Day 2 – Moremi
I got up at the crack of dawn to an early breakfast to set off early. While I sorted out the bags and packing for the days ahead, the Host went over the vehicle. There was a great deal of teeth sucking and ‘oh my’ when I casually mentioned the fact that I was going to drive the Sandridge Road to Savute. Clearly the Host felt this wasn’t an undertaking to be taken casually and clearly felt that I needed to sound less confident about things. I think his intentions were good and he was genuinely trying to be helpful, but his face was so permanently creased into a sun-worn smile that it looked like he was constantly having a joke about something. I liked that about him very much.
He said everyone gets stuck on that road and seemed very surprised I was even considering taking it. (Except there isn’t another one). He also said the bridge at North Gate had collapsed recently so I wouldn’t be able to leave Moremi via North Gate and our intended route wasn’t going to be possible. He told me that I had to hit the Sandridge Road to get to Savute by 8am, which sounds harmless until you find out that the drive to get to that point is at least 2 hours from where I would be starting that day, along a very pot-holed, sandy and partially flooded road, and you can’t drive in the parks at night. If I was foolish enough to get to the Sandridge road too late, once the heat of the day had made the sand hot, he painted a pretty picture of being swallowed in a sea of sand where the last that would be seen of me was the roof of the Landy. It reminded me of stories my grandparents used to tell me of people getting sucked into the sand at Weston super Mare. But at least in Weston there’s a chance of someone spotting you and albeit wondering “Are they waving or drowning”, it sounded like if I got stuck on the Sandridge road I’d never be seen again.
However when I asked him about the only alternative, which was the Marsh Road, the Host got really excited and said whatever I do, do not to take the Marsh Road as the elephants had created massive craters which would turn a Landrover over on its back like an upturned beetle. At which point I was joined by a guide and a porter and they and the host started to discuss my route with them. There was some head shaking and profound teeth sucking. I began to feel a bit edgy.
The Host discussed our route with these men some more and then turned and gave us some instructions which I did my best to memorize as it was delivered: “Turn left at the tree stump and avoid the flooded closed road, take several forks in the sand road and you can’t miss it but don’t take the left fork at the park sign make sure you go right and make sure you don’t confuse the new gate with the old gate and whatever you do don’t take the right fork which has craters like the surface of the moon and while you’re over there break the landspeed record to get there before you get swallowed into the sand but don’t go over 40mph. And look out for the wildlife.” My head was in orbit by the end of the conversation I tried to quietly take much more interest in the hydraulic jack after this chat.
The only giveaway that our Host might have been having just a little bit of fun winding us up was when he said: “If you do get stuck or break down, never ever leave your vehicle …I’ve picked up too many skeletons of those who did”. So, my advice is, ask and get advice wherever you can, but have a healthy dose of salt available.
I swear as the Host and Hostess waved me off I could hear them placing bets on my chances of survival. Pushing thoughts of Killer Sand out of my mind, I headed off, looking forward to a full day’s drive through the Moremi Game Reserve. I made the journey at slow game-driving/ stopping pace through the Mopane Tongue to North Gate. Not because I saw any animals, mainly because I was just getting used to driving the roads.
The Route to Moremi
I left Maun heading northeast – passing the radio mast and airport turnoff on the left. After about 10km I got to a roundabout with a right turn to Francistown and a left to Shorobe. I went left. I passed the Island Safari Lodge and Crocodile Camp. I went north-east from Maun, firstly along a good tar road to Shorobe. After the village of Shorobe the road turned to gravel, but it was still wide and good. After Sharobe I got to the Veterinary Control Fence/ Buffalo Fence. I went through the gate and started to encounter the first of two weeks of deep sandy tracks. 2km after the Fence I reached a fork in the road which is signposted with a green concrete bollard. Here I went left to Moremi Reserve South Gate.
