Test all limits in the Nissan Navara
Test all limits in the Nissan Navara

Bucket List Botswana

Boredom is often the start of many crazy ideas… It was no different for Bernie Williams, who decided that an expedition to Botswana would make for a great adventure during the rainy season.

Initially, the trip started out as a seven-day excursion, heading out towards the Makgadikgadi Pans in the direction of Kubu Island, and then onto the Kwai concession area for a few days before making our way back home to South Africa.

Pitched as true “manne” trip, the plan was to take off after New Year’s Day and return by 7 or 8 January. The excuse would be that since we have complied with the family thing over the Christmas break and it was now our turn to recharge our batteries to be ready for the start of the new year. The Makgadikgadi Pans on its own can be very deceptive. Add to that massive amounts of rain, and you would realise that it could be a recipe for disaster. But as a bunch of avid adventurers, we threw caution to the wind as we merrily set off to Kubu Island. For the last few years, we haven’t been using the campsites at Kubu Island. We’ve been staying at the adventure camp close to the veterinarian fence. The reason for this is quite simply that at the adventure camp there are hot showers and flush toilets which does make it easier for our clients, especially the ladies. 

We headed off towards Kubu Island, the pans were filled with water which makes driving extremely tricky and challenging. One tends to drive on gut feel because the tracks that are usually there are flooded. We soon learned that it is better to stay on the old existing tracks because due to continuous traffic over the years, the terrain has become more compact. Having said that, though, we ventured off in a different direction and soon realised that we were in trouble. I asked the rest of the convoy to head back to the main track and stay on those tracks in Kubu Island’s direction to a spot that was dry at the time.

Don’t follow the leader

I would then take a shortcut across the pans to join up with them, and I explicitly asked everybody to please not follow me. Needless to say, as I looked in my rear-view mirror, I had two vehicles behind me, which soon ended up with them both getting stuck. From there, our day just got longer! While we are doing our best to free one the stricken vehicles, along come two of the vehicles that made it through safely, to come and offer assistance only – yes, you guessed it – to also get stuck. Long story short, five and a half hours later we were on our way to the campsite having missed the magical sunset on Kubu Island! 

If you have never experienced Botswana in the wet or rainy season, you are seriously missing out. It is the most beautiful you will ever see this African gem. Contrary to popular belief, the game is plentiful. The understanding would be that the bush would be so dense that you wouldn’t see any of the animals around. Still, I have never seen so much game during the past 12 years of making this trip in December. During planning for this trip, demand became higher. The adventurers asked for more and voiced their dream to see the Caprivi strip during the wet season. Ever willing to cater to the clients’ goals, we added this stop to the itinerary.

I will never forget the very first time that we included the Caprivi strip on our adventures. We were camping in the Kwai River concession area. Our original plan was to drive back to Maun and then drive around via Sehitwa to get to Sepupa Swamp Stop. Not too far from there is the only World Heritage Site that Botswana has – Tsodillo Hills. It is worthwhile to chat with a local Bushman that will explain the drawings to you – but I digress.

On New Year’s Eve, sitting around the campfire, we discussed various routes around the area. During the campfire chat, I mentioned a route that runs from close to North gate all the way around the northern edge of the Delta ending up at Shakawe. We would cross the Okavango River via the pontoon then head on to the Namibian border. I had driven this route once before with clients from Peru during an expedition in September before the rains.

Adventure overload

Our clients were extremely adventurous and asked why we don’t drive this route to our next destination. After much deliberation convincing me that they are up to the task, we decided to head on through this area. Little did we know about the massive 4×4 trucks that take supplies to the lodges in the North near the Linyati. The first problem is that your wheels do not run in the same tracks as the trucks, because they are wider. Extremely thick sand awaits you, and in between mud holes with black cotton soil which are deep, as the trucks have now made proper deep ruts in them. 

Besides the thick sand, you also have to contend with serious water along the way in these mud holes. Add to that the fact that there are plenty of elephant in the area, and the bush is dense right up against the track, and you will understand that this is no normal drive – and it does this for 180 kilometres! It is a full day’s drive, anywhere between six and eight hours, due to the terrain.

