Like most tourists going on safari in Botswana, Lani and I first went to Maun, a city on the Southern edge of the Okavango Delta. Maun is the launch pad for tourists and researchers heading into the bush, and is the only place to stock up on bottled water and snacks. Sharon Safran, who works for CI's Ecotourism Department and is manager of the Gudigwa project, met us at the airport and brought us to CI's office where we met KB, who would drive us overland to the camp.
Visitors find their way to Gudigwa as part of a larger safari package offered by a tour company. Guests are typically flown or driven to different lodges to afford them the best opportunities for wildlife viewing, but visitors to Gudigwa will only arrive by air because the roads on the northeastern side of the river aren't paved. We were driving because the new airstrip at the camp hadn't been inspected yet, preventing charters from landing there.
We had the first few days of our adventure in Botswana carefully planned out, but we weren't expecting our post-Gudigwa plans to fall through. We'd arranged a charter flight from Gudigwa to Santawani, the closest airstrip to the Wild Dog Research camp.
||"We were driving because the new airstrip at the camp hadn't been inspected yet, preventing charters from landing there. "|
However, it turns out that the Santawani airfield is made of grass, which means that only private planes can land there. With no time to spare, we figured we'd return to Maun and sort it out later.
Road to Shakawe
While the road to Shakawe is paved and on occasion the posted speed limit is about 60 miles/hour, don't let that fool you. The only real advantage of a paved road is that you are guaranteed two lanes. As a rule, the locals don't pen their cattle, donkeys, or goats up, so you can't travel the speed limit if you're dodging moving obstacles. Naturally, not everyone follows this wisdom, and sadly we spotted one unfortunate cow that'd become a feast for a dozen vultures.
Enjoying the views and constantly shifting around in our seats to stay out of the sun, we made our way north until the sun set. In a matter of minutes, the cool night air rushing through the open-air vehicle was nearly too much to bear. Lani lent me a jacket, and with a little effort I curled up underneath it on my half of the bench seat. This allowed me to conserve body heat, and at the same time gaze out of the truck into the star-speckled night sky.
Two hours later, we spotted the wooden sign for Shakawe Fishing Lodge. Because it was already 9:30, we just made it for the end of dinner. With all my concentration on keeping warm, I'd forgotten that I hadn't eaten since Maun.
We stumbled into the dining hall, travel-weary and disheveled, to be greeted by Mike Chase, who exclaimed, "We were worried you weren't going to make it and we'd have to send out a search party."
A New Opportunity
We were supposed to meet with Mike, an elephant researcher with CI, to learn about his work collaring elephants, but the research team had an early wake-up call, so we were too late to talk shop. Instead we ate dinner and recounted our journey, asking Mike for advice on getting to the Wild Dog camp.
Mike offered to host us at his camp in Khwai for a night. It turned out that he had a private plane and a volunteer pilot willing to fly us to Santawani on Sunday. As an added bonus, he'd take us on a drive to see the elephants. Because this was my first trip to Africa, I was really excited to see elephants in the wild.
With our itinerary sorted out, we went to bed in our chalet by the river. After spraying myself with "Peaceful Sleep" (nighttime mosquito protection), I settled into my first night's sleep in the bush. Soon I noticed snorting and sloshing noises outside our cabin, and Lani whispered, "Jen can you hear that? It's a hippo." And with hippos snorting a lullaby in the distance, I drifted off to sleep.
On the Road Again
The next morning, we set out in our trusty Land Rover, driving through dense brush and passing homesteads scattered just off the path. Finally, we turned onto the two-lane highway, through Shakawe village, en route to the auto ferry.
Across the river, we hit the road that Sharon had described as "bumpy" which I assumed meant "under maintained" or "full of potholes." In fact, it was little more than a sandy path carved in the dirt by the occasional car. With a view of the savannah and the occasional village, we drove for several hours, rationing our water and lathering on sunscreen.
Around noon, we rolled into Saronga, a large village that is home to about 2,000 people. I think KB was anxious to continue, but we convinced him to stop at the local tourist lodge to eat. The staff seemed a little surprised by us stopping for food, but they were very gracious and served us lunch.
While dining in Saronga, I began to realize how easy tourists have it, hopping around by plane, and how little they get to see of life in Botswana. I was curious how Gudigwa would manage to balance a traditional experience, with the comforts that most tourists will expect.
There's also an obvious disparity from the luxuries tourists are afforded compared to the typical life of the Motswana (what people from Botswana are called). Because most of the lodges are owned by South Africans or western companies, it's disheartening to realize that the profits leave Botswana. It can easily cost as much to stay in a safari lodge as it does to stay in Manhattan, which is a lot of money leaking out.
The fact that the Gudigwa camp is locally owned makes staying there all the more special - money spent there, stays there. Not only are the 50 employees of the lodge from the community, but the profits from the camp all go toward funding projects in the village from healthcare to hiring a policeman.
The benefits of locally-owned enterprises are easy to appreciate, but I was anxious to learn how projects like Gudigwa contribute to conservation priorities in the Okavango Delta region.
>>Learn more the issue of locally-owned ecotourism
Welcome to Gudigwa
With lunch out of the way, we hit the road again. About two hours later we pulled into the staff entrance of the camp, where Sharon greeted us with fresh, cool bush tea served in ostrich eggshells. While we sipped our tea, Sharon gave us a tour of the staff facilities and guest accommodations, which are modeled after a traditional Bukakhwe village.
"The benefits of locally-owned enterprises are easy to appreciate, but I was anxious to learn how projects like Gudigwa contribute to conservation priorities in the Okavango Delta region."
After the tour, we grabbed a quick bucket shower before it was time to head to the dining area where we'd learn traditional living and merry-making. When we arrived, we discovered the staff preparing a dinner of skewered meats and vegetables over an open fire.
Waiting for the presentation to begin, we enjoyed a drink before an African sunset at a special viewing area overlooking a pan, or natural water basin. The hope is that lucky guests might share a sunset with an elephant, though we had to settle for the soothing sounds of chirping birds.
The cultural activities of the camp are designed to immerse guests in Bukakhwe culture. We sampled local snacks, learned to make spears, and listened to traditional stories and songs performed by the villagers, with a special appearance by the traditional healer.
The singing and dancing lasted into the night, and what was meant as a show for lodge guests transformed into quite a celebration for the staff. Everyone was dancing, and by time one woman went into a trance, intoxicated from the beating of the drums, we had a full-scale bush party that threatened to last until morning.
| Read the next dispatch from Day 3 >>