After our last rain-soaked trip to Kasane in northern Botswana, we decided to give it another go, but this time before the heavy summer rains started. The Independence Day long weekend (end of September - beginning of October) gave us the ideal opportunity, so we invited my dad along, packed up a few items and made the 940km drive up from Gaborone to Senyati Safari Camp, about 17km before Kasane itself.
Our trip would last four days, with the first and last being on the road. We had reserved a 4x4 vehicle through Tawana Self Drive in Kazangula for day # 2 and planned to go on a self-drive through the Chobe National Park. For day 3 we had booked a sunset boat cruise along the Chobe River before heading back to Gaborone on the fourth and final day.
My dad, who has lived in Botswana for just over 30 years, had never been to this northern gem of Botswana, so he, myself and my wife Dina left Gaborone at around 6am on Friday morning with the hope of reaching Senyati camp before dark. The kilometers flew by as our trusty Toyota RAV4 carried us north, past Mahalapye, Palapye, Francistown and to the mid-way point of Nata, where we stopped for the second time to fuel up. An ice cream cone later and with Dina taking the wheel we carried on and were making steady progress. Once we passed Pandamatenga we realised that we would get to our destination well before dark. This section of the road also gets a lot more interesting as the cows, donkeys and goats that frequently cross the road (and are a hazard to drivers, so do be careful when driving here) are slowly but surely replaced by ostrich and elephants. We passed about four elephants standing in the bush just off the side of the main road and soon enough we came across an elephant-crossing, literally, as a small herd of about 10 elephants were slowly crossing the road in front of us.
By 16h our GPS was telling us to turn right off the main road onto a dirt road that leads to Senyati camp. The detailed emails we received from the reservations office prior to our trip had a map that indicated there were two turn offs; the first being opposite a small, abandoned bus stop, was the easier one that even normal 4x2 vehicles could take while the second was a 4x4 track which the map warned was to be taken only if you had a proper 4x4, as there is sand and "you will get stuck". Having an all-wheel drive RAV4, loaded with 3 adults, a coolbox, camping chairs, food and clothing, I thought it best not to risk it and go the easier route.... at least that was the plan. The GPS-lady had actually taken us to the 4x4 track and we hadn't even noticed that we passed the abandoned bus stop. I surveyed the route ahead and knowing the capabilities of my vehicle (and secretly hoping for some fun, off-road action) I took the wheel, tried to comfort my co-driver and passenger as best I could, and we hit the sandy track at moderate speed. Sure, it is sandy, but the RAV4 is not that heavy, we had all-terrain tyres on and the all-wheel drive system did what it's supposed to and sure enough we crossed the much shorter section to the camp in no time at all.
By 17h we had checked in, paid the balance for our chalet, unpacked the car and were having cold drinks in our hands as we gazed out onto the trees and water hole mere meters from our chalet. A couple of months ago, while I was searching online for accommodation options for our trip (no camping, as we had thrown away our tent during THAT rain-soaked trip last December), Vincent, the owner of Tawana Self Drive, recommended I check out Senyati Safari Camp as an option. So I did, and their website showed decent-looking, fully-equipped chalets, but more iimpressively they had a watering hole nearby that was often frequented by elephants and there was mention of a photo bunker as well. So we figured, sure, why not give it a try. It's not in the centre of Kasane, but we didn't really want to be in the centre anyway.
So we sat on our porch, sipping our cold rock-shandies, admiring the tranquil water hole which was a lot closer to the camp than we thought and were wondering how frequent are the elephants that apparently come here, when all of a sudden we saw a lone bull elephant making its way out of the bush to the water hole. Excitement levels rose among all the guests, binoculars, cameras and camera phones were brought to catch this one, solitary elephant before he disappeared. And then, as if on cue, out of the same bush came a whole herd of elephants barreling down towards the water hole causing even more excitement among all the visitors! Within five minutes there were probably about 20 elephants standing in and around the water hole, drinking, splashing, pushing, shoving and just seemingly having a great time in the late afternoon heat. Amongst all the elephants there were also a couple of giraffe who passed by (but didn't linger much) and a number of impala, one of which was chased and almost caught by a solo wild dog that was a bit too ambitious in its attempt to grab a quick meal.
As we would come to realise over the next few days, this was a very popular watering hole for the local elephants and in the later afternoons and evenings numerous herds would come down for a drink. As one group finishes and moves on, another one takes their place. We enjoyed their company a little longer on day #1 and then made our way to Kasane to get some dinner at Thebe River Safaris which has a very chilled and relaxed outdoor bar and eating area. The last time we were there we had their amazing pizzas, which Dina and my dad had, but I went for the chicken schnitzel with mushroom and cheese sauce, which was equally as tastey! We got back to camp just before 10pm and the long day was getting to us. We had a night cap as we watched a few lonely elephants splashing around in the water hole and then called it a night as we had a busy day planned for tomorrow.
