The Beauty of Savuti
In October, the land crackles like old paint, and the rising desert air ungulates like petrol vapor. There has not been rain for months, and the temperatures reach into the mid-forties, evaporating all the water in the region. The famous Savuti marsh has become a savannah of crisp golden straw, hosting crowds of cicadas whose shrill whistle serves as a bush kettle, signaling the air is boiling.
The mopane bushes are leaf-less skeletons, hibernating until the rains come again. There are almost no trees besides a speckling of camel thorns and occasional baobab, each one with a giant elephant or small herd of impala sheltered in its shadow. Water is the only resource more sought after than shade.
Savuti used to be a great lake, which dried-up, and is now an endless land of white mopane sands. They bake in the sun, burning big cat paws, and allowing the hooved grazers time to roam, while the lions pant out the day on their bellies in the shade. The deep white sands suck car tyres down into their grip, cementing them in their tracks. Self-driving in Savuti is an extreme sun baked adventure.
The Sand Shackles of Savuti
Two hours before sunset, while searching for wildlife on the west side of Sable Hill, we got bogged in the infamous deep sand dunes at the base of its oxidized rock faces. It was such a helpless feeling listening to the grown of the low gears as we slowly lost speed, and sunk deep into a dune. As we dug sand from the wheels, more would waterfall in from higher on the dune, making it hard to fit sand ladders under the wheels even with the high-lift jack.
We took turns digging, and standing guard for marauding lions until darkness descended. We were both sweaty, bleeding and exhausted. Sara held a high-powered flashlight extended above her head as high as her hands could reach, flashing SOS into the darkness, like a lighthouse in the bush. However, Sable Hill stood between us and the only nearby driving tracks, and there are no other vehicles braving the sands in the darkness.
Resigned to our sandy shackles, we started preparing to pass the night alone in the bush. Then, in the distance, we heard the low drone of a Land Rover, and then saw headlights on the horizon, and finally heard the static of a radio. Cam, a National Geographic videographer, had seen our distress signal and come to rescue us, helping us dig, rig, sand ladder and high-lift jack our way away from the clutches of Sable Hill.
Arriving back to camp, we made a fire, and grilled sausages over the embers, washing granules of fine sand dust out of every pore. We sipped Cape Mountain Whiskey, watching smoke shoot straight into the air, like a puppet string controlling the wandering flames on the windless night. Hyenas cackled, lions whooped, and elephants trumpeted at the nearby watering hole. We were glad to be back in the relative safety of camp.
Savuti’s Watering Hole of Life
In the morning, we bandaged our hands, and gave a curious audience of dwarf mongoose, francolins, and ground squirrels their first lesson in bush yoga, as we stretched out our aching muscles. Tentative to get bogged in the sand again, yet anxious to see the sources of the nocturnal sounds, we pushed back out from camp to discover one of the most magical watering holes either of us had ever encountered. Pump Pan seemed to be the last place in the region that still had water, and all animal’s survival depended on them successfully accessing it.
On the first day, the elephants dominated it, emerging from the bush in an excitedly expectant trot, like children chasing an ice cream truck. They waived their trunks back and forth in playful celebration as the smell of water wafted up them. Nearing the watering hole, big dominant ones would barge in, while others had to slow and work out the politics of their social ranking before joining the wallow.
However, the Savuti sun seems to descend into the eyes of the lions, setting them aflame with devious focus. They emerge from the surrounding shadows to set ambushes in the dark. Even the elephants seem weary. In fact, Savuti is famous for a pride of lions that hunts elephants. An extremely rare feat, even for these king cats.
While the watering hole is the last hope for life in the area, it is also the surest place tobe eaten alive by lions. The battle for its control, fluctuates between elephants and lions depending on the height of the sun and the number of either species at the hole. Neither species is willing to commit enough energy to dominate it, while both realize their survival depends on maintaining their access. It is a ballet of strategic aggression.
That night a pride of lions ambushed a buffalo at the watering hole, slaughtering it as it tried to flee into the bush. The pride devoured what they could, and then set-up in the bushes around the watering hole to guard their prize. An animal that size takes days to eat. The elephants objected, lowering their heads, and charging the lions, who would pounce away just in front of their tusks, unwilling to give up their territory, and unable to fight such mammoth animals.
Hungry jackals and hyenas waited at the edge of the pan for opportunities created by the chaos, to run in and grab a piece of buffalo. If caught, they would be killed immediately by the lions, but everything must take risks to survive in Savuti during the dry season.
Savuti Sticks in your Soul
It was quite a sight to watch elephants and lions spar, like gladiators in the last remaining ring of life. Savuti is a wild place on the edge of existence, where the only thing that dominates the land is the penetrating heat. A heat that forces all life to struggle, whether it is just driving through, or simply trying to get a drink of water.
However, that struggle is both a great adventure, and a wild spectacle for those willing the bake a bit in the Savuti sun. If you do venture forth, be prepared for a little of Savuti to stick in your soul. It is one of the most special wild places in the world.
Author’s Note: Savuti is in the western sector of Chobe National Park 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 Savuti Campgrounds, which is the only option for camping in the area, and is fine.
This article is part of a series of articles on Northern Botswana. You may also enjoy: