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A young male Nile crocodile basks on the banks of the Chobe River in northeast Botswana.

When travelers finally reach Maun, jumping-off point for safaris in Botswana, they are understandably eager to visit the Okavango Delta and its bordering reserves to the north.  But a great option if you have the time are 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, and this will expose you to ecosystems that could not be more different from the Okavango’s wetlands.  Of course, there are plenty of guided options here.  Any internet search will turn up places like Jack’s Camp, a fly-in camp deep in the Kalahari that includes guided walks with the San people (less correctly called Bushmen).  But Jack’s is pretty expensive.

An African hornbill perches over my campsite at Makgadikgadi Pans National Park in Botswana.

Cheaper and easier is simply traveling by bus to Gansi (pronounced Hansi), 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 who live as their ancestors did.  But many groups now residing in or near Gansi are only a decade or less removed from a hunter-gatherer existence.  Even if you don’t walk with the San, traveling through any area south of Maun means you will overhear the characteristic “click” language of Botswana’s Kalahari natives.  I listened for a long time to a group gathered by a campfire; after a while it began to seem normal.

It is arguably easier to visit the Kalahari (as well as the Pans) by simply driving yourself.  If you can share with two or three other travelers, this might be the cheapest option as well.  Arrange to rent a 4×4 ahead of time, or by visiting the rental car company 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, located 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 very short supply away from major towns in Botswana (not kidding, you will run out of gas on a lonely road if you do not bring at least one 5-gallon can).  I rented a 4×4 Toyota Hilux pickup.  It ran about $125/day, but was probably the toughest 4×4 I’ve ever driven.

Driving east from Maun on an empty and excellent paved road, you first come  to Nxai Pan, with its gorgeous open landscapes and prides of lion.  There are campsites and driving loops, and it’s famous for its gorgeous groves of baobab trees.  Travel a bit further east, then drive south of the highway on 4×4 tracks across the Makgadikgadi Pans to camp amidst herds of migrating zebra (end of dry season in November) elephant, antelope and other animals.  You are truly getting off the beaten track in Africa if you do this.  A planned safari in a high-end lodge will not come anywhere near this kind of experience, and will cost you much more besides.

Not far south of the Pans lies the enormous Central Kalahari Game Reserve.  I entered 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, then it is if you go 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…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 landscape photo compositions along with the cooler temperatures.

Roads in the Kalahari are sandy but negotiable in a 4×4.  Remember to deflate your tires BEFORE you get fully 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 you’re 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 nights.  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.  Speaking of brush, if you head here in the green season, expect to have to stop frequently to brush off the seeds and plant debris from your front grill.  If you don’t, you are asking to overheat.

A large female African elephant shades her baby from the direct sun during the hottest time of year in Botswana’s Chobe National Park.

 

Soon after entering the Kalahari Reserve, I saw a large lion and two lionesses (image below) in Deception Valley, a beautiful expanse of grassland.  They were lying about as lions do during daytime.  I also saw gemsbok, giraffe and springbok, along with many interesting birds.  For example, the Kori bustard is a large bird that tends to freak you out with its strange sidelong gaze as it strides purposefully through the tall grass.   I camped near Leopard Pan, alone except for hyena calling nearby.  These camps are very simple, which is to my liking.  They are quite different from camps in South Africa or Namibia, which even have restaurants and swimming  pools.  Here in the Kalahari, you get a bucket shower (if you’ve brought an extra 5-gallon jug) and a fire ring.  Sometimes there’s a picnic table (but rent a folding table and chairs just the same).  You will come to look forward to the bucket shower.  You simply fill the bucket, then hoist it on ropes to its position above your head.  Then you simply open the shower head and let gravity do the work.  So refreshing after a long hot day, believe me.

A lioness nudges her lion with not much success in rousing him. Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.

 

A gemsbok, or oryx, gets a drink at a water hole in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana.

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 stars, I felt fully immersed in the great emptiness of untamed Africa.  I saw enough animals to keep me in neck-swivel mode while driving the rough roads.  There is a definite skill to be developed by anyone considering a self-drive safari in Africa, to keep your attention on the narrow track yet be able to spot wildlife.  I was mostly alone, wandering the dry landscape, spotting mirages and the long horns of gemsbok, always alert for the large, dark-maned Kalahari lion.

A more relaxing way to go about wildlife watching in the Kalahari is to park at a waterhole (which is filled by a nearby well & pump).  I sat for over an hour at a waterhole near Leopard Pan, watching a pair of jackals foraging.  I was rewarded when a herd of gemsbok showed up.  This antelope species, with its enormous horns, is supremely adapted to desert life.  The big ears, for example, aren’t only for hearing.  As with elephant ears, the animal rids itself of heat using the thin, floppy ears, which have abundant blood vessels near the cooler surface.

On my last day in the Kalahari, 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.

 

 

A giraffe’s tongue is a wonder of nature.

He used his long tongue to reach up to his nose and gave several long licks.  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.  I often think back on that moment, and it speaks to me of this heart of southern Africa.

If you have even more time, you can drive northeast from Maun, to the Savute.   It lies within the Chobe National Park, and has a reputation for abundant wildlife.  I saw a great variety of animals, but no cats, sadly.  The elephant were super-abundant  however.  The Savute Channel flows now nearly year-round because the pancake-flat land of this region has been slowly tilting, resulting in water from the Caprivi area in nearby Namibia flowing down to Savute.  This has also brought much more water to the Okavango Delta itself.

The dry season being at its peak when I visited, elephant had been showing up in numbers at Savute  from drier areas in the region.  Some had walked hundreds of kilometers to get to lifegiving water.  And yet, I soon began to notice many elephant carcasses, and at the campsite I asked a guide why elephants were dying with all this water and grass around.  He told me his theory, which I agree with.  The dead were made up almost entirely of young elephants.  Not babies – teenagers.  They had died, the guide said, when they drank too much water.

 

 

This reminded me of the problems we humans often have when we drink too much water.  If you drink too much without taking in electrolytes (i.e., eating), you risk a condition called  hyponatremia.   This causes your cells literally to burst, with death not far behind.  Maybe this had happened to the young elephants.  The adults are too smart to do this, and they keep their babies from overindulging.  But teenagers without adult supervision could easily get carried away when they first arrive, parched from their long trek to water.  It was quite sad, and reminded me of the trials and hardships inherent in surviving the African bush.

But despite the heat, the harshness of the terrain, the eat or be eaten nature of genuine safari experience, northern Botswana, with its diverse population and surrounding wonders, welcomes all those who make the long trek there with big curious eyes and a shy smile.

A giraffe in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, Botswana, appears to smile at me (but is merely curious).

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