After my Namibia tour I had two weeks to spare before going on to volunteer in Zimbabwe, so after a lot of internet searching I found an 11 day camping tour of Botswana, a country that I’d wanted to visit for quite a few years. It was a semi-participation tour, which meant that we were expected to put up our tents each night, and take them down the following morning. There were going to be ‘bush ablutions’ which meant a hole had to be dug at each site for a long-drop toilet, and our showers consisted of a bag full of water with a small shower head at the bottom which was slung over a suitable tree. The long-drop did have a toilet seat on a stand placed over it, and was in a square canvas enclosure, open at the top. We knew whether the loo was occupied by looking to see whether the toilet roll was perched on top of one of the corner poles or not ! The shower was also inside a canvas ‘square’ and I’ve never showered with so little water before. It was a case of turn on the water to get wet, turn off the water, lather up, then turn on the water again to rinse. We managed to share one bucketful of water between 6 people!
The main reason for booking onto the trip was that it ended in Victoria Falls on the Zimbabwe side on the day that my son Aaron and daughter-in-law Rachel were arriving. This meant that we could spend the next day at Victoria Falls themselves, before flying on to Harare the day after that to start our volunteering project.
I absolutely do not go camping at home as the weather here is so unpredictable and often rainy, so it was with some trepidation that I flew to Maun to join a trip with 5 unknown other people. I’d booked into a lodge for two nights before the tour started, and arranged for them to pick me up from the airport. Unfortunately my flight was delayed by over 2 hours, and when I arrived there was nobody there to meet me. Maun airport is really small but there were at least a dozen safari tour operators waiting to meet guests. I recognised the name of the company that I was going on tour with a couple of days later, and I approached them to ask if they could help me. Luckily, they were dropping guests off at the same lodge I was staying at, so they kindly gave me lift.
Our camping tour started at 07.30 and I met the other people on the trip – two French Swiss couples, and a single French lady. Luckily for me, they all spoke good English so included me in a lot of conversations, although there were many times when they understandably reverted to French and I was only able to catch the odd word or two and not join in at all. When you travel alone these things happen!
We drove out of Maun and it didn’t take long before we were driving on tracks through the countryside, as the first couple of nights were to be on an island in the middle of the Okavango Delta.
After a journey of a couple of hours, we met the ‘polers’ from the local community who would be taking us in their Mokoros, which are traditional dug out canoes. Once made out of trees, these are now fibreglass, and much lighter.
It was organised chaos but they’ve obviously done this hundreds of times before and all the camping gear was distributed between the Mokoros. We then gingerly clambered in, two people in each, and tried not to rock them too much. The journey into the Delta was really relaxing (for us guests) and an enjoyable way to travel. The lady in the photo below was hot and thirsty and at one point she took the lid off a pan, scooped some water out of the delta and had a drink, something our sensitive Western stomachs would not have liked! I have no idea how they knew which channels to take amongst the reeds, but again, they’ve done this many times, and we arrived at our island just before lunchtime.
We were shown how to put up our tents and how to ‘flush’ the toilet, which basically meant taking a trowel and some soil from the heap that had been made when the hole was dug, and sprinkling the soil in the hole. Whilst we were putting up our tents, lunch was being prepared by our chef KP. His worktop was one of the upturned Mokoros and he produced a really tasty lunch in no time at all.
We were in no hurry to eat however, as there was a small herd of elephants not too far away, and we sat in chairs at the edge of camp and watched as a couple of them came and drank only a few yards away from us.
The rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, and before dinner we were taken on a short bush walk, being told about the various plants, trees, birds and wildlife around us. Dinner was cooked on an open fire, and we all turned in for an early night, listening to the night sounds around us. In the middle of the night I heard what sounded like the whole herd of elephants crashing through the water but on the whole I slept pretty well.
Unfortunately the next day was misty, overcast and drizzling, which is the main reason I don’t ‘do’ camping!
We had a bush walk planned and were still going to go regardless of the weather 😦 I’d also left my waterproof jacket behind in the vehicle on the mainland, so I improvised with a black bin liner – very chic! On the plus side it kept my camera beautifully dry, although the hole I’d made for my head was a bit big so I had damp shoulders. The walk lasted 5 hours, during which time I discovered that my walking boots were not waterproof and I ended up squelching, which didn’t help my mood. To cap it all, the only good wildlife sighting was a pod of hippos, but at least I got a photograph that I like from a low angle – something that is not possible from the safety of a vehicle.
Back at camp there was a warm fire, and I placed my boots next to it to dry. They took until the next morning before they were completely dry – full of ash, but dry! I wrung my socks out and placed them on a bush, cutting my finger badly on a hook-thorn at the same time, so I really wasn’t having a great day! Later that afternoon it cleared up though, and we had a sunset Mokoro cruise, which was beautiful and really enjoyable, and I made the most of the opportunities to photograph the polers.
The following morning started at 05.30 with taking down our tents and packing everything away. Breakfast around the campfire was very welcome and we go into the Mokoros for the last time to head back to the mainland.
As we stopped in the village to drop off some of the polers, I saw these two children. It brought it home just how privileged I am.
A drive of a couple of hours took us to a campsite outside the Moremi game reserve and after setting up camp we had a few hours to ourselves, followed by a game drive at 4 p.m. where we had some more great elephant sightings.
After breaking camp the following morning we were heading on to our next destination when we suddenly saw a pack of wild dogs running towards us. This was really exciting, as they are only seen in a few places and on the endangered species list. They came right past our vehicle before stopping behind us, looking into the bush and running off again in pursuit of their prey.
The rest of the tour followed a similar pattern of 5.30 a.m. starts, either break camp and move on, or a morning game drive, lazy few hours, late afternoon game drive, and early night after dinner.
At each campsite it was just our group, so it felt like we were the only people around for miles. I use the word ‘campsite’ very loosely – they were all just designated areas where people are allowed to camp. There is nothing there and each group has to leave it exactly as they find it. This meant taking all rubbish with us, filling in the longdrop holes, and also burying the ash from the campfires. Absolutely no food scraps are left behind, as they would attract hyenas and be dangerous to future campers. Having said that, hyenas can smell meat from a long way away, and they did come into camp sometimes at night to check whether there was anything to scavenge. This meant that vigilance and a good torch was needed for any visits to the toilet at night!
The morning after our sighting of wild dogs, we had another amazing encounter with a different pack of over 20 of them. I’ve spent months in various countries in Africa and only ever seen 4 on one occasion, so to see two packs in two days was incredible luck. The second pack weren’t the least bit concerned about us stopping in their midst, and we stayed with them for at least 30 minutes as they played and chased each other around us. We were also the only vehicle there, which made it all the more special.
To be continued………