Monday, 30 May 2011

Botswana – Overland Trip report /Part 2 – April 2011

We checked out of Audi after breakfast and headed into town to do some grocery shopping and settle our fees at the DWNP office.  The ladies in our party preferred their own company giving the rest of us the opportunity to reflect on the Monday-morning activity. You can’t help but marvel at the people going about their business in a frontier town. The basic human model’s the same but with some interesting twists, most notably the urchins, purportedly wilderness guides, sent on supply errands by their respective employers. One, not so hairy-chested ‘ranger’ driving a zebra-striped safari-vehicle, careened into a tree, obviously overcome by the stresses and strains of rush-hour traffic.

With our fridges stocked and vehicles fueled we looked northward. The road to Moremi is initially tar and then gravel which deteriorates rapidly from the veterinary barrier north. It’s especially brutal after torrential rains when the slippery surface and severe corrugations provide a unique combination of shake, rattle and slide. South Gate or Maqwee, our planned accommodation for the night, was therefore a welcome relief, if only temporarily. Recent rains had destroyed the water-pump’s battery system some days earlier. The camp was therefore ‘waterless’ which we discovered only after we had unpacked and started lunch. The facilities were subsequently locked by staff and the camp closed until further notice leaving us effectively stranded. Xakanaxa, some 40km further north, was recommended as an alternative. We repacked the vehicles and departed for Xakanaxa at 3pm approximately. The rain intensified which impeded visibility and so began our ordeal. We arrived some four hours later in the twilight at Xakanaxa tired and a little bemused. We had managed to get through reliant on some driving experience and a great deal of luck. The rain had all but obscured the entry / exit lines in the waterlogged dips, some as deep as 1m and with visibility virtually nil, the cotton-soil mud-pits were impossible to avoid.  Neither vehicle had to be recovered but both destroyed a full set of brake pads respectively. En route we had passed two two-wheel- drive camper vans forced to turn back. Permitting obviously inexperienced foreign tourists to rent unsuitable vehicles in these conditions, is unethical if not criminal.

We pitched camp in the dark, avoiding our allocated site [No. 5] with its hippo paths and large Maroela trees dangerously shedding fruit. After a general clean-up and a light dinner, we settled in for the night, serenaded by the plaintive pings of reedfrogs. Lions roared some distance away.

The new day confirmed our suspicions that we had survived the flooded roads, snuffling hyenas, suspicious hippo bulls and untold other uglies of the night. Early elephants ghosted through our camp.

Xakanaxa is situated on one of the mopani tongues and overlooks the phragmite-clogged channels of the delta. Those who know these things will argue that the ‘true delta’ lies much further west. Either way, it’s quietly understated and has less big game in season than the more westerly campsite at 3rd Bridge. Yes, Xakanaxa’s for the birds, quite literally. Rufous-bellied Heron, Hartlaub’s Babbler, Luapula and Chirping Cisticola, Slaty Egret, Coppery-tailed Coucal and Great Swamp Warbler are fairly common and occasionaly ticked in a single morning from the breakfast table. This morning was such a morning; a grand way to start our day.

By 8:30am we’d packed the vehicles and departed for 3rd Bridge, our scheduled accommodation for three nights. On our way out I was amused to see our neighbours in various stages of disrepair. Sadly the alcohol-induced hilarity of the night seemed long forgotten.

We took close on five hours to cover the distance from Xakanaxa to 3rd Bridge, driving slowly and birding en route. Game was seasonally sparse. Part way we came across a lion roaring his territorial dominance in the middle of the road, always thrilling. Like flies to the proverbial, vehicles converged on the lion from all directions driving us, not him, from the sighting. Rumours of a waterlogged and virtually impassable 3rd Bridge, kept us time-honest or we might have stayed longer. Other game en route included Lechwe, Impala, Elephant, Buffalo, Giraffe, Zebra, Hippo, Crocodile, Kudu and Wilderbeest. As it turned out, even though water levels were reasonably high, 4th Bridge proved more tricky than the notorious crossing at 3rd Bridge. Even so, our near disaster came not in the mud but at the hands of an uncoming safari ‘ranger’ who thought it prudent to accelerate wildly into a blind corner on a narrow road. Suffice to say that we discussed the merits of his strategy at length!

You can understand the popularity of 3rd Bridge. It’s not necessarily picturesque but is sought for its location in the heart of big game country. In drier months tourists and game abound but in the wet season, as it was when we arrived, only the very dedicated and the most sedentary of game remain.

We were given the pick of the camp choosing No. 1 for its proximity to the facilities and its unimpeded views of the water. The baboon troop, responsible for the running wars waged on tourists and staff alike, has been ‘controlled’. Camp-life is therefore a little easier. Even so, you can’t help but feel remorseful for the remainder of the troop now scattered some distance away. That afternoon we enjoyed two cheetah going about their business. 

Dinner was a light affair, as are most when we camp in the Moremi, prefering our main meal at lunchtime. The DWNP has banned the picking up of wood in its parks. Primeval dancing around roaring bonfires in camp is, perhaps, a thing of the past. A lion roared ‘in our tents’ sometime in the early hours of the night. There is nothing more disquieting than the ensuing silence…

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