Chobe National Park – Savute Camp

The first time I heard of Chobe was as a kid a long time ago. It had the same status as Serengeti or Etosha for me. An unreachable destination somewhere in central Africa.

And then again when viewing the excellent BBC series following the ‘Marsh Pride’ – telling the story of a pride of lions in the Chobe park. It seemed so distant and remote, impossible to reach.

But then I had a 50th birthday coming up, and it was the perfect excuse to visit Botswana. Situated in the middle, en route from Moremi to the northern border town of Kasane, was Chobe National Park. And we would have to cross right through it.

The campsite at Third Bridge in Moremi game reserve had left quite an impression on us being very remote, surrounded by water and quite the adventure to get there. Already, Botswana had served up spectacular memories, and it was only day four!

We depart our royally dimensioned campsite content at having enjoyed a great evening in the ‘wild African bush’ and headed for the northern gate of Moremi. We had to cover 160 km today to get to Savute Camp inside Chobe National Park. 160km. How hard can it be? Surely a couple of hours would find us at the Savute camp in Chobe? Little did we know.

It is another fantastic African morning. Birds chirp and call excitedly as the chill burns off in a cloudless, clear blue sky. The sun is already warming and there is a tangible excitement in the air. We tackle the ever-present soft, sandy ‘road’ that that is the only link to the outside world – no highways here…

Once we have crossed the last (fourth?) bridge leading out of Moremi, the road to Chobe is a wide, flat-surfaced dirt road that is well maintained. We passed a number of small villages which indicated sparse population ostensibly focused on livestock and subsistence farming. The washboard surface of the white, sandy road surface was both a welcome and a hindrance being level but also rattling our vehicle (and our dentures).

The distance between Moremi North Gate and Mababe Gate Chobe is not that significant being dispatched within an hour or so. At Mababe gate the paperwork is easily dispensed with and we find ourselves inside one of the iconic game park destinations in Africa.

Herds of elephants regard our progress from afar as we follow the single primitive dirt track. The ever-present fine dust is all-pervasive within the car. The sun bears down with a merciless heat. The landscape is open, flat and featureless towards the horizon. Elephants monopolise the waterholes. Many elephants. These are easily the most elephants I have seen in one place, ever…

Solitary bulls munching on tree branches, scratching the ground for grasses. Herds in waterholes rolling about, spraying water with their trunks. Young calves fumbling about, getting in mom’s way… The landscape is both sparse, empty and open and also intermittently green and full of trees and bushland. It is great just being here. The route is very quiet, with no vehicles at alL.

Other wildlife? A wildebeest or two, an eagle, some zebra in the distance and a couple of hippos in a pool of water. Not much else. The roads forks – to the left is the Sand Ridge Road and to the right the Marsh Route. Which is very tempting (considering what we have seen on TV it is no wonder of course) but we have been warned, at reception when we checked in, that this is unpassable due to the road being flooded. ‘In this dry heat ?’ I wonder. But we aim for the Sand Ridge Road and continue. Only km to go.

According to our GPS, and the Chobe guide we borrowed, Sand Ridge Road and the Marsh Route are the only two ‘roads’ leading north through the park. A road is a generous term because it is more of dirt (sand) track and not much else. The sand gets softer. The animals disappear (midday again?). The foliage encroaches more and we see nothing besides the track and the brush and trees either side.

It is tough going. The Hilux is having a hard time maintaining a consistent speed through the soft surface. Our average speed is about km/h. Which sounds pretty fast when you are spotting game, but right now there is nothing to be seen. The last elephant we spotted was two hours ago. And we have another two hours to go. The track is made of soft, beach sand, undulations causing the rear suspension to bottom out, so you back off, slow down and think of preserving the car from too many knocks.

Slower still. Until you are forced to stop, and then set off again. Light throttle. Bouncing around. Deep, clinging sand. The motor is struggling, so you increase speed. But then the bouncing around bottoms out the suspension and you slow down again. If you were wondering about the difference between kinetics and inertia then this might be it. It is a precious balance between maintaining forward progress, comfort and protecting the vehicle and coming to a complete halt. And we haven’t seen any animals at all… Apart from a couple of lost giraffes crossing the ‘highway’ in front of us, bemusedly eyeing us from a height.

And the track is long and straight. Sometimes branching off to bridge a particularly demanding stretch of sand and then rejoining sometime later. The sun beats down. It is hot! 45 degrees Celcius and our slow progress does not provide much in the way of a cooling draft. But that is also why were are here – to experience it all. The landscape is unrelentingly flat. Just the soft, sandy track and the trees lining it. Nothing else. We feel quite alone and remote. This is great!

Savute Campsite is where the Sand Ridge Road ends. A very welcome sight after nearly eight hours in the 4×4. Eight hours to cover 160 km. We are happy to be here, it has been a long day! The reception formalities are double-edged. Two parks employees help us out – one being very friendly and helpful, the other… not so much. No matter – a beer is calling…

There are a number of camps and lodges in this area, but Savute Campsite has just four (yes) camp pitches lining the riverside and a half dozen more near the ablution block. It is not so much a river than a ‘canal’. Normally transporting water across the park, but now completely dry. There is a drought in the region this year…

We are totally shattered. Surprised at how much it takes out of you, driving this far along barely a twin-track sandy road. Much respect to the TV crew spending months out here tracking a pride of lions… The beer is much appreciated as we plunder the fridge in the back of the pickup – which has also taken quite a few knocks on the bumpy route.

Our pitch sits under a very tall tree. There is no grass at all, just very powdery, dark-beige coloured sand, which has a black undertone between the toes. The site is huge. Bigger even than last night and perhaps fifty by fifty metres. We can see the neighbours, eighty metres away, but cannot hear them at all. What a luxury!

The camp has been ‘elephant-proofed’ which means the source of water – a tap at each pitch – has been ‘moulded in’ by cement and concrete into which sharp stones are embedded to prevent the elephants from damaging the taps. The ablution blocks are similarly ‘fortressed’ with earth abutments surrounding the building to prevent elephant trunks from coming through the window while you’re showering… You can’t blame them – it is very dry here and they’re just looking for water.

It is very quiet around here (no campers near enough), the only sounds being the birds in the treetops and a couple on the ground trying their luck on us for scraps and a drink of water… We spend a relaxed evening cooking up dinner on our gas stove as well as using the braai area for a couple of toasties. Very delicious, more so because of where we are.

This is an eye-opening experience – once again. The African bush is captivating, especially at sunset when the senses go into overdrive. The sounds. The energy… No game fences (once again) stimulating the senses even more. No mobile phone reception either, thankfully (just like Third Bridge Camp in Moremi). A vast campsite (an extravagance). And, once again, that energy that is typically African. You can’t quite put your finger on it…

So, now to the burning question. Is it worth it? Well, as per Moremi Game Reserve, it is not a cheap getaway. And all the better for it, dare I say it. And this was a big financial commitment for us… For some reason, I expected a mass tourism destination, which is thankfully not the case, with no busloads of tourists – which would have been very disappointing. It is (still) very much a form of an expedition, in that you will need to do some effort to get her, be it a time or a monetary investment. And a limited number of camps sites available. An experience to be savoured…

Tomorrow we head towards Kasane. An, as yet to us, unknown destination perched on the Chobe River at the confluence of Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana. We have a campsite reserved at Chobe River Lodge. Sounds good!

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