– Safari Review by Klein Companions, Jonathan and Sophie Ellaby, Klein Collection Safaris
Privately owned and managed, and a short drive from Maun, Meno A Kwena is a tented camp with a difference. We visited to chat with the owner David about his visions for ecotourism in Botswana, and to see what his place is all about.
It’s a hot two hour drive through the sparse Kalahari scrub from Maun, first on empty tar then unmarked sandy tracks, before it feels like you’ve been catapulted into new world.
Perched high on the banks of the Boteti River we gaze down at the water below, and the bush beyond. It’s late afternoon when we arrive and 200 zebra are drinking – they’re skittish and stampede at the slightest perceived threat, hooves thundering in a vast cloud of dust. It’s the start of the greatest migration in southern Africa, and Meno A Kwena is at the heart of it.
No ordinary safari lodge
The brainchild of David Dugmore, it began years ago when the Boteti River was dry, and there was no fence on the boundary of Makgadikgadi National Park. The result was a near-catastrophe as tens of thousands of zebra and wildebeest arrived each year at the end of the rainy season, to their only possible water source, to find it empty. For years, David and his dedicated team pumped water day and night to create a waterhole and keep alive what they could, fending off desperate cattle and watching the weak die. Meno A Kwena was literally an oasis in the desert.
Thankfully that came to an end in 2008 when the Boteti once again began to flow, easing the overwhelming pressure on both wildlife and cattle, but it taught David that for tourism to succeed in Botswana, it must embrace the local communities, local culture and conservationism – and this is what Meno A Kwena is all about.
Forget your traditional, regulated safari lodge and scheduled two daily activities – Meno A kwena feels more like a club, with none of the formality of corporate-style lodges. We’re greeted by the manager Jeff, a knowledgeable guide and old Maun hand who’s been involved with the lodge since its desperate beginnings, and straightaway we see what makes this place special. The people are passionate about it, and excited for its future.
We stroll down to the floating hide right on the river and enjoy a G & T as the zebra drink just metres away, before making way for a herd of elephant. As usual, we also enjoy the smaller things – the babblers alarm calling for two giant eagle owls in a tree nearby, the green-backed heron skimming the water below. Meno A Kwena is one of the only spots that thousands of zebra and wildebeest are able to drink after the pans dry up, giving it unprecedented game viewing during the dry season (April – Nov).
We relax at our comfortable but relatively basic safari tent before a delicious buffet dinner is served at a huge long table – here guests are encouraged to mingle and before long we’re all friends. Each tent has a private bathroom and bucket shower (you order hot water from the delightful staff) – this takes a bit of getting used to but the end result is just the same.
A walk (and run…) with the Bushmen
The next morning we accompany a family of resident bushmen (and women) for a walk in, naturally, the bush. It’s a leisurely meander accompanied by a lot of clicking (and thankfully, a translation) and although it’s a bit theatrical and ‘touristy’, we overcome our initial scepticism and quickly realise that these bushmen really know what they’re clicking about. Kgao, the leader, shows us how to dig for scorpions, make fire from firesticks and make arrow-poison from the grub of a root-feeding beetle. Meno A Kwena is as much about local culture as it is about game.
But traditional game drives are on offer as well in nearby Makgadikgadi Pans National Park and that afternoon we head there with our guide, Sel. It’s a good hour’s drive on good roads to the park entrance which is a bit of a pain, but David plans to slash this by using a boat for part of the journey. We see vast herds of zebra and wildebeest, some good birds and spook a pride of lions right next to the road – not a bad tally, and we enjoy the chance to see one of the less-visited parks in Botswana. Longer, day trips deep into the pans can also be arranged with prior notice.
But Meno A Kwena is also about relaxing in an idyllic location and this is what we do on day 2. Tired of those crack-of-dawn game drives? Just have a lie-in and let the game come to you, viewed from the plunge pool overlooking the river. And if you’re desperate for some exercise after days of gouging and slothfulness on safari, challenge the bushmen for a run. Back in the days, the bushmen would hunt kudu by running them down to exhaustion over many hours under the scorching Kalahari sun. They might not be that fit any more but they’ll give you a run you’ll remember (in bare feet), and it’s not everyone that can say they ran with the Bushmen!
Into the future
Perhaps what’s most exciting are the plans for the future. As well as improvements to the tents and bathrooms, expect short boat trips on the Boteti River and more ambitious walks with the Bushmen deeper into the National Park. Most exciting of all are David’s plans to start two or three night mobile safaris to the edge of the Pans in the midst of the zebra migration; expect to be surrounded at night by thousands of thundering hooves.
Swapping email addresses with our fellow guests at the end of our stay, we feel firmly part of the Meno A Kwena family. If you’re looking for something outside the corporate safari lodge mould, informal, with great activities, this is your place. Or if you just want to kick back for a couple of days and relax in the middle of a hectic safari itinerary, it doesn’t get better.
Good for: families, independent travellers, those looking for something different.
Not so good for: those just wanting to see the big five, or expect 5 star luxury.
Our verdict: While it’s not cheap, Meno A Kwena prices compare favourably with most safari lodges in Botswana. It’s important to understand what you’re getting (e.g. bucket showers – although this is part of its charm) and a highly informal approach. If you’re happy with that, it’s a great option and fits nicely into many safari schedules. We greatly enjoyed it, and so did everyone there we spoke to. And within easy driving access of Maun, there are no expensive flights to worry about. A breath of fresh air.
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Email: info[at]kleincollection.com | South Africa Tel. +27 (0) 21 813 6961