Sunday, April 23, 2017

Stanley's Travels in Review: Top 13 Camping Spots in Southern Africa

Thunder Bay, April 20

When you're on a long overland trip, camping out of your vehicle, at first you don't pay as much attention to where you're camping as you do to what you see during the day, but over time you start to appreciate the finer points of a campsite that make it just right.  After all, you end up spending a lot of time in and around your campsite, so it's always a bonus if it's a memorably beautiful spot with a great sunset, splendid views, a roaring campfire, a feeling of isolation and no noisy neighbours.  Looking back on Stanley's Travels, I realize that it wasn't until about halfway through the trip that we really started to appreciate some of the incredible places that we got to park Stanley.  I think that on our next loop through Africa, we will try to arrange the trip to spend as much time as possible in beautiful places in the middle of nowhere, enjoying the surroundings, eating well and having sundowners and crackling fires.

I was going to make this a top 10 list, but as I went through the preliminary list, I got to the point where I didn't want to cut out any of these great places to camp, so I made it a baker's dozen of great places to camp instead.

1.  Nsobe Camp, Bangweulu Wetlands--Zambia

In the shade of our own termite mound on the edge of the plains

Cycling through the lechwe herds

Pancakes cooking on an open fire
This inexpensive, isolated campsite was absolutely perfect for us.  After a long, tough slog along a rough track to get there, Nsobe was a wonderful refuge.  On the edge of a huge grassland plain, a number of isolated campsites are each tucked into the shade of a couple of trees growing out of the top of a giant termite mound, the only shelter for miles.  It's pitch-black at night, making for great stargazing, and the staff bring firewood and heat water for showers.  The sites are far enough apart that you're barely aware of other people, while in July, when we were there, distant grass fires make for dramatic sunsets and flickering firelight at night.  You feel as though you're alone in the middle of nowhere, with thousands of black lechwe antelope and thousands of smaller grassland birds all around.  Just 8 km away is the ranger station at Chikuni, where you set off on foot to look for rare shoebills in the papyrus swamps, while wattled and crowned cranes dot the grasslands nearby. It a wonderful place to stay, and it's hard to tear yourself away once you've arrived.

A perfect place to camp!

Smoke-enhanced sunset

2.  Wild Campsite #2, Damaraland--Namibia

Location, location, location

Hardy desert trees
We camped wild a few times in Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, but we really should have done it more often. Damaraland, the strip of semi-desert (karoo) inland from the Skeleton Coast, was perfect for just pulling off the track and finding a spot to set up for the night.  When we return for more adventures in Stanley, Damaraland will likely be the first place we head.  This particular campsite, just off a very rough 4WD track that we followed from Brandberg West to Twyfelfontein, was wonderful.  We stopped atop a small rise that gave sweeping views over the surrounding desert plains.  We were surrounded by rare prehistoric-looking welwitschia plants, and when we walked along the nearby dry riverbed we saw lots of droppings and footprints of desert-dwelling black rhinos, although we didn't spot the animals themselves.  There was a sense of complete middle-of-nowhere-ness that was exactly what we wanted.  Although we weren't that far off the track, there is only about one vehicle a day using that track, and we saw no other humans for a day and a half.  Sitting around a flickering campfire watching satellites and meteors moving across the Milky Way was an unforgettable experience.

