River of patience
The Boteti River has water again and this once-forgotten corner of Botswana is back on the tourism radar. The best thing is that most campsites and lodges next to the river are accessible because the main routes are tarred.
Eighteen years is a long time to be dead. The Boteti River died in the early 1990s and all that remained was a dusty riverbed, stretching south-east from Maun to Lake Xau. A fresh scar, or a long, sinuous grave. Water travels far before it reaches the Boteti. First, good summer rain needs to fall in the highlands of Angola. This rainwater flows to the Cuito River, which joins up with the Cubango River, which turns into the Kavango River, which empties out into the Okavango Delta. Once the water has made its way through the delta, it collects in the Thamalakane River near Maun. South of Maun, the river makes a left turn into the Boteti and flows south-east along the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans until it seeps away into the sand at Lake Xau. (See map on pages 14 – 15.)
This 2 500 km journey takes months. In 1991, however, months became years and no water reached the Boteti. The riverbed became dry and dusty and experts said it would never see water again. Man and animal faced an uncertain future. Boreholes and wells couldn’t supply everyone. In winter, thousands of zebras and wildebeest that had previously migrated from the Makgadikgadi Pans to the Boteti became trapped. Botswana’s network of veterinary fences prevented them from migrating to Moremi or Chobe and herds of animals perished.
Then in 2010, after nearly two decades, the Boteti came down in flood. Heavy rains and a tectonic shift in the earth’s crust paved the way for far-off waters to reach the river once again.
The return of water was good news for farmers and wildlife alike, and a boon for a tourism industry that had grown stagnant. All along the river course, you’ll find tar roads and a network of gravel roads that you can drive in almost any vehicle. There are affordable
campsites – and more expensive lodges – and you could easily spend three days of your Botswana holiday here. (See page 30 for a detailed route.)
When I cross the wide Thamalakane River near Maun in early June, the water from Angola has already arrived and is quietly making its way past water lilies, African darters and cows of all colours.
A few kilometres downstream, the Boteti breaks away from the Thamalakane. The Thamalakane turns west towards Lake Ngami and the Boteti makes a 90-degree turn east, heading for the Kalahari.
That’s the way I’m going, too.
Here comes Komatsai
About 14 km south-east of Maun, a gravel roads turns off the A3. I look at my map and see that this road runs parallel to the river until it meets up with the B300 tar road. Sorted.
I take the turn-off and soon reach a low-water bridge. Cows, goats and donkeys are drinking the cool, clear water, while men fish from the opposite bank. On an island in the middle of the river, a cow feasts on tall grass. Goats, other vehicles, a stray dog on its own mission…
Keitumetse Gasebonwe rides past on his donkey. We chat a bit in Setswana and he tells me that his donkey is called “White” – it’s one of the few words he knows in English. Eventually he says, “Thank you. I’m going.” We shake hands and he and White depart at a trot.
Before I can get into my bakkie, another man on a donkey pulls up. Joree Komatsai is wearing shorts and his bare legs are covered in scratches made by branches and twigs. He’s a subsistence farmer in the area and he’s looking for one of his cows that swam across the river. He tells me that he doesn’t own any trousers.
“There is no water in the veld,” he says. “Everyone must come to the river. We fill containers with water to take home. The river keeps everyone alive.” Heike Temme, manager, Tiaan’s Camp “Herds of elephant – a rare sight at one stage – are now abundant next to the Boteti. When the Makgadikgadi Pans dry up in winter, all the zebra and wildebeest migrate to the river. It’s like our own Serengeti. The water looks after the communities that live here. Not only because it makes agriculture possible, but also because tourism creates so many job opportunities.”
He gives me his cellphone number and asks me to call if I’m ever in the area again. Hopefully with a second-hand pair of trousers…
Last chance saloon
As I drive, I occasionally glimpse water through the passenger window of my Isuzu. Mud and reed houses stand next to the road, far away enough to escape the dust but as close to the river as possible. Walking home with a container full of water is just as tiring as a CrossFit session, and much less fun.
On the other side of Makalamabedi, I drive through disinfectant solution at a veterinary checkpoint and continue to Motopi, where the A3 joins up with the B300 tar road.
I follow the B300 to the village of Xhumaga (Khumaga) with the sun low on the horizon. My destination for the night is Tiaan’s Camp. The campsite is right next to the Boteti and there’s a deck on the roof of the bar and restaurant. The river is wide and the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park is on the opposite bank.
“Without water, this camp and the park don’t have much to offer tourists,” says Heike Temme, who runs the camp with Tiaan Theron. “The water attracts the animals and these days we see game year-round.”
Later that night, the sounds of the village join me around my campfire. It’s a Thursday, but I can hear a distant church service. A hymn rises over the camel thorn trees, mingling with heavy bass notes from a party somewhere. This is how it should be: gratitude and exuberance co-existing next to the wonder waters of the Boteti.
Between Xhumaga and Rakops, I pass the Last Chance Tuck Shop. It’s an omen. Closer to Rakops, the vegetation peters out into a dusty plain. Cows appear on the shimmering horizon with white dust clouds in their wake. No one is driving them on. They move on their own, lured by the green scent of the Boteti, which hovers in the spaces between the dust clouds.
In the Kalahari, where they normally graze, there isn’t a puddle of water left at this time of the year. The army of cows is a wonderful but dangerous sight and motorists should be careful, especially after dark. I see many dead cows next to the road.
