Magotho madness!

After we’d departed from the Moremi Game Reserve itself, leaving through the northern Khwai Gate, we expected to be very near to our next campsite: Magotho. This site (like Kaziikini, where we’d stayed the night before) is operated by a local community, in this case the Khwai Development Trust. We’d reserved through a website, since there are no reception (or any other facilities!) on site. We had however been promised the opportunity to camp between magnificent trees and equally magnificent animals. Although the site is outside the borders of the Moremi Reserve, there are no fences or gates and animals can come and go as they please. Which they do.

The online reservation and payment (not cheap!) had worked perfectly. What worked less perfectly, however, was finding the place. It as supposed to be just off the main road towards Savuti after leaving Khwai Gate, but it’s not signposted at all. So, after driving back and forth along the main road a few times, we selected a side road that appeared to go in the right direction. It did, but quickly deteriorated from a dirt road into a dirt track and was eventually crossed by many other sandy tracks. This tends to provide more decision points than you really need when you are trying to find a campsite while the sun is setting… We were somewhat guided by the “maps” that we’d downloaded, but were worried by the complete absence of any signboards. Anything that said “Magotho” or “campsite” or “Khwai Development Trust” or any combination of these words, would have been very useful.

Anyway, as we worked our way through the network of tracks, back down to the river valley, we spotted a large, luxurious tented camp. This was very clearly not our intended destination: Uniformed staff members had already erected large tents and were busy building campfires and setting tables with white linen and wine glasses, obviously waiting for jeeps full of camera-wielding tourists to arrive after a hard day on safari in Africa. We did stop to ask for directions to the Magotho campsite, and the vague response was that it was nearby, just a few hundreds of metres further. So we drove onwards, between lots of trees and broken branches that clearly indicated the recent destructive activities of elephants. Circling through the bush, we passed a huge plastic water tank lying on its side, and an uncompleted ablution block. They were obviously made for each other, but the marriage had not yet been consummated. No sign of any campsite.

Eventually we located a couple of South African registered camper vans, containing two Australian couples. Asked them for directions and they were as much in the dark as we were, but collectively we assumed that we must have arrived at the “campsite”. We drove further on, to a very scenic spot under trees and between bushes, but there were quite a few elephants walking around, so we decided not to risk camping there. We returned to the two campervans, where a tiny battered metal sign exclaiming “8”, attached to one of the branches on the ground, seemed to confirm that this was campsite 8 in Magotho.

The Australians mentioned that they had had lots of elephant visitors during the day and the previous night, they didn’t recommend that we pitch our ground tent (or that anybody should sleep in it, anyway). However, being hardy types (cough, cough) and not to be put off by some Aussies, however friendly they might be, we pitched that tent anyway. There’s safety in numbers, they say, so it was agreed that we could camp in the same area and that we would also keep a fire going all night, to ward off wild animals… The staff at the large, more luxurious campsite that we could see in the distance, had lit a number of fires around their tent collection, to do exactly that.

We erected the ground tent strategically between two large bushes and very close to the Prado, hoping that even a short-sighted elephant would not walk over all this by accident. And then, with the sun rapidly setting, and with the crashing sounds of elephants dining in the distance, we set about making a fire and our own dinner. The Aussies did the same at their own fire. I think we had already depleted our stock of wine (and they had not) so they needed to conserve their stock and kept to themselves.

Headlamps were very useful during the trip, for instance if you want to see the photographer.
Nothing beats the sight and smell of boerewors over a fire in the bush

After a basic but delicious meal, we settled down by the fire for the usual night-time discussions about deep, meaningful issues and other nonsense. All the while thinking about those nearby elephants… As we retired to bed, Marina and I in the rooftop tent, W and A in the ground tent, we placed one of our camping lights on the table behind that tent, just to make the tent even more visible to abovementioned short-sighted elephants.

After we’d settled down and stopped talking, the crashing sounds of nearby elephants damaging the trees were even more worrying. I struggled to sleep and regularly sat up to look through the gauze windows towards the origin of all the noise. (From my lofty position on top of the Prado, I had assumed the role of unofficial lookout. W and A were our guests on this trip and it would not be good form to let an elephant trample them in their tent while we were asleep!) Sure enough, one elephant bull strolled by, probably about 10 metres away, completely ignoring us, walked straight up to one tree and started bashing his head against the trunk. This was surprising behaviour, to say the least! Anyway, it turns out that they do this to dislodge seed pods from the trees, which they then pick up from the ground and eat. They don’t mind sand in their food, apparently.

Elephant bull just passing through on his way to bash a tree.

Soon after, another elephant passed through. With all that tree-bashing going on so nearby, I was struggling to sleep and kept looking out through the windows of our tent. Somewhere around midnight, I heard W exit the ground tent, clearly looking around for a safe place to water a tree, as one tends to do at night. Presumably he was trying to locate an elephant-free area. For some reason, I just looked out the other side of our rooftop tent, to the other side of our Prado, and saw two huge hyenas that were just strolling into our camp, towards one of the campfires, some 3 metres away! W, probably still thinking about ablutions and elephant-avoidance techniques, was on the other side of our vehicle and couldn’t see them. I was feeling helpful and urgently said “W.., get in the car!” He immediately repeated the same instruction to A, who was somehow prepared and the two were both inside the Prado within about 2 seconds.

The two hyenas had not even noticed all this happening just a few metres away, or perhaps they just didn’t care. They walked right up to the glowing coals of the campfire. They clearly hadn’t read that book about animals being afraid of fire, since they stuck their noses right into the coals, probably smelling some residue of whatever an Aussie had been barbequeing there. (No, Aussies don’t braai, they barbeque.) Disappointed by the lack of nourishment between the coals, they turned around and slowly wandered off again, not even disturbed when W switched on the headlights to see them better.

The hyenas did not at all resemble the version seen in The Lion King
Conditions were not ideal to take photographs, but our two visitors were the same as this Spotted Hyena

For some reason, W and A then decided to spend the rest of the night in the car, the need for watering a tree forgotten. I suspect that, after visits by elephants and hyenas, they were probably not keen to find out if Magotho had more to offer, while sleeping on the ground in a tent…

The next morning, as the sun rose red between the trees, we all stumbled out of bed (and car) with plans for tooth-brushing and so on. In various directions we could still see and hear elephants and wondered what else was still out there. So we very carefully ventured out in pairs with our little shovel, to find somewhat secluded (but not too far!) spots behind a fallen tree. One needs to balance the desire for privacy with the need for safety. We also had to ensure that we chose spots that had not been used by the others, for the same purpose.

Sunrise over Magotho. The impact of frequent visits by elephants clearly visible.

After the usual quick breakfast, it was time to head out in the direction of Savuti and Chobe. More about all that in the next post!

3 thoughts on “Magotho madness!

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