Botswana: Makgadikgadi National Park
The Boteti River in Botswana has started to flow again after a 20-year drought. If you’re looking for a place to restore your equilibrium, now is the time to visit the Makgadikgadi/Nxai Pan National Park.
Makgadikgadi/Nxai Pan National Park 101
Do I need a 4x4? The roads in the eastern part of Makgadikgadi are in good condition and there should be no problems in a 4x2 in the dry season, but as you move westwards you’ll find the sand gets heavier and a 4x4 is necessary. Nxai Pan’s roads are very sandy – a 4x4 with low range is essential. Make sure your vehicle is in good condition. There’s no cellphone reception and if you get stuck you’ll probably have to sort it out by yourself.
Stick to the numbers. The campsites are all numbered – and your booking will reflect this. Don’t camp on someone else’s site or you run the risk of being confronted by an angry Swiss tourist just as you’ve cracked open your first beer next to the campfire.
Spare the trees. Although the Botswanan parks authorities allow you to collect firewood for use in the camps, this doesn’t mean you should waste wood or chop down live trees. We noticed axe marks on some of the trees at Njuca Hills. Rather play it safe and bring your own wood.
Crossing the river? To find out whether it’s possible to cross the Boteti River near the Khumaga Campsite, call DWNP 00267 653 0077 or Maun Water Affairs Department 00267 686 0299.
However, indications are that the river will remain high for the forseeable future, so you’ll have to use the northern gate at Phuduhudu, or the eastern gate at Makolwane (1 km from the Nata road).
• Khumaga: There are at least eight stands here, on the bank of the Boteti River. The campsite has two new ablution blocks with solar power.
• Njuca Hills: There are two campsites, each with a neat long drop and a bucket shower. Bring all your own water. A rule of thumb is to have at least 5 litres of water per person per day for drinking, and extra for ablutions. (When you book, ask about a new campsite on the edge of a pan about 8 km to the south of Njuca, called Tree Island. It was under construction.)
Cost: Camping costs BWP30 a person. Daily park fees are BWP120 per person and an extra BWP50 for your vehicle. All payments must be made upfront to the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, as no money is taken at the gate.
Contact: Department of Wildlife and National Parks (DWNP) email@example.com or
00267 318 0774.
• South Camp: This campsite is currently being upgraded and has two new ablution blocks. The fees have also risen five-fold due to the privatisation of the camp.
Cost: Camping costs BWP155 a person. Daily park fees are BWP120 a person and an extra BWP50 per vehicle. Like at Makgadikgadi, all money must be paid upfront, as no money is taken at the gates.
Contact: To camp, book with Xomae Group (Pty) Ltd 00267 686 2221 or 00267 7386 2221. For park bookings, e-mail DWNP firstname.lastname@example.org or call 00267 318 0774.
And if I don’t do camping?
Meno a Kwena is a luxury tented safari camp overlooking the Boteti River off the Rakops Road. It caters largely for overseas visitors, but offers African residents a special selfdrive rate.
Cost: BWP1 150 per night for a luxury safari tent (sleeps two); meals extra.
Contact: 00267 686 0981
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Land of space and contrast
We encountered our first elephants soon after entering the park at Makgadikgadi’s north gate, close to the village of Phuduhudu.
From the gate, it’s a sandy, 31 km-drive to Khumaga campsite, on the western boundary of the park next to the Boteti River. Like two old gents out for a constitutional, the bull elephants strolled down the sandy track towards the river. There was no space to pass them, so we stopped to munch on cheese rolls while waiting for them to clear off.
The elephants are a sign that things have changed in this part of the world. In the early 1990s, the Boteti River had all but dried up, bar a few isolated pools. Now, after two years of good rains in the Angolan highlands, the river is flowing again. You can see it from the air as it snakes southwards towards the Kalahari like a giant watery python.
And by all accounts it’s here to stay – at least for a while. Before entering the park, we made a detour to a safari camp called Meno a Kwena on the opposite bank of the river (outside the park). When the river dried up, Meno a Kwena’s owner David Dugmore started pumping water in the riverbed. Initially, he did it to keep the game around for his guests, but soon it became a matter of life and death. His pumps ran 24 hours a day on diesel that he bought out of his own pocket.
“Everyone thought I was nuts,” Dave told us. “But what else can you do when at night you hear a thousand zebras trying to suck water from the sand?”
The zebras are one of Makgadikgadi’s big drawcards. In the winter months large herds congregate around the Boteti as the pans to the east dry up. When the first good rains fall, they move back to the plains.
