After so many good days in Moremi and camping on the Kwhai River, we wake up excited to see what Chobe—which boasts the largest population of elephants in Africa—has to offer us. That is, besides elephants.
We make it to the gate, and pay for a one-day park permit. Our plan is to stay over in Savuti, but by now, we’ve learned not to pay for something until you absolutely have to. We know that there is a chance that our plans may change, and we’ll need to crash at a different camp, or that we might make it through the park and decide to camp outside of it.
It’s a three-hour drive from the Mababe Gate to Savuti, and for the majority of it, we don’t discover any animals besides Lilac-Breasted Rollers, which are still pretty spectacular to see. These rainbow birds are always perched at the tip top of a tree.
We do discover something of importance, though: our water tank is, again, broken. Or was working, but has completely emptied itself on our drive. Or never worked to begin with. Nonetheless, it doesn’t have any water in it. So, we are back to keeping track of how many water bottles remain (few).
As we near closer to the Savuti camp, we notice a slew of other vehicles that have stopped to park. And on a do-it-yourself safari, when you see a vehicle with six to eight binoculars pointed in one direction, you stop. Always. You don’t have the luxury of a professional guide to tell you where to go. We, as Micah points out, are like the hyenas or jackals of the safari world. We’ll just hang around and pick up the scraps of whatever the big safari guides have found. And the big safari guides have found a leopard…or so they say. We can’t see it, not by the naked eye anyway—only by zooming in really close on camera.
We finally reach Savuti, whereupon we learn that the camp is full. We press a little more—“Like full, or like full?” You never know. Definitions change. People’s attitudes towards us change. We’re turned away, but a woman at reservations calls another camp—Linyanti—and books a camping spot for us there.
Linyanti rings a bell. The manager from our camp the night before told us that our car would never make it there. “The sand,” he said, “comes up to your knees.” The park map claims Linyanti is a camp for “the more adventurous safari-goers.” We’ve got a few bottles of water! We’ve got Tank Mode! We’re adventurous! We decide we’re up for the challenge.
I tell the woman at reservations that we’ve heard Linyanti can be difficult to get to, and she says, “Who told you this? It’s no problem, no problem.” I ask her if the Linyanti camp is a good camp, and she responds, “What is your definition of a ‘good camp’?”
We spend the next few hours exploring this vast, wide part of Chobe. A lot of Savuti is covered in water normally, but not this year—they’ve had such little flooding, that most of the roads we take are marked on the map as seasonal. We see lots of herds—zebra and wildebeest mainly—and then bones upon bones upon elephant bones.
One guide from our safari in Kruger told us that elephants tend to die near water. Because they only have four teeth to begin with, as they age, they lose the teeth and are basically stuck to live out the rest of their days in areas where the vegetation is easier to chew—near water.
It’s nearing 2:00, and we decide we should start our 2-hour trek from Savuti to Linyanti. I drive, and the roads, at first, are easy—hard sand, lots of grass, perfect for a game drive. About 30 minutes in, we start hitting some deep sand. Using four-wheel drive in sand can be quite fun. Our car manages it well, we slide around, and we’ve discovered (counterintuitively) that the best way to not get stuck is to just drive as fast as possible through the pits.
But, the sand gets deeper. We start slowing, and then we’re completely stopped. No problem—Tank Mode! Tank Mode is using our differential lock. When that doesn’t quite do the trick, we throw down some sand tracks, and our truck pulls out like a dream. This happens a few times: drive, hit deep sand, slow sloooww slooooowwwwwww, STOP, use tank mode, keep going. Micah takes over driving, and this slowing to a stop starts happening again and again. We are now driving in Tank Mode, with our differential lock in place, the majority of the time. It’s working, and then…
Me: “Do you guys hear that?”
Micah: “Yeah, hmm. Our car sounds like an airplane.”
He stops the car.
Micah: “And do you smell something?”
We get out of the car, walk around it, check to see if it’s smoking, give it a few good pats. It looks ok, but the road doesn’t: sand sand sand as far as the eye can see. We need to make a decision: Should we, with sand sand sand as far as the eye can see, continue to Linyanti even though our car sounds like an airplane and smells like it’s burning? Or should we, with nowhere to camp, turn around and go back to Savuti?
The map we have of Chobe becomes less detailed once you leave Savuti. And, of course, we didn’t set our kilometer reading to know where exactly we are on the map. Chas guesses we’ve gone 5 kilometers, Micah guesses 12. I think we’re more like 20. We’re not used to kilometers, ok?!
The entire trip is 40. Are we barely starting off? Half way there? Almost there? Micah decides he’ll walk a little farther up the road to see if the sand might get shallower. Meanwhile, Chas and I split a water. We both say, “How many do we have left?” which is just not a question you want to be asking.
Micah returns with good news: the sand looks like it hardens after a couple of kilometers. Should we go for it? There are moments in life like this one—where you really have to stop and think about your options, to weight the pros and cons. You try to be smart, you try to be safe. And in the future, you’ll realize just how dumb of a decision you ended up making.
“Let’s keep going!”
We drive, and the sand does flatten out. For a bit. But, then. Well, here’s a recap of the next several hours:
It no longer becomes a question of if we should turn back. We have to. If we don’t, we’ll be sleeping on the road. And we haven’t seen a single other vehicle or person since starting our drive. Linyanti is in the northern tip of the park, less traversed and less populated. There won’t be anyone, certainly, until tomorrow, and even that’s still just a possibility.
When we’re finally able to turn the car around, we continue to get stuck and stuck and stuck. We’re driving uphill now, and the car’s undercarriage doesn’t have as much of a clearance as we need. Our car drags on the sand until it stops. At least a dozen times.
In these dozen or so stops, we come up with a system: drive as far as possible, as fast as possible. When we get stuck, first we try the sand tracks. If that works, steady on. If it doesn’t, we all take turns using the one shovel we have to dig out under the car. This takes too long, so we just start using our hands. Once we’re clear, Micah drives while Chas and I put the sand tracks down and push the car from behind. We get going, then Chas and I pick up the sand tracks as fast as possible, run after the car, and jump in while it’s still moving. We can’t risk stopping and getting stuck.
It works, but it takes time. We spend more time shoveling than we do driving. It’s getting dark, we keep getting stuck, I’ve now accidentally pushed out the back window of the truck in one of our attempts, and we know that even if we make it back to Savuti, there’s nowhere to camp. What happens then?
With a few more stops and pushes, we make it back to the hard sand, and eventually to Savuti. We’re rehearsing what to say—how can we successfully beg them to let us stay there? It’s almost completely dark at this point, and we stop at the gate. Once we find the woman from earlier, we start to pick up on how incredibly terrible we must look. Head-to-toe covered in dirt. It helps our case.
We say, “We tried to get to Linyanti.”
She says, “You tried to get to Linyanti.”
We say, “We got stuck.”
She nods. She says, “You got stuck.”
We look like we’ve crawled all the way back to the camp.
She says, “Take a shower in the facilities, and then set up camp in a spot that’s free.”
We do. We have never had better showers.
How a free spot became available, we don’t know. Maybe it was always free, and Linyanti was just a test. Maybe that’s how you earn your spot.
We set up camp in the dark, and check out the refrigerator. We’ve lost another bag of noodles and all but one can of sparkling water. All that’s edible are some crackers, a busted can of lentils, and a block of cheese. We dine, completely shattered with exhaustion. But not without a toast, because we did it.