Late afternoon light on the nearby hills

3.  Ngepi Camp, Campsite #22--Namibia

Another perfect view over the Kavango River

Great road sign
This was a place that we loved so much the first time that we came back again a second time.  The Kavango River in the Caprivi Strip of northeastern Namibia is an idyllic place to sit back and watch the river flow, maybe with a fishing line in the river or with a birdwatching guidebook in your lap. There are a lot of campsites along the river, both on the Namibian and the Botswanan side of the border, and I'm sure a lot of them are fairly similar in terms of views, isolation and beauty, but Ngepi really won a special place in our hearts.  The people that run the place are exceptionally friendly, funny and efficient, and the hilarious signs all around the camp are worth searching out.  The particular campsite that we took the second time we stayed there, #22, is the furthest from the main lodge and as a result is the quietest and most isolated.  You hear hippos grunting and splashing in the river nearby (and out on the grass at night, once you're in bed), and elephants and leopards calling from across the river in the national park.  The firepits are well-made, and the views out over the Kavango are fabulous.  The entire property is a birdwatcher's dream, with dozens of species skulking in the bush or splashing around in the river.  The campsites are pretty widely separated, particularly as you get towards #22, and the overland trucks which are the mainstay of Ngepi's business model are all housed at the other end of the camp, so that you barely notice their presence.  It was such a peaceful, beautiful, restful place that we chose it for our last destination of the trip in March, 2017. I'm sure we'll be back again in the future!

Note:  Since my camera gear had been stolen by this point, the photos here come from other sources: one from Alli's Excellent Adventures, and the other from Angel and Quail on Trail.

4.  Kapishya Hot Springs--Zambia

Hot spring perfection!
This is another oasis in the wilds of northern Zambia that was hard to tear ourselves away from.  We stayed there for three nights and could easily have stayed longer.  The big attraction is, of course, the hot springs, a big rustic pool with hot water bubbling up through the sandy bottom.  We spent hours relaxing there under the forest canopy, watching kingfishers darting along the river.  The grounds make for great birdwatching, and there is lovely walking to be done in the bush that surrounds the lodge.  The campsite is quite removed from the lodge and wasn't at all busy when we were there, so we felt more or less on our own.  Great views out over the river, lots of firewood to stoke up a campfire, and a feeling of peace and tranquility that is very seductive.

It was impossible to drag Terri out of the water!

5.  Kori Campsite #3, CKGR--Botswana

A rather comical slender mongoose

Birds lured in by our portable bird watertrough
The southern parks in Botswana (the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park) are amazing places and not much visited compared to the parks in the north of the country.  The Botswana DWNP have done a great job of providing a relatively small number of very isolated rustic campsites (the only facilities are a firepit and a long-drop toilet) out in the middle of nowhere, with no fences separating you from the animals.  Kori Campsite, in the Deception Valley, was absolutely perfect; with the nearest campsite at least half a kilometre away, you're not really aware of other people.  There's plenty of game around, just over the track in the grasslands of a nearby pan:  big kori bustards and secretarybirds, playful bat-eared foxes and jackals, lots of springbok and gemsbok.  Right in the campsite there are slender mongooses and plenty of birdlife, including playful yellow-billed hornbills.  It really feels like being a San hunter-gatherer as you sit around your flickering campfire under the stars, listening to the yips of jackals and hyenas in the night.  Most of the campsites in the CKGR and the Botswanan side of the KTP are similar, and it's worth putting in the effort ahead of time to try to book these sites for some unforgettable nights out in these arid Edens.

Terri loving our pre-dinner stroll across the grasslands

6.  Pomene Lodge Campground--Mozambique

Setting up camp

Flamingoes in the lagoon
Perfect view out towards the beach
We had heard of Pomene for years before our trip, as it was the subject of a nature documentary that we saw on TV when we were living in Switzerland.  We were almost talked out of going there by travellers who said that it wasn't worth the long sandy drive, but we decided in the end to go.  We were very glad that we went, as it was a superb place.  Out at the end of a 60-kilometre sand track that needed our tires deflated almost to zero, Pomene Lodge is located at the end of a sandy spit lying between the Indian Ocean on one side and a beautiful lagoon on the other.  Our campsite looked out towards the ocean, out of which we watched a full moon rise, and a brief stroll brought us out to a perfect sunset-viewing spot looking west over the lagoon.  There were hardly any other campers around, and it was quiet, peaceful and very beautiful.  Every morning women from the local village would walk by with fresh fruit (including amazing passion fruit), bread and fish for us to buy.  We rented sea kayaks from the lodge and had a wonderful paddle across the lagoon and up a forest-lined river.  There was great birdwatching, with flamingoes in the lagoon, and we spotted dolphins frolicking in the lagoon mouth a couple of times.  A long but beautiful hike down the beach gets you to the old ruined Portuguese-era hotel at the point, and (more to the point) the amazing blowholes.  Well worth the trudge.  All in all, it was a very elemental, naturally stunning setting, and we would gladly have spent more time camped at Pomene if we hadn't run out of money (they only take cash at the lodge).  
Ho hum; another perfect sunset

