If you ask locals what their favorite spot in Botswana is….more often than not I bet you will hear Khwai. People have been talking this place up for so long….we’ve been counting down the days to finally get here!
The Khwai area, similar to Moremi was originally tribal land. The visionary local chief, decided to protect the area’s wildlife by creating the Khwai Community Development Trust so that the community could benefit from a game reserve and the animals could remain protected. An absolute win win situation.
The Khwai Community Campsites are situated at the convergence of the Moremi, Chobe and Savuti reserves along the Khwai River, so basically it is the most prime area for animals to congregate.
The campsites are basic, I mean really basic. They are slightly cleared patches of land which may or may not have a sign designating them as a campsite area. There is absolutely nothing else there. No ablution blocks, no information/welcome desk and of course no plugs/water/lights. A lot of people complain because the cost is quite high for the campsites considering that there are no facilities – about $40pp. There is also no discount for Botswana citizens/residents or SADC members. But you aren’t paying for accommodations – you are paying because this is the best wildlife viewing area in Botswana.
Driving in from the south, you will pass through the small village of Khwai. You must stop here at the Khwai Community Trust office to confirm your campsite. This is also where you need to buy firewood or anything else you might need – because you will find nothing on the reserve. You can also ask around for petrol because some people keep it on hand to sell to overlanders. To get to the campsites we had to cross a lot of flooded roads. One area was particularly tricky because the road turned into a large pool which kids were swimming in. Thankfully the kids showed us how to navigate through by standing in the water and directing us where to keep our wheels so we wouldn’t sink.
When we arrived at the Khwai Campsites we had no idea where to go. There was only one sign that labeled the area as the community camp but no indication of where to find the campsites. We finally found some clearings that looked like campsites but they had no signs. There was nobody else around – so we used tracks 4 africa to navigate to our campsite. When we drove around a bit more, we finally found some labelled campsites and other campers. We figured we probably camped in the wrong spot, but didn’t want to move because our campsite was awesome – right at the river’s edge and very secluded.
It took a day for anyone to come by and check on our paperwork but no one seemed to mind or mention that we were in the wrong spot. We found out later that the original campsites had flooded out the year before so all the sites were moved back away from the river. They now allow people to camp in either area. I would recommend the riverfront sites for more elephant and hippo interactions!
On our first game drive we found two male lions ….and shortly after a full load of safari trucks arrived. We hadn’t seen more than the occasional truck for a while so it was hard to accept sharing our viewing with so many people. We stayed with the lions until dusk in the hopes that they would go hunting.
The reserve’s rules say no off road driving, no spot lighting and no night driving. We strictly followed this on our first game drive so when the lions got up to hunt at night, we didn’t follow them off road or shine our spotlight on them. However, subsequently we saw ALL the safari lodge vehicles doing these things….so we decided to join in because we were really missing out.
The second morning we didn’t have much luck except for some majestic elephant viewings along the river. Driving in the Khwai reserve is confusing because there are no signs or marked trails. There are no maps and no information boards indicating where to go…so we would just blindly drive around until we reached too much water to go any further.
The nice things is that Khwai is a fairly small area so you don’t have to spend much time driving. In other parks there is so much ground to cover that we are constantly driving and maybe only have 2-3 hours of downtime a day. At Khwai we could head out at 5:30am for the morning drive and then get back to camp by 9-10 then hang out until late afternoon. We would head out at 4:30 for the sunset drive and come back around 8. It was so great to have enough time to cook a big breakfast and lunch. We have forgone elaborate meals most of the time in other parks so we could have more time for animal viewing. But at Khwai, you don’t even have to drive to find animals – they come to you! We had many visitors throughout the day!
We got really lucky to find a leopard on a kill the next morning. We definitely would not have found this siting without the help of the other safari vehicles. Most of the time guides are really nice and helpful. They appreciate that we are local and venturing out in our own vehicle. But we had a rather nasty encounter with one of the guides on this morning. Some guides have the expectation that we should always yield so they can have the best positions and best sightings for their paid guests. Well that is just not the way we operate. We are respectful and share, but if we get there first then we get there first and we aren’t going to give up our experience for a group of tourists taking pictures with ipads who have no clue about Botswana and will be gone in a few days. We have been cut off by so many other vehicles, sat back and been polite for months. We finally started to fight for our fair right to see the animals! Thankfully this is the only time a guide has ever verbally assaulted us on the trip. So disturbing when someone yells at you out of no where! Wish we could remember the name of his company!
