Finding peace in Botswana’s dusty Maun
An opportunity to glimpse the unspoilt beauty of Botswana from a gateway to the Okavango
“It’s not a Botswana trip if you don’t get lost.” My friend, who has been driving for the entire day, now sits in the passenger seat and our French companion has taken the wheel. We have been driving for 16 hours and have reached our dusty destination — Maun, Botswana — and are trying to locate the Delta Rain Sitatunga Camp where we will be spending three nights in the tourist capital of Botswana.
Our road trip from Johannesburg immediately took on a different feel as we crossed Martin’s Drift, the border between SA and Botswana. As soon as we drove our car through a dip filled with disinfecting solution and stamped our feet on a mat to prevent any traces of foot and mouth disease, I knew I was in a different country. The first thing to grab my attention was a massive anthill. Anthills and donkeys: lots and lots of donkeys spilling onto the roads.
Looking out of the window, unsure of where I am heading as a first-time visitor to Botswana, I am convinced about one thing: I have never seen stars like this before. Shining in their glorious brilliance, enveloped by the hazy Milky Way, they shine brighter than city lights ever can. Not even in the SA bush have I seen anything like this.
After a testy time of veering too far off course, retracing our steps and then trying to follow directions given in an earlier conversation over a stranger’s phone, we arrive at Delta Rain where we are handed the keys to our quaint but welcoming chalets. Our initial plan of camping became glaringly flawed as time lapsed on the road, leaving us exhausted and reeling at the thought of having to still pitch tents and wake up for a 5:45 am game drive — a fact our welcoming hosts were well aware of in upgrading our sleeping quarters.
The next day, searing cold wakes me before the alarm can sound. Not a morning person, I am propelled by one feeling from beneath the covers and to don as many layers of clothing as possible: that dreaded fear of missing out.
We meet the owners of Chase Africa Safaris, a family run, mobile safari operation that offers guided, mobile safaris throughout Botswana’s top destinations, who have planned an entire day of game-driving for us.
After what feels like an eternity piled onto the back of an open Land Cruiser, wrapped with blankets that do little to protect us from the icy morning air that tears at any visible piece of flesh, we stop for a coffee break and a snack of fresh magwinya and rusks on the banks of the Khwai River. As a self-proclaimed coffee snob, I have never been as happy for a cup of instant coffee.
We spend the day in the Khwai Community Concession, an area of 1,800km² in the Okavango next to the Moremi Game Reserve. Formed by local villagers and managed by the Khwai Development Trust, it offers some of the best, unspoilt scenery for game drives and camping overnight in the heart of Botswana’s wilderness.
I ask our guide, Chris, about Botswana’s recent decision to lift the ban on elephant hunting and he provides some interesting insights. Driving around the concession, the amount of dead trees, stripped of their bark or pushed to the ground, is astounding. I learn that, 10 years ago, this area looked completely different but the overpopulation of elephants is taking its toll. Admittedly, it’s a problem, but I am not convinced that elephant hunting is the right solution.
As the day lazily drifts by and we shed our layers of clothing, the sun warms the cockles of my heart. We crack open some beers and soon adjust to the silence of the bush, hushing our voices as a herd of elephant led by the matriarch emerges from our right and walks past our game drive vehicle into the bush.
We spot all manner of wildlife, save any big cats, interrupting our safari adventure only with a leisurely lunch of bread, crunchy crackers, roast chicken, a delicious variety of sauces, cold meats and salads. We drive around for the entire day, not for a second looking at our signal-bereft phones but entertained and happy.
Waking up an hour later the next day, we make our way to the Okavango Delta for a mokoro trip through its channels and reeds. A traditional form of transport also used to fish, the mokoro is a 6m long canoe-like vessel.
We are greeted by our guide, Dayz, and his two assistants who transport a maximum of two people per vessel at a time. The initial unsteady rocking of the mokoro melts away into a gentle sway over the waters as our “polers” gently navigate the hippo- and crocodile-infested water while almost lulling us to sleep.
We drift towards another group of mokoro journeyers and our guide announces we’ve run into bad traffic, at which I push back images of peak-hour Joburg into the crevices of my mind, relaxing in the sounds of the water lapping against the flimsy vessel. This is yet another example of how the toiling city that grinds away at its inhabitants and this largely unspoilt region of the Okavango are worlds apart.
We enter a maze of reeds that form narrow passages. Rather than feeling constricted, I am mesmerised, expecting to see a Cambodian temple once we emerge on the other side of the exotic tunnels that tower above us.
Soft whispers of wind through the reeds sometimes turn to loud conversations and I can’t remember the last time I felt so at peace. Wading through the water lilies, we spot hippos in the water but our guide assures us we are not disturbing them.
We disembark on a bank of the delta where our guides take large lugs of the delta’s water. They seem healthy enough but my time in the city has made me wary of the dangers of pollution. We spot elephants in the distance and after a refreshing drink from our trusted cooler box we follow our guide into the bush.
He points out some wild sage and we finally know what the pungent fragrance is that we’ve been smelling on the stretches of road we’ve been driving on. Dayz explains that, with berries and plants found in the vicinity added, it is boiled and gargled by locals to treat toothache.
The dry, sandy landscape is broken by the lightest of green trees and vast stretches of open, blue skies. We track down two giraffe on foot and walk to a zeal of zebra in a dry pan that we learn live as families.
Our guide explains how to identify male and female elephant dung as we return to the sanctuary of the canopy of trees where he welcomes us to have a “bushy bushy” behind the roots of trees or dense bushes — a concept we have already learned to embrace with glee as we track through the untamed bush of Botswana, devoid of one-stops or convenience.
The sun beats down on our trip back to the other side of the delta bank and before I fall asleep, I am alerted by nervous comments from the mokoro companion sitting behind me. A pod of hippos appears to be too close and one particularly menacing set of eyes disappears underneath the water and doesn’t surface again. Luckily, we make it back to the shore unharmed.
After a refreshing shower in our chalet’s open-air showers, washing away the dust that has settled like a layer on our bodies and caked in our hair, we relax over bowls of freshly made pasta and glasses of wine at an Italian restaurant in town that night before sinking into our beds for a good night’s sleep.
As we travel on the next day, we make a pit stop at Planet Baobab. An old madala greets us and whisks us away on a short exploration of 800- and 1,200-year-old baobab trees.
“They speak to each other. They are connected via their roots,” he says proudly and with a great love for these iconic trees. They stand, towering and majestic in the sweltering heat of Botswana’s winter, evoking something spiritual.
We hit the road again, leaving behind the centuries-old trees and majestic wildlife and somehow I feel my internal balance has shifted. I feel calm and at peace and a dawning sense of sleepiness sets in as our tires hit the road.