We wake early on Friday morning for a flight from Cape Town to Maun, Botswana. Our plan is 10 days on the road through Botswana and Zambia, where we’ll explore the Okavango Delta, Moremi Game Reserve, Chobe National Park, and finally, Victoria Falls. Here’s what we’re set up with: A Toyota Hilux 4×4 with two roof-top tents and a mini refrigerator, camping equipment, including water, cooking gas and fuel that should last 10 days, a tentative itinerary of where we’ll go and where we’ll camp, and three plane tickets out of Livingstone, Zambia 10 days later.
Our trip resembles those simple, sometimes sweet years before the internet made it easy to go on trips like these. We planned this trip on a whim, and therefore have no reservations besides the car. But, we’re three educated people keen for adventure, and have a road atlas, a book on southern african mammals, and a GPS that often thinks we’re 1200 kilometers away from where we really are.
We arrive at a tiny airport in sunny Maun to posters of lions and elephants. We are giddy. We find our rep from Bushlore (our truck provider), stop at a small restaurant to toast to our last proper meal, grab some cash, stop by the supermarket to stock up on food, and set out to find our first overnight spot—Audi Camp. It’s after dark when we arrive (the first of many camps set up in the dark, we’ll learn), and we’re greeted by a brightly lit bar, nice facilities, and brochures of helicopter rides, safari drives, and more. We think, “Hey, this is alright by us.” Camping in the wild is, so far, a treat.
The next morning, we’re up early. When it’s time to make coffee and eggs, we find that our stovetops aren’t working. Here’s a bit of foreshadowing to keep you reading: At this point, we don’t think it’s a big deal that our stovetops aren’t working. Also, eggs? We know it’s necessary to have a 4×4 for navigating the rough, bumpy terrain, but somehow don’t think twice about eggs as a reliable food item.
We instead grab breakfast at the camp restaurant, take nice, long, hot showers, and then begin the 5-hour drive to our next camp in the Moremi Game Reserve.
We’re not even in the park when we spot our first game. By the end of our trip, I’ll say that spotting these elephants was one my trip “highs”—moments of pure elation. There is something so incredible about seeing your first animal on safari, and stumbling upon a herd of elephants right off the bat is magical.
On a guided safari, there are limitations: you go at the guide’s pace, you stay inside the vehicle, the drives are limited to 3 or 4 hours. Professional trackers are a huge benefit. Driving around on your own for hours at a time without direction can be great and surprising, or it can make a park feel like a huge, empty, animal-less space. But, the self-drive do-it-yourself safari also has its perks: when we find this elephant herd, and in the game drives that follow, we’re out of the vehicle, on top of the vehicle, watching animals across the veld. We follow animals to see where they go. We follow smells. We have inappropriate conversations. We play our music really loud.
We know we’ll see tons of elephants on this trip—Chobe is famous for being the African game reserve with the biggest population of them. But these elephants, walking across the road in front of us, is a really special start.
When we make it to the Moremi South Gate, we get the first clue that we gravely underestimated our budget. Camping in the U.S. is cheap, or free. Camping on your own outside of game reserves and parks in Botswana is free. But, inside the park, as a foreigner, camping comes at a steep price. In Moremi, it’s about $40 a night/person + $45 a day for park permits + a car fee per day. In US dollars. Back in Maun, we withdrew about $500 for the next 8 days.
We also learn that while the reserves hold a monopoly on camping (you can’t camp outside of the designated campsites), the campsites themselves are run by different companies. Over the course of our trip, we acquire skills in being really specific, asking a lot of non open-ended questions about camps, and making sure we buy a map to be prepared for the following days inside the reserves.
Except, this first day in Moremi, we don’t buy a map.
Sorting out where we’re camping takes so long and requires paying, getting money back for mistakes on our part, paying again, etc., that when we realize about 10 minutes after we leave the gate that we don’t have a map, we say Screw it, we’ll be fine and don’t go back.
Our first official game drive that Saturday afternoon is amazing. We start off about noon from the gate, and the first spot we come to is like some safari commercial—a watering hole surrounded by herds of elephant and zebra, a giraffe, and even two giant, bathing hippos.
We continue further into the game reserve, following signs for “Hippo Pool,” knowing it’s not towards our ultimate destination—Xakanaxa Campsite—but figuring we have time.
Then, we get stuck.