Rain has already fallen, so we’ve missed the herd by a few weeks, but all around the riverbed you can see bleached bones, evidence that at certain times of the year survival is a struggle.
After bidding Monika and Heidi goodnight, I crawl into my two-man tent. When I wake just before 5 am for an early start, I hear a lion roar upriver. Ah, there’s the other reason for all those bones…
The Khumaga campsite was once a “convenient” stopover for visitors travelling between the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Okavango Delta, but the newly flowing Boteti River has changed all that.
The main park entrance (about 2 km from the campsite) is deserted when we stop there during the morning. The large gate is unlocked, so we can drive through to take a look.
Where a road from the village on the opposite bank once led straight here, it now nosedives into the river. We watch as a boat roars across to pick up two men waiting to get to work in the national park.
“Nice commute,” says James, who spent nine years working in London before moving to Botswana. Later, we backtrack 8 km past the campsite, down to the riverbed. A rheumy-eyed hippo grunts and splashes in the river, alongside some white-faced duck that admire their reflections in the water.
The hippo is one of a small pod that survived all those dry years in a single green, sludgy pool. It’s mid-morning and some elephants are coming down to drink in twos and threes.
As we watch, I can hear the sound of a bakkie, out of sight. The engine revs, stutters and then stops. And then James hears an elephant trumpet. Oh dear, that must be Monika and Heidi heading off.
Clearly, they’ve decided to take James’s advice and retreat to the relative safety of a campsite called Planet Baobab near the settlement of Gweta on the main road. Outside the park.
Follow the herd
The road from Khumaga to Njuca Hills, an isolated campsite to the east, leads us out of the scrubby bush and into the rolling grassland that the zebras favour.
Thunderclouds are clotting together on the horizon and in the distance vultures ride the thermals. About two-thirds of the way to Njuca Hills, the first of the striped-pyjama brigade put in an appearance. I count: 9, 50, 70… The zebras seem to be heading north-west in the direction of the rain that has started to fall behind us.
The landmark we’re aiming for is a radio tower in the distance. Njuca Hills are only slight rises
in an otherwise flat landscape, but each hill has its own campsite and a shady stand of trees. Ablution facilities are simple: a long drop and bucket shower, with concrete floors, neatly screened by poles.
Apart from the inevitable camp scavengers – in this instance a yellow-billed kite and a pied crow – you’re completely alone. Even the buzz of an insect sounds unnaturally loud against a backdrop of absolute silence.
As dusk settles, I relax into a camp chair, only to spot a dark shape that is starting to slither down the trunk of a nearby tree. Snake! A no-name brand – but later I identify it as possibly a bark snake, and only mildly venomous.
Still, I’m not taking any chances, so I zip myself up tightly into my tent at bedtime. In the middle of the night, I wake to hear the sound of rain drumming on the roof – the tail end of the storm has arrived.
The road that heads due west out of the camp at Njuca Hills is large enough to land an aircraft on – more like a firebreak than a road – and it’s the route we choose to follow in the morning.
Every few hundred metres, a male northern black korhaan takes off with a clattering cry. James calls them “helicopter birds”.
Steenbok stake their claims with evenly spaced piles of droppings, and when we stop the car we can hear the flapper larks clapping their wings.
Clusters of zebra and gemsbok are scattered over a wide area. We turn left down another cutline, pausing to watch a jackal with its nose to the ground looking for something to eat, maybe the eggs of all those noisy korhaans.
A large pan interrupts our progress. There’s water on the far side. Wet pans are a driving no-no; you can get seriously stuck and there’s no one around to tow you out, so this is as far as we can go.
While James photographs the spoor of an ostrich family that has just crossed, I take off my sandals and walk onto the pan to test its muddiness. My feet sink into the whitish clay and instantly I feel the soothing effect on my itchy bites. That’s why the elephants love this stuff so much.
Late in the afternoon we head east from Njuca Hills towards a stand of palm trees that float, mirage-like, on the horizon. Our route takes us 12 km along the main road to a crossroads where you can turn right down an unmarked road that meanders between grassland, pans and the palm “islands”.
Unlike the sandy roads to the west, around Njuca Hills the roads are mostly firm jeep tracks. In dry weather, I figure any old farm bakkie would cope with this.
James has the look of a homecoming about him. He once worked at Jack’s Camp, east of here. “You forget how much you like a place when you don’t go there often,” he says.
The setting sun starts to colour a few clouds on the horizon a golden pink and turns the palms in the foreground into charcoal silhouettes.
Back at Njuca, an enormous praying mantis hunts around the light, and a scopsowl arrives to join in. It sits on a nearby branch eating its insect dinner while we tuck into our steak and potatoes.
