When the email from the Limpopo River Lodge Reservations office says "We have everything you need, just bring your food and drink", that's literally what it meant. Fully-equipped chalets and rondavels on the banks of the Limpopo River are what you can expect if you take a trip to this small but quaint and almost desolate area of the Tuli Block in Eastern Botswana.
Third time's a charm, as the saying goes. Twice before (once last year and again earlier this year) we had tried to make a reservation at the Limpopo River Lodge but realised that emailing two weeks in advance to make a reservation is way too late. This year though, we were determined to go there over the Independence Day long weekend and so we made our reservation for a rondavel I believe it was in July sometime...just to be safe. We had arranged to go with some friends and early Thursday morning we met up at the petrol station to fill up and buy ice for the food in the coolboxes. While the lodge does provide firewood, there is no availability of ice, as the informative email read.
We were soon on our way along the A1 in the north-easterly direction from Gaborone, past Mahalapye and Palapye and turning off towards Baine's Drift and Zanzibar. Livestock on the side of the road pose a constant threat to traffic as do the cows, goats and donkeys that occasionally cross the road as well. Aside from the couple of petrol and coffee stops along the way we stopped a short way from the Baine's Drift turn-off to admire the size and stature of a massive baobab tree right by the road side. I made sure to use my wide-angle lens on my camera to try and capture the immense size of this magnificent tree.
Having left Gaborone around 7am and with all the stops along the way and slowing down for animal crossings, we eventually reached the end of the tar road by about 2pm and had to make the remaining 35km to the lodge entrance on a gravel road. I couldn't help but smile as it was time to get dusty! The road itself isn't too bad, but has its moments of "slow down or you'll hit those rocks" as narrated by my wife. But soon enough we were at the reception area, signing in and being told what to do with the given keys - the lodge entrance is a few kilometres down the road from the reception and there's a ramp with a lock on it...hence the key.
There's a small watering hole close to the reception, so if you're lucky you might catch a glimpse of some elephants by the water, as we did, although briefly through the trees. By around 3pm we were at the lodge, parking our cars in the shaded parking areas and being greeted by the welcoming staff who helped us take all our stuff from the parking lot down the wooden steps to our respective accommodation options. Our friends, who were with two girls, were in the chalets 3 and 4, closer to the pool while we were in rondavel 4 which was the last one "on the block" and had the best view off into the distance.
Friends who had visited before recommended we buy mosquito nets and hang them above the beds as the mossies do tend to feast at night. We bought the largest mosquito nets we could find and the ever-so-helpful Willy tied a string across the ceiling in our rondavel to which we then hung our net. We recommend you do the same, as we needed it! After we had settled in, we positioned ourselves on the provided comfy camping chairs on the covered veranda by the kitchen, overlooking the river. With a cold beer in hand (as is tradition) we enjoyed the peace and quite and felt the city-stress being washed away. The river was not in full flow as it hadn't rained in a while, but there was still ample water for the local crocs to patrol. We were greeted by a large crocodile who was basking in the sun on the middle bank but hurriedly made its way into the water as we slowly tried to get closer. "Kwena"* would keep us company for the full four days we were there.
*Kwena is the Tswana word for crocodile
That evening we had dinner and wine at the chalets, as they had a larger kitchen (for more people, obviously) and a central fire pit, also overlooking the river. Large, tall trees provide ample shade over the entire lodge and is quite the contrast from the vegetation on the rest of the game farm. Lack of sleep the night before, driving all day the 500km to here, the tranquility and of course the wine all caught up to us and were soon back at our rondavel, having a night cap under the stars before hitting the bed. The following day after breakfast and coffee our two vehicles drove to the main game farm area, from the reception onwards and proceeded to follow the map to one of the dams marked along the way. The route isn't too bad for a "softroader" (the category in which our Toyota RAV4 falls in) but you have to be really careful as to where you tread and will probably have to occasionally get on your knees and remove branches that get stuck underneath the car. Our friends' Ford Ranger with it's impressive ground clearance had no such worries. Along the way we saw a few wildebeest, a couple of impala and a number of zebra, but no proper sighting of elephant. The warm afternoon was spent lazying in the shade of the trees at the lodge while the wafting scent of braaing chicken, beef patties and spare ribs spread over the river and probably made Kwena a little jealous.
