Pioneers of Western Chobe

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muchenje_pkp_3980As Muchenje Safari Lodge celebrates its 20th anniversary, Shaun Metcalfe looks back at its founding and how the lodge, and the Chobe safari experience, has evolved in this time.

It was in the late 1980s that the founders (who are still the owners) first thought about building a safari lodge. At that time they had no firm ideas on where to locate the lodge or even which country it should be in. It was their shared love of Africa that drove the plan, fed by numerous visits to southern Africa. South Africa already had a diverse infrastructure of lodges, hotels and camp sites; Namibia was remote and attractive; Zimbabwe was well developed and had a very successful safari tourism business; Zambia was also well developed; Malawi did not have the product required at that time.

Botswana was certainly not over-developed in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, but had vast tracts of game reserves and game parks. There was some development in the then-named Okavango Swamps; the Central Kalahari was well known but difficult to get to; Moremi, just north of the Okavango Swamps, had private concessions but was really accessible only by light aircraft from Maun. The Tuli Block in eastern Botswana had possibilities, but this area was mainly split into private game reserves and farms.

The founders visited the Chobe area on a number of occasions. Kasane was a frontier town near the confluence of the Zambezi and Chobe rivers. It was easy to get to from Victoria Falls and Livingstone by tar road and a short river crossing from the Zambian riverbanks. But, more importantly, a new international airport was being built at Kasane. At that time, the town had only one hotel and a shop, but it did have a petrol station, a police station and a small hospital and clinic.

Most importantly, a drawcard was required, and this came in the form of the Victoria Falls, one of the seven natural wonders of the world. Kasane was only an hour or so away. In addition, there were going to be three or four flights a week coming in to Kasane’s new airport from Botswana’s capital city, Gaborone. Flights to and from Maun, the entrance to the Okavango Delta, were also starting, as were flights from Johannesburg in South Africa.

The Chobe looked like the right place to be. It certainly had animals; lots of them. It had access and plenty of promise; it has easy access to the Victoria Falls. But where was the right area to be within the Chobe? Building a lodge within the Chobe National Park was not allowed, and there was no space on the eastern side of the park. There was, however, a poorly maintained wide dirt road through the park to Ngoma Gate and West Chobe. Would there be land available on the western side of the park boundary?

More research and travelling were done. Ordinance Survey maps were procured in Gaborone and many trips were made to the western side of the park to see what, if anything, was available. It was known that there was an escarpment running along the Chobe River, which started below Ngoma Gate and extended just to the west of Ihaha within the park. Outside of the park, the escarpment extended westwards some 20-30km to the village of Kavimba. There was no development at all along the escarpment for some 6km from the park gate at Ngoma.

Quite by chance, on one trip an old signpost was found lying by the side of the main track advising: “Ngoma Enterprises, lease land for sale for a safari lodge”. Luckily, there was a phone number on the sign. The owner was contacted and he confirmed that he had permission to build a 16-chalet lodge on 20 hectares of land overlooking the river. He was happy to sell his company, and that is how it all began. This was in 1992.

Funds were raised, planning permission was applied for, an architect was hired and when the official permissions were granted a turnkey construction company was contracted. Work began in 1994 and the 11-chalet lodge was finally ready for business in 1995. It stands high up on the escarpment overlooking the Chobe River and floodplain.

Muchenje Safari Lodge was officially opened in October 1996 by Botswana’s Vice President Festus Mogae. Tradition with the local baSubia tribe demands that an orchid be placed in a tree close by to any new home, for blessing and good luck. This was done on the day of the opening. This Leopard Orchid now flowers on a yearly basis high up in the huge Wooden Banana tree (Etandrofragma Caudatum) in which it was planted twenty years ago.

What name was the lodge to be called? Lion Hill? Chobe River Lodge? Buffalo Ridge? This was a big debate. The area was called Muchenje, so that name stuck. In the local languages ‘Muchenje’ means a number of things – jackalberry tree (African ebony), termite mound, ant hill, meeting place, termite or white ant. There are jackalberry trees down by the river in front of the lodge, so the decision on the name was not difficult. It’s a good name for a meeting place.

