The Enchanting Character of Khwai
Khwai is a tapestry of ecosystems, each with its own enchanting character. In October, the Khwai river is reduced to a stream. It flows slowly like silver solder into a groove, giving its surface a metallic cobalt sheen in the afternoon. On its banks, majestic elephants wade through marsh, ripping reeds in slow motion with their trunks. Hippos float in river bends, and wallowed cranes, and saddle billed storks poke around the papyrus reeds for a meal.
On the flood plains around the Khwai river, rare Roan antelope, sable, and red lechwe mix with families of zebra and herds of impala. It is a grazer’s playground. Herds relax, sitting on the ground, and chasing each other around playfully, as the flat lands give them great visibility and the plentiful grass keeps them well fed.
However, moving farther away from the river, the land becomes dusty and parched. The landscape is known as adrenaline grass, as it stands waist high and is the color of lion. It is a place designed for ambush, where everything treads carefully and hopes to leave quietly.
These small savannahs are surrounded by leafless mopane bush, the shade of a kudu’s coat, which wait patiently for the rain. They are the perches of yellow-billed hornbills and lilac breasted rollers, and mazes for curious flocks of francolins.
Finally, there is the forest, still green in the heat of the dry season, with tall towering trunks, providing both sheltering shade, and shadows for ambush. It is the ideal thicket for leopard, and perch for the eagle-owl. Hyena and painted dogs make their dens around its edges, and herds of impala crowd into the protection of the trees at night. Lone elephants tromp through, cracking branches into their hungry mouths, and vervet monkeys sound alarms from the tree tops.
Elephant Tea Time in Khwai
We set-up camp in the forest of Khwai, just inside the North gate of Moremi Game Reserve. As the sun dropped between the green leaves of the feverberry trees, the camp fire crackled to life, and I placed a tea kettle to boil, when a violent snap rang through the forest.
A great Kalahari Apple Leaf tree, over 12 meters (40 feet) tall, belly flopped in front of us. Its top landed within five meters of me. It blew a cloud of dust and leaves into the air, and the sweet scent of its lavender flowers wafted through the campsite.
Awed by the force of this slow-motion spectacle, I was also stunned by the thought that I had parked the car exactly where it fell earlier that afternoon. Then we heard the classic branch breaking sounds of an elephant charge in the forest coming from all sides, and I sprinted to a tree for cover, while Sara ducked back into the car. Before the dust settled, there were three enormous elephants facing each other from three different sides of the fallen tree.
They were all attracted to the commotion of its fall, and all having had the same instinct for inspection, they seemed to be working out if they needed ward the others off their idea. As the stand-off continued, the whistle of the tea kettle sounded, but I remained safely behind my tree, unwilling to break cover.
The elephants took turns inching closer to the tree, until they were all happily munching on the newly accessible branches on the ground (check out this short video of it). Even though one was only several meters from the kettle, the foliage put them in such a visibly good mood that I managed to edge closer, and remove the kettle, quieting the screaming sound of urgency from the situation.
We were afraid they would be there all night, reducing our dinner plans to crackers in the roof tent, so I threw some dry leaves on the fire to create a blanket of smoke, which I thought might drive them off. It did not. They stayed for about half an hour, and then wandered off in different directions, leaving us full of adrenaline, and amazement.
Ridiculously Wild Khwai
Tea time resumed, but transformed into story time, as we reenacted the encounter. We spread the coals over the fire pit and perched a butterflied chicken on rocks above them. The scent of that chicken caused our next wild encounter, this time with a slinking spotted hyena.
The newly fallen tree provided the perfect cover for any animal to approach the camp undetected. From behind the fallen trunk, the hyena crept silently to within three meters of our fire before we spotted his glowing eyes and chased him back into the bush. However, he would return later for revenge.
With the density of wildlife that seemed to want to share our camp, we were glad to spend the night in the roof tent on our car. There was a super moon that night, so big and bright the trees cast shadows in the night. The air was still, allowing us to hear every little movement crackling through the bush.
First a herd of 15 impala woke us, as they nestled into a hiding place at the edge of our camp. Twice a pair of hyena circling the car startled us awake. Moving around the tent to monitor their movements through the window netting, we knocked one of my flipflops from the tent onto the ground.
A hyena pounced on it, snapped it into its jaws and darted into the shadow of a tree to start tearing it apart. Fortunately, our high-powered flashlight scared it off, but not before it swallowed a chunk of the sole.
We then slept peacefully until just before dawn when a massive swarm of bees descended on the camp to pollinate the fallen Kalahari Apple-leaf flowers. Then, comically, just when we thought our night in Khwai could not get any wilder, a series of curses and screams rang from our neighbor’s camp.
It traveled like a rooftop fire to the next campsite, and onwards in succession. Climbing down to investigate, I saw a troop of huge baboons, the size of mountain goats, raiding camps at will, with a group of vervet monkeys following behind to capitalize on the chaos.
As we ate breakfast, we laughed at the fang marks in my flip flop, and heard lions calling the pride to a kill along the river somewhere. Iridescent swirls of blue starlings fluttered around us, pecking bugs out of the dirt. We were glad to be back in the comforting light of day, but also knew that it was the wild night under the super moon in Khwai that we would remember for many moons to come.
Author’s Note: Khwai is in the north-eastern sector of Moremi Game Reserve in Botswana. Visiting it on your own, takes careful preparation and experience driving in deep sand and mud. We rented all our gear from Tawana Self-Drive for this trip, and highly recommend their services. We camped at Khwai Campgrounds in the reserve, but I would also recommend looking at the Magotho community campground just outside. It is just as wild, and while it has no facilities, you can night drive, and it is less expensive.
This article is part of a series of articles on Northern Botswana. You may also enjoy: