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BOTSWANA: It’s the Maun magic” said the young bush pilot simply, and drained the rest of his beer in one swallow.  I looked more closely at his profile as he tilted the glass.  I doubted that he was old enough to drink, let alone fly a bush plane.  He had offered the catchy phrase when I brought up the fact that my planned departure from Maun kept being delayed by one thing after another.   Now here I was in the same bar I had landed in my first night here, having spent the past week and a half exploring the Okavango Delta by boat and the Central Kalahari by rented 4×4, wondering how yet another day had passed while doing absolutely nothing about leaving.  The pilot’s words began to make sense.  There did seem to be a magnetic quality to this town in northern Botswana.

Of course, there are real, non-magical reasons to linger a bit longer in Maun.  Simply put, this town and its surroundings are too dynamic and fun, its inhabitants too fascinating, to pass through in a rush.  From boating and camping in the Okavango Delta, to flightseeing over herds of elephant and zebra, to hiking amongst world-renowned rock art in the Tsodilo Hills, Maun offers itself up as Southern Africa’s base camp par excellence.   And because of its location on the doorstep of some of Africa’s most pristine and beautiful safari country, Maun attracts more than its share of intriguing and entertaining characters from all over the world.  I thought perhaps it was this last fact as much as the surrounding natural wonders that was keeping me here much longer than I had planned. 

The bush pilot sitting next to me in the bar was a perfect example of Maun’s dynamic population.  For such a young guy he had some great stories to tell.  Maun has one of the world’s busiest bush plane airfields, and its pilots are some of the world’s youngest.   Most of them are from South Africa, which in part explains their hard-drinking, wise-cracking swagger.   This delay in Maun, I decided, was not at all a waste of time.   In fact, it was a treat, and not only because I’m a keen observer of human behavior.  I listened as the pilot told of landing his plane and as he tried to taxi having a large bull elephant emerge from the bush to express its displeasure at the intrusion.  Throughout his story the young man’s eyes drifted over to make sure a certain blonde tourist from Germany was listening.  I was reminded of my days in Alaska, when I too was barely 20 and eager to test myself in a similarly wild and often dangerous land.

There are numerous tour companies in Maun which are happy to arrange well-priced, escorted safaris to the road-accessible destinations such as Moremi Game Reserve and Nxai Pan (the x in words here signifies the characteristic click in the language of local San people). The lodges, which are strung out along the river west of the airport, can either offer trips of their own or arrange one with a local operator.  As always, it pays to shop around, not only for price, but also to find the best group size, length of trip and departure day, among other things.  For the Okavango Delta, where roads are nonexistent, choices are limited to the expensive but excellent all-inclusive camps accessible by air, or the few budget-oriented camping safaris which use boats to transport tourists into the Delta.  I chose the latter, I don’t mind saying for reasons of budget.  But during the trip I saw some of the tour boats belonging to the big, expensive lodges.  These were bigger craft, in some cases relatively crowded, tourists with drinks in hand – the atmosphere was not really my style. 

I preferred our small group of 4, including the guide/boatman.  Our boat, being smaller, was able to drift into places the bigger boats couldn’t maneuver into.  In one case we glided right up on a tiny brilliant-blue malachite kingfisher.  Another thing to consider when deciding on a trip is what you give up at lodges in return for the obvious comforts.  One night I woke sometime after 2 a.m., and poked my head out of the tent to see a glorious moon-set.  I felt relatively safe from animals, with our closely-spaced tents circling a still-glowing campfire.  So I set up my tripod just outside the tent, capturing a magical interplay of moonlight and clouds, all the while listening to the mysterious sounds of the African bush at night.  Something like this may be possible in a lodge environment, but when you’re camping these sorts of experiences are a given.  In the end, you will have a great experience whichever type of trip you decide upon.  It’s worth remembering there is a choice, and your own style and preferences (not just budget) should always dictate which way you go.  Here like elsewhere in the world, budget-friendly trips (which often involve camping) are usually an option.  But they are not generally advertised in travel magazines, or even on the internet.  And so you must be willing to do some digging, or simply wait until you arrive to arrange things. 