I had arranged with Vincent from Tawana Self Drive to rent out a 4x4 for the day as part of their "Safari Pack", and he and his wife Julie had kindly offered to drop off the vehicle to Senyati. We met up with them just after 8am the following morning and I was given a run-down of the vehicle and all the equipment that came with it. The Safari Pack vehicle is either the Toyota Surf or the Prado and I specifically requested the Prado if available and smiled to myself as I saw it pull up at the reception. The vehicle has low range gearing, a center diff and more than adequate ground clearance...all of which our RAV4 doesn't have which is why we wouldn't risk going into the Chobe National Park with it. Also included in the great price is recovery gear, maps, wildlife books, rugged binoculars, a coolbox and even a satellite phone for "just in case". Having never driven a 4x4 with low-range gearing, Vincent quickly showed me which gears are available and advised which would be the best gear for driving in the park and soon enough we had packed our drinks and sandwiches into the coolbox and were on our way to the Sedudu Gate entrance just after Kasane. Signing in was quick and easy, P30 (about $2.90) per person (for Botswana residents) and P10 (about $0.97) for the vehicle and by 9:45 we were making our way through the park and heading down to the river route.
The plan was to follow the river route for the most part as that's where we would see a majority of the animals, head to the Serondela picnic spot for a quick lunch and then up to Ihaha camp and then make our way to the Ngoma gate and then back to Kasane via the tarred road. For our first self-drive in the Chobe, this seemed doable enough. Sure enough, when we reached the river we were immediately greeted by scores of elephants, lazily basking in the morning sun, up to their 'ankles' in the water. The next two and a half hours were filled with elephants, buffalo, impala, hartebeest and a variety of birdlife as we drove along the river route, stopping on the odd occasion to take some photos. A few other vehicles (mostly tourist-filled safari vehicles) passed us along the way, but there were not as many as I had thought (probably because most safari vehicles come with tourists early in the morning as soon as the park gates open). There were also a couple of boats on the river in the distance.
We reached the Serondela picnic spot by around 11:30 and stopped for a quick bite and a coffee before moving on. The spot is a large clearing right on the banks of the river under some large, shadey trees with concrete tables and benches available for drivers to stop and take a rest. There is also a clean ablution block as well. A couple of other vehicles were already there, but soon we were the only ones left and as we ate our sandwiches a small troop of monkeys came down from the trees to check out what we were eating. They seem to be the regulars here and are used to people coming by and giving them scraps of food, because they came right up to us and stared eagerly at our sandwiches. We shooed them away after a few minutes and they scurried back up into the trees.
After our short break we got back into our Prado and made our way further into the park, still following the river route, heading up to Ihaha camp. Rumour had it that a pride of lions could often be seen between Serondela and Ihaha, so we thought we'd try our luck. Yeah, sure... in the middle of a summer's day, with the sun blaring directly above, chances were very slim that we'd see any lions. We did come across a couple of giraffe ambling through the bush as well as a herd of black sable antelope on a hill adjacent to the river. After passing Ihaha camp we looked on the map provided and saw there was a "stretch point"* not too far from where we were, so we decided to head there and stop for a break. Half an hour later and we were atop a small hill with one large tree providing shade, a great view of the river and the plains below and zebra all around us. This was the stretch point we sought and we stopped here for a drink from our coolbox, streteched our legs and admired the amazing view of the zebra-filled plains below.
*Stretch points are specific locations within the park where drivers are allowed to stop and get out of their vehicles for a break. As there are wild animals and predators in the park, it is prohibited from stopping just anywhere.
Dina sat behind the wheel next and took the Prado through its paces as we decided to go a little bit inland, away from the river (again, with the false hope of seeing lions) and make our way towards Ngoma gate as it was now almost 15:00. The inland route got quite rocky and sandy in some sections and we definitely would not have made it through in our RAV4 (at least not in one piece) and the bush got a lot thicker, so seeing any game was virtually impossible. The only wildlife we saw in the next hour and a bit were a few warthog in a clearing, a couple of hornbills watching us as we drove past and a lilac breasted roller, who had caught himself a nice, fat, juicy mouse for lunch.