Inside the park – direct route to North Gate
Accommodation in Botswana’s National Parks is only possible at official camp sites and lodges. You can not just turn up, you must have booked your accommodation and got your permits and paperwork sorted out with the National Parks office in Maun before arriving in Botswana. I hear this is notoriously difficult, but Safari Drive sorted all this out for us. You can not enter the park without your permit paperwork which shows proof of where you are staying. At the park gate you will be asked to show your permit and pre-booked accommodation vouchers and you will then be required to pay your park fees for the duration of your stay in that park and you will also need to sign a registration book and be given your permit paperwork to enter that park which you also have to show at the gate when you leave. At first this ‘everything in carbon triplicate’ felt like a pain, but in the end I grew used to it, and as I began to relax I began to enjoy this paperwork ritual. They copy the details from the green permit onto a blue permit. In the process of doing this careful hand written copying some of the details go a bit awry, in our case it was our name.
Travelling through mopane and acacia woodland, interspersed by areas of open grassland, the road bumped and threw us along, the soft sand pulling and suddenly spitting us out and shaking us all about. The roads are not good – they are only passable by 4-WDs. They are incredibly bumpy and pot-holed, flooded in some places, and very sandy in others. Driving around these areas is hard work and requires a lot of concentration. I couldn’t believe how noisy and bumpy this journey was in our Landrover and initially struggled to relax. It felt and sounded like I was inside a washing machine on full spin and it was hard to believe a vehicle could take the battering these roads gave it. I knew I had a long journey ahead and nowhere in any of the books or guides had anyone really mentioned anything about this road being tricky so I was thinking ‘oh my god’ and started to have visions about the roads I had been warned about. In time I came to realise the Landy can take it but it took a while to get used to. The Landy just wanted to drive itself through the sand, finding its own course. It is a lot like a horse, best left to let it find its own way with just a bit of gentle guidance and coaxing from time to time. It was only when the controls were snatched with sudden movements that the Landy ever lurched or felt unsteady. It was like being a Cowboy on a Bucking Bronco: “hi-ho Silver!”
The Moremi Game Reserve
Moremi is described as one of the most beautiful wildlife reserves in Africa. It combines mopane woodland and acacia forests, floodplains and lagoons. Moremi is a variegated, lush patchwork of lagoons, shallow flooded pans, plains and forests. The Moremi Reserve is a mixture of the dappled mopane woodland, water world of the delta lagoons and shimmering water front of the Khwai river in the north.
The Moremi Game Reserve is considered to be one of Africa’s finest areas for wildlife, with particularly high game densities and is rated as one of Africa’s finest game-viewing areas, home to abundant herds of elephant, giraffe, Lion, leopard, cheetah, wild dog and hyena.
Most of Moremi is inaccessible to the self-driver especially in Summer when it rains and the roads become impenetrable. Most of it sits in the Okavango Delta and is only accessible to the fly-in camps on its edges.
However, there are several key areas on the edge of the Mopane Tongue (the dry peninsula between the Khwai River and the Okavango’s permanent waters) around the Khwai River, Xakanaxa Lagoon and Third Bridge which can be reached by a self-drive camping 4WD. This is much more the case in the dry season than the wet season when I believe the whole place becomes a fairly impenetrable swamp to self-drivers.
The Moremi Game Reserve is divided into different areas. The Khwai River is one of these. It is a lovely area where evergreen trees line a lush floodplain. We looked at http://www.flickr.com and saw pictures of lion prides crossing the bridge at North Camp (also called Khwai campsite), where I stayed. After 4pm they say your pre-booked site will be given away so you need to have checked-in by then, and the reserve gates close at 7pm. You can’t be driving around after this time. The campsite was fairly full, so I would heed this advice.
Coming from the UK one of the things that really strikes me in the African dry season is how much it looks like it is autumn or winter. The leaves in the Mopane were all turning from green to gold, a shimmering autumn amber. I found the woodland surprising with its lovely dappled shade. These trees cloak the animals, which means they are harder to find but when you do spot them you are stumbling across them often at very close range indeed. This is great fun as you know at every turn there could be a fantastic wildlife surprise waiting for you, it is also great for photography – people have commented on how our camera must have a fantastic zoom – but most of our photos were taken without any zoom at all. However it is also a reminder for the self-driver to go carefully as you don’t want to hit or come close to hitting an elephant who suddenly pops out of the bush into the road, and they do, frequently. Its like they’re playing a game, one minute they’re all hiding, the next minute they’re there right in front of you: “Ta-da”