In Maun, tourists are understandably eager to visit the Okavango Delta and its bordering reserves to the north.  But a brilliant option is the Kalahari and other areas to the south and east.   A visit to “the Pans” (Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans) is easy to combine with the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.   Again, there are plenty of guided options here.  Any internet research will turn up places like Jack’s Camp, a fly-in option deep in the Kalahari that includes guided walks with San people (less correctly called Bushmen).  Cheaper and easier, however, is simply traveling to Gansi, a center for San culture southwest of Maun.  Use one of the more moderately priced lodges here (such as the excellent Grasslands) as a base to tour the Kalahari in the company of San who will show you their unique ways tracking and survival.  There are, as far as I know, no San remaining in the Kalahari living as their ancestors did.  But many groups now living in or near Gansi are only a decade or less removed from a hunter-gatherer existence. 

While it is worth visiting Gansi for its San cultural experiences, it is arguably easier to visit the Kalahari (as well as the Pans) by simply driving yourself.   Arrange to rent a 4×4 ahead of time, or by visiting the offices across the road from the Maun Airport once you’ve arrived.  You can either rent a vehicle with camping equipment, or rent what you need from Kalahari Kanvas, a couple hundred meters down the road that runs along the airstrip.  Be sure to rent or buy at least two 5-gallon containers, one for water and one for petrol or diesel.  Both fresh water and fuel are in short supply away from major towns in Botswana.   Drive east on an empty and excellent paved road to Nxia Pan, with its gorgeous landscapes and prides of lion.  Drive on 4×4 tracks south across the Makgadikgadi Pans to camp amidst herds of migrating zebra (end of dry season in November) and elephant.   

Entering the Central Kalahari Game Reserve from the east, friendly staff at the entrance station are happy to help you plan a camping loop in the reserve.  It is very different visiting this reserve at the end of the dry season as I did in November, and visiting at the end of the wet season in March or April.  I was there at the hottest time of the year, when temperatures regularly top 100oF.  But, as often said, it’s a dry heat.  The grass is lower at this time of year, and wildlife is drawn to the few artificial waterholes.  So the wildlife is easier to spot.  But the green season has much to recommend it, including more beautiful photographic compositions and cooler temperatures.  Roads are sandy but negotiable in a 4×4.  Remember to deflate your tires BEFORE you get truly buried in sand, and you should have little problem.  It’s worth renting a small compressor at Kalahari Kanvas to re-inflate your tires once back on hard surfaces.  Also, in brushy areas approaching the Reserve, stop and pick up some firewood.  You’ll need it to cook with and to keep the animals away from your camp during the night.  Don’t stop inside the reserve and collect firewood.  This is not because of regulations.  Simply put, you do not want to be walking around, stooping and picking up firewood, in the domain of Kalahari lions.

Soon after entering the Reserve, I saw a large lion and two lionesses in Deception Valley, a beautiful expanse of grassland.  They were lying about as lions do.  I also saw gemsbok, giraffe and springbok, along with many interesting birds, such as the Kori bustard.  I camped near Leopard Pan, alone except for hyena calling nearby.  These camps are very simple, which is to my liking and quite different from camps in South Africa or Namibia.  There are bucket showers and fire rings, sometimes a picnic table (but rent a folding table and chairs just the same).   A cool bucket shower, with water from your own 5-gallon water jug, is very refreshing after a long hot day.  The bucket is hoisted on ropes and the water drained out of it via a simple shower head:  simple and convenient.

Traveling through the Reserve, seeing only a few other vehicles in 3 days, feeling very free and self-reliant, camping out amongst the brilliant Kalahari starscapes, I felt fully immersed in the experience, in the great emptiness of untamed Africa.  On my last day, I passed several giraffes that were passing the heat of the day under some acacias next to the road.  When I rolled down the window and craned my neck upwards to get a better look and photograph them, one curious male slowly bent his long neck downwards to me.  He used his long tongue to reach up to his eye and licked something away.  Then, peering down at me with those huge eyes, he gave me a little smile.  I did not know before this that giraffe mouths commonly take on this expression, and it solidified the giraffe’s position as my favorite African animal.  It is also my favorite pictures of an African animal.  I often think back on that moment, and it speaks to me of this heart of southern Africa.   Despite the heat, the harshness of the terrain, the eat or be eaten nature of genuine safari experience, Maun, with its diverse population and surrounding wonders, welcomes all those who make the long trek there with big curious eyes and a shy smile.

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Posted March 11, 2012 by MJF Images in Uncategorized

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