We’re only momentarily disorientated… I’ve been lucky enough to call Botswana home for 7 years now and have traversed most of its dusty roads. However, there are always new gems to explore and last weekend the Makgadikgadi National Park was on the itinerary. This largely underutilised park only has a couple of roads crisscrossing its interior and most of them are long and straight with miles of visibility. Despite these pretty good odds, I still managed to be momentarily disorientated… or in plain English “lost”.
In hindsight this is actually a pretty impressive feat seeing as there are so few roads and yet we still managed to miss one of them – turns out it was the crucial one. We had booked a campsite in the middle of the park but for some reason we ended up on the Boteti river which forms the western boundary of the park. I’ll never forget when we came out of the ‘woods’ onto a ridge with a very pretty view of a dry river bed. After a moment or two of complementing the view it dawned on me that we were looking down on the Boteti and nowhere near where we were supposed to be. The little cement pillar stating Khumaga office a mere 2km away confirmed this. I couldn’t help but start laughing, almost uncontrollably, at this rather long detour. It was now 15h00, we’d left Maun at 8h30 and still had to cover 60km to get to the campsite and set up camp. Suffice to say the giraffe, gemsbok and elephants we’d passed earlier looked a little surprised to see us again so soon going the opposite direction at a slightly faster pace..
We made it to Tree Island in record time, set up camp and managed to get out onto the pans for a well-deserved sundowner. Nothing beats the open spaces the pans have to offer, there is quite literally nobody around let alone any man-made structures to disturb the endless views. My Dutch friend, who is an avid sailor, likened the emptiness of the park to being out at sea – the grass waving in the gentle breeze reminded him of the waves and if you know enough about astronomy you can easily navigate by the stars. I’ve seen plenty of impressive night skies but on a moonless night like we had, the universe in all its glory makes you seem very small and irrelevant in the larger scheme of things. A feeling that more people should experience more often if you ask me!
Back in camp dinner was served and we ended the day with a nightcap around the fire – you’re not camping properly if you’re not sitting around a fire contemplating the days’ adventures whilst hearing lions roar in the background.
The next morning, we left bright and early, changed our second flat tyre and made our way back to the Boteti (we knew the road by heart now..) to catch the annual zebra migration. This natural phenomenon is utterly astounding and quite literally breath taking. Imagine hundreds of zebra and wildebeest making their way down to the river, which isn’t much more than a couple of big puddles and trying to squeeze in between large herds of elephants. We parked our car under the trees, opened our picnic lunches and just sat there for hours watching the spectacle unfold before our eyes. Whilst the zebra, wildebeest and elephants were all jostling for space lions starting calling. I’m convinced they did so just to make the experience all the more surreal for us.
No matter how long I’ve been in Africa for nor how many safaris I’ve done, those hours spent on the river banks watching the spectacular migration in action is something I won’t easily forget. It ranks pretty high in special moments and trust me, this continent has granted me quite a few!
Having never been to Nxai Pan National Park this was my first chance to discover this somewhat hidden gem in the desert. The landscape was stunning. One could see that the area had experienced some rains prior to our arrival as the flora was slowly coming back to life with bright green shoots and leaves providing a stark contrast to the dry landscape. The majority of trees and shrubs were coming into bloom with a stunning array of multi coloured flowers making for great landscape photography.
We could not have scripted our arrival at Nxai Pan Camp more perfectly. We arrived to a very warm welcome from the Managers, Lets and Thabo. Our camp orientation, however, was delayed for forty five minutes due to the fact that one rather cheeky elephant had decided that the camp pool would make for a better source of drinking water than the waterhole directly located in front of camp. Spectacular to say the least!
After high tea we went out on a short game drive towards the busy waterhole where elephants were dominating the water point to the chagrin of the other wildlife such as buffalos, jackals and other desert species. The inter-action between the elephants themselves and the other wildlife was fascinating, keeping us mesmerized as Chester explained the animals behaviour we were observing.
The next morning we embarked on a short nature walk with Shoes, the resident bushman and our tracker. He provided us with numerous anecdotes and information in the ways of his forefathers during a short walk in the vicinity of the camp. Quite a character if there ever was one, explaining that my failure to start a fire would guarantee that I would never find a wife to marry! The following game drive provided great sightings in the form of three cheetahs, giraffes, zebras, elephants galore and the highlight for us, aardvark out in the open during the day time!
