13th June, Mahangu Safari Lodge, Okawango Namibia – Tsodilo Hills, Botswana
As travellers who cross Muhembo border post between Namibia and Botswana are not allowed to carry any meat – not even biltong or salami – my grandson Leo and I had a hearty, meaty breakfast at Mahangu before heading south into Botswana. Not being able to take meat through is not actually all that much of a hassle, as there is a Choppies supermarket in Shakawe (Botswana) that sells very good meat products and is generally well stocked. Much better in fact that any store in Divundu or Bagani.
We had no issue with border formalities and we passed through both border posts in less than 30 minutes. At this point the dirt road changes to tar and 15 minutes later we were in Shakawe. Shakawe is a good point to stop for supplies and money too (next to the supermarket is a Barkley’s Bank with an ATM where you can draw Pula). Pula in Setswana means ‘water’ and for me this seems to show that water in this country is regarded as being especially precious. At Choppies I bought a fillet steak (65 Pula per kg) that in Rand terms is not too bad (R85 per kg). Diesel (50 ppm) seems even better at 7.60 Pula per litre, which equals R9.90 per litre. But this is where our luck ended as we were caught speeding about 5km south of Shakawe. The traffic cop showed me on his camera that I was doing 85kmh in a 60 km/h zone. No use denying it. He also showed me his official fines catalogue – I owed him 500 Pula. As I only had 150 Pula left on me (after our shopping spree in Shakawe) I tried haggling but to no avail. He finally agreed for me to drive back to Shakawe, draw money and pay him a reduced rate of 300 Pula (he kept my driver’s license until he got the cash). I’m still unsure if this was 100% legit. I know spot fines were introduced in Botswana as an alternative recourse for traffic violations but I was left wondering if this was all above board. I would suggest always asking for an official receipt – something I forgot to do.
Soon afterwards we turned off the tar road and drove 35km to the Tsodilo Hills UNESCO World Heritage Site. On my first trip to Botswana 31 years ago I was very keen to visit Tsodilo. I had watched Sir Laurence Van Der Post’s documentary about his expedition to the hills in the 1950’s and was fascinated. Back then there was only a bad track through deep sand and I didn’t feel equipped to tackle that adventure. During subsequent trips I’ve always skipped Tsodilo. I was pleased to be able to finally visit it with my grandson in 2016!
Unlike the difficult dirt track when I first came, now there is an impressively smooth gravel road accessible to 2×4’s.
We signed in at the gate, paid our fees and drove to the visitor centre. I found the collection of photos and artefacts a bit disappointing considering this is a World Heritage Site with over 4000 rock paintings. Archaeologists estimate that the site documents human and environmental change over 100 000 years, with many thousands of ancient artefacts having been unearthed over years of excavation. The rock art dates from the Stone Age to fairly recent times, and include around 400 sites.
Tsodilo is made up of four hills – Female Hill, Male Hill, Child Hill and another unnamed hill. The San hold Tsodilo as a sacred site and regard it as the place where men first appeared on earth. Considering these four massive quartzite outcrops are so prominent (Male Hill stands around 400m high) in the relative flat Kalahari landscape, its no wonder they have attracted human interest for millennia. Female Hill is where much of the rock art is located, while Male Hill is the highest of the hills – its also supposed to be the highest point in Botswana at 1400 m above sea level (although that claim is also given to Monalanong Hill just south of Gaborone).
We met Thebe, one of the official guides, and learned that visitors can’t explore the hills on their own anymore. No wondering around and walking without guides. It’s understandable but also a pity. We booked a hike with Thebe straight away and went off on the Rhino Trail which took us through a section of Female Hill. The walk was beautiful, the landscape grand and Thebe had many interesting stories to tell. Some of the rock paintings are simply beautiful! The animals seem to be alive. Myself, I’m most impressed by the two white rhinos. On the hike we also encountered elephant dung. Apparently the ellies migrate to the hills in the rainy season from the Okavango Delta, and return in March/April. I would love to come back in February to encounter elephants on a hike in Tsodilo – that would be truly spectacular, although it would also be punishingly hot. Later we made plans with Thebe to climb the Male Hill the following morning.
Our campsite located in Tsodilo itself had an ablution facility with showers – unfortunately though there was no water as the pump was not working. Conditions at the campsite were basic but OK. The camp has been moved away from the hills themselves and now stands quite a distance away. I have heard people complain about the campsite being run down and neglected. My view is that we had a simple but enjoyable camping experience. Come prepared and self-sufficient.
14th June, Tsodilo Hills – Audi Camp, Maun, Botswana
During the night I woke to a metallic clinking noise from the direction of the ablution block. I guessed that it had to be some type of metal pipe moving in the breeze and hitting another metal object. Clink, clink. It didn’t stop. I got out of the rooftop tent to look around. The moon was almost full and the surrounding landscape, including the impressive Male Hill, was submerged in silver light. Beautiful! I checked every corner of the ablution block for the suspected pipe but couldn’t find a thing. Clink, clink. Suddenly I heard the clinking again close to a nearby tree. And there emerged a big donkey with a bell around its neck. Clink, clink. Not much I could do to stop that so I made my way back to camp. Without the clinking of the donkey’s bell I probably wouldn’t have seen the beauty of Tsodilo Hills in the moonlight.
