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A round trip from Windhoek, with Savute as the diamond in the ring…
Text and photographs Annabelle Venter
Spring is knocking on the door – I can feel it – although it’s still early August. There is a definite change in the air, a smokiness drifting in from the east and a sense of anticipation of warmer days that make me want to pull out my suitcase and start throwing in a few things. I’ve noticed the first vermillion blooms of the coral trees here and there in Windhoek, and just outside town, eager Acacia mellifera pushing out their powder-puff lemon blossoms. This can mean only one thing in my world – it’s time for our annual migration to the north-east.
It’s a trip we do almost every year and it’s a good circular route through Botswana and back to Windhoek, via the Zambezi Region. It’s mostly on tar except when travelling through the wild reaches of the Moremi and Chobe game reserves. We have done it in a week, but two weeks makes for a good break and you can pack in quite a variety of different destinations in our neighbouring country. Heading out of Windhoek to the east via Gobabis, the 800-km-odd journey to Maun will take an easy day’s travelling, passing through Ghanzi, past Lake Ngami and then north-east to the frontier town of Maun, the gateway to some of Africa’s most spectacular game reserves. A phrase often heard is that ‘Botswana never disappoints’ and I can truly vouch for that!
Arriving in Maun always initiates an exciting feeling of anticipation for us. The dusty, mopane-lined streets are abuzz with shoppers, goats, chickens, tourist vehicles and plenty of donkeys. After a long day’s drive, our first stop is to enjoy an ice-cold St Louis beer at Bon Arrivee – a popular cafe opposite the entrance to the airport, where Henry the chicken used to hold court amongst the steady throng of regulars. It’s a great place to immerse yourself in Maun’s atmosphere and unwind after the drive. The food is fairly good, but if you’re a nervous flyer and waiting for an aircraft that will take you into the Delta, the photo memorabilia that plasters the walls here may give you indigestion! This is where young pilots hang out (like those in the TV series, Bush Pilots) when not on duty or waiting for a flight, and the place reverberates with stories of close encounters in the bush.
Botswana roadside delights
After some people-watching and spotting of familiar faces we’ve seen on previous visits, it’s time to move on to find a camping spot for the night, so we head east out of town to an old favourite, Camp Audi. We’ve been camping here for 16 years and find the campsite consistently well maintained. The spacious outdoor showers under the stars and mopane trees are a sure sign that you’re back in Botswana. The atmosphere at the bar and restaurant has plenty of vibes and attracts the locals – always a good sign – and the food’s not bad either! A beautifully clean, pale-blue swimming pool on the banks of the Thamelekane River and surrounded by colourful comfy sofas is a good place to while away an hour or two with a book, if you can keep your eyes off the interesting birds overhead!
After a ‘quick-fix’ breakfast (it’s on the menu – toast and coffee with lime jam!) the next morning, it’s time to head northwards, stocking up with fresh goods at the local Spar and Woollies Foods on the way (the latter is small, but – amazingly – is there!).
Now it’s time to take the road north-east out of town and follow the signs to Moremi/Savute. On impulse, we stop at a delightful little roadside stall and find a charming stand of hand-made jewellery and one of the cleanest bush loos I’ve ever seen, discreetly hidden by a sheet of colourful painted fabric. After buying a few pairs of special Botswana earrings, we‘re off again on a singularly corrugated road, bumping through the mopane forests. Some distance on we pass through the Mababe Gate at the entrance to the Chobe Game Reserve, today choosing the Marsh road over the Sand Ridge road, as the marsh is rumoured to still be dry. Seven hours of back-wrenching bumpiness and beautiful scenery after leaving Maun, we slowly drive into the sandy Savute Campsite to find our space amongst the trees.
Savute and its enigmatic channel
An elephant arrived here before us and we must wait while he finishes his snack of Kalahari apple-leaf branches with delicate purple flowers. Engaging low-4 gear to negotiate the soft deep grey sand, we position the Landy for the evening’s camping while Mr Elephant watches us from the next campsite. He hasn’t finished his snack yet, and sure enough, just after dark, he comes closer again while we observe his movements from the rooftop tent.
It turns out to be a restless night with all the visitors to our campsite, including a passing leopard rasping us awake, and buffaloes splashing about in the nearby channel. By five in the morning we’re relieved to rise and begin the new day in this magnificent place. It’s still dark, but the setting full moon reveals that there are no predators in the immediate vicinity, and quickly we fall into our hushed morning routine. It’s too dark to walk to the ablutions 100 metres away and we’re not allowed to wander around on foot after dark. Over the first filter coffee of the day – we never travel without the plunger – we plan our route for the morning, taking advantage of that magical golden hour that photographers are so obsessed with. Because Savute lies further east than Namibia, the sun rises earlier too, forcing a keen photographer out of the sack at an unseemly hour!
The Savute Channel and its surrounding areas in northern Botswana form part of the greater Chobe Game Reserve, which stretches all the way from the south-eastern boundary of Moremi up to Kasane and the Chobe riverfront. Its main feature is the enigmatic channel, which flows in great natural cycles and has a profound effect on the creatures that call this pristine corner of Africa home. About 30 years ago the channel dried up, causing much of the wildlife to move away to other areas with more reliable water sources. Many creatures not able to make the trek suffered and died.
Wildlife filmmakers Dereck and Beverly Joubert immortalised this devastating natural event in their documentary film, The Stolen River. But in 2010 the rains were good and in the right places, and the water that had started creeping down the channel two years previously, finally made it as far as the marsh. Gradually the animals have returned to this Eden, although each year the marsh dries up naturally for a few weeks in the winter, until the summer floodwaters from Angola reach the channel again, around August.