We went through to Baines Baobab’s on our way to the Nxai Pan National Park gate. The baobabs stand out rather majestically as one approaches and the experience is quite humbling as one realises just how long these immortalized baobabs have stood the test of time.
FACTS ABOUT NXAI PAN CAMP
Nxai Pan Camp is run by Kwando Safaris
Activities on offer include game drives, bushman experience and day visits to Baines Baobabs
Camp consists of 8 custom-built rooms (including 1 family room). All rooms are en-suite with thatched roofs and insulation making them cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter
Arriving at our mobile camp set up between 2nd and 3rd bridge in Moremi Game Reserve after dark was like arriving in fairy land, with all the lanterns down the pathways and throughout the camp. Welcomed with a glass of sparkling wine, we were settled in.
This luxury mobile set up boasts a combination of elegance and a kind of exploration history giving you all the comforts of beds, en-suite bathrooms with bucket showers and flush toilets. This was to be our home for the next 2 nights. A mobile safari gives you a private camp feeling much closer to the bush than the infrastructure of any lodge. Lying in bed at night and listening the bush come alive, as certain curious species of game come to inspect the different smells and activities of our camp.
Our Guides, Ralph Bousfield and Greg certainly did not disappoint with their in depth knowledge and passion for the bush and stories of exploration, history, culture and scientific facts kept us all engaged and entertained the entire time we were with them. The other advantage of a mobile safari is creating a trust and a bond with your guide that will be with you throughout your trip.
Day 3 we boated far into the Okavango Delta, to our Island stop where Devon (our Camp Manager) was waiting for us, fly camp set up, with more food and drinks. Our set up was a roll mat with a mosquito net under the vast stars in the middle of the Okavango Delta. It gave us a feeling of being truly in the wild, in one of the most beautiful places on earth. Here we experienced the water ways of the Delta, whilst competing against each other on the number of Sitatunga and Otters we spotted. Nature walks around the island with Ralph proving to Simona we could still make a pizza from natural plants, mushrooms and shrubs on the island as well as curing malaria at the same time.
Day 4 our Delta experience was over and we flew out to the openness of the Makgadikgadi Pans. Our home here for 2 nights was in the most feminine of all 3 Uncharted Africa camps, San Camp.
You have a choice of 3 camps all meeting 3 different styles and budgets, whilst you can all enjoy the same activities.
Camp Kalahari situated further back in the grasslands is the least expensive of the 3 camps. It is currently raising all the tents, to allow the breeze to blow through and give you more of a view of the Pans.
San Camp being the lady of the 3, situated on the edge of the pans themselves is seasonal and only operational from April to October. Its white tents on the edge of the pans gives you the true feeling of being on the moon.
Jacks Camp, this colonial and historic camp based at the edge of the pans but slightly back into the grasslands is the grande-dame of the three. Packed with history and science with their registered museum, it does look fabulous after the completion of its refurbishment.
One thing to mention on the activities, is all 3 camps run the same activities on a rotational cycle so that guests from 2 different camps don’t do the same activity together. This is the reason that a 3 night stay in the dry season is recommended to be offered the surprise sleep out (weather dependant). Activities include a cultural bushman walk, game drives looking for more adapted desert species, quad biking in the dry season, following and interacting with the very comical habituated meerkats, horse riding as an optional extra and watching the sun set where it is so silent that your ears ring.
A safari to the Salt Pans is such a unique experience, from the Zebra migration in the Green Season to exploring the pans on quad bikes in the dry season, it should not be missed.
For those of you who have not been to Meno a Kwena Tented Camp – a plan must be made to go! It is not just a traditional safari experience. It is a unique insight into how tourism does succeed in embracing community and culture, as well as wildlife and the wilderness, as an integral part of the tourism environment.
We were met by Jeff and other ‘Meno’ team members at the camp after a brisk 2 hour drive from Maun and we spent the afternoon in camp at the floating hide viewing wildlife. Elephants, zebra, fish eagle and wildebeest kept us occupied and our cameras clicking. As sunset fell and the landscape transformed into a mirage of colours a rogue steenbok sprang out from nowhere, catapulting us from our seats in a desperate attempt to keep it in eyeshot while it sprinted along the river bank and made a gigantic leap into the river and swam across! We managed to get a photo of it – somewhat blurred, but despite of all our scanning around the vicinity we could not find any evidence of what could have made this steenbok ‘jump out of its skin’ and into water! Later we were told that there had been a leopard sighting in the area… Meno is definitely a camp that does not require you to go out on activities to be lucky with sightings. That night we also got to witness bush babies playing- chasing each other up and down the trees and the roof of the dining tent!
