Wednesday, October 17, 2007
Xakanaxa, Moremi Game Reserve, to Savuti, Chobe National Park

We had to exit Moremi Game Reserve by 11:00 a.m. to avoid paying an extra day's fees, and there were still some things to see on the way out, so we were up at 5:15 and left camp by 6:45.  Also, it's a pretty long trek to our next camp at Savuti in Chobe National Park, so we needed to get an early start.  As always, we were hunting for cats as we drove along.

The road between Xakanaxa and North Gate is often closed due to flooding, and some years it's not open at all, but we asked around and heard that it was passable, great news since the only way around is a 72-kilometer detour via South Gate.  

We'd gone about 20km when we came to a pool of water blocking the road.  There was no way around for dozens of kilometers, but we didn't want to try to go through and fail.  After a few minutes, we turned around, and about a kilometer away, as luck would have it, we ran into a German couple coming our way, and we all went back to the pool to check it out together.  The German fellow didn't hesitate to take off his shoes and wade right through the water, despite the crocodiles I was sure were laying in wait.  The water only came to just above his ankles, the roadbed was firm, and both trucks made it through with no problem.  The Germans seemed very calm about the whole thing, but it was very exciting for Tom and me! 

Preparing for a water crossing

We had to make a couple more water crossings this morning, something I will never get used to.  Other times we turned back at water and found alternate routes.

We'll be right behind you

Dombo Hippo Pool is an attractive shallow lake of permanent water with crocodiles and pods of hippos.  There's an elevated platform at one end of the pool where you can leave your vehicle for a more expansive view.

Hungry, hungry hippo

Jana climbs the Dombo Hippo Pool viewing platform

Leaving the hippo pool, we continued east on some of the numerous tracks north of the main road on the way to North Gate, finding a lot of game.  Tsaro Loop was a particularly rewarding track, where we saw a herd of blue wildebeest (brindled gnu), interesting in spite of being yet another of species of antelope.   

Red lechwe

Zebras, Tsaro Loop, Moremi Game Reserve

Blue wildebeest

Just before North Gate we crossed the bridge over the River Khwai, a long, rough bridge of strewn-together mopane logs that bends and shakes when you drive across it.  I walked over first and took photos as Tom bravely drove across in the 4x4.

Bridge over the River Khwai

At 10:30 we left Moremi at North Gate, signing the exit logbook on the way out and showing our papers proving we'd paid in full at South Gate two days before.  Just outside North Gate is the tiny village of Khwai.  There's no fuel in the village and hardly anything else either, so imagine our delight when we found one tiny store selling ice-cold beer!  With the hot, dry conditions, beer was pretty much a necessity, and we'd been seriously rationing our low supply.  We bought 12 beers for 5 pula each, less than a buck apiece!

The beer store, Khwai, Botswana

Next our route to Chobe National Park went by the Khwai Riverfront, outside either park, a beautiful setting with the most game we'd seen so far, as large numbers of thirsty animals congregate here in the dry season.  There were loads of hippos, giraffes, and lots of elephants.  One intimidating elephant purposely blocked our path, and we had to stop the truck and wait until he was ready to let us pass.

Elephant near the Khwai River

Hippo pod, Khwai River

Turning away from the Khwai River, 20km from Chobe's Mababe Gate, we encountered the Magwikhwe Sand Ridge and the WORST ROAD OF ALL TIME, deep, heavy sand that was so fine it was more like silt.  The road was also slightly uphill.  Tom plowed through the sand, keeping our speed up as much as possible.  The truck was tossed and thrown wherever the track took us, several times into the brush, as we shoved our way along.  Then the thought struck, "What if we meet someone coming the other direction?"  But that never happened.  In fact, after leaving the river, we went over 90km without ever seeing another vehicle.

The most horrible bit of road lasted "only" 3km (though it seemed like much more), then in another 15km or so we reached Chobe National Park's Mababe Gate.  We stopped and went in the gatehouse, showed them our official green DWNP "Parks and Reserves Reservation Office Confirmation," paid $108 for two days' entry and camping, and received our official "Permit to Enter National Parks and Game Reserves."  

Chobe National Park is home to over 120,000 elephants, the largest population of elephants in the world.  There are four distinct ecosystems in Chobe:  the Linyanti Swamps in the northwest; the lush Serondela in the Chobe River area in the northeast; the grassy flatland of the Savuti Marsh in the west; and the sandy, hot, dry parts in between.  Today we were driving through the grasslands of the Savuti Marsh and would be camping at a sandy, hot, dry part, Savuti Campsite.  

The Savuti area of Chobe isn't technically desert due to the amount of rain it gets in the wet season, but in the dry season, when we visited, it looks like stereotypical desert, dry, sandy, and very hot.  Savuti is famous for its predators, especially the lions and hyenas.  This harsh, unforgiving region is the only place in the world where lions take down elephants.

