Our plan to wake up early and spot a big cat proves successful—five minutes into our 6:00am game drive sans coffee (“STOOOOVEEETOOOPPPS,” we yell, shaking our fists at the sky), we spot a lioness lounging in the tall grass inside the Xakanaxa campsite. She’s beautiful and BIG, and not too interested in sticking around. We attempt to take some pictures, which don’t really turn out, but alas—we saw her. Waking up early worked! And she was in our camp.
It’s a little bizarre to know she, and most likely the rest of her pride, were sharing our sleeping accommodations for the night.
At each of the camps in Moremi, the gates have a big whiteboard where people can report what they’ve seen each day. This whiteboard implies that we humans forget animals move from place to place. But, nonetheless, I write:
Location: “CAMP” in the biggest letters I can
We start the two-hour drive from Xakanaxa to Kwhai Community Camp, where we plan to spend the next night of our trip. After about an hour, I say grumpily, “We need to stop for coffee.” Like, right away.
This is the charm of camping on your car: everything you have travels with you. So, we choose a shady, beautiful spot in some airy woods and begin to get out of the car when we hear what must be another human, far off, on foot.
And then sounds of shrieking.
Instead of a human, we soon discover, we’ve parked by a troop of baboons. Loud baboons. Crazy baboons. Baboons mating? Fighting? Threatening us? We’re not sure, but they are fascinating to watch yell and jump from the trees.
“Just don’t make eye contact,” we remind each other, as that’s one piece of advice we’ve been given.
We try our stovetops again. Water? Check. Gas? Check. Burners on? Check. But…nothing. We try using our air compressor to see if we might clean out any sand that’s made its way into the stovetops’ air holes. And, there we are: parked in the middle of the bush, our car hood open as we hook up the air compressor to our car battery in a desperate attempt to just boil some dang water so we can have coffee as baboons swing and yell “HEY! HEY!” around us.
Finally: coffee. After about an hour. And cereal with milk that has somehow not exploded.
We exit the Moremi gate and find the office for Kwhai, just as promised. We’re quoted a price: $30/person for the night. It’s steep for camping outside one of the reserves, but we pay and drive off to find the camp. After dead-ending at a big river, we turn around and run into another truck, flagging us down. They ask us where we’re headed since they’re lost, too, and we say, “Yeah, just follow us!” We end up at an airstrip, at a private reserve, at a bridge that is no wider than our car, among a large herd of zebras. We are lost. And so are they.
As we’re driving, I read in our reservation pamphlet that the camp we’ll be staying at directs us to bury our own waste. This means, we figure, that we’re paying $90 a night to poop in the woods and bury it.
So, we leave our truck buddies on the road, turn back towards the Kwhai office to ask for our money back, say we’ve made a huge mistake and get on the five-hour drive to Savuti Camp in Chobe National Park, which is on our itinerary for the next day.
After leaving the office, we try the river road we attempted earlier in the morning, and decide, this time, to drive through. These are the moments that feel like The Oregon Trail game in real life. Ford the river? Caulk and float? Pay for a ferry? Find another way? Fording is a success, and the road from Kwhai to Chobe is paradise: flat, straight and we actually put our car into 4th gear for the first time since Maun.
When we get close to where we think the Mababe entrance gate should be to enter Chobe, we see a sign for the Kwhai camp. You know—the camp that we had reserved and then gone back and un-reserved that morning? The one that’s supposed to be about 40 kilometers south of us at this point? Chas and I both read the sign aloud as we’re passing, and then both, simultaneously say, “Uhhhhhh….wait a minute….”
We’re lost again.
We turn around, drive into a swamp, turn around again, get lost again, turn around again. Repeat. Repeat.
When we’re back on the main road, a nice man tells us that the turn for the Mababe gate is just down the road. “There’s a sign,” he says.
Finally, finding the turn, we make our way to Chobe. So far, even though we’re traveling from park to park, we’re still surrounded by warthogs, elephants, and impala.