Having seen no elephants that day our late night experience would make up for it. A little after midnight, as we sat around the embers of our fire we heard some loud splashing coming from the water. Being too dark to actually see anything we weren't sure whether "it" was coming or going. The splashing would be followed by the snapping of large branches and then some more splashing. We made our way to the left edge of our rondavel site, crouched on the bank, as far as we could go and aimed our trusty, old-school Maglite torch at the water and opposite bank. The water showed nothing except some rocks and the occasional fire-fly would flutter by, but on the other side there was something. That was where the sound was coming from and after exciting aiming of the light beam we could make out two large elephants, standing knee-deep in the water. They would then climb out a bit, making it seem like they are wearing rubber boots, grab some branches, rip them from the poor tree and then trudge back into the water. We barely saw them in the dark, so trying to take a photo of them in the dark was very, very optimistic on my part, but I did manage to get a shot that has what seems to be the shape of elephant somewhere amidst the black...
The next morning was looking grey and was not as warm as the day before. This would be ideal driving weather for our friends who were heading back to Gabs that day. We had some coffee, watched the crocs sun bathing on the shore as monkeys scurried along on the plains to and from the water's edge. After we bid our friends a safe journey back to Gaborone, we headed off for a quick game drive before lunch. We decided to explore the smaller area "below" the main road, where the lodge and camp are. We followed the track which ran alongside the river and at various bends in the trail we would catch glimpses of the forest-green colour of the mighty Limpopo which was much fuller here than by the lodge. Sections of the gravel track had their share of rocky descents and equally as rocky ascents. With Dina acting as my spotter in front, pointing where my wheels should go, our all-wheel drive RAV4 with a new set of Goodyear Wrangler all-terrain tyres made easy work of these obstacles and made for a slow but exciting drive.
We came out the second gate which leads you to the campsite when you come in, and ended up right by the reception. We proceeded on to the main gate as the rain had started to drizzle and we wanted to get back to the rondavel to make lunch before (or if) it started raining heavily. Darker clouds had come in by the time we were preparing our stir-fry lunch but there was no rain yet. The kitchen has a double head gas stove but we had brought our gas bottle and skottle braai which allowed us to cook out in the open, as it was cloudy and not too hot. Stir-fry sizzling, Amarula on the rocks in hand and the weekly grind seemed light years away!
After lunch we packed a small coolbox with colds drinks and made our way to the larger area "above" the main road and go find us some elephants! There was another car in the parking next to ours. A Land Rover Ranger Rover no less. Very nice car, supposedly very off-road capable (despite it's size and weight), but the tyres were not intended for the very rocky terrain that makes up the Limpopo River Lodge. One of the front tyres was punctured and the railing on the left side of the car had obviously been ripped off somehow. Moral of the story: have good tyres and drive carefully.
At the reception we spoke with Allan, the manager (very positive and lively chap) who said that this cloudy weather wasn't good for finding elephants as they appear to "just vanish". We told him we had come solely for the purpose of seeing elephants and seeing them is what we would do! We followed the map to another couple of dams (man made concrete pools with water for animals) and then took the route to get to one of the view points where, as Allan explained, the views are fantastic! We'd never make it to that view point mainly because after about 20 minutes of driving we came across a herd of elephant about ten strong. They were to our right, slowly munching on the leaves from the low-hanging trees and were making their way to our left, crossing the track in front of us about 20-30 metres away. We sat in silence with the occasional camera shutter click and watched them as they slowly crossed to the other side. There were even a couple of young calfs in the herd as well. Once we were sure they had gone far enough into the bush, we started up the car and moved on slowly. Not 15 minutes later we came across another herd of elephant, standing around ripping up some trees and munching away. We stopped a good distance away but still being able to see them clearly and admired them as they slowly ate and playfully pushed each other around. They sensed we were there, even though we were ultra-quiet and they casually moved away from us and further on into the bush.
