to the bushes – he’d find the others soon enough.

 

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Saw the remains of a buffalo carcass way down near the river.Not much left from the look of it; vultures and storks had already settled round it.

 

No elephant.They head way up into the forest during the day.Headed back to check out the Leopard tree but no joy.Got some info from another vehicle that he/she had been seen heading up into the shrubbery so we took off to check this out. We glimpsed her – briefly – before she disappeared into another bush, well off road.Custard went over and above the call of duty to try to get us this sighting, is all I’ll say. My craving was for lions and we’d now seen about 25 or more the whole trip (and thank Christ none on foot).

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Just realised we’d had about 14 or 15 safari drives plus cross Park driving.This evening,  it was the relaxation of a Sunset river cruise.It wasn’t something we’d particularly planned to do. I reckoned we might have seen enough by then and though I enjoy seeing elephant,  we had seen SO many. I had also read that some of the cruises were simply booze-cruises, loud and crowded on huge boats. Much as Chris enjoys a good drink, that wasn’t really our scene.Plus, he says he’s choosy about his company.

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But it had been offered to us by Mariam, free, so it seemed churlish not to go. Custard dropped us off around 4pm and I was delighted to realise it was just going to be us and a New Zealand couple, birders too. They must have spotted the boring old farts and decided to put us in the one smallish boat , run by Thebe River camp.

As is so often the case when you don’t expect much,  it turned out to be a real highlight.

The birdlife along the river was phenomenal – as was the size of the crocs.

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Malachite kingfishers made an appearance – superb.

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Fish eagles. Pied kingfishers, rollers, bee eaters. Not that we were alone on the Chobe river; it was busy with so many boats, some of them huge cruisers packed with people.

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Elephants waded in to bathe and we watched them grazing and swimming, unperturbed by the boat.

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Then the sun went down over Namibia and we headed back.Lovely to see Custard’s familiar figure waiting for us on the shore, waving and smiling.A very enjoyable and relaxing way to see the crowded park.

Great dinner as usual at camp, all lit up with tiny lanterns.

 

 

Goodbyes

A ‘long lie’ next morning until 7am as we were being dropped off by Custard at the Zimbabwe Border for the next part of our trip – Victoria Falls.Then breakfast and a very sad farewell to Kilos and LT . ‘We’ll miss you, ‘ Kilos said and we felt exactly the same. What wonderful guys – they had made our trip and I can’t talk highly enough of them. Friendly, knowledgeable, highly experienced – first class.Food: superb throughout and that’s from someone who can be highly critical about food,  as I enjoy cooking a lot. Although some aspects of the trip were tough – the travel, the heat, tents – it never felt like a budget trip in terms of the sheer commitment to a top quality experience. We were treated royally yet with no awkward formality or distance. The sign of true professionals.

 

Said a fond farewell to Custard at the Border where he waited until we had got through (about 15 minutes) and introduced us to our driver to Victoria Falls to ensure a smooth stress free handover.

Bye bye Botswana –  a fine country and fine people indeed.

 

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