East of Rakops the river follows its lazy course, but the landscape remains harsh and empty. An ominous shebeen appears, this one called Finale Bar.
Meet Rocks Morokotso
Later, near Xhumo, frail ghosts line the road – the bare, grey trunks of leadwood trees. Eventually, about 30 km south-east of Rakops, I discover the reason behind all the desperate shop names, barren plains and dead trees. The Boteti seems to have dried up. I was getting excited about water in Lake Xau, only 30 km away, but now my hopes have been dashed.
I stop where the river goes under
the tar road and walk down to the limey riverbed where a tall, wiry man is repairing a water trough. His name is Rocks Morokotso and he farms in the area. This water trough is the only place where his livestock can quench their thirst. But where does he get the water?
Rocks lifts a sheet of corrugated iron and points down the well hidden beneath it. “There goes the river,” he says.
I peek down the hole and see my face reflected about 5m below.
“When it gets too dry, the river goes underground,” Rocks explains. “We know it’s on its way. I think the river will arrive in about two weeks’ time. If you’re impatient, you can’t survive here. We wait for the water, every year. Sometimes it’s later than other years, but if you’re patient, the river arrives sooner and stays longer.”
The road to Mopipi goes across more wide open plains. I see some agricultural fields, but nothing is growing or waiting to be harvested. Near Mopipi, the Boteti empties into Lake Xau and the water ends its amazing journey. Thousands of birds migrate here, even pelicans.
Today, however, the lakebed is dry and covered in knee-high grass. Cows, horses and donkeys amble around, grazing. I drive the dirt road around the lake then return to the B300 tar road at Xhumo.
It’s time to head back to Xhumaga. I’ve heard talk of wildlife returning to the banks of the Boteti, but so far I haven’t seen any proof…
Near Tiaan’s Camp, a dirt road runs through the riverbed. You can drive through if the water level is low; if the river is full there’s a pont to take you across.
When I arrive at the water’s edge, a man in a fishing boat quickly reels in his lines and rushes over. He introduces himself as Otetseng Motabane, or OT for short. He runs the pont, every day from sunrise to sunset.
“On busy days I take about 28 vehicles across,” he says. “One vehicle at a time.”
He says it’s been a while since the river was shallow enough to drive across, which is a good thing for the surrounding landscape – and for his business.
There’s no margin for error up the short, steep ramp onto the pont, but OT guides me on safely and soon the outboard motor is powering us to the opposite bank, about 200m away.
From there I drive into the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, to Kumaga Camp which is about 2 km upstream. Miriam Mokili from SKL Camps – the group that holds the concession for Kumaga – helps me with the paperwork and soon my tent is pitched under a camel thorn tree.
Later that afternoon I drive to Hippo Pool north of the camp. It lives up to its name: a family of hippos lies submerged in the water. I find a scenic spot next to the river and scan the surroundings with my binoculars. I see fish-eagles, vultures and even a rare wattled crane. Some
Rocks lifts a sheet of corrugated iron and points down the well hidden beneath it.
“There goes the river,” he says.
I peek down the hole and see my face reflected about 5 m below.
impala drink water nearby, but there’s no sign of the Boteti’s elephants or any other game.
I read somewhere that the crocodiles of the Boteti seek refuge in caves in the riverbank during dry years, where they lie very still to conserve energy. They’ll kill the occasional cow or antelope that comes to drink at a dwindling pool, then return to their caves. Do they also know that patience and determination will be rewarded?
A herd of elephant appears as if from nowhere on the opposite bank and they proceed to swim across the river. Three of them are heading straight for me. They stop in the shallows, near the hippos, where they bathe and play. They’re about 50 m away and there’s no one else around. They put on a show for me alone, in fantastic late afternoon light. What a privilege!
I think back to what Rocks Morokotso said about the Boteti, and how patience is a thing to cherish. If you’re patient, your heart’s desire – like the miraculous water – will arrive sooner and stay for longer.
See page 89 for accommodation options along the Boteti River.
BOTETI RIVER A SIP OF BOTETI. The best game-viewing area is along the stretch of the Boteti River where it forms the western border of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park. When seasonal pans dry up, masses of game migrate here, especially zebra and wildebeest.
FOR BAKKIES AND DONKEYS (above from left to right). When you see the brimful Boteti near Xhumaga (Khumaga) it’s hard to believe it lay dry and dusty for so long.
Traffic along the gravel road to Makalamabedi includes lots of donkeys.
There’s no rush. Stop and chat to people who cross your path, like Joree Komatsai.
LIKE DAY AND NIGHT. Farmer Rocks Morokotso and his herd at a drinking trough in a dry part of the Boteti near Xhumo. When Willem drove past here again a month later this whole area was covered in water, the Boteti River pushing on towards Lake Xau.
BOTETI RIVER CATTLE HAZE. Around Rakops you’ll see hundreds of cattle. They often stroll across the B300 tar road on their way to drink in the Boteti River. Avoid driving here at night: Cattle, donkeys and other animals are the cause of many car accidents.
WATERY HANGOUTS. Otetseng Motabane (top) is in charge of the pont at Xhumaga. Tuuthebe Lodge (above), situated just west of Letlhakane, has tidy chalets and campsites laid out around small dams and patches of green grass.