Elephant viewing from the swimming pool

I’ll admit that departing from Chobe River Lodge is tough. It has a thoroughly enjoyable ambience, a relaxed vibe and easy African energy.

Taking the river cruise was a perfect way to get rid of some of the dust from Moremi Game Reserve and Chobe National Park! Highly recommended if you are in the Kasane area.

After a cup of coffee (or two) at the bar at the water’s edge, we are obliged to get back behind the wheel and head south to Elephant Sands Bush Lodge.

We pass long queues of trucks, kilometres long, parked along the road. They are waiting for the border entry into Zambia or Zimbabwe. And perhaps heading for Malawi and beyond with their double-trailered loads.

Soon we leave the outskirts of the extended boundaries of Kasane behind and traffic dries up considerably. We are alone again, the sun is out and we are heading for a new adventure. However, all is not well… With our trusty 4×4 that is.

If I try to drive faster than 80 km/h it shudders incredibly. Vibrations run through the whole car and the steering wheel shudders. Not good… We continue at a slower pace, eating up the miles, pondering the problem.

A town appears – well, some grain silos and a petrol station and not much else. This is Pandamatenga and you can enter Zimbabwe from here, at a less-busy border crossing, which will put you in the greater Hwange National Park. Which is an alternative way to get to Victoria Falls on your way south to north. And perhaps cross off Zim as a destination on your bucket list. We will have to check this out next time… We pull over and I dive under the car.

Souvenirs from Makgadigadi

Top tip for today? A stainless steel serving spoon makes an excellent mud scraper! The inside of the wheels have clumps of mud stuck to them. The same sticky, salty mud from the salt pans. This causes an imbalance in the wheels and shuddering above a certain speed.

I scrape it out of all the wheels and we continue on down the road. No more shudder! Result! But how come this came about? In transpires that our first brush with the ‘carwash’ in Maun was an expensive lesson and not a complete success. Good enough to get us to Kasane, but once there, we had another guy have a go at it (for a far lower price) and this must have dislodged some of the leftover mud (in the wheels) that dried out and clumped together. Grand mysteries while on the road in Africa!

The main road is a single lane each way, paved very well (no potholes) and has a wide area on either side cleared of undergrowth. At one point it widens and seems to double as an airstrip. The landscape is also incredibly flat… Even Holland will find its reputation challenged! We see large, open expanses of farmland, thick bush and trees, the ever-present sand, ‘beware of elephant’ signs…

About ten kilometres before the entrance to Elephant Sands we come up to a checkpoint. And this one is pretty militant. Absolutely no meat or dairy beyond this point! Hand it in! And a subsequent search of our fridge… We don’t really have much choice in the matter. Anyone heading north to south cannot be allowed to travel with these products, and it is understandable. Livestock is all they really have around here, and foot-and-mouth disease is a big threat.

Elephant Sands Bush Lodge

It is not really a long drive from Kasane, maybe three or four hours. So you don’t really need to budget a lot of time. As I said elsewher, the roads are good and traffic is light. It depends on your mood and enjoyment of the countryside, it’s just great being here, in Botswana.

The Elephant Sands camp is built around a waterhole. And is not far from the national road, no more than five kilometres. So you don’t need a 4×4 to get here (there was a bus full of tourists when we arrived). There are bush tent ‘lodges’ on stilts arranged in a half-circle around the waterhole at a distance of maybe fifty metres. Closer still, to the waterhole, is the main complex building which is within ten metres. And an area reserved for vehicles and tents to pitch where they want. None of it is fenced. No fences at all. And this takes some mental adjustment when you first arrive.

When we check in we ask where our campsite is and they say: “anywhere you like in that general area” pointing to an open piece of ground with a couple of scattered trees…

We spend the afternoon at, around and in the pool. The bar keeps the beers coming and everyone is in good spirits. The pool water is not the freshest, nor cleanest, but we don’t care! There is a herd of elephants standing at the waterhole barely five metres from where we are hanging out in the swimming pool! This is not normal on a number of levels… It’s fantastic.

