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.

go! Botswana - - DO IT YOURSELF - WORDS & PIC­TURES WILLEM VAN DER BERG

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…

OT’s pont

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.

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