We woke up at 4am as we had to catch a 6am flight to Johannesburg. It is amazing how quickly the kids wake up when you are going on holiday versus trying to wake them up for school! We left home at 4:45am and got to the airport in plenty of time to check in. The flight was on time and uneventful with most of us sleeping for the 2 hours to Jhb. We then had to go to international departures to check in for our flight to Maun (pronounced Ma – ung 2 syllables not 1 as we discovered). We travelled on Air Botswana and it was a prop plane (4 seats across). The plane was pretty full with what was clearly mostly tourists and the balance being a few school borders heading home for the school holidays. Our plane left at 10:10 and again the flight was uneventful. We arrived in Maun at 12:30pm. The heat immediately hit us as they opened the door (it was around 30 degrees Celsius). We then all walked from the plane to the airport building (not hard to find as it was the only building in sight!). Clearing passport control was a tedious process as they had 4 counters with only 2 open – one for residents and one for visitors. As there were only 3 or 4 residents on the plane that queue quickly dissipated. As most of the tourists were Europeans, they all remained in the ‘Visitor’ queue while the South Africans all tried their luck in the residents queue (including us). That mean we got through passport considerably quicker than most people.
There is no baggage belt at Maun airport – only a place where they simply put your luggage and you go forward and take yours and head out. Ours was waiting for us already when we got through passport control and so we were quickly out into the arrivals hall which was smaller than our lounge with about 20 tour operators all waiting for us. We were met by an &Beyond agent and were told that our next flight to Sandibe (our lodge) would depart at 1:30pm. We had to wait for 2 other groups of people so while the family waited I went to draw some Pula. No banks to be found in the airport. I discovered that there was a bank across the road though in the local strip mall (for the Americans reading this take your usual strip mall and divide by 100 and that is the size I am talking about). I did find a Standard Bank and an single ATM which did incredibly dispense some money to me.
When I got back to the family, Helen had been provided the airtickets for the next 3 flights we would do on Safair Air (paper handwritten ones which I could have done myself on some spare scrap paper if they had told me too!). We then were told to proceed through security to the domestic departure lounge. Now at this point you all have a wrong picture in your mind of what that looked like. Firstly it was a single scanner through which we scanned our luggage as well and after taking about 10 minutes for us to get through it (I am not exaggerating), Helen concluded by saying they should hire her to improve/change their system. (I don‘t think they thought anything was wrong with their system!) We were then in the departure lounge which only had about 30 chairs in it set up in school room style (all facing the same direction for those of you who have forgotten what a school room looks like). The departures hall was directly next to the arrivals – like a lounge next to the dining room (and about that size as well!). I ventured going to the toilet and there was a notice up inside saying “No water in the toilets by order of the management”!
After waiting around for about 10-15 minutes we were called – no not over a loudspeaker – in person by the pilot and his assistant – for our flight. Our luggage was loaded onto a bakkie and we had to walk. Our plane was the furthest parked from the departures hall out of any of the planes. We walked over chatting to the pilot who was from New Zealand. It was actually the biggest ‘small’ plane in Maun – about a 15-20 seater. As we were first on, we got the front few rows of seats and so Michael & I were directly behind the pilot. It was fascinating watching everything from take off to landing. After we were loaded we got the 10 second safety briefing which was “First Aid box at the back, exits front and back, fire extinguisher over there, let’s go”. Prop fired up, we taxied to the main runway and off we went. Very smooth takeoff and generally a smooth a pleasant flight and all too soon (in my opinion) we were heading down to the landing strip in the middle of nowhere it seemed to me. Great landing and with a few seconds we were off the plane and meeting our ranger for the 3 days (Speedy). We had to wait for the arrival of another plane with a couple on board. Our luggage was loaded onto one game truck and we were on the other. We couldn’t understand why they didn’t just put the luggage at our feet but we soon discovered why.
Speedy told us that it would take roughly an hour to get to the lodge. The reason is that the landing strip is the only piece of dry land large enough to hold it nearby. We set off to the lodge and Speedy told us there would be 3 water crossings we would have to do. We saw a reasonable smattering of game on route (giraffe, kudu, impala, elephant) and one new buck for us – Red Lechwe. It is found predominantly in the Okavango Delta and likes standing in the water and apparently runs very easily through the water to get away from predators. It looks very similar in size and colour to Impala. Within about 30 minutes we came to our first water crossing where we saw a Slaty Egret (endangered bird) and a Pied Kingfisher (these were some of the first of many birds for us). The water crossings are all incredibly deep. The water comes up to the bonnet of the Landcruiser and floods the driver seats and the first row of seats have to pick their feet up or they get very wet. Speedy had to open his door to let the water out when we got to the other side. We had another 2 of those to do and we navigated some of the worst roads I have ever experienced in a game park. They are wet, muddy and seriously in need of re-grading. Who needs a roller coaster when you can experience the thrill in a game park instead!
We did get to the camp safely where we were met with singing and dancing from the staff. It always amazes me how quickly they remember each of our names. Fortunately they were name badges otherwise I would be terribly embarrassed. As we hadn’t yet had lunch and it was now 3pm, we agreed to simply drop our bags in the room and be back at 3:30pm for High Tea. We did that and then headed off (after meeting our tracker -Steve) for our first game drive. There is only one road in and out of the camp so the 3 water crossings happen each time you leave and return. The game drive was enjoyable and we saw 4 of the big five (they don’t have Rhino in the Delta at the moment). We saw the leopard on the way back into camp after the sun had already set. We also finished the day with around 35 birds and about 8 lifers. As we were all exhausted we had dinner and we were in bed by 9:30pm and Helen was asleep by 9:31pm. The kids slept together in one “hut” and Helen and I in the other. At 1:30am I woke up (wide awake) thinking they had knocked with our wake up call. I checked my watch and my cellphone (no reception but I use it as an alarm clock) and they both said 1:30pm which I didn’t believe as I was sure they had knocked. I woke Helen up and she checked and it was 1:30am on her watch too. I was obviously dreaming but it took me about 30 minutes to convince myself I was!
However, it took me longer to fall asleep again thanks to the hippo splashing around right in front of our accommodation. I know at night the sounds of the bush travel far but this really was right in front of our house and the next morning when we woke up it was clear that he had exited the delta right next to our house and gone back in again that way too. In fact at about 10pm just before I went to sleep it bumped again the house and made a thudding noise probably while it was climbing out. At 2am it sounded rather scary and so it took awhile to convince myself it was safe to go to back to sleep. What didn’t help was the elephant trumpeting in camp as well (and his footprints were clearly evident on the path the next morning!). Then if you added in the heavy rain (thunderstorm actually) that happened during night it was quite an eventful first evening.