Just inside the park drive, we pass a group of bikini-clad Americans eating lunch, and decide that Savuti must be the bikini island of dreams inside this sandy wasteland. Or maybe it has swimming holes? Nearly everyone we talked to about traveling through Moremi and Chobe said one thing—“Do not swim.”
Bikini island it must be. We press on.
By the time we get to the gate, it’s about 2:00pm. After consulting the park rangers, we realize how broke we really are. It will cost us $50/night per person + $40/day park permit + a car fee. $200 a day to…camp? And it’s only Day 4.
Taking stock of our money, we decide that we can really only stay one night in Chobe, even though our original plan was three. We decide we’ll try a camp just outside of the park for the night, and then drive back in the next morning to explore Chobe and stay at bikini-island/Savuti that night. If all else fails, we know we can camp on the side of the road for free.
So, it’s back out of Chobe towards a sign for a riverside camp that we passed on the main road.
We drive into the camp and reserve a spot for the night for $18/a person. “There are toilets and hot and cold showers,” the manager tells us. Alright, not bad. But why advertise cold showers?
We also ask after water—do they sell any? We are low. Not severely, but the water tank that our car came with stopped working two days ago, and we’ve only got one big jug of still water and about 8 more cans of sparkling. We know that once we’re properly in Chobe the next couple of days, buying water will be impossible. It won’t be until we reach Kasane, at the end of Day 6, that we’ll be able to buy any more supplies.
The manager points us to a row of “Tuck Shops” just a few kilometers down the road. Only one in the three that we try actually has water to sell. But, they’ve all got alcohol. I guess they know their camping clientele well. We buy six bottles of water and head back to check out our campsite for the night.
It’s not inside Chobe, but it’s pretty incredible.
We’re stationed on the Kwhai river, where we hear hippos swimming and snorting down the bank. The camp is also covered in elephant tracks, and while we don’t see any, we hear them munching on trees well into the night.
Once we’ve set up camp, it’s time again to check out the refrigerator for damage. Among the lost: our big jar of peanut butter and the rest of our pasta sauce. Oh, and about three more cans of sparkling water.
We remove the entire refrigerator to clean it, because at this point, the combination of smells is making it difficult to want to eat or drink any of the other things that have survived. And this, I realize, is what’s become of my life on this trip: getting to a new camp, holding my nose closed as I open our refrigerator, checking for what else has exploded, cleaning out said explosion, and then (come on dummy!), continuing to put glass, fragile items and the rest of our food in the bumpiest place in the truck.
Our camp is near the ablution facilities, which at this campsite, means a faucet, a toilet and a couple of bags that you must fill with water and hoist on a rope above you to shower in. We’re not sure how the showers could be hot, unless you do this hoisting in the morning and allow the bags to be warmed by the sun all day.
I’m weak and can only get my bag about shoulder-high, but a cold, short shower is still a shower, and it’s in this shower that I suddenly remember we’re paying 50 Rand a day extra for a hot cooker/shower set that is lost somewhere in the dungeon of our car bed. While the hot shower setup will never make an appearance (we overestimated on our need for sanitation and underestimated on the camps’ ablutions), the hot cooker could work as a stove. We’re saved from the slow-boil of our damaged stovetop cookers. Huzzah!
We celebrate the discovery by cooking noodles that boil in approximately 10 minutes. Success!
One of us gets scolded by the camp manager for walking around the campsites, but he/she does not get mauled by a cape buffalo. Success!
We’re so isolated, no one can complain that we’re too loud. Success!
And, lo and behold, upon trying our car’s broken water container on a whim, we actually find that we still have water. Success! No more rationing. We drink to our hearts’ contents.
Things are looking way, way up.
A LIST OF ITEMS THAT HAVE EXPLODED:
1 CARTON OF YOGURT
1 BAG OF SPAGHETTI NOODLES
1 BAR OF SOAP
1 CAN OF BUGSPRAY
1 BOTTLE OF OLIVE OIL
1 jar of peanut butter
1/2 jar of pasta sauce
6 CANS OF SPARKLING WATER