If you feel adventurous and brave enough to attempt it, keep in mind the time it takes when planning your itinerary. You have to stay on the road because it is a transit road. The areas to the left and right are concession areas, where camping is not allowed. If you attempt the track, do it with someone who knows the area and is an experienced overlanding guide. You could find yourself in a spot of bother if you went in there unprepared.

Once you reach Shakawe, it is a short hop over the river on the pontoon, which adds excitement. The border post closes at 6pm, and from there, our next stop is the well-known and much loved Ngepi Camp, which has been around for close to 30 years and has been voted as the world’s best campsite numerous times. My personal highlight of Ngepi is the floating swimming pool in the Okavango River! 

No visit to Ngepi is complete without a visit to Buffalo reserve. You will find Buffalo reserve on the opposite banks of the Okavango River. It is a short drive to the intersection of Bigani/Divundu and in the direction of Katima Mullilo, and is well signposted to your right. What makes Buffalo reserve unique is that this used to be the home base of the very renowned and well known 32 Batallion from the days of the South African Bush War. Besides huge numbers of elephants, buffalo and lion, the buildings’ remnants often bring back memories from days long gone by. To me, no visit is complete until I’ve stopped at the graves of the fallen heroes of 32 Battalion and raised a glass to my old mates. Also close to Ngepi is Mahango Reserve, which you drive through once you cross into the Caprivi. This reserve is well worth a visit with herds of roan antelope as well as other game. It offers magical views over the massive Okavango flood plains. There are predators in this park, and you should only get out where it is indicated as being safe to do so and even then, be extra vigilant.

From Ngepi we drove in an easterly direction towards the well-known town of Katima Mulilo, stopping on the way near Kongola at the Babwata National Park. This is where we would find the remnants of the old South African reconnaissance unit retraining base called Fort Doppies and the well-known Horseshoe with its abundance of game. We would typically stop here to have a lunch break at the old base with its magic views over the river. There is plenty of game around this area and is absolutely well worth the visit. I have always wanted to camp here for two nights but have never gotten to it, so bucket list it is!

We headed on to Kasane for the next two days. Kasane is one of my favourite towns, having made friends with the local people here over the last 20 years of visiting. My choice of camp is Thebe River Safaris. I have seen this business grow over the years and the owners have become good friends. They offer combo packages that include the early morning game drive into Chobe National Park and a boat cruise in the afternoon on the Chobe River. The cruise is always special… there is nothing that beats a sunset over the Chobe.

Coming to an end

With our adventure drawing to an end, there were still a few surprises along the way. One of these is the well-known Hunters Road. We start with it at the most northern tip near the Zimbabwe border gate and then start driving south. Along this section, we have often encountered big herds of giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, and buffalo, not forgetting the elephants. It would be stupid to try and drive the entire Hunters Road in the rainy season. I know some people have done it, but when you have clients and their families’ safety to consider, discretion is the better part of valour. We drive to the last possible escape road out of the Hunters Road, and in a good rainy season, even that can be challenging.

The escape route out of the notorious Hunters Road can be quite challenging.

Once we get to the tar, we continue on our journey south until we reach Elephant Sands. Here we spend some time enjoying a few cold ones and lunch in the company of the elephants as they come down to the water hole. I remember Elephant Sands’ days when it was small and intimate with the ellies drinking water from the pool while you sat in it. Sadly, those days are over as commercialism as taken over. For our last evening together, we headed to Nata Lodge. This has always been one of my favourite places to stay, from my early days of travel to Botswana. Sadly, it burned down a few years ago but has been rebuilt to its former glory. Although most clients opt to sleep in the chalets or luxury tents on this last evening, the campsite is one of the best with comfortable and clean ablution facilities.

The staff prepared a fantastic dinner for our last night, spent reminiscing about the past 12 days… the sights, the sounds, the experiences… I again realise that I could never live anywhere else in the world. Africa is just too much a part of me. I have seen and experienced too much of Mama Africa as Kingsley Holgate calls her so passionately.

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