Very different to Chobe

They seem so calm and unfussed by the commotion and cacophony that is considered ‘normal’ human behaviour. They are ignoring us, sorting out a hierarchy within their own group. A dynamic going on that we don’t really understand, but can appreciate. Low, throaty rumbling. A certain body language of posturing and repositioning. A high-pitched cry of objection. Ears flapping, trunks searching for the cool water. Heads shaking. A forceful push…

It is mesmerising watching them from such a close vantage point. Feeling their energy and trying to fathom their unspoken (to us) communications. We watch transfixed as they jostle each other and manoeuvre trying to gain some respect and dominance. Then the matriarch seems to have had enough and shoves a young male out of the group. Grudging acquiesence… More manoeuvring, low rumbling. An elephant comes walking in from a distance, and you can almost sense the caution and respect in their approach. What a privilege to be here in such close proximity. And there are no barriers, no walls, no fences. Truly special.

Dinner with the elephants

Dinner that evening is a buffet-style affair – although you DO need to book a table when you check-in. Makes sense really, considering where we are. And we grab a table, also due to the earlier checkpoint having relieved us of our dinner supplies…

The meal is hearty and quite good. However, if you are in search of culinary excellence then this is perhaps not the destination of choice. But that’s not the point, is it?

Cast an eye at the entertainment for the evening. The herd is still there at the waterhole, barely a stone’s throw away. Huffing and pushing and scratching the dirt. The lights of the terrace illuminate them and they are pretty quiet except for some snorting through the nose. We head for our roof tent after dinner which is parked fifty metres away. Feeling at once privileged to be here and also rather exposed and vulnerable.

You can’t hear them

It is a very dark night, no moon. The only light comes from around the waterhole and a spotlight near the ablution block. We peer into the darkness and make out the shape of an elephant near the main building. It becomes obvious that there is a water pipe or a drain somewhere and this is what they are after…

Around 2 p.m. I wake up and have a sneak peek out of the mosquito mesh of the tent. And look straight into the eye of an elephant. He/she is moving past our car, and a ‘sigh’ comes from its trunk. It moves past – and is completely silent. Not a sound of movement, not a twig snapping, or scraping of sand… A whiff of grassy cow dung is all that shows its presence at all. Yes – you smell them before you can see them. By now Vic has been shaken awake and we watch transfixed.

Nature calls

The (new) ablution block is about eighty metres away. The old one was (we were told) destroyed by the elephants a year ago, while they were intent on finding water… It is being rebuilt. But for now, we need to go… And we need to go there, where there is an elephant sniffing around the loos. How are we going to do this?

As ‘would-be’ Navy Seals (bare with me), we crawl out of our roof tent and… Stand there watching in the darkness as this elephant huffs around our target. It looks big, very big.

But if you gotta go, you gotta go! So we ‘casually saunter’ over to the block, convincing ourselves that we are way more alert and sensory-perceptive than any wild African animal! Somehow the elephant lets us believe this and we manage to ‘relieve’ ourselves in the roofless lavatories under a starlit sky. Not something you experience very often…

Now armed with a greater sense of danger, we stealthily creep back to our tent, very aware that there are other pachyderms patrolling the ‘camp’…

Grateful to be alive

Hahaha…! Actually more of a feeling of connection to nature, of being a little more vulnerable than you are used to. Of being aware that there are certain physical dangers that are worthy of some respect. And of having a new appreciation for letting nature get on with what nature does…

The following morning an elephant walks by our ‘pitch’ (are there no boundaries at all in the bush?) and scratches and tugs at some grass. We sip a cup of tea and feel humbled. They know exactly what is going on here. They know what belongs, what is ‘normal’ and that these cars, vehicles, imposters will move on again. And tomorrow will be different. New visitors, new people, new opportunities for water…This whole open area, this big space, this whole country, in fact, is open to the elephants (and possibly all the game).

Not as intimate as it used to be…

While I would like to keep a positive spin on things, it would be remiss of me not to mention that the camp itself has become rather large. A lot more safari tents. And a lot more tourists. The waterhole cannot support the growing number of animals coming from ever further away. It is now supported and ‘artificially’ augmented by water-carrying trucks. What used to be small and intimate has made way for the tourism dollar. And that is a two-edged sword, as with many other destinations. Perhaps a discussion for another time…

We should be thankful, really. That a country like Botswana is able to exist, considering its small population; and offer the opportunity to see and experience wildlife in their ‘natural environment’. And those last two words were in quotes because there is a balance to be had. Too many elephants are not good for an ecosystem either. They can be destructive too, just by their need to forage for miles and they trample and topple trees…

So, without going on too much about how to manage our wildlife, let me just say that this is an awesome way to get up close to a wild animal. A big, intimidating, powerful animal. And you’re not looking in from behind a fence or a viewing platform in a zoo. You’re one on one. And that makes a massive difference…