Before sunrise we fetched Thebe from the entrance gate as he lives outside of the Park in nearby Tsodilo village. We drove through the crystal air of the morning, around Male Hill to the starting point of the trail. We began the ascent slowly. Thebe told us that the walk seems easier than it really is, and that some visitors start running up the mountain to get to the top quickly, only to be exhausted after 20 minutes and turn back. It’s a slow steady climb that took us about 1.5 hours – not too bad considering it’s the ‘highest point’ of a country! It was freezing at the top. The wind had picked up to a degree that it was hard to stand straight and take pictures. We were quickly chilled to the bone despite bringing our jackets. The view from the top however was stupendous.
In front of us we saw the Female and Child Hill, and beyond that pristine bush-veld stretching hundreds of kilometres. Here was a truly magnificent site that has been sacred to the San for thousands of years, and standing there I could understand why. I was full of gratitude for having been able to experience such a place.
We said goodbye to Thebe at the picnic site next to the visitor centre. He had been the perfect guide for the last two days – friendly, knowledgeable and helpful. Hungry from our climb we had a second breakfast with fried eggs on toast before leaving. We still wanted to make it to Maun before the end of the day.
After 390km we arrived in Maun. It is a busy tourist town with banks, petrol stations, shopping malls, car rental agencies and a wide selection of accommodation. Maun is the springboard to the Okavango and the exclusive camps found dotted throughout the delta. It’s also the place from which to head north into Chobe or east to Makgadikgadi. Looking around I was reminded of my first experience of Maun in 1985, when it seemed to me like a large half-forgotten dusty town filled with donkeys and cattle. How things change.
We arrived at Crocodile Camp just outside of Maun only to find that it was closed for renovations. So we tried Audi Camp next door. It was a bit noisy with the building going on in Crocodile Camp – certainly different to our last few nights in the bush. Audi is very well established but after the empty, wild, beautiful places we had stayed in it felt disappointing. Audi caters for a different type of traveller perhaps and the security fencing, layout and larger groups didn’t feel in line with our kind of trip. It is useful as a base from which to explore, or as a one night stopover. I personally wouldn’t spend too much time in the camp itself – but thats just my opinion. It does have everything travellers need, and services an important market for visitors to this area. The campsites are fairly basic (but adequate) and the other accommodation on offer seems quite old (but well maintained). The staff were friendly and helpful.
15th June, Audi Camp, Maun – Third Bridge, Moremi, Botswana
Leaving Audi Camp we headed into Maun to try our luck finding availability in Moremi and Chobe. As all campsites are managed by different private operators, this required us to shop around a bit. Through Xomae we found space for two nights in Third Bridge Camp, and through SKL we booked one night in North Gate (Kwai) Camp and one in Savute Camp. Booking between different operators can be a bit tiresome and I find it strange that there isn’t a more efficient way to do this. Over and above the camp fees are the park fees that must be paid at Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) office in Maun, or can sometimes be paid at the various park gates too. For four nights camping, including park fees for the two of us, we paid just under R4000. It’s by no means cheap in terms of camping fees, but then again you do get priceless wilderness.
We stocked up on food and drinking water before heading off. We also filled our two jerry cans with fuel. At this point Leo asked why they’re called jerry cans – and if that had anything to do with Tom & Jerry? I had a good chuckle and explained to him that the Germans designed these in the 1930’s. The Allies copied and modified the design during the Second World War. Jerry was wartime slang for Germans – hence the name.
At South Gate we signed into Moremi Game Reserve and made our way slowly to Third Bridge Camp covering many of the loops that branch off the main track. When we got there we found a group of quite aggressive baboons lurking in the bush. The baboons here are notorious and have been known to ruin the experience of visitors by absolutely trashing their campsites or stealing their food. They grab everything, even if people are around. Some even open car doors! The baboons closed in while we set up camp and one big male came too close to Leo for my liking, snooping around for something to take. No matter how much Leo shouted and waved his hands, the baboon was undeterred. Eventually I picked up a stick and charged the big fellow at full speed, chasing him out of the campsite. The troop retreated but I can imagine that for people who are unused to the bush this could have been a potentially bad start to a wonderful campsite.
Third Bridge is among Botswana’s most famous camps. Unfenced, with its legendary wooden bridge and animals coming right into camp, it feels truly wild (except of course for the other campers, buildings, staff, little shop etc). Lions, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, elephants and other species can sometimes be seen from the confines of ones own tent! The roads to Third Bridge are fairly sandy and can be difficult to negotiate in places. A map or GPS is very handy as there are many tracks. The setting of the camp is beautiful – located among large trees, with the marshy river on one side and a huge open plain on the other. Although I have heard complaints in the past about sloppy service and no water, we found the facilities clean, good and we didn’t have an issue with water. The camping, as noted earlier, was expensive and I know Third Bridge can also get quite full over season. Luckily we had planned our trip to avoid this rush and had relative peace.
Leo and I had an interesting encounter this particular evening when one large female elephant came into our camp about two or three meters from us. In these situations its best never to panic, try to touch the animal or make a loud noise. Step back slowly, give them space and let them move on. After good day on the road and viewing wildlife, we both fell fast asleep early – ready for our travels northbound on our way to Savute.