Khwai is supposed to be a hot spot for wild dogs and they especially like to hang out around the community campsites so we were determined to find them. We set out on our final evening with 100% focus on wild dogs. We headed out towards Chobe and were searching high and low. About an hour passed and they were nowhere to be found in the open areas. Then we decided to turn into the bushy forest. Out of nowhere – a single head popped up. DOGS!!!!!!! I shouted. I could not believe it – it was as if I conjured them up myself.
Then we literally lost our minds. Garrett shouted DO NOT TAKE YOUR EYES OFF IT. I frantically grabbed for my camera. When he sped off after the dog, my eyes lost track of him. Garrett thought he saw more dogs sitting in the bushes. We rushed around and tried to catch them from the other side. We were tearing through the bush. Crunching trees and making all sorts of noise. We couldn’t find them! We frantically reversed and backed into a tree! But no time to think about that because we had to keep on following. We headed back to the site of the first spotting ….but still no sign of them. How could we have lost them!!!
Our friends from South Africa drove up and started to help look. They went off in one direction and we went in the other. We chose poorly. Our friends found the and saw them come out from the forest area and cross into the open marsh area. 20 dogs were jumping and playing around. How disappointing that we missed the show. Feeling defeated, we slowly started making our way back towards the camp, then miraculously one of the dogs ran by! Then two more. They were back and they were hunting! We had 3 cars in our group all along a ridge so we just sat and watched the show. Once they all passed, they miraculously started running back at us after an impala. I had my head sticking out the window to watch, when the impala ran straight for me and almost knocked the camera out of my hand. The wild dog wasn’t far behind in pursuit!
It was most fascinating that the dogs didn’t seem to be trying too hard. They were playfully bounding after the impala. More of a bounce than a run. Its also funny how they were running back and forth across a single area which had so many people in it. It was as if they were putting on a show just for us. I climbed up on top of the car and watched the most spectacular show.
I had never thought of riding on top of the car until our south African friends made it seem like I was really missing out. Being on top of the car was like entering a whole different world! You could see clearly for miles. It felt like the sky was your roof and everything in nature was your playground. Amazing – I loved it! I wish I had been doing this the whole time. The caveats are that it only really works well at sunset because otherwise its too hot. Also if you see something that you need to chase you don’t want to be on the roof while the car is going fast and bouncing around. When we saw a leopard I got a bit nervous because he was right next to the car and I know he could hop up to the roof effortlessly. Oh and also its illegal…..
I can’t tell you how pumped we were to have specifically set out to track the wild dogs and actually found them. This is really the first time on the trip that this actually worked.
We had such high hopes to see some predators come through the camp at Khwai. It happens pretty regularly. Just a few days before, two male lions had come through the camp at sunrise and the wild dog pack ran straight through the camp at dusk. I wanted so badly to have lions come through our camp. Every night I would keep waking up to look out…but nothing. We did have hippos, hyenas and a ton of elephants who traversed our campsite throughout the night.
The last night we decided to switch to one of the larger group camp sites out on the open plain. We thought we’d have a better chance of having game come through camp. It is a beautiful campsite so either way it was a good idea. We found two hyenas hanging out in the camp but nothing else visited us. However we had an amazing view of over 100 elephants that had filled up the plain. Who knows where they came from or where they went to but they were only there that one night.
We really loved Khwai’s wildness, the fact that you can kind of do whatever you want and that there was such a density of animals in such a small area. We didn’t like that there wasn’t anyone available on the reserve to ask questions from the community trust. They had one local guy who lived at the camp but he spoke very little English and was not knowledgeable about the area. In the evening employees would come by and check your voucher to ensure that you paid for your spot and had the correct number of people. One night no one came and another night there were two guys that were clearly drunk. So it was a bit off-putting. I think the campsites could be really improved if a simple paper map of the area was made or even just one sign with a map was put out. It can also get really overcrowded during the day with the surrounding safari camp vehicles. However, at dawn and dusk it is magical.
We will definitely be back to Khwai!