SUMMER IN THE KALAHARI
Small planes are the taxis of Botswana. And like taxis in Africa everywhere, a trip on them is not for the faint of heart. Luckily we have an excellent pilot in the person of Ricardo from South Africa.
we land at Maun – also known as the gateway to the Okavango Delta - in the midday heat. The transfer to our tented camp, Meno A Kwena, takes about two hours from Maun, but the time flies because of our witty guide Max. He has us in stitches all the way there with hilarious anecdotes. As we take the unmarked turn-off to the camp, I speculate as to the reason for the lack of sign postage, only to be told in no uncertain terms by Max that “we don’t like surprises.”
I was soon to find out why. This place, dear reader, presents a conundrum to any travel writer. An inner struggle, if you will. I want to shout out to all the world to go to this place of wonder post haste and at the same time I want to keep it a secret – all to myself to jealously guard and treasure. Situated midway between the Botswana’s extraordinary Okavango Delta and the spectacular Central Kalahari Game Reserve, the camp unfolds itself before you like a riddle, a puzzle in dusty, heatsoaked Africa. A light goes on the most jaded and cynical of minds as you stand on the edge of the 100-foot cliff on which the camp lies, overlooking the Boteti River which is in flow for the first time in almost twenty years. During periods of above average rainfall, the Boteti River, is one of the few drainage systems that carry the Okavango floodwaters out of this, the largest inland delta in the world, to flow into the deepest mantle of sand on the planet, the Kalahari Desert. The Boteti River lies right in the middle of these great vast thirstlands, where water is priceless and so attracting some of Africa's last remaining great wildlife populations. The camp is pristine in surrounds and perfect in design – strong words I know, but it makes Out of Africa look like a garish commercial for safari fashions. As we are escorted into the lounge and dining areas, our host and camp owner, David Dugmore, explains to us the set-up and activities, but I only listen with half an ear. I’m mesmerised by the myriad of photographs that line the tented walls; the silk parachute that forms the roof; the beautiful dark wooden chests everywhere, the kukois, the armoires, the chez lounge, the copper washing bowls…everything is eclectic, yet perfectly in balance like a fine piece of jazz music.
Meno Kwena means “teeth of the crocodile” and the every last detail about the place adheres to nature. In terms of conservation, Meno A Kwena Tented Camp has initiated the Water for Life Trust to coordinate their sustainable tourism developments, community involvement and wildlife conservation projects.
David Dugmore is a born and bred African, having grown up in Kenya, and is passionate about preserving the environment he respectfully calls home.
In fact, God may be wondering, where he is since Meno A Kwena’s carbon footprint is nigh invisible. Solar power is used for heating and the rest is pretty much left up to nature.
But don’t think for a moment this is a bachelor’s boot camp! The nine tents are stunningly appointed with views of the river and the camp has been completely refurbished with all of the modern comforts and amenities, including en suite facilities and private verandahs overlooking
the river. Kukoi bathrobes, luxury toiletries and fine linen cater for the spoilt hedonist in us all.
Dinner is a fabulous affair. Guests are all seated at one long table and, unlike at some other, grander establishments, there is lively conversation and much laughter. Starters are served in the form of the most delicious and unusual cheese and tomato soup. Venison steak, stew, fish, wholesome veggies and a delectable array of salads see the masses jostling for more.
After dinner, we sit by the fire side, red wine in hand, listening to the lions roar in the distance.
The next morning, I wake at dawn to a chorus of frogs in anticipation of the coming rains. The day softly and slowly progresses languidly as I lie in my tent after breakfast, book in hand with that view of the river. In the afternoon, we take a mokoro – or dug-out canoe – ride on the river. The silence is only broken by the intermittent calls of one of the various bird species and the gentle paddling sound of the oars. Other activities at Meno a Kwena include day trips into Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pans National Parks, San Bushmen guided walking excursions, a floating hide and sleep outs on the pans during the dry winter months. We see an endangered African wild cat, perched inside his cave – a very rare sight indeed. As the light slowly begins to fade, a big heard of zebra shyly comes to drink, a few metres from us. We sit watching them for the longest time, lost in the moment…
Cumbersome and annoying clichés fall over themselves for space in my head as I sit in front of my tent later that night, listening to the sounds of elephants playing in the river below me. But all I know is that one day, when I recall this breath-taking place, it will be moments I will remember – the sunset, the aroma of the camp, the roaring sound of the hoofs of the antelope running, the laughter of the guests by fire light, the serene smile on David’s face…. Dammit! Just go there.
The next day, we catch a 15-minute flight from Maun to the Sankuyo Bush Camp. The camp is situated on the southern boundary of the Moremi Game Reserve on exclusive private land. It is a small, intimate hideaway with spectacular surroundings under ancient trees, catering for only 12 guests.
The tents are gorgeous with huge double beds and en-suite bucket shower and toilet. Our hosts are Doctor and Joghaan and they cater to our every need; not in a servile fashion, but with the genuine friendliness and openness that I see everywhere in this beautiful people.
After an uneventful game drive we get back after dark, exhausted and hungry and after a delicious bush dinner I head off to bed. Deep into the night, a loud crash suddenly wakes me. My first sensation – after recovering and realising I’m not being burgled in my home in Johannesburg – is the ancient aroma of rain. I sit up and behold the most extraordinary sight through the tent flaps. It is raining hard and lightning bathes the bush in silver luminescence every few seconds.
I watch this chaotic display of nature for a long time, feeling like the luckiest person on Earth.
The next day is spent reading, recharging and just lazing about under the thatched roof of the lounge area. The peace here is something I wish I could bottle and take home with me.
That evening’s game drive proves to be a whole different story to the previous day. It is just myself and my partner and we see eland, kudu, impala and literally tons of elephants. We slowly drive through a herd that must be numbered in the dozens, including babies.
We stop for sunset drinks near a big herd of gnus as we watch the last rays of the sun say goodbye to another perfect day in Africa. On the drive back, our guide shines the search light both ways and my mind is elsewhere, when suddenly we stop. “There she is,” he whispers. Sure enough, about five metres from the vehicle, a leopard glances at us furtively as she carries on walking near the road. We follow this stunning graceful lady for about the next kilometer. I cannot remember when last I saw this elusive, magnificent cat and chills go up and down my spine.
It was the most wonderful surprise and a most cherished finale to this trip. It was my second trip to Botswana. Now all that remains is for me to figure out how many times I can feasibly go back, considering that I have a lifespan of about another 40 years…