What better way to end off a very busy work year and to get some much needed rest & relaxation than to go camping in northern Botswana for about a week? Well, it would seem we had angered the Camping Gods in 2018 and they were not having any of this “R&R” nonsense. It was going to be one of “THOSE” kind of trips and we had no idea what was coming!
We hit the road to Kasane, or rather Senyati Safari Camp, at about 6am heading along the A1 a week into January. We had hoped that some of the Christmas Holiday rush of tourists and other campers would have subsided a bit by now so we could avoid the traffic. The road to the north was generally uneventful but we did have a few encounters with thunder storms along the way. The road coming into Nata (from Francistown) is under construction so we had to drive through some muddy detours as we were entering the small town. Elephants watched us drive by on the road nearing Pandamatenga and then onto Kasane. They are a sight to behold as they tower next to the road and make passing trucks look like toys. A few even crossed the road in front of us as we neared our first camp of the trip.
Located in the Lesoma Valley about 19km before Kasane in the northern region of Botswana is the quirky but amazing Senyati Safari Camp. We had already been here before when we took my dad on his first “Botswana Roadtrip” a couple of years ago. Back then we stayed in a cosy 4-bed chalet, but this time we had our Eezi-Awn rooftop tent and we were camping for one night. The campsites were relatively full, but everyone kept (mostly) quiet and as the late afternoon sun slowly crept down toward the horizon we had our tent set up, had one fire going in the fire pit and another in the barbeque stand and drinks in our hands. Let the rest and relaxation begin!
Day two began with the warm sun peering into our tent and waking us. We had our coffee, some snacks for breakfast, bought firewood and ice at the Senyati reception/shop and made our way out of the valley and on to Kasane. The plan was to stock up on some drinks and food items for our three-night camping at Ihaha campsite in the Chobe National Park. We reached Sedudu gate (the one closest to Kasane) by 13h and after showing our camp booking (which we made a few weeks prior, through Kwalete Safaris) we paid the park entry fee and were inside the park and making our way down to the riverside track.
The section of the Chobe river that you follow once you enter the Chobe park never disappoints us with it’s sheer quantity of wildlife walking along its shores, drinking its water or splashing in the mud pools it creates on higher ground. We were greeted by elephants nearly 100 strong, within the first 30 minutes. They lined the river bank in groups, each herd moving one way or the other. We couldn’t follow the track that is right on the shoreline as there were elephants all over the track and the upper bank of the river. So we took the high road which was surrounded by green bushes and trees. Even along this track, elephants could be seen nearby on both sides of the track. Some are lazily eating leaves off of the lush, green trees while others are making their way down (from left to right) to the river for a drink, so you do have to be careful when driving along this road not to scare or anger any crossing elephants. We nearly ran into one as we were driving along and looking to the right side where the river flowed. At one point Dina glanced to the left and let out a short scream as we drove past a large elephant who was dangerously close to the edge of the track and whose large black eye stared straight at Dina’s horrified eye.
We stopped trying to count the elephants after we reached 150 of them and slowly drove a little inland, away from the river as we made our way through some water puddles onto Ihaha campsite. We reached the Ihaha gate at around 16h in the afternoon. Another camper was also at the gate waiting to enter as the reception was empty. We chatted for a bit with the Finnish solo traveller who was exploring southern Africa in his rented 4x4. Shortly after, the camp manager came back from his regular checks around the campsites and signed us in. After the paperwork was done we drove into Ihaha, past the first (of two) ablution blocks and into our campsite, number 9. It’s a spacious site with a large tree providing decent shade, a fire pit, a barbecue stand, dustbin and most importantly, a great view of the river about 15 meters away.
We spent the rest of the late afternoon setting up camp - deciding where to park the car (and thus setting up our tent) took the better part of half an hour! We didn’t know it yet, but that parking decision was one of the luckiest we had ever made. As evening fell, we had the fire going, sipping our cold drinks with our Finnish neighbour and listening to the sounds of the African bush as they slowly engulfed us. Our first morning in Ihaha was a mixture of relaxation and annoyance. We woke to the sight of impala grazing around our campsite. We watched them from our tent as the river flowed below and the sun rose above the Chobe. Once we got out of the tent though it was a different story because we were immediately and constantly being bombarded by the flies that hung around the campsites in their hundreds! We threw some wood on the fire to get a bit of smoke rising to deter the flies as much as possible, which did help a little. What helped more was just to ignore them, as much as possible. We spent the entire day in camp, soaking up the sun, reading in the shade of our large (and fateful) tree and gazebo and peering through our binoculars at the animals that could be seen grazing on the plains across the river.
As the sun slowly made it’s way across the sky in the afternoon, suspicious-looking clouds were starting to gather from the west. We had ‘survived’ a thunderstorm in the Khutse Game Reserve a few months before in our roof top tent, so we had no reason to think this storm would be ‘unsurvivable’, but of course we were wrong.
