A Bucket List Trip – 5 weeks through Botswana.

May/June 2021

A member feature report by Rob & Paige McLennan-Smith

Two years ago along with friends of ours, Alan and Olga Tennant, we started planning my 60th birthday present – a camping trip through Central and Northern Botswana and taking our time about it, my longest holiday ever away from a busy medical practice .

All camps were booked for our trip in May/June 2020 and then Covid-19 struck. Luckily all bookings were transferred at no cost to a year later and the journey began!

Stage 1 – Getting there.

Paige and I travelled in our Land Cruiser 200 VXR towing an Invader Quattro offroad camper trailer, the Tennants in a Ford Ranger with an Alucab rooftop camper. This combination worked well as when we set up camp the disconnected Cruiser was used for game drives with the kitchen/social area set up around the Invader (Photo1).

We departed Durban on 12 May and spent the first night at friends on the Vaal River and left for Botswana early the next morning. Some border posts were closed due to Covid and we managed to get through to Gaberone via the Tlokweng border gate. We needed our pre-conducted Covid PCR tests and on the Botswana side they also did a rapid test (Paige & I didn’t need to as we had vaccination certificates).

Our first two nights in Gaborone were spent in an interesting B&B which looked great online but sub expectations in reality. We needed the day to get all the booking documentation for Khutse Game Reserve (at a tiny office in the back of a furniture store) and supplies for the next two weeks.

Stage 2 – Khutse Game Reserve (photo 2)

On the 14th we set off for Khutse Game Reserve. As there are no petrol stations or shops in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) it is essential to fuel up wherever you can and take all provisions, additional jerrycans and drinking water. In the dry winter the sand is very thick in the south CKGR and you can bank on double the usual off-road fuel consumption, especially if towing a camping trailer.

Another essential is a good GPS with Maps4Africa (we used Garmins) but also take a good map – the Tinkers Tourist Maps we found to be the best as they have GPS co-ordinates of the campsites and important intersections, distances and estimated travel times. It is very easy to get lost as there are many unmarked roads and you may not see another vehicle for days (ensure you carry  enough food and water for 4 days in the remoter areas, even if going for a casual game drive from the camp).

Khutse Game Reserve is well worth a visit and we had our first sightings of Southern Pied Babblers (photo 3), Scaly-feathered Weavers (Finches?) (photo 4), Marico Flycatchers and Crimson-breasted Shrikes (photo 5 (which are all very tame in the campsites. Pearl Spotted Owlets (photo 6&7)were also common and seen at any time of the day and heard throughout the nights. Around the campfire I was playing all the owl calls for Alan, who is new to birding, when the Spotted Eagle Owl call came up – within a few seconds a very aggressive bird landed next to me and puffed out all his feathers with his wings open but luckily didn’t attack. Needless to say calls were played quietly for the rest of the trip!

CKGR is known for its raptors – with the Pale Chanting Goshawk and Bateleurs (photo 8) around every corner. We had a good sighting of a Little Sparrowhawk harassing the much larger Yellow-billed Hornbills.

In this area lifers for me were the Kalahari Scrub Robin (common in the camps and delightfully tame), Great Sparrow, Swallow-tailed Bee-eater (photo 9), Southern Pied Babbler, Grey-backed Cameroptera and Marico Flycatcher (photo 10).

At Khutse we had our first sighting of the famous Black-maned Lion, with a very close encounter of a mating pair.

Stage 3 – Khutse to Xade.(photo 12)

This part of the trip was really hard work and I would not recommend this route unless you like very thick sand and getting bogged down. I had to winch myself out three times before I realised that the spare tyre under the Cruiser was acting like a plough on the middelmannetjie! Once removed and put on the roof rack we didn’t get stuck in the sand again but it was close many times – especially up the hills when losing momentum.(photo 13)

The region is predominantly Mopaneveld and we saw very few animals and birds on this route. We spent one night at Bape East camp – no facilities, only a sign on a tree to indicate it was actually a camping site!

We got through to Xade with very little fuel left and the nearest station at Ghansi – 170km away through more thick sand. The Ranger at Xade was our saviour and arranged for a friend of his to bring fuel for us to our next stop at Piper Pan. The Botswana people are really wonderful – friendly, helpful and honest. The Ranger would not accept our offer of paying extra for the fuel for his efforts or even a tip- only a cup of coffee with us and an enlightening chat about the current politics in Botswana which is refreshingly different to ours.

