Night 2 – North Gate (Khwai)

North Gate Campsite (Khwai), Moremi Game Reserve

 North Gate is a very picturesque and much documented entrance to the reserve for visitors arriving from the north. You check-in to the campsite at the North Gate park office, which is over the Bridge over the River Khwai.

The Bridge Over the River Khwai

The Bridge Over the River Khwai
Still getting used to the complete lack of any civil engineering on the tracks they called roads, this bridge, which rattles and shakes as vehicles pass over it, was a real mental challenge. It was civil engineering and it was a bridge. But unlike any I’d ever seen. It is made out of tree trunks, still round, apparently just laced together, going over a river that you know is full of hippo and crocodiles.

Like a scene out of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid I sat in the vehicle at one end of the bridge, engine purring, and eyed up the park gate on the other, trying to calculate the weight of the Landy and wondering what this bridge could take. It took a real leap of faith to make the move. All the way across I couldn’t help remember the guy from the Tree Lodge before saying this was the bridge that had recently collapsed. And all the way across I just kept on saying like a mantra, “Just keep moving, just keep moving.” The crashing and banging and bone shaking and general noise of this experience was incredible. I got to the other side, and I breathed again.

Despite clearly being VERY brave crossing such a structure, when I got to the scout hut on the other side I didn’t get the expected round of applause. Instead I quietly registered my presence at the campsite at the gate hut, presented more permits, filled in more books, and asked if anyone knew anything about car mechanics because my refrigerator, newly stocked from Maun, appeared not to be working.

At which point the camp scout introduced me to a lovely man who introduced himself as the Bush Mechanic. When this was said this was followed by a chorus of giggles and laughter from two women sitting at the table at the gate. Preferring to take my chances with the Bush Mechanic than have a broken fridge, I just laughed along with them like a demented crone, choosing not to question what was so funny. The camp scout hitched a ride with me because the campsite pitch location was apparently too complicated to explain, and they didn’t have a map to show where the pitches were. So, he and the Bush Mechanic, clinging on to the sides of the Landy, came back over the bone-rattle bridge with me to my campsite pitch. Once at my campsite the Bush Mechanic had a good look at what was going on and found out that my refrigerator wasn’t plugged in. Like I said earlier, I am about as handy as a chocolate teapot in the African Bush. Within 10 minutes I had a working fridge and it was well and truly PIMMS O’Clock!

The Campsite

Camping at North Gate

The campsite here is by the river although I didn’t have a river view from the pitch, it is very pretty and there is plenty of shade. This is a very good area for game with a huge variety using the river as its main water source. The campsite has ablution blocks with showers, basins and flush loos and each of the 12 or so sites has a water stand pipe. I was camping in a pre booked and paid for campsite, all arranged by Safari Drive. This campsite is a lovely National Park’s site with only the most basic of facilities. It’s situated on the south side of the Khwai River, immediately on your left as you cross into Moremi. There is a simple toilet block, a supply of fresh water, and about 12 campsites dotted amidst wonderful, tall woodlands.

 Camping at North Gate

My pitch was one of the loveliest on the site, looking out to the rest of the savannah, with animals parading across it to get to the river edge on the other side, with a picnic table, and a braai pit. It was also within good striking distance of the ablution block. The latter was very basic. Look out for the thing that looks like a baker’s oven outside the loo block, that’s for you to burn stuff in to get hot water. I tried, but clearly you need to understand which woods work better than others. Random twigs don’t cut it. I was advised that Leadwood was the best followed by Camelthorn, both of which are hard woods so take all night to burn and give off tremendous heat. Whatever I was trying to burn was clearly neither, so I had some very chilly showers.

Sunset at North Gate

Vervet monkeys and baboons can be a nuisance stealing food so do keep windows and doors closed at all times while in the campsite, it only takes a few seconds. I lost a corn cob and watched as a whole troop descended on my neighbors and fought a long war for the contents of their vehicle.

Game Drive

Having found the campsite and checked in it was still early afternoon so I decided to go for my first game drive along the edge of the Khwai’s floodplain through beautiful, mature riverine forest. Game-viewing roads and loops spread out on both sides of North Gate to West and East. Most stick close to the Khwai river exploring the floodplain or adjacent riverine forest. I had heard a lot about waterlogged tracks and tales of crossing deep water, which when you have a second vehicle to pull you out may seem quite fun, but on your own is quite nerve-wracking. This isn’t like the M6, you maybe have one or two other vehicles pass you IF you’re on the main tracks the whole time. Go off the main tracks onto the side loop roads and you can feel quite vulnerable. I used and highly recommend Veronica Roodt’s Moremi map in conjunction with my  GPS:

• Khwai Hippo Pool

• Saguni Hippo Pool

• Kaunga Pan

• Tsaro Loop

• Pitse Pan

• Segagama Pan

• Seolo Pan

• Xharaxhasa Hippo Pool

• Xgaba

• Samahundu Pool

• But the highlight will be the Dombo Hippo Pool with lookout point

• The area around Qua Lediba was not accessible when I was there (June ’07) as it was flooded and the road itself marked as closed with a very rare road sign.