Today, we’re leaving Makgadikgadi and driving to Nxai Pan.
These two areas are separated by the main road between Maun and Gweta, but they’re treated as one entity and game moves freely between them. The road out of Makgadikgadi passes an encampment that looks deserted, until a man emerges from one of the bungalows. He introduces himself as Thebeetsile Motsamai from the antipoaching unit, and he’s keen for conversation because he’s all on his own.
The rest of the team have gone off to make some arrests: Apparently a lion was killed on the edge of the park at one of the cattle posts and the culprits have been caught. They face a P5 000 fine or five years in prison.
Thebeetsile also tells us of a worrying new phenomenon: Vultures are being poisoned because they give away the poachers’ whereabouts. I can’t help wondering what this means for the more than 40 white-backed and five lappet-faced vultures we’ve seen in the past two days.
Back on the main road, we spot four giraffe heading northwards towards Nxai Pan, their long necks moving in stately fashion above the trees. Phuduhudu Gate and the new Nxai Pan Gate are 10 km apart. From the entrance to Nxai Pan, it’s another 38 km to South Camp, where we’re booked in for the night. A new road has replaced the notorious old sand track.
Nxai Pan’s main claim to fame is that it was the setting for the well-known wildlife documentary Roar: Lions of the Kalahari. The footage was all shot at the only permanent waterhole, about 4 km from the campsite.
There’s one other vehicle in South Camp when we arrive, and I stroll across to meet the first South Africans we’ve laid eyes on: Annabelle and Bertus Venter, who are making braaibroodjies over the coals for lunch next to their Land Rover. All the other tourists we’ve seen have been from Italy, Germany and the Netherlands.
“We haven’t eaten for a day,” Annabelle explains. They’re keen wildlife photographers, so they’re up each day at the crack of dawn. They first visited Nxai Pan 10 years ago, and each time have returned for longer and longer visits. This time they’re here for five nights.
“It’s Bertus’s favourite place in the world,” Annabelle says. That’s saying something, considering their home is Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, where he works as a GP.
“You can see for miles and miles. I love that,” Bertus says. “And when it’s really dry, it’s action time. Just before the rains, all the springbok and impala congregate around the waterhole and then a pride of lions hunts here every day.”
Good fences make good neighbours, or so they say?
Makgadikgadi National Park is home to one of the largest mammal migrations in Africa.
Between 15 000 and 20 000 zebras and about 5 000 wildebeest move towards the Boteti River in the west during the dry winter months when the water in the pans dries up, and return to the grassrich plains in the east as soon as there is sufficient rain.
But in 2004 an electrified fence was erected on the western boundary of the national park to limit conflict between wildlife and cattle farmers. Lions were hunting cattle when the herds moved away from the river, and the zebras were competing with cattle for both grazing and water.
A pre-fence study done by Dr Chris Brooks from the University of Bristol found that the zebras were being pushed to their biological limits by the situation.
Prior to this study it was believed that zebras had to drink every day in order to survive, but Brooks discovered they drank only once every four days on average, and recorded a maximum of seven days between drinking. In the dry season the zebras had to walk an average of 17,5 km from the nearest water source to find suitable grazing.
Now PhD student James Bradley, also from the University of Bristol, is continuing this research with a post-fence study. James has collared 10 animals and by tracking them he will study how the zebras make the most of the available grazing and water resources.
Observations suggest that the fence has had a positive influence on the zebras, as it has removed the conflict with livestock for limited resources. The welcome return of the Boteti River has also provided a further boost to the herds of the Makgadikgadi.
Visit www.zebramigration.org to read more about the zebras and their migration.
Read the rest of the story
Darkness is falling and it looks as if we’ll be the only campers at Khumaga campsite in Makgadikgadi.
Then a Hilux bakkie pulls in. Two women get out and climb into the back of the bakkie, leaving the tailgate open.
They sit there for a very long time as the jackals start yip-yowling in the distance. Later, they come over with a torch to introduce themselves.
Monika Pregler and Heidi Mueller are from Germany, on a self-drive holiday, and have previously done trips to South Africa and Namibia. But Botswana is proving to be a little wilder than they anticipated.
“I grew up on a farm,” Heidi says, “but this is the first time I’m driving on roads like these.”
Monika adds: “We saw some elephants on the way. What should we do when they’re in the road?”
Photographer James Gifford, who lives in Maun, reassures them: Don’t stress about the roads. They’re sandy but firm. And as for the elephants, well, just give them some space…
To see the Makgadikgadi photo gallery, click hereClose