There was a time when we wished for solitary Christmases when we had to take our holidays over Christmas and we chose to be away in remote places. But of course this year, a solitary Christmas is thrust upon us. Not having a choice is a different matter, and for many of us it is distressing or at the very least disappointing not to be with family and friends over the festive season.
So for this post, I remember one of our many Christmas trips away when my husband and I chose solitude. This trip was over the last Christmas of the last century – the last of the millennium – Christmas 1999. Remember how epoch-ending we then thought that might be with serious concerns about Y2K, also known as the millennium bug? Well fortunately the potential computer software problems were largely resolved in time, unlike the tragically escalating surge in infections in the current coronavirus pandemic, which is likely to continue into the New Year ahead.
Beautiful flowstone in the dolerite Gcwihaba (Drotsky’s) Caves in Botswana
The first place we visited on our trip in 1999 was to see the remote Gcwihaba (Drotsky’s) Caves (or caverns) in north-western Botswana. The header photo is taken from the top of the rocky outcrop overlaying the underground caves. The distant view is out towards the border with Namibia, with our campsite in the foreground. For the duration of our three-day stay, my husband and I saw nobody else. To get there, following directions in our guide book, we drove along sandy tracks without signposts (no GPS in those days) and when we finally got there we picked a random spot to camp near one of the two entrances to the complex cave system. There was no water provision or any other campsite facility. What was on offer included splendid isolation, interesting birds and creatures such as barking geckoes calling at dusk, and of course the caves themselves.
The undomesticated caves provide shelter to three species of bats. Thousands of bats roost in the underground caves, especially noticeable in a large central cavern referred to as the great chamber where the ammonia smell of the bat guano we found to be almost overpowering. In the caves there were no lights, no signposts and no pathways. Our guidebook had a rudimentary map of the cave system and on the surface we were able to locate the two entrances.
We took with us a large coil of nylon string wound onto a reel that we uncoiled as we went (we retrieved it the next day) so that if necessary we could find our way out by retracing our steps guided by the string. In places the caves broke through into two horizontal levels, which could be confusing especially when the only available light was from the torches we carried with us, and as the air soon became clouded by fine powdery sand that flew up in soft clouds as we walked, with the sand too soft and drifting for us to leave discernible footprints.
An upside-down forest of massive stalactites that are attached to the roof of the cavern but do not reach to the sandy ground. In the pitch dark, my husband shone a torch on a stalactite so I could find a focus before taking this photo using a flash
The formations of the stalagmites, stalactites and flowstones are awe inspiring to put it mildly. In one section of the caverns known as the pit we had to climb up to another level – using a rope we had brought with us – and in some low tunnels we had to crawl on our knees. We managed to find our way through the interconnected tunnels, passages and caverns and exited at the second entrance – a distance of well over a kilometre.
On a subsequent visit to the caves two years later, once again we were the only visitors. Being our second visit we were perhaps a little complacent, and when we were deep in the caves we somehow got disorientated and found ourselves walking in a circle, but perhaps that is a story for another time! Obviously, I am here to tell the tale. I gather that these days there is a gate to the area where entrance and camping fees are collected, and entry to the caves is permitted only if accompanied by a guide.
Crossing the almost legendary Third Bridge, built entirely out of logs, that crosses one of the water channels on the fringes of the Okavango Delta in Moremi Game Reserve. The tall vertical poles along the sides provide markers for drivers when the bridge itself is underwater
After leaving the Gcwihaba Caves we headed east and north and travelled via Maun to the Moremi Game Reserve to camp at the Third Bridge campsite. It was far less busy in 1999 than in more recent times, and in those days there was not even an ablution block as there is now. The area has abundant game and it is a glorious place to be – even spending time at the campsite near the bridge is a wonderful experience. Swimming in the clear water at the bridge is not recommended because of the likely presence of crocodiles.
All the photos in this post I scanned from prints taken by the SLR cameras we had back in the pre-digital-camera era, so the quality reflects this rather unsatisfactory process. The photos were taken by either by me or by my husband.
