You don’t have to go on an expensive, organised safari. Nicky Holford put together her own tour of Botswana, camping out in national parks, and had the trip of a lifetime for a fraction of the cost
A thin sheet of canvas separates me from the hunting ground of Botswana’s greatest predators. Lying in our roof-tent above the car, I can still see the red embers of our campfire against a starry sky. I feel at one with the universe.
At first it is easy to sleep. The long hot day has been filled with adventure: a pride of lions stalking a warthog; a fish eagle catching, then dropping, his large wriggling prey; a nervous giraffe spreading its front legs to drink at the water hole; wild dogs panting under a tree. There have been chores, too: a bit of car maintenance, and supper to cook on the fire, head torches for light and a wary eye out for thieving monkeys.
As the night thickens, I become aware of a scratching, something out there sniffing and scuffling, inquisitive rather than threatening. There’s an attack on the oil drum dustbin and I hear the unmistakable roar of a lion, far enough away not to raise my heartbeat. Then there are rubbing and digging sounds, and the padding feet of something very large. My husband, Ian, looks out of the mosquito netting at the side of the tent. “Can you see anything,” I whisper. “Yes,” he says, “elephants.” A few inches away a huge elephant is pawing the ground to get at the roots of the grass. I freeze. I can count his eyelashes.
The next morning as I clamber down the ladder, it’s as if nothing happened, except that surrounding the car are a number of tracks, including the paws of hyena and the big flat imprints from the elephants.
Planning your own safari in Botswana’s national parks is not for the faint of heart. It’s an adventure that will test your 4X4 driving skills, offer fear and exhilaration, call on your inner reserves and leave you with unforgettable memories. And while not exactly a budget holiday, doing it yourself like this costs a fraction of the price of an organised safari.
Since Botswana is celebrating 50 years of independence in 2016, it is a great year to visit. A good option is to fly to Maun (from Gaborone or Johannesburg) and rent a vehicle there. At Maun you can buy food and supplies, then it’s only a two-hour drive to the Okavango delta (declared the 1,000th world heritage site in 2014). We drove up from Johannesburg, and our first night in the bush was at Nxai Pan national park at the northern tip of the Makgadikgadi basin. At the park entrance we checked in, showing receipts for park and camping fees. Botswanans are proud and friendly. Never start a conversation without a greeting.
With an update on animal sightings from the ranger, we head through the gates. The track ahead is deep sand and we can make progress only in the lowest gears. A few kilometres in, we get stuck. Two attempts with a hydraulic jack fail and it’s 40C. By chance a young English couple from Essex pass by: their hire car is equipped with traction tracks, so they are able to rescue us.
As the car is finally heaved out of the sand, Fritz, an old Africa hand, rolls up. He cannot believe we’ve got this far without deflating our tyres. He gets out his deflater (apparently a matchstick also works), and the sand is instantly conquered. Setting off again we make a diversion to the Baines baobabs, a group of 1,000-year-old trees by a salt pan, painted by Thomas Baines in 1862.
We reach our camp in the early evening, with the low golden sun softening the stark terrain of sculptured tree trunks. We head to a water hole where a family of elephants are frolicking in the mud, spraying each other. Nearby, various birds and a herd of impala are waiting their turn. We see ostriches, springboks, kudu and red lechwe antelope.
As the sun turns into a ball of fire it’s a race to reach the camp washhouse – surrounded by sharp spikes embedded in concrete to keep intruders out. We manage a shower, set up the tent, and light the fire before darkness falls.
Our plan was to head north to Moremi game reserve and the Okavango delta, and then to the river at Kwai, Savuti and Chobe. Driving time and distance would vary according to the road quality. Within the national parks it is mostly sand or track but even outside the parks sometimes there are deep corrugations. There’s a brief bit of tarmac at Kachikau leaving Savuti until you reach Chobe national park. Then there are the occasional detours to avoid river crossing or fallen trees. We bought maps in the UK but once there, most people navigated by GPS. There are maps for each park with GPS waymarks but it can be hard to negotiate the smaller designated tracks. Game drives focus on the watering holes, and the best times are early morning and sunset. But our whole journey is a game drive. There are no rules when it comes to finding game, except not to get out of the car.
A few days in, we’re into a routine. I’ve got used to spotting lurking hyenas on the way to the shower block, and the grunting and snorting of hippos at night. We rattle over log bridges and ford rivers, where we lose a number plate. Binoculars always to hand, we spot prides of lions, a leopard under bushes and rare roan and sable antelopes.
There are a few scary moments. All the maps have GPS co-ordinates but we don’t have GPS – or the popular Tracks4Africa online maps. After missing a water hole, we marvel at a plain filled with giraffe, but the track turns into barely passable sand and we round a bend to find a family of elephants blocking the track. As we try to reverse, there’s wild flapping of ears and a trumpeting. The herd, led by young bulls, runs towards us, gaining momentum as we bash our way backwards through the trees. In the nick of time we find a clearing just big enough to turn round in.
The Savuti channel is dry, the water holes parched, and our sunset game drive brings few results. As we debate returning to camp, a majestic lion emerges from a clump of bushes, beckoned by a stunning lioness sashaying her tail. Their frequent bouts of mating take them to the edge of a water hole in front of our car. Just as the lion roars in satisfaction a group of bull elephants charge them. They miss the car by a whisper.
Every night a herd of buffalo cross from the Namibia side while elephants bathe, squirting each other and chucking dust and mud about. A kudu and a crocodile creep up on the bank. Our least welcome guest is a nasty alpha baboon, which jumps up on our table and grabs the handle of a bag that holds all our kitchen utensils. I seize the other handle and wrestle with it, like a tug of war. Fortunately I win.
All our campsites have been spacious, in lovely, wild settings, with nearby running water, a firepit and a concrete table. Clambering up the ladder to our rooftop-tent each night becomes second nature. We have sheets, duvets and pillows, and the nights are never too hot. And with time, scavenging hyenas, grunting hippos, and the shuffle of elephants just punctuate the night. On the day that we leave Chobe national park, we find a fresh kill. Vultures are circling as a pride of lions rip the tough skin off an elephant. The sound it nauseating.
Our last night is spent in luxury at the Chobe Bush Lodge: no dawn start, cocktails on the deck, long hot showers. It lives up to every expectation, and we even see a black mamba. But as I sink into my deep mattress, I miss sitting around the campfire listening to scops owls and frogs, the rustle of the wind and the sounds of life in the wild. Most of all, I miss the great Botswana sky, with stars so close you feel you can reach out and touch them.
Originally published on the Guardian Travel by Nicky Holford.