De-bugging

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Moremi Game Reserve has been on our list of “places to visit before dying” for several years. Although in 1999 we visited Botswana, we had limited time and focused on Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and then flew into the Okavango delta where we stayed at a camp known as Oddballs.

Fifteen years later in May 2014, and taking advantage of our son’s holidays, we re-visited Botswana with the main objective of seeing Moremi Game Reserve. We made an additional effort to adjust our accommodation to the itinerary of the President of Botswana, as his visit to the area coincided with ours and, for some reason (perhaps justified?) he had priority over us!

Our itinerary was:

Nxai Pan National Park, South Camp (29 – 31 May).

Moremi Game Reserve, South Gate Camp (31 May – 3 June) and Third Bridge Tented Camp (3 – 5 June). The earlier post “Tree Cheetahs” is part of this visit.

Makgadikgadi Pans National Park, Khumaga Camp (5-6 June).

As the trip was long, we included two nights at Nxai Pan. We remembered the place because of the very large baobabs known as Baines’ baobabs, found on an island in the saltpan with not much else!

Regrettably, during our trip we lost one of the camera’s memory cards so many pictures are lost to humanity!

An innovation during this trip was that the Department of Wildlife and National Parks of Botswana (the Department) has tendered the management of its camps to different private companies. While this may be good for the maintenance of the camps and other reasons important to the Department, booking and paying becomes cumbersome. In our case, we had to pay three different companies to secure our bookings! (here I will insert link to Department’s page with info on bookings)

Coming from Zimbabwe, the entrance to Nxai Pan is 65 km from Gweta. We registered at this first gate where we learnt that the President had been there in the morning and that he had left already, leaving a good impression among the staff there! After negotiating another 37 km, most of which over deep sandy tracks, you arrive at the final entrance gate. A note referring to this road on the Department’s web page puts things into perspective, so I should have been prepared:

“The sandiness of this track should not be underestimated and only 4×4 vehicles should attempt the journey, engaging 4-wheel drive before negotiating the deep sand – carrying a spade is also wise!”

Wisely we did carry a still uninitiated spade and arrived at South Camp without problems. The place was well shaded and all facilities were excellent.

When it was time to use the ablution blocks, we encountered a surprise. They were protected by a field of hundreds of cement blocks aligned at a 10 cm distance from each other. Each block ended in a 5 cm sharp iron spike. We had seen similar but simpler arrangements of concentric stones to deter elephants from damaging trees. However, this was an advanced version, almost resembling anti-personnel barriers seen in WWII pictures! As the use of showers and toilets was essential, crossing them was imperative! (pic of baobab with stones?)

Careful exploration of the barrier revealed a slightly wider gap, large enough to plant our feet toe-to-heel and make slow progress, taking care not to lose our balance. This was challenging enough during the day. At night it became a potentially mortal field where all senses needed to be focused on the task to avoid falling to what it looked like sure maiming!

We arrived at the campsite quite late and after putting our tents up (and surviving the visit to the ablution blocks) we went to the nearby water hole for a quick look. This is perhaps the focal attraction of Nxai . It is near the campsite, in the heart of a large grassy plain and dotted with umbrella thorn trees. Here, several animal species can be seen, drawn by the availability of water.

Nxai Pan’s is at its best during the rain season when a multitude of animals congregate there (including large numbers of springbok) and various species reside there permanently. Although it was the dry season, we were lucky enough to see a pride of lions made up of two adult lionesses with five cubs, together with two adult males. They were well fed and being their usual lazy selves, totally ignoring possible prey such as giraffe, zebra and greater kudu that came (in numbers) to drink.

Unknown to us, a surprise was waiting for us back at the camp. As earlier we were focused on the “spike-crossing”, we had not noticed that the camp was crawling with small stinkbugs. Although they were rather nice looking with a combination of brown and orange, crushing them released their strong and rather pungent odour. To our great consternation, there were hundreds of the smelly things!

P1090861 stinkbug cropped and small

A green relative of the campsite invaders. Their pictures were lost with the camera card.

To make matters worse, like most insects, being attracted to light is in their genome! Protecting your glass of wine, cooking pots and dinner plates from their dive-bombing became a high priority, as there was not much else to be done about their presence! Despite our efforts, some drowned or got burnt to death in our pots. Fortunately no unexpected crunchy bits were found in our food!

Unlike dinner, achieving a stinkbug-free sleep was infinitely more complicated! The first alarm was sounded by our son when he discovered that they were getting inside the tents, despite the tight zippers: “my tent is full of bugs!” he said with a touch of exaggeration and adding a few epithets that I omit for the sake of the under-aged readers.

I was very pleased in my sleeping bag -having successfully negotiated the ablution spikes at night, so I decided to weather out the bug storm. I did so by adopting the ostrich trick of burying my head deeper in the bag, trusting that my poor sense of smell would not betray me. My companions did not join me in the use of this tactic, being of different genetic make up (my wife) and having inherited a lot of that (my son).

Although I believed it to be a fruitless procedure and told them so, they proceeded to methodically review all their belongings to remove the invaders from their clothing and shoes. This required a prolonged de-bugging session that was painstakingly achieved. They then proceeded to extract all the bugs from the tent. As this was all done with the aid of light and torches, it was a near never-ending exercise as new bugs kept getting in while others were being extracted.

Eventually an equilibrium that favoured the humans was achieved, the lights were turned off and calm was restored while I tried to keep first my chuckle and then my rude remarks to myself. The calm did not last too long as I heard my son say: “Shit, I just crushed another bug!” and opening the zipper to take it out. We spent a “perfumed” night, some of us resigned and others fighting the bugs to the bitter end!

Despite the rather “bugged night”, the following morning we left early for Baines’ baobabs. They were painted in 1862 by Thomas Baines, a famous painter and explorer of the last century during his journeys through southern Africa. Today, the same scene that entranced Baines is still there, unchanged as these trees take hundreds of years to grow! Perched on the edge of the large Kudiakam pan, dry for most of the year, they preside majestically over the salty flat span surrounding them. However, if the rains are good, the place becomes an island in a large sheet of water where water lilies appear, along with abundant waterfowl life. Needless to say that the place looked the same as in 1999…

Baines' baobabs in 1999.

Baines’ baobabs in 1999.

You get to the baobabs after driving a couple of hours over sand dunes on a rather rough and undulated road that eventually delivers you to the open area of the pan where you immediately spot the clump of trees in the distance. Luckily some pictures taken with the cell phone survived and I include them in this post.

The trees are rather dark and coppery, standing quite close to each other. One of the colossi has fallen but it is still growing on its side! I must confess that I did not count them and, judging by Baines’ own account of his discovery, he was not very precise either after seeing them for the first time when he wrote:

“… five full sized trees and two or three young ones were standing, so that when in leaf their foliage must form one magnificent shade. One gigantic trunk had fallen and lay prostrate, but still losing none of its vitality, sent forth branches and leaves like the rest.”

After watching a Secretary bird in search of snakes, a rather rare sight in this latitude, the trio of “stinkbug-wise” campers returned to the camp later in the evening. After an excellent shower to rid ourselves of the dust collected during our drive, and a hearty pasta dinner to settle us down, we soon were in our tents without bothering too much about our smelly foes.

The bugs were a real nuisance while we disassembled our camp, as the beasts contrived to find their way into all the folds of our tents, empty bags, chairs and any item that offered a crevice to be filled. It took a lot of work to remove them and, despite our efforts, we carried a few fragrant reminders of Nxai Pan with us to our next destination: South Gate at Moremi Game Reserve.

 

Note: Header picture by Julio A. de Castro.

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