The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) is the second largest game reserve in the world, at 52,800 sq. km larger than the size of Switzerland. Like most of the places we have been during this COVID time, we had the entire park to ourselves. One day we saw game rangers driving by, but otherwise no one. During the dry season, our expectation for CKGR was less about the animals, as we had heavy rains several days prior, and more for the landscape. We had been told that it was deep sand, and we were almost expecting vast dunes and large plains. From North to South it is 600km and we had to plan to be entirely self-sufficient.
From what we have gathered most people will only travel the northern region of the park. This is an area with several spacious pans and valleys and the prettiest region of CKGR. There are three gates in the northern region and one in the south.
Our route was very loosely planned, and we booked the camps when we got to the gate with only tentative plans of how many nights we would be in the park. From my understanding during a busy season these camps need to be booked in advance through an agent, however I do not have that information. Our plan was Rakops to Xade and south through Khutse Game Reserve. If you are considering this trip you must be self-reliant with diesel, water and food. The facilities at the camps and gates are basic, no water, trash disposal at the gates, and the closest resupplies from the gates are at least an hour (Xade Gate to Ghanzi takes over 8 hours). Plan accordingly.
We stocked our food, water and diesel in Maun and headed east (first to Gweta for several days) then to Rakops. We carried 150 liters of diesel (100 in the tank and 50 in two jerry cans) and 75 liters of water – which we found sufficient for the two of us.
We arrived in Rakops late in the evening, car camped along the side of the road and the next morning we topped up our diesel and water. There is a filling station in town and next door is a large building that has a water tap outside – the water is drinking water and free but didn’t taste nice. When walking back to the car, I met a man who owns a water filtration office near the filling station and I would recommend going there if filling more than a few liters.
This itinerary is completely doable but could have been broken down even more adding several more days in the north with a night or two in the northwest region. Our trip was in October 2020 towards the end of the dry season, but with recent rain showers. We believe animals that usually live closer to the waterholes were a bit more scattered and the overnight moisture made for easier driving on the sand roads.
Our camping itinerary:
- Leopard Pan camp
- Deception Pan camp
- Deception Pan camp
- Xade Gate camp
- Xaxa camp
- Bibe camp
- Molowe camp in Khutse Game Reserve
Day 1: Rakops – Matswere Gate – Leopard Pan Loop – waterhole – Leopard Pan camp
Leaving Rakops to the Matswere gate is roughly 50km on sandy corrugated road. There had been rains the night before, leaving mud in the ditched areas, but nothing difficult.
Once at the Matswere gate, we made reservations for three nights camping and booked the rest at the other gates. The gate officials called the Gaborone booking office and shared our plans to head south and exit the Khutse gate, unsure of our exact dates. This will most likely need to be booked in advance.
The Leopard Pan camp is nicely situated and about 10km to the pumped waterhole. We relaxed in the early afternoon then left camp around 3pm to explore the Leopard Pan loop and the waterhole. We had a single male lion sighting at the waterhole and dramatic skies with lightning and later that evening some light rain. I believe the grasshoppers sensed the rain and were attracted to light from our fire and headtorches as they were hopping all over us as we prepared dinner and hung out that evening.
Day 2: Leopard Pan camp – waterhole – Passarge Valley Loop – Passarge waterhole – cut line- Deception Pan camp
We went out early to the waterhole hoping to see some animals. We waited for about 40 minutes and headed off with only several birds and no animal sightings. We drove to see our camp for the night, the road between the Deception camp and the waterhole is very corrugated and takes much longer than we expected.
From there we drove north to the Passarge Valley Loop. It has rolling hills and high, thick brushy bushes on either side of the road with several gemsbok, springbok and kori bustards.
Passarge waterhole’s pump was turned off and no water when four gemsboks visited hoping to drink. If you head north from here it will lead to Tsau gate in the direction of Maun.
Driving back to Deception camp we took the cutline from west to east. A long straight drive with deep and frequent man-made road humps to reduce speeds. With high brush on both sides it is not a pleasant drive and I would recommend avoiding it and either camping near Passarge and then driving south via Piper Pan or going back via Passarge Valley.
Day 3: Deception Pan camp – Deception Pan Loop – waterhole – Deception Pan camp
After the driving the previous day, we took it easy at the camp. Reading, writing, playing cards, cooking. We had plenty of bird visitors happy to have some of our water run-offs. We made an early dinner and packed it in the car and drove the Deception Pan loop and up to the waterhole for dinner and an evening viewing. We had a jackal come visit, but that was the only sighting.
Day 4: Deception Pan camp – Deception Valley – Piper Pan – Xade Gate camp
We awoke early to a lion roaring. We headed south in the direction of Deception Valley and Xade gate. About 4km from our camp we saw lion spoor on the road. About 10km down the road and we came upon a male lion waking up for the day. We spent about an hour with him as he walked along the road roaring and rubbing against the brushy shrubs and urinating to mark his territory. Once he found a shady spot under a tree, we carried on along Deception Valley.