The campsite at Xade was really lovely and we had the facilities present at most of the Botswana camps – a bucket shower and a long-drop toilet (all well maintained). At the waterhole we saw Lanner Falcons (photo 15), a streaked morph Tawny Eagle (photo 16) and out of range Black-winged Stilts and juvenile African Jacana.

Stage 4 – Xade to Piper Pan (photo 17)

This road was a bit easier but still sandy and we started seeing the wide grass-filled pans and the appearance of Gemsbok and Springbok along with many Kori Bustards. (photo 18)

As we approached Piper Pan the Mopane trees dwindled and we were treated to wide grassy expanses with numerous animals. The birdlife was prolific with Secretary Birds, Black-chested Snake Eagles and numerous Red-crested Korhaans on the plains. At the waterhole were Pied Avocets (photo 19), Greater Kestrels and two Red-necked Falcons (another lifer) (photo 20). At the camp we had Capped Wheatears (photo 21), Red-headed Finches, Pririt Batis, Violet-eared and Black-faced Waxbills.

That night we had lions calling all around us and at 3am were woken to the sight of adolescent lions, a male and female, prowling around our camp, playing with braai grids and biting holes in my flexible solar panel (which subsequently no longer works). We saw them again the next day at the waterhole together with three adult male Black-maned Lions

Every morning around 9am the Burchell’s Sandgrouse started arriving from all directions in small flocks of about 20 -50 birds and started circling  Piper Pan and finally  coalescing into one huge flock of thousands before descending en-masse to drink and then would all disappear within a minute in every direction – a fantastic sight! (photo 22)

Stage 5- Piper Pan to Sunday Pan (photo 23)

This easy drive was the best of the trip, with wonderful scenery, plentiful game and birds all around (photo 24).  On the road were a number of Grey-backed Sparrow-Larks, another first for me.

Sunday Pan was a little disappointing after Piper Pan (photo 25). We were surprised to see a Land Cruiser 200 like mine (supposed to be indestructible and a little disconcerting to me) being loaded onto the back of a flatbed. Rodents (mice are everywhere in CKGR) had eaten wiring and tubing in the engine compartment – we later discovered that this is not uncommon and at our Maun stop we bought lots of mothballs to put in our cars engines overnight and we didn’t have a problem.

Stage 6 – Sunday Pan to Maun (photo 26)

Our fuel managed to get us to Rakops (with 30km to spare) where we refilled and then had good tar road to Maun. We stayed for two nights in the very comfortable Queness Lodge and stocked up with provisions, did all the laundry and let the girls have a good bath! Around the lodge were small noisy flocks of Hartlaub’s Babblers, Meve’s Starlings (photo 27), Green WoodHoopoes and a few Swamp Boubou. Also seen were Bennett’s Woodpeckers, African Mourning Doves, Marico Sunbirds and African Golden Weavers

Stage 7 – Maun to Xakanaka (photo 28)

The next morning we were off to Moremi – we had originally booked for a few nights at Third Bridge but it was temporarily closed due to high water levels, so we had extra nights booked for Xakanaka. The road to South Gate was quite corrugated but not sandy and the scenery changed to Acaciaveld with a lot of game and numerous small waterholes. There are very few game fences in Botswana so you can expect to see wildlife almost anywhere. (photo 29)

We arrived at Xakanaka to the news that 4 days before a worker at the nearby Camp Moremi had been killed and partly eaten by a leopard, followed by two further attacks – one being a South African woman camper at Xakanaka who was bitten on the head whilst walking to the ablutions at night but saved by fellow campers, luckily one of them was a doctor and he treated her – apparently having to stitch her ear back together. A leopard was shot the next day and visitors were allowed back in. 

Waking up the first morning our camper was surrounded by five huge ‘Dagga Boy’ buffalos who lay about for about an hour before moving off and allowing us out. Our trail camera which we put up each night picked up elephants, hyenas, porcupine and honey badgers in our camp through the night.