It’s our first setback minus the camping debacle at the gate, and we’re just getting to know the vehicle. So, it takes a bit of shoveling, some sand tracks, a little differential lock magic (which we lovingly refer to as “Tank Mode” because it turns our car into a beast), and hefty pushing to get our car free from the sand. We’ll be experts at this car-freeing dance by the end of our trip in the worst way.
We find Hippo Pool, completely devoid of hippos, and realize that it’s time to start really heading to Xakanaxa. Like, no more detours. No more following signs towards exotic sounding trails. It’s 3:30, and the sun sets around 6:00, but we’re only a couple of hours away from the camp if we’re going the right direction, and may even make it there in time for a nice sundowner.
Right, so the map. The one we didn’t buy? Turns out it’s pretty necessary.
The picture above could not be a more perfect capture of a lot of our trip—the useless sign in the background, me, using the Southern Africa Road Map Atlas, thinking it’d be helpful at all inside the park, and Chas pointing in a completely different direction than the way I’m looking.
Moremi has a lot of things going for it, but signs of any kind are not one of them. For example, you’re lucky if there is a sign at a fork or intersection. You’re even luckier if said sign is still standing. But, even if you do have information, it’s likely that by the next crossing you come to, the signs will point towards something completely different.
We know we’re lost, but still in great spirits. It’s our first official safari day! We try our GPS, which does give us a general idea of where we are, and set off towards Third Bridge Campsite, which is on the way to Xakanaxa.
Even though the reality of a safari is that you’re driving and sitting for so many hours in a day, each Point A to Point B is also a game drive. And as far as first days go, ours was pretty epic.
The sunset is incredible. We’re blasting our music and enjoying how incredibly terrible the roads are when we realize that there is no way we’re going to make our camp by sundown.
We pull into the Third Bridge campsite just about 6:30 pm, knowing we’ve still got about a 45-minute drive to Xakanaxa. Except, Moremi doesn’t allow drives after dark.
Our conversation with the very nice, very very leisurely Third Bridge officers goes something like this:
Us: Hi, we’re on our way to Xakanaxa. Could you give us directions?
Them: But, it is after dark. You cannot drive after dark. When did you leave South Gate?
Us: About noon.
Them: About noon? Over six hours ago? Did you get lost?
Us: Yes. Please just tell us how to get to Xakanaxa.
Them: But you cannot drive there. It is after dark.
Us: Ok, then can we stay here?
Them: We don’t know. But it will be $40 per person.
Us: Ok, then we will drive to Xakanaxa.
Them: But you can’t. It is after dark. How will you get through the sand pits?
Us: We’ll figure it out.
Them: This is a bad idea.
Us: But we can’t stay here?
Us: And we can’t drive on?
Imagine this going on for about 10 more minutes. Meanwhile, it is getting darker. They bring up a good point about us getting lost. If we couldn’t find the camp in the daylight, what makes us think we could after dark?
We ignore reason, accept a tiny offer of directions from the two men, and drive off into the pitch-black bush. A big no-no, but our only choice.
A 45-minute drive to Xakanaxa turns into 2 hours. We spend about half the time only 1.5 kilometers from our camp, but without a good way through the delta tributary that stands between us and the camp. So many dead ends. So much water. So many roads that aren’t roads and bushes that are. We’re a great team, and Micah is a superb driver, but this is not how we planned on spending our first night in Moremi.
We know that if we can’t make it, we’ll have to camp in the bush. It’s not so different from the campsites in terms of location, but the campsites provide us with ablution, designated fire pits, and other people. The bush? Well, here’s what we came upon on our illegal night drive:
Two giant hippos and a serval.
The serval was magnificent. Rare, and beautiful. The hippos, too, being out of water. But if you don’t already know, hippos are the wild game most responsible for deaths in Africa. It’s their territory, not ours.
We finally manage to find our way to the campsite about 8:30 pm. People stare. We build a campfire, set up our tents, and open our refrigerator to find the first of many, many food explosions. Those eggs that seemed like a great idea? The carton of yogurt? Seriously. Who brings these things on a safari?
We’re warned about vervet monkey, baboons, and hyenas messing with our things, so we leave no trace of our occupancy except for our truck and tents. We fall asleep, the truck still warm, the yogurty egg still sticking to everything, and the sounds of wild animals rustling about in the camp.
A LIST OF ITEMS THAT HAVE EXPLODED:
1 CARTON OF YOGURT