Botswana is well known as elephant country. Huge numbers of the incredible beasts roam the land, particularly around Chobe National Park in the north of the country. But one of the best places to get up close and personal with elephants in Botswana is a small site that many visitors have never heard of – Elephants Sands.
What is Elephant Sands?
Elephant Sands is a bush lodge and camp site built around a natural waterhole. As you might guess from the name, the site attracts huge families of wild elephants that come to drink. There is also a bar, restaurant and swimming pool, plus the usual features you’d expect from a campsite. The best part is the viewing area where you can watch the elephants as they interact just metres away.
Aside from the visitors’ facilities the rest of the site is completely open. Meaning elephants will freely pass by the lodges and tents as they make their way to and from the waterhole.
How to get to Elephant Sands
Located in the north-east of Botswana about 50km North of Nata, the site is just off the main highway (A33). From Kasane in the north it’s just over 250km and will take around three hours. Look out for a signpost indicating where to turn off as you arrive, although it’s not so obvious.
Be aware that the road into the site is a sandy track and you may have problems with any vehicle that doesn’t have four-wheel drive. Especially the closer you get as the sand becomes deeper.
Looking for elephants in Botswana
During my travels I’ve been lucky to visit some incredible places that I never knew existed before I entered the country. Usually I hear about them from other travellers as I explore the area or see them advertised in hostels and information centres. This was the case in Botswana during a southern Africa road trip with two friends I’d met on the way. From the moment we learnt about Elephant Sands’ we were eager to visit and drove down from Kasane, close to the border with Zimbabwe.
I’d already seen elephants whilst on safari in Namibia and as we crossed the border into Botswana just a few days before we spotted small herds grazing in the lush green fields by the river. Yet nothing could prepare us for what was waiting at Elephant Sands.
Before we’d even arrived at the site the large shape of a passing elephant crossed the main highway just ahead of us. We slowed down to watch as two more joined it, striding over the road without a second glance towards the stopped vehicle or its gawping passengers. This was an exciting experience in itself, but we were about to see much more.
Arriving at Elephant Sands
Turning off at the entrance (which we almost missed thanks to the useless Maps.me app) we had to drive the final 1.5km on a sandy track. Something our rented VW Polo was definitely not equipped for.
We managed to make it almost all the way to the site before finally becoming well and truly stuck in the thick sand just metres from our goal. We tried digging our way out, pushing (not helped by leaving the handbrake on!), but nothing worked. Eventually we were helped by two locals in a Toyota who towed us free so we could drive the final few metres.
Tired, dirty but surprisingly overjoyed we had arrived. As we struggled to free the poor Polo a young elephant passed by on its way to the waterhole. The sight of this elephant so close created a great sense of euphoria and removed any lingering frustrations. Having escaped the sand trap we excitedly followed the elephant to where the rest of the herd had assembled.
Watching the elephants
Immediately upon entering the main observation area we were in awe as over 30 elephants congregated in the late afternoon light for a well-earned drink. We were joined by several other tourists who’d all gathered to quietly watch the locals as they argued over whose turn it was at the waterhole. Seeing their interactions up close, their clear hierarchy at work, was such a privilege and an amazing sight to behold.
After our earlier digging we were in desperate need of a shower. As I washed away the layers of sand I looked out to see a family of late arrivals trudging towards the waterhole. The youngest of the four elephants skipping happily along, completely oblivious to the watching humans all around.
Refreshed and free from sand and sweat we returned to the viewing area. The sun was setting now but the crowd had only grown – both tourists and elephants. It stayed this way for several hours as we ate and silently observed these incredible animals until it was time to turn in for the night.
Camping at Elephants Sands
While the elephants are unable to access the viewing area (and why would they), the rest of Elephant Sands is entirely open. Including the campsite! This isn’t usually a problem as most visitors arrive in a Toyota Hilux equipped with handy roof tents. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a Toyota.
We received a few strange looks as we set up our small ground tents. One guy asking if we really wanted to camp where the elephants could just pass through at will. With no barriers to protect us, there was nothing to stop the gigantic beasts from stomping through our camp any time they felt like it.
Luckily, we managed to avoid being trodden on and the only reason the night didn’t pass so peacefully was due to excessive winds. The wind had picked up just as we went to bed and continued throughout the night. I slept about one hour and spent the rest of the night staring up at my tent, convinced it was about to collapse. Somehow both me and the tent made it to the morning, albeit after a serious lack of sleep. I packed up and saw that my friends were already awake. Their tent empty having suffered a similar night.
Things got worse as we tried to leave the site when we got stuck in the sand again. The day before had been almost comical, however, without any sleep no-one was laughing.
Moral of the story; get a 4×4 and sleep somewhere a bit more stable.
Elephant Sands accommodation prices
- Family chalet (1 double, 2 singles): P1690 (£113)
- Twin chalet (2 singles): P1320 (£88)
- Single chalet: P910 (£61)
- Camping: P120 (£8)