The birding was fantastic in the Okavango Delta – with my best sightings being Rufous-bellied Herons (frequently) (photo 30), Long-toed Lapwings, Coppery-tailed and Senegal Coucals, many Pygmy Geese, White-back Ducks (photo 31), Slaty Egrets (photo 32), African Swamphen (photo 33) and the very pretty African Green Pigeon ssp damarensis, much yellower than our subspecies and with blue eyes. It was quite odd seeing a number of African Stonechats deep in the reedbeds when we took a boat trip. 

After our second night at Xakanaka the Botswana Army arrived and evacuated everyone to the camp at South Bridge – there had been another attack as the Rangers had killed the wrong leopard. We hear that two further leopards were shot with the third being the culprit.

From South Bridge camp we traversed the area which is rich in game with elephants everywhere. Red-billed Spurfowl are very common and extremely tame in the camps as were the White-browed Sparrow-Weavers, Cape and Greater Blue-eared Starlings, Red and Yellow-billed Hornbills (who like to destroy your windscreen wiper rubbers), Arrow-marked and Hartlaub’s Babblers, Kalahari Scrub Robins and Southern Grey-headed Sparrows. In fact you can do a lot of rewarding birding sitting in your deck chair in the camps which I did many an afternoon. (photo 34)

Stage 8 – South Gate to Khwai. (photo 35)

From South Gate we travelled up to North Gate camp through Mopaneveld again but reasonable sand. The camp is on the Khwai River which is lovely but a bit noisy as there are communities on the opposite bank with attendant dog/chicken/music annoyances – not what we were used to in the CGKR with the nearest people often many kilometres away! Hippo Pool is a close drive and we had good sightings of Meyer’s Parrots, Wattled Cranes, Southern Pochards, Red-billed Teals, Knob-billed Ducks and Fish Eagles terrorising the large flocks of White-faced Whistling Ducks.

Another nearby highlight was Paradise Pools with Red Lechwe (photo 36), Black Herons( photo 37), Temminck’s Coursers, White-headed Vultures and was a wonderful place for sundowners 

The next day we moved on up the river for three nights at the Mogotho Community Trust Campsite (photo 38) – this is a very popular good game viewing area and we had many lion sightings, wild dogs on a kill across the river from our camp and plenty of elephants (photo 39)

New bird sightings here were Little Bitterns (photo 40), Jameson’s Firefinch, Cape Penduline Tit and Yellow-billed Egrets.

Stage 9 – Khwai to Maun

We then proceeded back to Maun for two nights to the same Lodge for supplies and fuel. We took a sunset boat cruise along the busy river and were delighted to see Lesser Jacanas (photo 41), Lesser Moorhens, Purple Heron (photo 42), African Red-eyed Bulbuls and Banded Martins.

Stage 10 – Maun to Savuti (photo 43)

On the way to Savuti and just before the town of Mabape we encountered 11 wild dogs trotting ahead of us along the main dirt road and we followed them for a few kilometres before they settled next to the road for a rest under a tree (photo 44). Elephants are also frequently found crossing the road from thick bush so one has to be very wary and not drive too fast.

On the way you pass the Savuti Marshes and we saw Lions on a warthog kill with a Hooded Vulture waiting nearby and a Tinkling Cisticola foraging next to our car. Around Savuti are a number of beautiful hills, a welcome sight after the very flat Central Botswana. In the camp we saw our first Bradfield’s Hornbill – they have a very distinctive orange serrated bill and are quite inquisitive (photo 45).

We drove out to a waterhole for sunset and saw numerous giraffe on the way but no animals were at the waterhole when we stopped for a G&T. There was a ‘MOOO’ from behind the cars and a Buffalo bull covered in Red and Yellow-billed Oxpeckers sauntered passed us followed by what locally is known as ‘The Black Tide’ – a herd of thousands which surrounded us on the way to the waterhole – a magnificent African sight (photo 46). Getting out of their way were Chestnut-backed Sparrow-Larks and Kittlitz’s Plovers.

On the way back to camp through the grass plains we disturbed many Common Quails which we didn’t see elsewhere.(photo 47)

Stage 11- Savuti to Ihaha (photo 48)

A fairly good drive with a few challenging deep sand patches followed by tar from Kachikau to Ngoma Gate and reasonable sand roads to the Ihaha camp on the Chobe River (photo 49). We had a very scenic spot and didn’t need to drive anywhere for our sunset drinks whilst watching the crepuscular feeders – Collared Pratincoles and a few African Skimmers.