7.  Leeupan Bush Camp--South Africa

Nice setting for Stanley 

Sociable weaver nest complex
This place occupies a special place in our hearts.  We first heard of it in October from a fellow camper in Upington, Northern Cape, South Africa.  We had passed it by as we left Botswana and entered South Africa, and we were too lazy to drive back north to visit it.  It remained on our mental radar, though, and when we beat a retreat from persistent rainy weather in January, we took a detour into the middle of nowhere specifically to camp at Leeupan, and ended up staying three wonderful nights.

Leeupan is located close to the Botswana border, not far from the village of Van Zylsrus, right in the heart of the South African section of the Kalahari.  The landscape consists of a series of red sand dunes running parallel to each other, covered with typical African bush vegetation.  The campsite is on the other side of the main gravel road from the Leeupan farm, and so it's very, very quiet.  There are some basic facilities (flush toilets, showers), but the main appeal is the isolation, the wildlife and the stars at night.  When we were there it was pretty hot during the day, and Terri escaped from the heat by soaking in the "swimming pool", which was really the water reservoir but which served the purpose of cooling us off.  The sunsets were spectacular, and there was plenty of firewood around to stoke up a decent-sized blaze every night.  The evening temperatures dropped to a very pleasant cool, and we sat out every night beside the fire watching for satellites passing overhead and for eyes glinting in the night on the ground, as nocturnal grazers (mostly springbok, but also a springhaas) came in for water at the little drinking trough that the owners have set up.  It was a perfect temperature to sleep at night with our roof hatch open, letting the stars and the moon bathe our faces with a faint glow.

Ooh La La cooling her belly
There were lots of leopard tortoises and birds to be seen, including a very impressive sociable weaver nest complex, but the unique feature of Leeupan that had us driving a couple of hundred kilometres out of our way is that it's next to the Kalahari Meerkat Project property.  These are the meerkats featured in the nature documentary series Meerkat Manor, and Leeupan was the only place that we saw these ridiculously cute social mongooses in the wild. We talked to Lorraine, the very friendly owner, and told her that we were eager to see meerkats.  She talked to her farm workers, and they indicated the vague area that they had last seen the meerkats.  We went for a stroll in the late afternoon and suddenly there were a dozen meerkats under the leadership of the indomitable Ooh La Laa scuttling around energetically, frantically digging into the sand in search of scorpions and crickets to eat.  We stood and watched them for a good long while until one of the Kalahari Meerkat Project volunteers came around to do her evening behavioural observations and we had to leave.  It was a special encounter and was the icing on the cake of a beautiful camping spot.

We love meerkats!

8.  Bruintjieskraal Campsite #12, Baviaanskloof--South Africa

Not a bad place to park
We stayed here for only one night, as we were in a hurry to escape rain and get up towards the Kalahari and Namibia.  It was, however, an incredibly beautiful isolated campsite with a swimming hole and fishing spot right next to the vehicle.  There is a covered private kitchen area that would be useful when the weather is poor, and an excellent private ablution block.  There are a number of campsites spread along the length of the river, but #12 is by far the largest and most isolated; we couldn't hear or see any of the other guests in this popular weekend retreat from Port Elizabeth.  The scenery is very pretty, as the campsite is set in a narrow gorge (a kloof, in Afrikaans; hence the name). It's also a good base for hiking and mountain biking.  It's certainly a place that we would go back to if we found ourselves in that corner of South Africa again.