I snapped a photo of a tree squirrel alarm calling from a tree at our campsite. We were not sure if it was our presence or something else that was the cause of the alarm
A red lechwe ram resting slightly apart from the rest of a small herd out on a plane near the Third Bridge campsite. Lechwe are adapted to living in wetlands and can be found in marshy areas in Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe
A handsome wild dog, part of a pack we saw near the camp
One late afternoon as dusk approached we saw a pack of wild dogs greeting and energising each other in a pre-hunt ritual as excitement mounted. This excitement went on for quite some time before they started to move off, suddenly organised and determined, with only a few dogs momentarily distracted by an old dry buffalo skull that someone had placed atop a painted concrete road sign.
Three wild dogs distracted by an old buffalo skull as the pack moves off on a hunt
The next day we travelled east along the edge of the Okavango Delta from Third Bridge to the Xakanaxa campsite, seeing much game on the way. December and January can be very wet making travelling on the muddy and sometimes flooded roads a challenge.
The road through the mopane forest was inundated in some sections
Dips in the road where water accumulates may be deep and sometimes long stretches of road are flooded. Such flooded sections of road can be treacherous particularly if churned up by previous vehicles that got stuck in the mud. Deep ruts from the wheels of previous vehicles, especially those of large overlander trucks, can also be a problem although the tracks of recent vehicles may provide guidance as to the best route through, not that we saw much traffic on this trip. When doubtful about a safe crossing its best to take off one’s shoes and walk through the pool in the road, checking the depth of the water and for unseen hazards. My husband is always the one who ‘volunteers’ to do this task!
This standing water flooded a long stretch of road. As can be seen, previous vehicles had made muddy tracks through the grass on the right so as to avoid the water – such impromptu detours around flooded areas are fairly common – a destructive but necessary practice I suppose
On route we saw a small group of giraffes, including these two youngsters standing side by side. Twins are rare in giraffes, so these are likely age mates from different mothers
On a game drive while we were staying at Xakanaxa camp, we came across this beautiful blonde-maned lion resting alongside the road
From Xakanaka we continued more or less east to North Gate camp that is on the banks of the Khwai river. Not far from the camp is a large hippo pool with a resident group of hippos, and an elevated bird hide from where water birds can be viewed.
A group of Egyptian geese, among the many water birds to be seen at Moremi
The road passed near to the shore where these two hippos were partially out of the water. After waiting a while they didn’t budge, so my husband drove slowly and steadily past and I took this photograph from the window of the moving car. They seemed rather relieved that we didn’t stop!
From North Gate we turned north towards Savuti and crossed a formidable sand ridge that is best travelled early while the sand is still cool and offers some traction. The road traverses really deep sand that can be tricky to drive through when the sand is hot and dry and churned up by other vehicles. The sand ridge was once the shoreline of an ancient inland sea.
The Savuti channel and the wide open marshlands are legendary and magical. Back in 1999 tourists were not as numerous as in more recent pre-pandemic times and it was a place where one could find solitude, besides the many animals attracted there during the months of the wet season. At the edge of the Savuti plains are several rocky outcrops known as the Gubatsaa Hills, which were formed by volcanic activity many millions of years ago. These outcrops were once islands in the ancient inland sea.
A cliff face of one of the Gubatsaa Hills in Savuti, showing erosion from the waves and tides of the ancient sea
Savuti is famous for the many animals that flock to its flood plains when the seasons are favourable, and it is particularly famous for its elephants. Here two apparently well-matched young elephants joust with each other in a test of strength
Silhouettes of camelthorn trees against a sky with the sun low on the horizon are something of a cliché, but still a very satisfying sight to see. This photo was taken on Christmas Day 1999
Also iconic of course is a portrait of a maned lion. This photo was taken of a rather damp lion in the foggy air after a late afternoon storm
Also a bit damp after the storm were this pair of mating lions, taking a break and lying down companionably next to the road
I end this remembrance of our Christmas trip at the end of the last millennium by wishing readers peace and a sense of respite over this festive season and happiness to those celebrating Christmas whether with family and friends or in isolation. My husband and I will be at home and will share a socially distanced outdoor meal with a friend who lives in our garden cabin. Like many, many others we will be communicating with family and friends only virtually.
The final photo, taken in Moremi, is of flowers of the Bauhinia petersiana – suitably decorative for Christmas and the festive season.
Posted by Carol