The next morning we went for a nature walk with Xao and members of his family and village, Xaixai. Any scepticism that I had had prior was immediately and totally eradicated! This was not culture put on a stage – it was natural, interactive, educational and extremely fun. They taught us some games which we played together, as well as song and dance. Besides entertainment, these activities were directly related to enhancing skills and attributes necessary for traditional hunting, care of the environment and family life. We ‘walked away’ with some great wilderness survival tips, a better understanding of the bushman culture, new friends, some light exercise and very happy faces.
After lunch it was time for a game drive! In the very safe hands of Cell our impressive guide, a short boat transfer along the Boteti River took as to the Makgadikgadi National Park. Our game drive vehicle was waiting for us and within our first 30 minutes we were blessed with wild dogs, white backed vultures, wildebeest, elephant, and getting stuck in thick sand. Being a lady, I found a cool spot under a raintree and equipped with an icy bottle of water and perched on a fallen tree trunk I proceeded to provide moral support to the boys as they proceeded to get the vehicle out of the sand. I even offered them some tips.
We continued our game drive along the western part of the park and the Boteti River and took in more delights with tawny eagle, honey badger, steenbok, giraffe, magpie and more…a portion of this drive runs along the fence /boundary of the national park that was erected to prevent the cohabitate of wildlife and cattle. This was necessary to prevent the spread of anthrax as well as other potentially fatal variables that can negatively affect wildlife, cattle and surrounding communities. This portion of fencing, however, as it cuts the river off from the park and thus access to water for wildlife, has resulted in wildlife forcing their way through the fencing – and not only opening up the fence to the free movement of cattle and wildlife across the boundary of the park, but also sometimes animals get entangled in the fencing causing fatalities.
The surrounding communities have culturally lived a pastoral farming lifestyle and thus access to some part of the Boteti River was deemed necessary for them to continue with their traditional life. However, with the emergence of Meno A Kwena and their close relationship both economically and sociably with surrounding communities as well as government empowerment initiatives, the communities now see the benefits of tourism as well as the destruction caused by the proximity of the fencing to the river. As we speak now, it is the communities that are now humming for the relocation of the fence. It is indeed a true sign that communities are‘owning’ their surroundings and proudly so. We look forward to the news of the movement of the fence. But in essence, visitors do need to be sensitised to this history in order that they may appreciate that change can be a process and that the protection of wildlife and the environment is key to the ultimate goal.
Yet another great experience that Meno A Kwena has to offer is an overnight pan trip. As it is quite a lengthy drive to the pans – to avoid disappointment book a 3 night stay at Meno and indicate that you would like to go there! I experienced the night out with Meno and amongst colleagues and family of Safari Destination earlier this year in June. It is an experience that is hard to describe and unforgettable – I felt like I was floating, with the endless panoramic views – a feeling of weightlessness. I understood then the cliché often used… ’sleep under a canvas of stars’. There is no other way to say it… and don’t forget to take your camera to get shots of you looking like you have special powers… but bring your thermals as it is cold at that time of year, and as much as you feel like a super hero when you are there – sadly, you are still prone to the elements… You may even be lucky and see a family of meerkats on your journey. This activity is not possible in the rainy season as the pans are flooded and it is impossible to get near them!
And of course a visit to Meno is often portrayed in photos against the background of a contrast of black and white stripes surrounded by a sea of soft dust… The Zebra Migration! The larger concentration of zebra is best experienced outside of the rainy season- perhaps between June-September (dependent on the weather maker).
Meno A Kwena is a great way to start or end your visit to Botswana and get a feel of the country with its complimentary offering of wildlife, culture and community in an intimate environment.
We have several itineraries that include Meno a Kwena, one of the most popular is our “10 night BEST VALUE Safari”, a combination Livingstone, Chobe, Delta and Makgadikgadi. You can download the details from our agent’s corner.