Menoakwena & Makgadikgadi

On our last night in Botswana, we were down one with the sad departure of Chris. Clare offered we splurge and spend it at a luxurious camp called Menoakwena, ‘teeth of the crocodile’, owned and run by an old friend of hers when she used to do research on the Makgadikgadi Park where its located. The only thing I remember being told before going was that it cost $135US per night per person (discounted at the ‘friend’ rate) so I was expecting something special but had no idea how wonderful this place actually was. The capacity of the camp is only 16 guests, and its an all-meal included camp and all the guests sit together at one long table for breakfast lunch and dinner. To give you an idea of its exclusivity, Prince William regularly goes there and we only missed him by a few days since he was on his way down when we were leaving.

Even though Botswana is generally quite flat, this camp sits on a 60m ridge overlooking the Makgadikgadi, with a newly flowing river at its base where David, Clare’s friend, originally had an artificial water pump to supply the wild animals with water. After almost a 30 year draught, the river bed has started to fill again and is even borderline flooding, with the water level rising daily, and all the elephants and zebra are super happy. A family of hippos has taken a section of the water near camp as its personal territory, marking half submerged trees with its projectile spray poop. You can see quite far off into the park and wait as herd of elephants, kudu or zebra approach, and usually hear activity throughout the night.

the view from Menoakwena

the view from Menoakwena

The camp had a spectacular location, but still Menoakwena was also an amazingly managed, sustainable, intimate place, it almost felt too good to be true. All the light torches around camp were solar paneled, water use was very controlled (you have to order your showers in little bronze buckets in the morning), all the employees were either local or international volunteers, and everyone there (including the tourists) are supporting projects that Menoakwena runs to benefit the local communities and the environment. Their little gift shop sells crafts hand made by the community, and all the funds support different projects (Water for Life, Mothers for All) or make it back into conservation efforts like reducing human-wildlife management around the park boundary. You were treated like family visiting an old friend, and even the bar was self-service and you simply kept track of your own drinks to pay later.

Even though Kubublanco gave us a scare the first day of our road trip, she never failed us again until the drive back into Maun. We left Menoakwena by noon to make sure me and Steve made our 3pm flight, but half way there we got a flat tire. I’ve never changed a flat tire, but between the three of us, we changed that wheel in Nascar speed, and only 10 minutes later were back on the road. Needless to say we made our flight, and 2 hrs later landed in Windhoek on the flattest runway I’ve ever seen – so flat you actually saw it round away into the horizon.

Links: Menoakwena Site: www.menoakwena.com

And, if you are interested in volunteering for Davids Water for Life project, contact him directly at kksafari@ngami.net

Welcome to Botswana

One the drive back to Kasane from Zimbabwe, I saw even more wildlife from the road: a herd of giraffe, impala and lots more elephants. It quickly started becoming apparent to me why sub-Saharan Africa has so much safari-tourism and nature-based travel appeal. The diversity of landscapes and vegetation and abundance of birds and animals far exceeds other parts of Africa, and there’s something very special about wildlife areas not completely overrun by people or development. Unless you are traveling to a big city in South Africa, a lot of Southern Africa is full of wildlife, both in and outside National Parks/Conservation areas, and because it’s much more sparsely populated than the rest of Africa, the infrastructure for travel (ie. Roads, Public transportation) and other forms of tourism is limited. Overland jeeps, big bus safari’s and self-drive 4×4’s are probably the most popular ways of seeing Botswana, and the most common accommodation type are these multi-functional ‘rest camps’ that are actually a tenting area, RV park, hostel beds and hotel rooms all in one.

The first night in Botswana we stayed at Water Lily Lodge in Kasane, a slight upgrade from these camps since it only offered (twelve) hotel-type rooms for accommodation options. It was designed to look like a traditional round hut with a thatched roof, and was beautifully located on the bank of the Chobe River. I found out later Steve made it to Botswana by flying through Windhoek, but since that flight was delayed, got stuck in Maun overnight. The next morning he somehow convinced a charter flight company (well, an office of very nice Motswana ladies) to sell him a pilot-staff priced ticket for a private, 2 hr, stop-and-go plane ride over the Okavango Delta into Kasane – way more impressive than my free car ride to Vic Falls.

We were meeting up with Chris and Clare, both Berkeley Phd’s in the same department I studied at, and, coincidentally, Steve’s best friends, and Clare was our gracious host and official tour guide since she has spent 4 years in and out of Botswana doing research. She had all the local knowledge we would need, spoke Setswana, and had a reliable 4×4 for all our transportation needs which Chris affectionately named ‘Kubublanco,’ a.k.a. white hippo (a little bit of Spanish in the mix).

a breeding herd of elephant drinking

a breeding herd of elephant drinking

Our first touristy matter of business was a sunset cruise on the Chobe river, sighting all sorts of wildlife on the banks of Chobe National Park. Most memorable where the huge kudu males with spiraly horns, a flock of brightly coloured bee-eater birds, cruising right past an underwater herd of big scary hippos and not so scary tiny baby hippos, seeing an entire elephant herd come to drink at the same time, and crocodiles sunbathing with their mouths rested open, jagged teeth shining threateningly. We also saw impala, big lizard things called water-monitors, beached hippos, and one lone male elephant chomping on a tree, literally.

a bunch of hippos hiding underwater

a bunch of hippos hiding underwater

The sunset was spectacular over the river, but brought on the inevitable buzz of potential Malaria carrying mosquitoes. Having to take malarone daily is always annoying, since I almost always forget it at least one or two times (which may or may not render the entire dose ineffective) and it gives me these psychedelic dreams about crazy things like riding horses backwards over the moon. This specific prescription of malarone was also quite expensive, but my moms only words of advice for traveling in Africa was to be careful with malaria, and Clare, who’s had a bout with Malaria, convinced me quite easily that its safer to air on the side of caution.