About 20 minutes later we found four lions, a male and female together under two nearby trees. We witnessed one of the couples mating and then back to sleep. We had recorded the roaring of the earlier male lion and played his sound back to the four lazy lions who reacted to the sound by standing and investigating the source of the noise from under the trees. Then back to bed.
Another 10km and we awoke a cheetah with three cubs lying near the road that then quickly snuck off behind the high grasses. Breakfast and back to the place we last saw the cheetahs and onwards south. Along the way we sighted gemsbok, springbok and the rare wildebeest, all shading themselves from the mid-day heat. There were plenty of kori bustards (Botswana’s national bird, once found on the endangered species list) and a handful of ostriches and jackals.
We reached Piper Pan around 2pm. This is a pumped waterhole with saltwater that we topped up 10 liters for washing, bathing, and cooking, not knowing the water circumstances for the rest of the park. There were roughly 20 vultures and in the pans around the waterhole probably the highest number of game we had seen in CKGR.
This road passes through several pans, somewhat corrugated, but relatively easy driving. I believe there is a government camp here and would suggest a stop here if possible.
We made our way to Xade Gate with a few snake sightings on the road near the camp. A clean, basic site and they brought us two jerry cans of saltwater for the toilet and bathing since their facility’s running water was not working, but they had a proper and decently maintained ablutions block. There’s poor Wifi at the office – enough to receive messages, but no phone services. This gate will lead to Ghanzi.
Friends entered Xade Gate from Ghanzi several months before and said the road was very long with deep sand and they bush camped between Ghanzi and Xade, roughly an 8 hour drive.
Day 5: Xade Gate camp (inside gate) – Xaxa camp
We took it easy in the morning, knowing we were only driving about 48km that day. We showered and made approximate bookings with the Xade Gate for our ongoing travels towards Khutse. This drive was much slower than expected. We reached a stretch of the track with elephant spoor and fresh dung on the road, and spent a fair amount of time moving trees and branches attributed to recent elephant traffic. This track gets far less traffic than the north and bit deeper sand, but nothing unmanageable.
The campsite is perched on top of the hill, overlooking the waterhole and valley below with several large elephants. A pretty overlook, bush camping with no facilities and a lot of old coals that have been blown around. There is no exclusive “fire pit,” but we dug a small pit hoping to centralize it more.
Down below at the waterhole, there is no pumped water anymore. The area is decimated by the elephants. They had dug up nearly half a kilometer of blue pipe, closely resembling an abandoned war zone with blue shrapnel scattered everywhere.
Day 6: Xaxa camp – Bibe camp
Not a particularly noteworthy day of driving. Several turtles on the road but going through high brush on both sides of the car.
Bibe camp is a nice bush camp with spacious flat grounds, nice shade, and sounds of jackals in the evening.
Day 7: Bibe camp – Molowe camp, Khutse Game Reserve
We left camp around 7:30 in the morning heading south. The landscape was starting to become Spring with bright yellow flowers blossoming in the same thick bush we had driven through.
We drove through two villages that are known to be the home of bushman who have lived in the area for thousands of years. You can book cultural walking tours with them. Unfortunately, on our approach the area was scattered with trash extending past the villages and teenagers were running up to the car asking for sweets.
Further south we encountered deeper sand tracks and large grooves, presumably made from Botswana Defense Force (military protecting the parks) and the water tankers coming to the villages. Sharp sticks mark areas where drivers have gotten stuck. When we got closer to the border of Khutse Game Reserve, the roads got better. We went straight into Khutse. There is no clear boundary and CKGR and Khutse Game Reserve share the same gate to the east.
There is a pumped waterhole at Molowe and we spent time with a large herd of elephants. The campsites are extremely convenient to the waterhole, less than a 5-minute drive.
That night around the fire we had several Red Romans / Baardskeeters / Kalahari Ferraris – a mix between a spider and scorpion that move unsettlingly and creepily fast. We woke up in the middle of the night to four large elephants feasting on the trees 2 meters from the car. It gave me a poignant feeling that this may very well be our last night being woken up by elephants after nearly 7 months of camping in Botswana.
Day 8: Molowe camp – Moroswe loop – Khutse gate direction Gaborone.
Back to the waterhole and onto Moroswe waterhole. The roads were generally good, nice campsites in both areas, a large pan with springbok, gemsbok, and a few ostriches and the yellow flowers in full bloom. We left via Khutse gate, paying our park fees, car fee, and camp fees for the week. There is some service with Mascom and BTC at the gate.
Note** Government campsites in the CKGR are priced at 15 pula per person per night. Khutse Game Reserve camps are privately owned, have the same facilities developed as CKGR and charge 50 USD per person per night. Xade gate had assured us they are government camps. Khutse Gate explained differently.
Leaving the gate in the direction Gaborone, the road starts off with deep sand, then heavy corrugation until you reach a paved road roughly 100km away with the closest petrol/diesel option to Khutse gate.
I hope this helps and happy planning!
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