We continued on our chosen path, seeing impala and a duiker or two along the way. Some more rocky bits, a few sandy patches, uphill, downhill...all done easily but slowly and carefully. We drove into a shallow ditch and encountered Allan in his pickup coming from the opposite direction. He saw us in the ditch and quickly jumped out asking if we need help. A wave and a thumb's up made him laugh and ran back to his car to move out of our way. We drove out of the ditch and stopped to say hi. Allan had been to turn on a pump at one of watering holes where the animals can come at night to drink. The sun was slowly moving lower and the clouds made it darker than normal so we realised that getting to the view point was put of the question, but we'd go on to the water hole before heading back to the reception. We got to the water hole just as the bright orange sun was peeping behind some dark clouds, which made for quite an entrance! Even though the pump is loud, the animals come because they know it means water. We saw no animals but did examine a large piece of a skeleton...top half of a large skull and a section of the spine that was in the middle of the plain next to the watering hole (turns out it a couple of lions had killed a massive eland a few months ago).
The sun was fighting a losing battle with the clouds and we continued on our track back to the reception where, by the small water hold hidden behind a thicket of trees, we came across yet another elephant who was replenishing his thirst. As he walked off into the trees, we headed back to the lodge and the dark clouds finally won and the rain started falling. It was drizzling steadily as we entered the parking and were greeted by the owner who told us they were getting worried as to what happened to us. Little does he know that our game drives don't last a couple of hours but a whole afternoon if need be, as was the case today. He also informed us that because of the rain there was no power but that it's usually back up within a few hours. That didn't bother us at all. We sat on the chairs underneath the thatched terrace of the kitchen, sipped on some merlot and watched in silence as the rain fell heavily. Willy had lit our fire and the large supply of wood that is restocked daily kept the fire going even through the rain. The power did come back after a few hours, but we just turned the lights off and put more wood on the fire. The kitchen also uses power for the ceiling fan, the fridge/freezer and the practical, albeit at times a little loud, ice maker. As the rain slowed to a drizzle and our fire slowly faded, we turned in for the night as we had a long day of driving back the next day. It was the end of the long weekend and many travellers would be heading back to Gaborone tomorrow.
A couple of spotted duiker greeted us the next morning as they walked past our rondavel. We made coffee and took a walk around the lodge. The pool looked inviting, but the weather was still cool from the night before. A green safari Land Rover is parked by the lodge which allows guests to be taken on a game drive without worrying about damaging their vehicle or not knowing where to find the animals, although we enjoyed our self-drive and saw a fair share of animals. By noon we were packed, finished our lunch, saying our goodbyes and thanks to the very friendly and helpful staff and were on our way back to reality. I filled up the RAV's tank with a jerry can and a half of petrol, inflated the tyres back up to 2.0 bar (I had lowered them to about 1.0 bar the day before to give us a smoother ride and provide a little more traction in sand and on rocks if needed) and we were going home. On the inner side of the entrance ramp is a small box into which you drop the gate keys once you've opened it and that's it. The 35km gravel road back was no less exciting with impala, wildebeest and fresh elephants tracks being seen along the way. At the first manned gate we reached we were given a paper on which we had to write the car registration, date and time of entry. The guard keeps the carbon copy and you keep your copy which you present and give to the guard at the next manned gate - probably a way taao keep track of who entered from where and most probably to prevent poachers getting in and out. After giving our piece of paper to the final guard, we were soon back on asphalt and were already planning on when we were going to come back and see the view from that view point! ;)
Visit the Limpopo River Lodge website for prices and more information.
Below are the photos from our four day trip:
How to get to the Limpopo River Lodge from Gaborone:
"We are a young, married, Botswana-based couple with a passion for going out into nature and the bush any chance we get!"