By around 18h, the sun was obscured by clouds and the rain slowly started to descend on the Chobe National Park. As its intensity increased we packed up most of our gear and huddled in the front seat of our Land Cruiser Prado to wait out the storm - and what a storm it was! The rain fell in bucketloads and the wind blew with such vigour and anger that our poor gazebo (which we had to tied to the large tree in camp so that we wouldn’t need to chase it along the Chobe river) was eventually bent out of shape completely and was left a mangled mess once the rain subsided.
An hour later, the remains of the setting sun peaked through some of the clouds and the rain and wind moved on to cause havoc elsewhere, leaving us to inspect the damage done. Our gazebo was officially ruined and what’s worse our old-timer roof tent was soaked from the rain as were our sleeping bags, pillows and mattress. Forgetting to close the side windows before the storm hit was a mistake I’ll never make again, but regardless of that the tent fabric was just too old and was absorbing more water than it repelled, so the inner sides of the tent were soaking wet as well. We’d have to sleep in the car that night, which unknown to us at the time was a very, VERY silver lining on what could have been a very dark cloud.
We got the fire going as darkness fell and while I rearranged the interior of the Prado to make space for our seats to fold down so we could sleep inside the vehicle, Dina was busy spreading out our sleeping bags over our camp chairs next to the fire to dry off before bedtime.
We spent that evening, our Orthodox-Christian Christmas Eve, sitting by the fire, drying off our sleeping bags and pillows and wondering if our tent would dry out the next day. As we ate our dinner, a large silhouette appeared from behind the large tree, about 15 metres away, between our campsite and the river. “LION!” Dina whispered loudly and jumped out of her chair, dashing to the car, leaving me to fend off the wild cat by myself! I stood up, flicked on my flashlight and pointed it towards the silhouette and was relieved to see it was “just” a huge hyena that was curiously watching us. It turned away and disappeared into the shadows as we nervously laughed about it.
With our sleeping bags and pillows dry, albeit smelling of smoke, we packed up for the night and tried to get comfy in the car to get some sleep. We dozed off to the sounds of some hyenas cackling very nearby. At about 00:15 an ear-piercingly loud crack sent shockwaves through Ihaha and we were literally shaken awake as our whole car violently jumped up and down a couple of times! We both lurched up in the pitch black, hearts beating, not being able to see a single thing through the darkness. I grabbed Dina’s hand and we sat in silence for a moment, wondering what happened, had an elephant attacked us, did something ram our car!?
As the car stopped shaking, we couldn’t hear anything else outside and stillness came back to our camp. I grabbed my head-light and slowly tried opening the door to get out and see what happened. Whatever happened had caused the bottom half of our 2-part metal ladder from our roof tent to come loose and jam itself up against the door, so I had to forcefully push the door open to get out of the car. As I crept outside into the cool, crisp night air I glanced around with my flashlight and couldn’t believe the sight. The massive tree that provided such great shade at campsite #9 had split and the largest branch had fallen on top of us, damaging the roof tent, denting the bonnet of the car, dislodging one of the side mirrors and had actually lifted the car slightly off the ground as it fell.
We turned on our lights, took a step back and gasped as we saw the scary size of the branch (or rather half a tree) that fell on top of our car in the middle of the night! Had we parked the car (and setup the tent) a couple of meters closer to the tree, we would have been crushed by the tree and our car would have been much more seriously damaged. More of the silver lining was the rainstorm that had soaked our tent, thus forcing us to sleep inside the car. As we stared at the “crash sight”, we saw the headlights of the nightly police patrol driving around the camp* and erratically flashed them with our lights to come our way. As the police Land Cruiser pulled up into our campsite, two uniformed officers came out with their rifles. They saw the fallen tree and immediately asked “Was this caused by an elephant?!” We chuckled nervously and told them it was no elephant that had caused this but that half the tree had broken off and had fallen on our tent and car!
* The police patrols Ihaha campsite due to Namibian thieves crossing the river to steal items left unguarded in the campsites.
The officers couldn’t believe what had happened and told us they had heard the crack and were driving around looking for the elephants they suspected were damaging trees in camp. Apparently a leopard had crossed their path mere seconds after the crack near to our camp. We joked that perhaps the leopard had been watching us and stepped on a weak branch, causing the whole tree to split! Together with the officers we assessed the minor damage done to the vehicle (dented hood, damaged mirror, bent plastic lining along the driver’s door and window) and the major damage caused to our tent (bent, metal inner frame, bent window poles, damaged tent base). The officers wrote up their report and we moved our Prado a couple of meters back (as far back as we could go). Luckily our lights and windscreen were not damaged, but the fallen tree had sealed the fate of our unlucky gazebo which was now not only irreparable but also unreachable.
After making sure we were alright, the officers went back to the camp gate to find the camp manager and tell him what happened. The two of us, still in disbelief stood back and continued staring at the scene in front of us. A shot of whiskey calmed the nerves a bit as we listened to some elephants growling nearby (they do sound like angry lions at times….but the cops confirmed they were elephants), before we got back into our car to try and get a few more hours sleep before the sun and flies came out to greet us.
To be continued….
Maps & Locations of Our Campsites
"We are a young, married, Botswana-based couple with a passion for going out into nature and the bush any chance we get!"