I headed down the main track towards Dombo Hippo Pool. Just still getting used to using GPS and the maps, I occasionally took loops and felt a bit lost, but found comfort in the main track quite soon. But then, after 30 minutes of what felt like tough driving, the road disappeared into what looked like a lagoon and there was no way around it. I could see the track re-emerge on the other side, but was not taking any chances. Having seen nothing at all in wild life and feeling beaten by the terrain I turned back, down-hearted. This was feeling like hard work and like two soft-bellied POMEs had bitten off more than I could chew.

Everyone’s accounts had described the great prides of lion, leopard, enormous herds of elephant here, but so far I had not seen anything at all. The tough challenges of the driving and camping were not giving me the immediate rewards, unlike Etosha National Park in Namibia. Right now it felt like I was in some kind of Larson cartoon, where there were great teeming prides and herds of every kind of creature all pressed up against the trees hiding from me as I drove past. However, Botswana isn’t fast food, it isn’t about impatient consumption of itself. The rewards were going to be there, I just needed to take my European head off and get into Bush Time. A little patience and a smile goes a very long way in this place.

Poo

There’s something about going on a self-drive safari that brings everything down to its most basic level, and one of these is the passion for poo. When you go on self-drive game drive your head spins 360 degrees like the girl in the Exorcist trying to have eyes in the back of your head, whilst also trying to avoid pot holes in the road and avoid getting lost. So I had a go at Tracking, which seems to be about finding fresh animal poo and then trying to use expert techniques to figure out what kind of animal produced it. White poo comes from hyena, who eat the bones and so digest a lot of the bone material. Very dark red (blood filled) poos are lion. And the ENORMOUS great big ones are not exactly going to be a door mouse even by African standards. A great deal of my thoughts were about poo, what colour it was, how fresh it was, how big it was, how much of it there was, or needing to find somewhere where I could produce my own without causing a major environmental disaster and without threat of becoming predator poo ourselves. Despite all of this, finding poo never actually led me to any Game.

Rather than trying to have eyes in the back of your head and find a lot of poo but no animals, I recommend self-drivers look out for other game driving / lodge vehicles. These are driven by guides who know what to look for and where, and can find poo and know where it is pointing them. In this part of Moremi you’ll be able to follow them around most of the tracks without getting in a pickle. In the same way as vultures circling above may signify lion, other game drive vehicles clustered together normally are the biggest clue you’ll get that something of interest is nearby.

 Lions

Lionness

 On the way back from the abandoned Hippo Pool trip I saw a lodge game drive vehicle and drove towards it. And was instantly rewarded by the sight of two lionesses walking along the track – towards me. I stopped and turned off the engine. They both walked right past, within a foot, stopping to smell around my door handle. She could definitely smell me. The windows were wound up and the doors locked. I was very glad to be in the Landy. It was my first close encounter. The adrenaline was pumping, heart racing, I was reduced to a shaky whisper and expletives. I was so excited and so nervous that when they were at their closest my camera ended up catching shots of the inside of the vehicle door and of the grass just beyond her head. The photos look like I have a great zoom on my camera – the truth is I didn’t use a zoom. I got photographer Terets, my camera popping like paparazzi at the lions as they walked past.

Then I was rewarded by the fat-bellied male who had already eaten earlier that day. He was haughty and aloof, his mane mingling with the dry grass, blending him and blurring him at the edges from where he’d come from and where he moved on to. These creatures looked so dignified and majestic I felt sorry to be disturbing them.

Wild Dogs

The most endangered species living in Botswana’s national parks are the Wild Dogs. I had researched there are a few packs living in Moremi. However on this trip they were playing Hide and Seek with me, and I saw no trace of them.

More game self- drive tips

• Look out for trees that look like they’ve been struck by lightening and have been broken down – that has been done by elephants.

• Look out for trees shaking – that’s probably elephants.

• Look out in the branches of trees – leopards lie up there in the daytime.

• Be patient, the whole point is that you’re not in a zoo, these are wild animals going about their business, so you can’t be guaranteed to see what you want.

That night I ate a feast of pork chops, mashed potato and baked beans, all washed down with good glugs of South African red wine. It was a spectacular night. After dark the Hyena came around, and very close, their green eyes reflecting back at me in the dark, which was when I went to bed. The next morning I was woken up around 5am by feet padding and stomping past the tent.

 

 

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