By 16:30 we had reached Ngoma gate and were quickly back on the tar, heading back to Kasane. The drive had taken a slight toll on us and we were eager to get back to our chalet to freshen up and get a braai (barbeque) going for that evening's supper. A quick stop at the Choppies store in Kasane for meat, salads, potatoes and charcoal and we reached Senyati before 18h. Vincent and Julie came by shortly to collect the Prado and give us back our deposit. We chatted to them for a bit, shared our days' experiences and thanked them for the vehicle and all the provided equipment. As darkness fell, the elephant hordes came down to the water hole again. I took the opportunity to go down into the photo bunker, which gives you a ground-level view of the hole, just meters away from these silent giants. As we put the meat on the braai a short while later a couple of curious ellies strolled past and stopped a few meters away, eating the green grass around the camp as we sipped on our drinks and admired them.
Day 3 was our more relaxed day as all we had planned was the sunset boat cruise which was only at 15:00. This allowed us to sleep in a bit - although I was already up by 7am, sipping my coffee and taking some photos of the baboons having their morning drink at the watering hole and a couple of local hornbills scurrying along the ground in front of our chalet, searching for an insect-breakfast.
The chalet we stayed in (number 3) not only had a great view of the water hole, it was close to the bar, had its own braai stand and fire pit (as do the others) and is fully equipped with everything you need to make your trip relaxed and enjoyable. We had two single beds on the ground floor and another two in the cosy upstairs gallery, all with their own mosquito nets. There's a bathroom with flushing toilet, sink and shower with hot and cold water. Inside there's a fridge/freezer, microwave, toaster, kettle, an induction hot plate, numerous power points and all the utensils, glasses, cups, plates, pots and pans you'll need. The outside patio has a large table and comfy chairs with canvas cushions. There's a large sink and counter top as well for preparing meals and even a yellow light to deter moths at night.
After breakfast Dina and I popped into Kazangula to the new shopping mall and Puma petrol station, where we found a large, well-stocked "OK Foods" where we stocked up on some supplies for that evening and the following day. The mall also has a Nando's fast-food and drive-through. We came back to camp and at around noon got our sun hats and cameras packed and went into Kasane for a bit before going on our cruise. We stopped by the Chobe Safari Lodge, bought some souvenirs and leisurely made our way to the Coffee Buzz cafe from where we would be getting onto our boat. The Coffee Buzz is part of Kalahari Tours and through them we booked the boat cruise. As most of their boat tours are in the morning, we were fortunate to have a small 12-seater boat and a guide all to ourselves. After a quick drink at the Coffee Buzz and paying for our cruise (+park entry fees), we were greeted by Furimbi our guide who showed us to the boat. In no time at all we were cruising down the Chobe river and making our way into the Chobe National Park. On our December trip we did a morning boat cruise so thought we'd change it up a bit this time and opt for the sunset cruise and boy were we in for a treat. The water level was considerably lower this time of year which made it easier for the animals to cross the river onto the green plains on the other side. And there were animals as far as the eye could see. From gigantic elephants, strolling through the water, to massive hippos charging at our boat if we got to close to docile buffalo and waterbuck grazing on the shore. The crocs were out and about as well, some gliding through the water, others basking in the sun on the banks. We even had the opportunity to witness a large elephant come down to the river bank, splash himself and then charge into the water and make his way across to the much greener grass on the small islands that litter the channel.
There was an abundance of birdlife as well and we were privy to seeing the rare and not so common African Skimmer bird, which is only found in the Chobe region and they nest on a small piece of land that peeps out from the river. Amazing and colourful birds they are. A short while later we came across a large elephant that had made its way across the river and was neck-deep in the water, munching on some delicious reeds in the water next to him. We got quite close and managed to take a few photos before he pulled himself up onto the small island. As we moved off he raised his trunk as if to wave goodbye.
Zebra littered the plains today as well and Furimbi told us that there were so many because of the annual migration of zebra up north to Chobe from the dry pans in the south. We saw herds of red lechwe, the indigenous puku antelope and more buffalo. All these animals make their way across the river to the greener pastures during the day and then head back inland as the sun goes down. We mentioned to Furimbi how we were disappointed not to have seen any lions the previous day on our self-drive through the park. He mentioned that there was another big cat in the area, the leopard, and that a mother leopard and her cub had actually made a kill earlier that morning somewhere along the river bank, but none of the morning safari vehicles had seen them. The guide from a passing boat waved us down and told us that apparently a leopard and her cub had been spotted on the river bank not too far from where we were a few minutes ago. Interest was immediately peaked and soon about 12 boats of different sizes had all converged in one section of the river, all facing the river bank where apparently the leopards had been seen. Could this be our first ever leopard sighting? Binoculars and cameras at the ready, we all scoured the banks, hoping to catch a glimpse of an ear, a paw, a spot...anything. There was a small ridge between us (all the boats) and the actual river bank so it was possible that the leopards were behind the ridge, drinking from the river. We waited, eyes scanning the banks, still nothing. I put my camera to my eye, zoomed in as much I could with my camera lens and all of a sudden, from the behind the ridge sure enough out strolled a magnificent mother leopard with her small cub following behind!
