Words and pictures by Annelien Oberholzer
I’m not getting into the river! There were crocs upstream and we’ve just passed a lion.” If the comment had come from one of our friends they would probably have been jeered at for being chicken, but as it came from our seven-year- old daughter, she was spared this and praised for her sense.
It’s early October and we’ve decided to head back to Johannesburg through
Botswana after spending a week in Hwange National Park, Zimbabwe. The ideal would have been to travel and camp the classic Chobe-Savuti-Moremi route, but because of the high costs of these popular national parks and their lack of availability, (Savuti being fully booked, according to Botswana National Parks – a standard response,) our friends had made reservations at the Khwai River Community Campsite instead.
Double checking the paper maps, T4A, and gathering up-to-date information from fellow travellers at Chobe Safari Lodge, we make an informed decision to head to Khwai early the next morning; playing it safe by taking the Sandridge road as opposed to the Marsh road, which we’ve heard is flooded. Our argument: if we make it only to Savuti before time catches us, they’ll have to accommodate us in some way – fully booked or not. They won’t allow us to camp wild. Morning dawns and we quickly fold our rooftop tents and pack away the last items we couldn’t pack last night. We get into the vehicles and enter the park through the Ngoma gate. It’s a long stretch, but we make good time and road conditions are not as bad as predicted by other visitors. We reach Savuti in time for lunch. What a disappointment.
Savuti falls short of our preconceived ideas, and the hype about this camp. It might have some spectacular animal sightings, but so do other places that aren’t a dust bowl by definition. With no tents set up, nor any other vehicles in sight, we ponder the national park’s definition of “fully booked,” before happily covering the next 103 kilometres away from it, to Khwai.
We reach our destination in the late afternoon. The Khwai River Community Campsite is located on the banks of the Khwai River, opposite Moremi National Park. This community campsite, run by Khwai Development Trust, is located just a few kilometres from a small village of approximately 400 people from the Babukakhwae (river Bushmen) ethnic group. The aim of the Trust is to develop eco-tourism, as well as a sustainable development program to conserve their unique environment. We’ve made a reservation, but there is neither reception nor an entrance gate; no designated camping spot or ablution facilities. We circle the general area indicated on the GPS a few times, and then decide on a location for our camp underneath some magnificent camel thorn trees.
It feels like we’re in a scene from Out of Africa, when we pass a family camping close to the river who are bathing the kids in it. It often feels like wild Africa has disappeared. You need to travel further and further to more rural areas to get an idea of what wild Africa might have been like in the olden days, when hunting was something you did while on safari, and out of necessity to feed yourself and the helpers tending your oxen, as opposed to today, where you have to visit a national park to experience the wild.
Most national parks are fenced (at least to some degree), or you enter through a gate, check in somewhere and have some form of facilities available. And these facilities and entrance gates come at a cost, usually a high one and charged in foreign currency. Not at Khwai. You don’t check in anywhere; they find you. You don’t get a designated camping spot; you camp where you want. There aren’t any game rangers with guns; you’re left to fend for yourself. If you need water, you get it from a river. If you need the loo, you grab a shovel. If you‘re going to make dinner, you make sure you have your kids safely sheltered and have a good fire going; and when you go to bed, you might prefer to be off the floor because you will have a leopard and hyena next to your tent. Though their “per person” rates aren’t cheaper than the national parks, they have one advantage: you can see all the animals without paying the park entry fees, thus making Khwai the “cheaper” option. I can only say: what an experience!
It is truly a privilege to camp wild in the African bush and experience it as people must once have done: undisturbed by fences or gates, not being restricted to park times, finding no shop to buy ice, having no facilities whatsoever; but having the very real and imminent danger of wild animals lurking in the shadows.
We start collecting firewood for the evening, and set-up most of our camp in a laager to provide some safety for the small children. After that, we head out to the nearby river-crossing to fill our shower bags. Choosing a shallow section with clear water, we carefully get out of the vehicle, continuously checking for crocodiles and circling our gaze through the thick bush surroundings, as for once we are hoping not to see a leopard or lion approaching. Driving back to our camp, we take in the splendour of elephants crossing the river from Moremi to our side, only a few metres from where we are. Once back at camp, we unfold our rooftop tents and get the fire going for the evening.
We awake to the sun’s golden glow between the trees’ branches, and, once out of the tent, watch elephants lazily walking past fellow-campers’ tents with only a few metres to spare. Holding a child in each hand, we make our way to our designated log and, startled, look twice before crossing the clearing at the giraffe nibbling on the tree next to us. We inspect our camp area and find numerous tracks left by nocturnal visitors. It appears as if Mr or Mrs Leopard was, in fact, very helpful in cleaning a pot left out with some water in it to soak off the remains of a stew. After a lazy game drive (probably not even going further than 15 kilometres from our campsite) during which we see lion, zebra, elephants and various antelopes, we again make our way back to our laager for an afternoon nap. Our friends have just fallen asleep when the call comes in over the 2-way radios that a large pack of wild dogs has been spotted. In record time the rooftops are closed again and we head off to look for them.
We find them and tail them for close to an hour, watching as the pups play. When they eventually disappear into thicker bush and we can’t manage to pick them up again, we make our way back to the river. We are again treated to the sight of elephants approaching the water. Watching these giants scurry into the river like small children misbehaving, splashing one another, disappearing under the water and then re-appearing again, almost tempts you to get in with them.
Fortunately, practising some restraint, we leave the elephants and make our way back to the shallow section of the river to collect water again, then cool down and enjoy sundowners in one of the most remarkable places that I have been privileged enough to visit.
As the last rays of the sun disappear into the darkness, we again have the fire going and dinner on the coals. The kids, protected from behind by the grown-ups, start singing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”. Conversation around the fire quietens as the innocent voices fill the night sky.
We crawl into our rooftop tent on our last night under the starry splendour before heading back to Johannesburg’s city lights, and unzip our side window which looks into the area where we were just sitting, hoping to catch a glimpse of one or two of the nocturnal visitors. Listening as the last “good nights” are exchanged, we don’t have to wait long. Within a few minutes, some hyenas come into our camp and start sniffing around. Our friend, still brushing his teeth, peers around from behind their Defender’s door and, toothbrush in hand, shoos the scavengers from our camp. Aah, yes indeed: may the Lord bless Africa!