Morning view from our campsite

9.  Pontoon Camp, Kasanka National Park--Zambia

The campsite attendants stoking up our fires

We were out of cooking gas, so we used the open fire
Pontoon Camp is a beautiful spot in lovely Kasanka National Park.  It's right on the edge of a marsh lined with dense papyrus reeds, into and out of which slip the normally shy sitatunga which are the most aquatic of the antelope family.  Every morning and evening they would make an appearance, coming out onto the grass to graze.  There were lots of waterbirds as well, particularly the coppery-tailed coucal and the African jacana.  The campsite is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and there are only 3 spots, each with its own showers and toilets and fire pits, widely enough spaced that you don't really notice your neighbours.  It's very quiet and the night is full of owls, bats and spiders whose eyes sparkle in your flashlight beam.  The campground has a couple of attendants who kindle fires, heat the water for showers and generally take care of you hand and foot.  Highly recommended.

Sitatunga buck

10.  Otjiwa Lodge, (Campsite #10)--Namibia

Simple, clean and rustic--the way we like it!

This was another place we liked so much that we came back a second time.  It's only about 2 hours north of Windhoek, and we stayed here a couple of times when returning to the city.  Otjiwa is a private game reserve with a fancy lodge but also 10 well-maintained campsites.  We stayed both times in campsite 10, the one furthest from the lodge and other campers, and it was magical.  There's great bush for walking, lots of birds and a feeling that you're much further away from civilization than you really are.  Both nights we stayed here we had great braais (barbecues) over the campfire and sat out under the stars in perfect contentment.  We don't have any photos that I took here, so I lifted a couple of photos from the Otjiwa website and from

Very secluded campsites nestled in the bush

11.  Khami Ruins Campsite--Zimbabwe

Lovely location under the trees

We stayed here almost by accident.  We had planned to visit Khami, some of the most atmospheric historical ruins in Africa, but when we got there, we saw what looked like a perfect place to camp at a little picnic site.  We asked at the site office and it turned out it was set up for camping, despite the lack of a sign.  It turned out to be a wonderful spot, very atmospheric, under the canopy of some towering trees.  I love camping at historic spots, and we were right between two sets of stone ruins.  We climbed up the hill to one set of ruins to watch a full moon rise, and it was absolutely breathtaking.  

Sunset serenade atop the ruins

12.  Elephant Sands--Botswana

The cottages have a great view over the waterhole

Up close and personal

We ended up spending only one night here, blundering in after dark, guided by our GPS to the nearest campground.  It turned out to be a serendipitous jackpot of a choice.  The campground is very atmospheric, popular with overland groups.  It's built around a big waterhole popular with elephants who wander in at all hours, day and night, to have a drink.  The elephants wander right between the vehicles and tents and buildings and seem completely unconcerned about humans being present.  The bar/restaurant area is a perfect place to sit and watch the elephants drinking, wallowing in mud and doing pachyderm stuff.  It would be great to go back there and spend a couple of days just hanging out with the elephants.

13.  Chelinda Campsite, Nyika Plateau--Malawi

Sitting around our campfire

Terri trying to charm the passing elands into posing for a photo
This remote campsite, high up (almost 2000 metres above sea level) is in a very pretty area. The campsites each have a roofed structure to spread out in on rainy days, and have fabulous views out over the plateau.  Eland, bushbuck, reedbuck, zebra and roan antelope all wander by the campsite, and the bushbuck were right beside Stanley when we woke up.  The campsite staff light campfires before dawn and before sunset, and they're necessary to take the edge off the mountain chill.  Lovely hiking and cycling around the campsite, with lots of animals to see, particularly herds of roan, the loveliest of antelope.

Bushbuck in our campsite

I think the remoteness and wilderness in a country like Malawi where overpopulation presses against you more visibly than in the rest of southern Africa is a welcome relief.  As well the mix of cold and wildlife is unusual for most of Africa and is something special.  I am a big fan of the Nyika Plateau.

Elands passing by the campsite

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