One of the few good things about getting old is that you don’t have to pretend that every new place you visit is wonderful.
When I was young I wanted every destination to be a mind blowing experience and I couldn’t bear the thought that I might have made a wrong decision and wasted my precious savings on travelling to a touted paradise that turned out to be the armpit of the world.
When it comes to travelling in Africa there are plenty of “˜must-see’ destinations that promise the ultimate “˜real Africa’ experience – places that you should see before you kick the bucket. Some of these are good, and some are just over-hyped patches of grass or sand.
Take Savuti, for instance. In fact, please take Savuti. You can have it.
After having a great time in Hwange National Park, in Zimbabwe, attending the annual 24-hour voluntary game census and then staying in a couple of picnic sites our little convoy parted for a short while. Our travelling companions drove the 100km from Robins Camp to Victoria Falls, but Mrs Blog and I had water of a different kind in mind – the swimming pool at Chobe Safari Lodge at Kasane.
The missus and I have visited Victoria Falls oh”¦ about fifty times I reckon, and we’ve been lucky enough to see the famous falls themselves three times. It’s an amazing experience, but sometimes not even one of the wonders of the world can compare to a cold beer by a swimming pool. That’s another good thing about being old -you don’t have to do stuff just because it’s there. It’s OK to take it easy, sit back, and enjoy doing nothing.
Anyway, we cut through the delightful bush border crossing at Pandamatenga (well, as delightful as any African border crossing can be), and zipped up to Kasane.
Apparently Botswana’s president threatened to sack his roads minister if the notoriously potholed road between Nata and Kasane wasn’t fixed. It seems the minister knew his boss wasn’t joking as this road is now wide smooth tar for the most part. Even the stretches that are still being worked on are skirted by an equally smooth gravel deviation.
The Safari Lodge is an old favourite of ours and these days stands in the camp ground are demarcated in an orderly fashion, and all have electricity (that’s two more things old people like – electricity and order). You can’t book a campsite at the Chobe Safari Lodge so it’s first in best dressed – another good reason (excuse) for Mrs Blog and I to trade the splendour of Mosi oi Tunya for a couple of poolside sun beds and a few dumpies of Mr Charles Glass’ best.
When the rest of the convoy re-assembled we spread the maps out and contemplated the journey from Kasane to the Moremi Game Resevere, via Chobe National Park and the legendary Savuti.
The Tracks 4 Africa map said the route would take twelve hours. None of us had done it (well one had, but as a kid), so we didn’t really know how long we’d be slogging through deep sand. I remembered camping in Maun a year or two ago, and seeing people arrive around mid afternoon from Kasane. They’d said it was a long drive, but twelve hours?
Mrs B and I went for a walk to the Choppies supermarket (conveniently located just outside the Safari Lodge’s gate) and I stopped an African safari guide, dressed in the ubiquitous khaki.
After exchanging pleasantries I asked him, “How long does it take to get from Kasane to Moremi?”
“About three or four hours,” he said.
Three hours? I asked another. “About four hours,” he said.
I reported back to the rest of our group that I reckoned the trip would take us about eight hours – that is, quicker than some old fogeys lolly-gagging about spotting birds and entering waypoints into their GPS so they’d be immortalised on the Tracks 4 Africa map, and a little slower than a Ferrari safari guide.
Mrs Blog had tried to book a night at the Botswana Wildlife Authority campsite at Savuti, now run by a private operator, but she’d been told the camp was full. It might have been nice to break the journey – however long it was going to take us – but we would have to forge on.
To make sure we did have enough time we left the next morning at, as we used to say in the Army, oh-dark-hundred. We were at the gate to Chobe National Park just as it opened and joined the queue of people eager to pay lots of money to drive on a bad sandy track.
The road to Savuti is sandy, but it’s not nearly as tough as we’d been led to believe (this was the dry season, I hasten to add). And lo, at about lunchtime, it came to pass that I finally did lay eyes on the legendary Savuti.
What a dump.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, but the one thought that fixed itself in my old man’s mind as I looked around the wind-swept, sand-blown camp at Savuti was: “$#&*, I’m glad we couldn’t get a booking here.”
Yes, yes, yes, I know it’s famous for its predators and its elephants, and its predators that eat elephants, but I’d just spent a week in Hwange – elephant city, with plenty of lions, who also eat elephants (it’s not just a Savuti thing, despite what some people will tell you). But no matter how good the game, this was possibly the least appealing camp site I’d seen in my life.
Trudging up the steep incline through ankle deep sand to get to the camp’s fortified ablution block (it’s ringed with a concrete wall to keep the elephants out), I was reminded of a bout of torture I’d enjoyed as a young soldier, being ordered to march up and down sandhills as punishment for something I was no doubt guilty of.
The attendant at the camp site – who I must say was extremely polite and friendly – allowed us to stay for a quick picnic lunch, and afterwards we drove around a couple of pans. It was hot, dusty, and there were elephants. Again, very much like Zimbabwe, but for one major difference. Price.
Old people don’t like being ripped off. The cost for us to stay at Savuti, camping in a sandstorm and enriching a private operator, was astronomical compared to what we’d just been paying in Zimbabwe. On top of that we’d have to pay P140 per person per day park entry fees if we’d been able to get a booking.
Gratefully, we hit the road. Our destination was not the actual Moremi Game Reserve, but rather the Khwai Community camp site in the Khwai River conservancy on the northern border of Moremi.
We arrived about eight hours after setting off, having taken the advice of the gate guard at Savuti to stick to the Sand Road, rather than the Marsh Road. (Good advice, as later that evening some people who had taken the Marsh Road straggled in – about 14 hours after leaving Kasane).
And it was paradise.
There was nothing in the way of facilities at Khwai’s Mogothlo Number 2 camp site – we just picked a grassy spot under some huge old thorn trees. But that was OK, because, unlike Savuti, this comparatively lesser-known destination was probably one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever camped.
Cost wise – it was more than Kruger, but an awful lot cheaper than Savuti and the overbooked sites across the river inside the Moremi Game Reserve. It cost us P140 per person to camp at the Khwai camp site, with no national parks fees at all.
The wildlife at Khwai was memorable. Elephants visited our camp site by day (and would have come closer if the guide from the mobile tented safari camp across the track hadn’t decided to take his clients close to them on foot) and hyena and leopard whooped and coughed around us by night.
I doubt any of us drove more than two kilometres each day along the banks of the Khwai River, but we saw lion, more elephant, hippo, waterbuck, buffalo, impala, zebra, giraffe and, to top it all off, a pack of 17 wild dog.
The countryside around the Khwai camp ground was textbook Okavango Delta – emerald green grass and palms, and crystal clear waters, and more animals than you could point a Canon at.
I’d read a good deal about Savuti and seen in on TV, immortalised in documentaries, and heard it lauded in the tales of travellers who’d spent a lot of time and money to get there. I’m sure it’s a magical place in so many ways, for many people, but not for me.
As I sat on the edge of the Khwai River, drinking a beer and taking in the beauty of the river and the wildlife, I realised that sometimes the little known places, those that have missed out on the hype, are better than the ones that people tell you that you must see.
Travel’s like life – it’s not all good all the time. It’s better, I reckon, to savour the joy of finding somewhere that you’ll remember a long as you live, than ticking off a list of places that someone else says you should see before you die.