Excitement was in the air as everyone was now seeing the leopards and "ooh's" and "aaah's" and "wow's" were heard all around. The leopards strolled along the river bank for a few metres. Then stopped, looked towards us, paused for a bit and then strolled along a bit more. They had eaten nicely from the kill that morning, had quenched their thirst and were in no hurry to dash off, as shy and mysterious as they normally are. After a while they lay down, resting, playing with each other and giving us an experience that will not soon be forgotten! About 15 minutes later, they got up and lazily moved off into the bush, probably going back to the remains of their kill for an early dinner.
With the excitement of the leopard sighting still lingering, we made our way back to the main channel on our way back to Kasane. It was just before 18h and it was the magical hour where the sun was a marvelous glowing red and the grassy plains seemed like they were on fire. The elephants were still hanging around as were the buffalo, finishing off their meals for the day. A few more pods of hippos passed us by and a fish eagle soared elegantly overhead, bidding us farewell as the sun set over the mighty Chobe river.
We thanked Furimbi for a spectacular cruise and as we disembarked from the boat at the marina another hippo showed his head briefly and disappeared into the waters below. We made our way back to Senyati and stopped at the new Puma filling station to fill up our tank for the road back the following morning. As we arrived back at camp, our friends the elephants were bathing in the watering hole as per usual. We made a pasta dinner and enjoyed a glass of wine while the elephants slowly moved off. We packed up most our things that evening as we planned on leaving early the next morning to get back to Gaborone before dark. It was rather late and the camp was silent so Dina and I took a stroll to the bar/deck area which has an upstairs section that looks down onto the water hole. We sat there in the peace and tranquil night, watching two elephants, umm, "flirting" in the water for a bit, followed by a small herd of wildebeest that came for a drink and we could hear the nearby howls of hyenas echoing in the night.
We were up early the next morning, on the final day of our elephant and leopard filled Kasane trip. We packed the RAV as we sipped our coffees and by 06:30 we were on our way back, regretfully, to civilization. The road to Nata was rather uneventful except for a few elephants standing by the roadside watching us as we drove past. Once we passed Nata and got closer to Francistown the post-holiday traffic madness got worse and worse. Progress was slow and frustrating and only got worse as we made our way from Palapye to Mahalapye. We were still in good spirits though from the relaxing past few days and all the amazing wildlife we had seen. We reached Gaborone just after 18:00, dropped off a tired but clearly amazed father at his place and came back home to unpack and retell the highlights of this short but amazing trip.
Senyati Safari Camp is a great place to stay at if you're visiting Kasane. It's not in the middle of things, which in most cases is exactly what you want. There are chalets and camping options, a great bar (with free wifi), the amazing photo bunker and of course the always impressive water hole with elephants visiting every evening. We'll post an accommodation-review about Senyati on our blog soon with more photos. Check out their website for more info on pricing and how to book.
Getting to Kasane in a RAV4 or pretty much any vehicle (car, truck, bus, motorbike) is easy enough, but if you want to experience the majesty yourself of the Chobe National Park you do need to have a capable 4x4 and Tawana Self Drive's "Safari Pack" is the perfect option. We made the reservation a couple of weeks in advance via very responsive emails, paid the deposit on the spot, signed one form and that was it. We had the very capable Toyota Prado with all the mentioned additional gear and a half-tank of fuel (which is more than enough for our day-trip...but you can rent it out for more than just a day if you like) and were able to explore any path we chose in the park without worrying if we'd get stuck or what to do if we did (hence the satellite phone). Contact Vincent or Julie at Tawana Self Drive for a day self-drive like we did, or even hire out a fully-equipped Prado or Land Cruiser and go deep into the Chobe all the way to Maun if you so wish. Visit their website for more info.
RBOF Trip Videos
Here are a few videos we shot during this trip. For all the videos from this trip visit our YouTube channel.
RBOF Trip Photos
Below is a gallery of photos from this trip. Please feel free to share any of our shots, but also please do give credit where credit is due. :)
"We are a Botswana-based family of 3, with a passion for going out into nature and the bush any chance we get!"