Our first visit in 1999 was during the dry period, and in spite of this and spending just one day in the area en route northwards, we spotted leopard as well as wild dogs. Something caught our imagination back then and once the channel started resuming its natural cyclical flow, we were compelled to return for a longer visit. It’s inevitable that Savute will experience a drought cycle again in the future, we just don’t know when. In the meantime all of nature is celebrating the return of the waters, including us.
The Bend, Bee-eater Corner and Paradise
This morning we decide to explore all the roads around the marsh to familiarise ourselves with the area and we soon learn that the mornings are pretty quiet as far as game viewing is concerned, with mostly antelope grazing on the plains. By mid-morning the temperatures start to rise and this is the cue for the elephants to gradually emerge from the woodlands in the west.
We find a delightful bend in the road where the river starts seeping away into the marsh and we nickname it Bee-eater Corner in honour of the little bee-eaters we find there. Flocks of Bradfield’s hornbills fill the air with their calls and in the distance a pair of southern ground hornbills are out hunting. This curve in the road is a favourite spot for everything it seems, and later in the afternoon we are thrilled to find a leopard creeping through the yellow grass. We spend some time with her before she heads down to the river for a drink. The next morning she is still in the area and we watch her again sunning herself on an ant-heap, while she lazily watches the traffic. Leopards are so in control of game viewing! After about 10 minutes, she’s had enough of us and wanders away into the bushes, leaving us wondering whether it was a dream.
The days pass sublimely as we leave all thoughts of home and work far behind and fall into a pleasant daily rhythm. The heat by lunchtime necessitates seeking the scanty shade under the Kalahari apple-leaf in our campsite, named Paradise, where we wait for the temperature and light to shift, or else to drive in the air-conditioned car to try and escape the heat. You never know what you’ll find in the heat of the day, and it’s sometimes worth braving it. We spend some time with a pack of African wild dogs resting in the shade near the channel.
During our stay, the marsh rapidly fills up and becomes impassable for vehicles, but the buffaloes seem to love the fresh greenery that sprouts in the water. Also enjoying the water are hundreds of elephants – smaller groups continually coming in from far-off places, joining the bigger herds until we witness one of the biggest gathering of elephants I have ever seen, splashing together in the distance. After watching the increasing buffalo herds moving steadily up the marsh towards The Bend over the last few days, we estimate between 1,000 to 1,500 animals to be gathered here. The scene is now set for the king of this jungle to arrive.
Buffaloes, lions and baobabs
On the last morning, for some reason, we are not out as early as we could be (in Botswana in August the gates open about half an hour before sunrise) and we leave camp as the sun is rising, stopping to photograph tree silhouettes en route. At The Bend we are somewhat taken aback to find a cluster of vehicles, their drivers clearly knowing something we do not. A gap in the crowd reveals a magnificent sunrise tableau of thick, orange dust hanging above a huge herd of buffaloes on the opposite bank, with several lions alert in the foreground. Two more male lions are pacing restlessly on our side of the river, eventually taking the plunge and ‘swimming’ the chin-deep channel. The reason reveals itself – a buffalo feast is being devoured by a third male lion inside a cluster of bushes on the opposite bank. We should have anticipated this happening and been out early, so we head back for camp, a little annoyed with ourselves at missing out on such a great photographic opportunity – nine lions crossing the river for the hunt earlier and witnessed by other campers!
Leaving Savute is always a wrench because it’s such a remote and magical place. Time really seems to stand still here as you learn to live with cycles of sun and moon. But the Chobe River up north beckons, along with a boat trip and breakfast at Chobe Safari Lodge, if you are continuing your trip in Botswana. The road northwards is most beautiful, passing masses of stately and ancient baobabs along the Chobe River, before emerging at the Ngoma border post with Namibia.
Bird specials, tiger fish, elephants… even sable and roan
From here you can either continue east to Kasane about 70 km away and still in Botswana, or cross back into Namibia to enjoy the beautiful Zambezi Region, named after the mighty river that merges close by with the Chobe River. There are loads of interesting destinations to explore along the main thoroughfare travelling westwards; where you will stop depends on what your interests are. From August onwards it’s time for carmine bee-eaters and African skimmers to arrive and nest on the river edges and sandbanks, so if you’re a birder, it’s a good idea to include these on your wish list.
Kalizo Fishing Camp is a good venue for viewing both these birds by means of a short boat ride that you can book at the camp. If birding’s not your thing, then try your luck at catching and releasing a tiger fish here. Either way, a trip on the river is a delight for anyone, just to view the mighty Zambezi from a different perspective. Stop off at the Kwando River for a few days detour and discover Namibia’s own version of the Delta.
The Bwabwata National Park on the Kwando’s western bank is a highlight not to be missed before you leave this area and travel through the Caprivi Strip to the Okavango River. Namibian Wildlife Resorts has just renovated the old Popa Falls Camp, adding waterfront chalets and boat trips on the river. It’s a good place to end your stay in the north-east, or you could choose from a number of established private camps that line the river close by. Whichever place you pick to rest your happy, weary head, a highlight of this area is the Mahango Game Reserve nearby where you can drive along the river road in the late afternoon to have your final fill of game viewing. Mahango is well known for its roan and sable antelope, none of which you’ll see easily elsewhere in Namibia. It’s also home to large herds of elephants and buffaloes.
From here it’s a full day’s drive back to Windhoek to complete the circular route and start planning next year’s trip!