21km of stark nothingness and hard-baked clay road past Mababe Gate, we had a choice between the Marsh Road and the Sandridge Road to continue on to Savuti, both with the most terrible reputations.  The Marsh Road in the wet season is impassible, and in the dry season it's hardened into craters so big you could lose your vehicle if you aren't careful.  But the Sandridge Road is, well, sand.  We'd had enough sand, thank you, so we took the Marsh Road, which was also supposed to be scenic.  It was not.

Kori bustard, Savuti Marsh, Chobe National Park

What a relief when, 28 more unscenic kilometers later, we finally reached Savuti Campsite.  This camp actually had a gate (no fence, just a gate), and there was actually a game warden on site.  I checked in and showed the gentleman my very official paperwork, and he said welcome, and please camp in our assigned spot, which was site CV-4.  It was a fine spot on the dry bed of the Savuti Channel, but when we got there, it was already occupied.  Claim jumpers!  Imagine!  There was plenty of room for all of us, but they had their lawn chairs in the one shady spot suitable for our camper.  On a day like today, we really needed that shade.  I got out of the truck to give them the boot and told them they were welcome to camp anywhere on our site they like, but we were taking our shade.  It was all very friendly, actually, and they were moving their chairs before I could get the words out.  Yet another missed opportunity to use my pepper spray.  Drat!

The very sandy Savuti Campsite

The shade situation sorted out, we went around to open the back of the camper and discovered the left taillight and corresponding section of trim were missing.  Obviously, we'd left those items in a bush back on the sand ridge.  It couldn't be helped.  It was impossible to stop without sinking, and the truck was thrown every which way.  I'm sure we'll be paying a pretty penny for that later.  We were mostly worried, though, about being denied passage into another country during the various border crossings we had yet to accomplish.

Our 4x4, a little worse for the wear

The persons with whom we were sharing our pitch were a group of eight South Africans on a two-week holiday through Chobe and Moremi, traveling in the opposite direction of us.  They'd been at Savuti the night before also and informed us that the road we thought we'd parked beside was actually an elephant track, and every evening elephants come tramping through here.  I asked Tom to please move the camper a few more feet from the tree to give the elephants plenty of room to pass!

After a late lunch, one of the South Africans, Cedric, gave Tom a quick 4x4 driving lesson.  Tom had gotten better at the challenging driving each day, but it was definite on-the-job training, and we still didn't know what the hell we were doing out there.  

We drove to a nearby watering hole late in the afternoon and found a herd of distressed elephants vying for a place by the water.  The Savuti Channel has been dry since 1982, and water is pumped into this hole to give the wildlife some hope of survival.  The generator for the pump is kind of noisy, and I would have been annoyed by the sound of it overnight in our otherwise peaceful camp if I hadn't known its good purpose.  The animals are under great stress from lack of water, and we heard the mournful bellowing of elephants throughout the evening and into the night.

Elephants at "Pump Pan" artificial waterhole, Savuti

Looking kind of stressed

Past the watering hole, we took a side track up a hill to look for more game, specifically cats, since we still hadn't seen any.  But we got cocky after Tom's driving lesson, went too slow, and got stuck in the sand right at sunset.  We were definitely off the beaten track, and no one else was going to come by today.  Our hope at seeing cats turned into hope of not seeing cats as we shoveled as quickly as we could and gathered wood to shove under our tires.  Then I gave the truck a push, and Tom drove right out.  Somewhat embarrassed by the whole ordeal, on the way back to camp, we agreed NOT to tell the South Africans.

We stopped by the ablution block for showers on the way back to our campsite and had yet another shower by flashlight.  The ablutions at Savuti are wired for electricity, but the lights weren't working when we were there.  The ablution block is heavily fortified by a thick circular wall designed to be elephant-proof.  The elephants will try to destroy anything in their way to get to water. 

Heavily fortified ablution compound at Savuti

Back at the campsite, I heated up leftover steak with hot & spicy chakalaka and a can of corn.  Dinner was prepared, as always since the camper lights failed, by flashlight.  At least tonight we found a rock to help prop up the back stairs, which have been hanging precariously for two days supported on one side by electrical wire.  Life really gets stripped down to the essentials out here.  It's invigorating!

After dinner, some of the South African group came over and built the fire, and we all had a good visit.  They were a group of eight in three 4x4s with experienced drivers, and they thought us "brave" and "amazing" for doing the trip on our own, a feat they wouldn't even consider, which made me feel pretty stupid for even attempting it.  They said it over and over again, and it just made me nervous.  A thin line separates boldness from folly, and I worried we were on the wrong side of it this time.

Since we were traveling in opposite directions, we traded info with our new friends on the route to come.  We were distraught to learn that we were in for some more terrible roads of sand tomorrow, about 45km worth, they warned.  Great.  Tom told them if they found a taillight in a bush tomorrow, that would be ours!

174 hard-fought kilometers Xakanaxa to Savuti.

Continue to October 18

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