The morning drive on the river bank was wonderful with plentiful game. We encountered Whiskered Terns, White-crowned Lapwings, Southern Carmine Bee-eaters, Great White Pelicans, Grey Penduline Tit, and Black-throated Canary, African Hawk-Eagle, White-browed Robin-Chat and a really close Western Osprey posing for photos (photo 50).

That night from around the fire we spotlighted a Square-Tailed Nightjar, which I was pleased to see as we heard many Owls every night but no Nightjars were heard throughout our trip.

Stage 12 – Ihaha to Kasane (photo 51)

This short trip along the Chobe River is very scenic with good birding and game viewing. We stayed two nights at Chobe Safari Lodge campsite on the river adjacent to the main hotel in lush riverine forest.

Whilst sitting having breakfast at our camp with numerous very tame Yellow-bellied Greenbuls around, a Collared Palm Thrush appeared (photo 52) and then in a fruiting tree above me two Schalow’s Turacos arrived to feed (photo 53). Other notable birds in the camp were Southern Yellow White-eyes and a Half-collared Kingfisher.

We did the unmissable sunset Chobe cruise with the wonderful elephant sightings (photo 54) but no new bird species.

Stage 13 – Kasane to Nata (photo 55)

This is good tar road all the way but one has to be careful – Elephants are all around. There have been numerous incidents of them being hit by vehicles, particularly the large trucks on the way up to Zambia via the new Kazungula Bridge (which is very impressive – crossings used to be done by a rickety ferry).

We camped at Elephant Sands Lodge which has a dam surrounded by the chalets and campsite with the Elephants continually walking close-by to the water. We watched a flock of eight Avocets trying to land at the water’s edge but a Blacksmith Lapwing would have none of it and after about twenty minutes of fly byes they left for a friendlier dam. There were numerous Red-billed Teals, Little Grebes in non-breeding plumage and a single juvenile Greater Flamingo which called mournfully at sunrise – sounding a bit like the Common Loon in America. The nearest adults were at Nata Bird Sanctuary some 70 km away so I’m not sure how he got lost.(photo 56)

The next day we travelled to the Sanctuary with its impressive views over Sua Pan in the Makgadikgadi Pan system but only saw a few hundred Greater Flamingos and Great White Pelicans in the far distance. Apparently in the summer it is a birders paradise with vast Flamingo and Pelican flocks, numerous waders and waterfowl, with a total of 340 bird species recorded. (photos 57 &58)

Stage 14 Nata to Mokopane (Potgietersrus) (photo 59)

Our homeward journey was through Martin’s Drift and we had to stop at Francistown to get our Covid PCR test done. They were very efficient and we were going to stay at a camp outside Martin’s Drift to get the results and then proceed through the next morning. However we received our results within a few hours on our phones so we went through the border post the same day.

After having paid P850 (around R1000) each for our tests we were never asked for them on either side of the border! We travelled through the wonderful bushveld of the North-West, an area I would definitely like to explore with its numerous Game Farms and Reserves, to Makopane where we stayed at a very comfortable B&B.

From there it’s N1 to Johannesburg and N3 home to Durban – an easy journey of about 8 hours.

I would love to visit when the migrants are there but apparently it is unwise to go during the December to March wet season when you will spend your entire time being rescued from sticky black mud! (photo 60)

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Dave Rimmer says:

    What a fantastic trip Rob and Paige, and a great account of your journey spiced with many great photos. Talking of which, is photo 50 above your Western Osprey close-up sighting? If so, have a look again, especially the eye colour – a juvenile of another species that likes fish!!! Cheers, Dave

  2. Rob McLennan-Smith says:

    I forgot to enter our bird count – 237 species with 41 lifers for me. We used BirdLasser throughout the trip which is a great way to recall where you saw what.

  3. Pam Zarnack says:

    Lovely birthday treat! Thank you for sharing! Really loved the morph tawny eagle – but all your pics are excellent!

  4. John Fincham says:

    Excellent. Thank you. John Fincham (082 370 8499)

Leave a Reply