Maybe it’s the unspoilt wilderness, maybe it’s the friendly people, maybe it’s just Africa; or maybe it’s because we had our unforgettable honeymoon there all those years ago, but something keeps drawing us back to Botswana.
So, for these reasons and many more, we decided to write about our epic Botswana itinerary, which we recently completed for the third time.
Being our honeymoon, the first time we obviously went alone, back in 1991. Bright eyed and bushy tailed we embarked on an adventure, into a Botswana that was still relatively undiscovered. Blissfully unaware of the various hazards one must contend with, like soft sand and water crossings, we dived right in, with no idea how to use that old Land Rover. The second time, when we took our 4 kids to retrace that honeymoon, we again travelled alone, albeit equipped with a decent 4×4 and some basic skills to use it.
The point is, this trip can easily be done solo, provided the necessary preparations are taken. So this year, we decided to share this special trip with family from Austria and South Africa who share our sense of adventure.
Entering Botswana from South Africa
On this itinerary you enter Botswana from the south east, at any one of the many border crossings, like Ramatlabama near Mafikeng, Pioneer’s gate near Lobatse, Tlokweng near Gaborone, or Martin’s Drift near Groblersbrug. An African border crossing is always an interesting experience, and one should allow an hour to get through both sides. Be aware that on the Botswana side you need to submerge your footwear in a shallow bath filled with a watery disinfectant solution. This is an effort in preventing the spread of the dreaded foot-and-mouth disease, a highly contagious viral disease affecting cattle.
A great place to rendezvous and spend the first night is at Khama Rhino Sanctuary, close to the small town of Serowe and 330km north of Gaborone. The road is good tar and you can easily maintain 100km/h (throughout Botswana we do not recommend going faster. Despite the seemingly great roads there are no wildlife fences and some potholes are so deep they could hide a giraffe!). Khama is also one of the few places where you are likely to see a rhino in Botswana.
The next day, make your way to Kubu Island in the Makgadikgadi Pans, some 250km from Khama. It is tar all the way to the small village of Mmatshumo, and then the last 45km the fun begins. The dust you encounter in the Makgadikgadi Pans is like no other you have seen before. The dust is so fine it makes talcum powder look like coarse gravel, and it gets everywhere, no matter how tightly sealed your vehicle may be. Allow 2 hours to cover this last stretch and enjoy how the thicket opens gradually to reveal the magic of the vastness of the dry salt pans.
Kubu Island has a mystique to it that cannot really be explained. It is a small rocky outcrop, about 1km in length and 500m in breath, located on the western edge of the massive Sua Pan. Amidst the rocks are rooted enormous ancient Baobab trees. One thing you absolutely must do is make your way to the eastern side of the island before sunrise, find a comfortable spot and wait for the red orb to bring on the day. Simply unforgettable!
Gweta to Maun
After you return to reality, brace yourself for the journey north to Gweta, because it will challenge you. It is only about 110km, but the combination of deep sand and long stretches of encroaching thicket means you must concentrate non-stop and even then, you simply have to accept that you will pick up some scratches on your shiny 4×4.
The first couple of scrapes hurt, but after that you get over it and when you realise that this is what your car was made to do, you can begin to enjoy the journey (yes, we were driving a shiny new Hilux…).
The second thing you need to be aware of is that there is not one track to Gweta, there are in fact many. And some just peter out, eventually becoming single track walking paths.
The one we chose (amidst much disagreement), did just that, it became so narrow that we were faced with a serious dilemma. We knew we were close to the “black road” (the brilliant tar road that joins Francistown to Maun), but do we cut our way to the tar, or do we backtrack to the last fork and take a different path? With no guarantee that the alternative would be any different, we started hacking our way north.
The going was arduous, with the last kilometre taking over an hour, but we eventually emerged somewhere between Gweta and Nata, 7 hours after leaving Kubu Island (that’s 15km/h). But if you don’t have to bush-bash and backtrack for lost friends, you can make it in 5 hours.
Once you are on the tar and have pumped up your tires, it’s another 200-250km to Maun, depending where you emerge from the Pans. So you need to get going quickly, because you really don’t want to travel in Botswana after dark; cows, donkeys and goats have right of way and they know it.
Alternatively you can overnight in Gweta, where the quirky Planet Baobab (http://www.planetbaobab.travel/) makes for an interesting stop-over.
The third option is to avoid the taxing trip north all together, and instead head south from Kubu Island and return to the sanity of the tar road in Mmatshumo. From there it is 375km to Maun via Orapa and Rakops, an option we shall avail ourselves of when we do this trip again.
Maun is now the third largest town in Botswana, after Gaborone and Francistown, and yet it maintains that wild frontier feeling from yesteryear. It is not uncommon for an elephant to bring proceedings to a halt as it ambles it’s way down the main street.
Maun is the gateway to the Okavango Delta, a swamp almost the size of Wales when rains are good, teeming with unique wildlife. The town has all the latest shopping facilities (Woolies, Shoprite and some top notch butcheries), where you can replenish your pantry for the next leg of your adventure.
Yet Maun has a lot more to offer, and if you haven’t spent much time there before, we recommend 4 nights at one of the out-of-town lodges, like Island Safari Lodge, Crocodile Camp or Audi Camp, all located along the picturesque Thamalakane River. At least it is picturesque when the river is flowing. Water levels normally peak in Maun during July or August, but owing to abnormally low rainfall in the Angolan highlands, together with increased water consumption in Angola, fuelled by that country’s economic boom, the 2019 season was a rude awakening to what we are doing to our planet. The Thamalakane River was absolutely dry; where previously it spanned 200m at Island Safari Lodge, now it lay completely barren.
In terms of accommodation, we haven’t found a place that is peaceful at night time (back in 1991, Island Safari Lodge was 10km outside of town, but now it’s all part of the greater built-up area that is Maun). The continuous African beat from a nearby pub is ever-present, and when that finally comes to an end, the dogs, donkeys and cockerels will ensure a disrupted sleep.
So why 4 nights?
Despite some drawbacks, Maun has a great vibe, with many interesting pubs; our favourite is the Old Bridge Backpackers, where you can eat a world-class pizza, sip on an ice-cold beer and enjoy watching the birdlife along the Thamalakane. And you can stay there as well!
Maun has reputedly the busiest airport in Africa, from where a 1-hour flip over the Okavango Delta in a light aircraft is a memorable experience, because it gives you a perspective of the delta which is hard to grasp from terra firma.
Furthermore, it is a different angle from which to observe large herds of buffalo and elephant, making for dramatic photo opportunities.
Maun is also the best place from which to undertake a fabled mokoro trip. Island Safari Lodge provides a good value full-day excursion into the delta, where you take a fast speed boat to a mokoro station. From there two of you are assigned to a mokoro, operated by a skilled poler who stands at the back of the hollowed-out tree trunk (more recently replaced by a more eco-friendly fibreglass version) and uses a 3-meter long pole to navigate the craft through an intricate maze of slow-flowing waterways.
On your final day in Maun top up on all your provisions and make sure you have enough fuel to cover 1000km. Also buy enough firewood, which is available along the streets in Maun, because you may no longer collect wood in the national parks.
Now you are ready to head north, to what is arguably the premier wildlife destination in Botswana, if not Southern Africa – you are on your way to Moremi.
More on Moremi in Botswana 2/4
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