In those early days it was very difficult to build a lodge in such a remote location, hence the requirement of a turnkey contractor. Vehicle access was not good, and in the rainy season the road from Kasane was sometimes virtually impassable. There were no telephones; there was no water. Even though the lease said that 4,000 litres of water could be taken from the river, the river never flowed and it was only five years later that water finally came to the area from the Zambezi. A borehole was sunk and water was found at 96 metres; this is still the main water source used at Muchenje. There was no electricity, so a generator was installed. Petrol and diesel were only available two hours away in Kasane, so petrol and diesel tanks and bowsers were installed at Muchenje.

Communication proved a big issue. Faxes were transmitted through a machine in Kasane. Limited phone communication was possible via an Inmarsat suitcase phone and dish, to either the Indian Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean satellites. This worked pretty well as long as one could “see” the satellite, but it was very expensive. Phones graduated to a short wave radio link, then to a Botswana Telecom satellite link and now to a superfast fibre optic link that gives Muchenje both phones and fast Internet. Electricity is now supplied from the grid by powerlines.

And now there is a very good, wide tar road from Kasane that goes all the way past the lodge to Kachikau. The modern world has arrived at Muchenje.

Kasane now has two supermarkets, a huge cash-and-carry store, liquor store outlets, a bottled water plant, a large police station, a modern fire station, government offices, a well-equipped hospital, private doctors and even an MRI scanner. There are now many large hotels, lodges, campsites and conference centres in Kasane. The Kasane-Kazungula twin towns have nearly 30,000 residents.

Today Muchenje has most of its food delivered by private refrigerated vans; fresh vegetables come from the local villages and meat is sourced locally. It is certainly a lot easier now.

Clients have also changed. The modern traveller expects a top quality product. All of the chalets have been extended and now include not only fans, but air-conditioning and fridges.

Kasane Airport has had its runway extended to receive bigger aircraft, and both the domestic and international terminals are being totally rebuilt.

Large numbers of animals have always been seen in the Chobe area. When Muchenje was first started there was a sign up on the way into Kasane that said: “Welcome to the Chobe, home to 46,000 elephants”. At the last official count there are now over 110,000 elephants within the Chobe/Savute/Moremi/Okavango park and reserve boundaries.

It is the elephants that Chobe is famous for, but along the Chobe riverfront, from Muchenje to Kasane, there are over forty lions in four different prides. These, together with huge herds of buffalo, are seen on a daily basis. Other animals such as hippo, leopard, crocodile, giraffe, kudu, sable, eland and most other plains game are also common.

It was the zebra that most intrigued everyone in the early days. Hundreds of zebra arrive on the floodplains in Western Chobe and Muchenje in April and May every year. No one was sure where they came from. They leave in November and trek southwards, and no one knew where they went. It was assumed that they came relatively short distances from either Savute or Moremi. It was only a couple of years ago that a research project was commissioned, endorsed by the Department of Wildlife and National Parks, which found these zebra trek from Nxai Pan in the Makgadikgadi, following the rain. The trek is over 250km, which makes this the longest animal migration in Africa. It has now, rightly so, become famous. It is essential to ensure that this migration remains undisturbed, as it is one of the natural wonders of Botswana, if not Africa.

The Chobe River floods normally on a yearly basis, when the Zambezi River, which gets filled up by rain from the Angola highlands and northern Zambia, pushes the Chobe westwards. Lakes appear on the floodplain in April and May and are a sight to see. It is a time of plenty. The rains will have stopped by April and by June the lakes are receding and the Chobe River flows eastwards back into the Zambezi at Kasane and Kazungula creating large numbers of ox-bow lakes and billabongs. By August and September, in the height of the dry season, the Chobe is but a trickle.

The idea of a national park in Northern Botswana was first suggested in 1931. By 1953 there were further initiatives from the government and in 1960 the Chobe Game Reserve was created. This was followed by the declaration that the reserve would be declared The Chobe National Park in 1967. The park covers 11,700 square kilometres and extends from Kasane through Serondela (the Chobe River Front) to Western Chobe, the Ngewzumba pans, Savute and Linyanti. This is an unfenced area so animals travel freely between the park and surrounding reserves.

The Chobe National Park borders with Namibia to the north and Moremi and the Okavango Delta to the south.

The owners of Muchenje are proud to be the pioneers of Western Chobe. The changes have been huge, but they have been good. We are all entering the modern world, but we must keep local traditions and ensure that we are conserving the area for generations to come. We are borrowing the land from the wildlife that tourists come to see.

 

Muchenje is a valued partner of Travel Africa magazine, having advertised in nearly every issue over the last twenty years. For more on Muchenje, visit www.muchenje.com

 

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