Bundu bashing for real

2011-06-03 14:07

For those who are energised by silence, revitalised by a proximity to nature and prefer starlit skies to glitter-balled dancefloors, Botswana is a wild and ideal travel destination.

The two well-known natural ­attractions in the area are the huge and intimidating terrain of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the flooded water wonderland of the Okavango Delta.

Beyond these, however, Botswana isn’t short of bush experiences.

A 4x4, a tent and a bit of time, there are plenty of remote places to explore.

A good place to start is the vast salt pans southeast of the Okavango.

Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans are what are left of an ­ancient lake that used to spread across the Botswana interior.

The residue has been partly carpeted by thick mud, resilient enough to walk on when sun-baked, but susceptible to becoming a perilous ­adversary of car tyres when wet.

The sections of the pan not covered by mud or water, are an endless savannah coated in waving grass and brittle shrubs.

Lonely palms break the horizon and lilac- breasted rollers skittishly sun themselves on stripped branches.
Njuca Hills campsite in Makgadikgadi Nature Reserve is in the real bush, kilometres from any substantive civilisation.

“Hill” is a misnomer; the campsite couldn’t even substantiate the name of a “hillock”, more like a slightly raised mound in a sea of tall grass.

Beautiful 360-degree views evoke a sense of classic Africa. You can understand how the San, or ­perhaps even the first Europeans, may have witnessed this world – without the luxury of the internal combustion engine, rooftop tents and portable gas cookers.

There is a sense of serenity in waking up in the African bush.

The vast sunrise tickles you awake, as the red orb powers its way into the sky dragging up a curtain of deep blues, purples and oranges.

The chirp of small birds, the incessant buzz of flies and the greedy squawks of opportunistic crows lift the morning silence.

Unseen scavengers keep patient sentinel at your campsite, ready to sift the embers for spilt dinners.

Here, the wilderness isn’t a marketing term deployed to conjure exotic holiday destinations.

It really is the wilderness, which means that it really is wild. No flushing toilets or running water, no five-star chefs and silver service, no floodlit watering holes and cold beers, and, crucially, no fences.

Though meagre, tar roads ­connecting Botswana’s places of ­interest are in good condition.

Strewn with elephant dung, and guarded by thick encroaching fenceless bush, there are constant reminders that the roadside wildlife isn’t just limited to Nguni ­cattle and donkeys.

Nxai Pan, just north of Makgadikgadi, is a smaller and more manageable reserve.

It includes both the Kudiakam Salt Pan and savannah. Skirting the edges of the pan is the recommended tactic here, especially in the wet season. Stories abound of trucks sinking to their axles when attempting to cross through the middle.

Camping is isolated and quiet. Official sites are planted in the shade of archaic baobabs, and on the fringes of barren salt bowls. The setting sun reflects off the glazed surface, while monumental storms battle for supremacy in far- off clouds.

A few kilometres north on a sandy track, the Nxai Pan veld opens up to a large open space, dotted with acacia trees and hardy bushes.

On the plains, migrating springbok mix with the multitude of impala, zebra, giraffe, oryx and wildebeest.

The phalanx of game is sure to attract large predators.

Sure enough, we stumble upon a lioness lazily ambling her way across the grassland to join her pride. Howling hyenas are heard close by throughout the night.

The following morning a freshly killed oryx carcass is being stripped by a group of normally solitary jackals.

Unlike much of South Africa and Namibia, large sections of Botswana haven’t been carved up and cultivated for food production or animal processing.

The country is untamed, and the lack of enclosures mean that creatures, usually hemmed between barriers, are free to roam.

For us, a day of underwhelming game viewing to the west of the reserve was rewarded that night by a pasta dinner, a few whiskies and constellation spotting by the campfire. Our tipsy joviality was interrupted by an unmistakable heavy growl. Lions.

For anyone who has heard a lion roar, they will immediately recognise that guttural, deep grumble that resonates in your belly before pushing out to your limb tips.

We spent the next 45 minutes in and on our vehicle, squinting into the darkness, listening for signs and glimpsing the blue reflection of peering eyes.

No more than 20 ­metres away, a silhouetted lioness watched us as she and her cubs passed straight through our camp. Wild indeed.

Further north, on the fringes of Zimbabwe and Zambia sits Chobe National Park. Kasane, the feeder town to Chobe, is a frontier mini-metropolis where the distinction between beast and man is blurred.

Warthogs poking around rubbish bins are an amusing feature. ­

Elephants crossing main roads and grazing on golf courses provide a menacing example of this blur, and a more challenging hazard than the tricky bunker on the 9th.
Chobe is a spectacular national park.

For a wild camping experience, where you can never be too sure what will be sniffing your braai grill after dark, a trip to Botswana is imperative.

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