Tourists comes to Africa to experience the wildlife and if visiting the southern bit, it certainly does not get much better than Botswana, especially if in a half-decent 4×4. PATRICK CRUYWAGEN returns to his roots and shows us the best that country has to offer.
Ionce drowned a standard brand-new Volkswagen Touareg in Botswana’s world-famous Okavango Delta swamps. I was trying to follow my guide, who was in a Land Cruiser. Little did I know then that the air intake on the VW sits just below the headlights. You really need to know your stuff here as what may be a dry and dusty track today, could be a hippo and croc infested swamp tomorrow.
I have done many solo Botswana trips to desolate places such as the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. For this trip I had decided to hook up with an old friend and 4×4 guide, Bernie Williams, who drives a well-kitted 2014 single cab 79 Series Toyota Land Cruiser V6. We were being hosted by MegaXplore, the travel and adventure arm of South Africa’s 4×4 Mega World stores and the African importers of ARB products.
Three mates and I had flown in from the United Kingdom (which I now call home) for the trip and I had arranged two Land Rovers for us from Front Runner, who has its own range of overland accessories. The first was an old-style Defender 130 with the Ford Transit van’s Puma engine. I do like a 130 for overlanding because of all the extra packing space it provides. Our other Defender was what some might call a Chelsea tractor, the new Defender X with the 3-litre Ingenium engine. Just to give it some overland cred we slapped on a roof rack, awning and rooftop tent.
They say that if you want to romantically explore the African outback you head off in a Land Rover… if you want to get home again, you rather go in a Toyota. Apart from the Landies and Bernie’s Cruiser, we had a few other vehicles in the convoy. John Scott was in an old-school 2.4-litre petrol Hilux that had already done 1.4 million kilometres without any dramas. Jim French from Oxford, England, was travelling solo, and although he owns a Land Rover dealership back home, his go-to African wagon is a diesel 4.2-litre Toyota Land Cruiser. He has done over 200 000km in it.
Our convoy left Johannesburg at sunrise as we had a full day of driving and around 600km to cover. This included a border crossing into the tourist-friendly Botswana, whose economy relies heavily on mining and cattle farming. They did not allow us to take any meat or dairy products across the international border due to foot and mouth disease, so we stocked up on supplies in Palapye.
The roads in Botswana are in good nick and we arrived at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary about an hour before sunset, making our way straight to one of the animal water holes. Sadly, rhinos have been heavily poached in southern Africa and this is one of the few places where one can still see them in the wild. Several species of antelope and a few giraffes join us for a sundowner. It was the perfect first day in Botswana.
Our convoy continued north towards Orapa in the morning, and it was here that we said goodbye to the tar roads. Out came the ARB tyre deflators as everyone aired down for the sandy tracks which lay ahead. After a few hours we dropped down the escarpment on to the great Makgadikgadi Pans. If you time your visit right the pans are waterlogged and filled with thousands of birds, including pink flamingos. During our visit, however, the rainy season was not far off and they were deserted.
Bernie called halt at a spot called Pebble Beach, for a briefing. Only a day or two before I was looking at pics of 4x4s up to their axles in the black cotton soil mud that lies just beneath the popadom like surface of the pan. Our target was Kukonje Island, a rocky outcrop about 6km away. Bernie’s advice was short and sweet: “Don’t slow down and if you see the car in front of you get bogged down, make new tracks and pass them.”
I led the convoy in the powerful new Defender and reached the island with no problems. After setting up camp we all took a camping chair and walked out onto the pan to watch the sunset. According to travel writer, AA Gill, this is the only place in the world where you can see the curvature of the earth. He is right. That evening we felt like the only people on the planet. Not so for the 79-year-old Jim, who had a satellite phone and called his wife in Oxford.
To leave the pans we headed north on some rough tracks. One or two sections had large bulldust holes, and they were fun to smash through. We rejoined the tar near Nata and continued north. My Land Rover joke came back to haunt me as Stan Scrooby reported over the radio that the engine management light on the Defender 130 had come on. Someone in the convoy handed over a diagnostic tool which told us it was an ABS sensor. Must be the dust. We cleaned the sensor and cleared the fault.
We reached our next overnight stop, at Elephant Sands, just after lunchtime. We were not alone and there must have been about 40 elephants playing in the water. This lodge is a little like legendary Australian Outback places such as the Mungarannie Hotel or the Silverton Hotel. Most overlanders stop here as you can just about touch the elephants from the comfort of your bar stool.
I have been there about 20 times and the owner, Ben Moller, is a bit of a legend himself. An injured leopard once attacked him there at night, while on another occasion an elephant charged and knocked him across the bar. About an hour before sunset Ben took us to another water hole 30 minutes away. There were no tourists there… just us and a large herd of buffaloes, a few elephants and some impalas. This was the Africa I had missed!
The two Land Rovers and their occupants left the lodge before sunrise as I had arranged a special day trip for us. We travelled at best speed up north towards Kasane, a wonderful town that is the gateway to the Chobe National Park. We put that idea on hold and jumped into a pre-arranged transfer taxi that took us over the Zambezi River bridge into Zambia. An hour later we were in Livingstone, home to the mile-wide and world-famous Victoria Falls.
My friend and Land Rover fan, Ignatius Lindeque, took us on a 30-minute flight over the gushing falls. We didn’t have much time and next followed a quick jog across the Vic Falls bridge to pose for pics at the ‘Welcome to Zimbabwe’ sign. Next up was a boat trip to Livingstone Island which is on the edge of the falls. We took a swim across the top of the falls to the Devil’s Pools, where we were able to sit on the edge of the falls. They would not allow this sort of thing in Australia or the UK due to health and safety regulations. TIA… this is Africa, after all.
A quick stop at Foleys Land Rover followed so that we could pick up a new air filter for the Defender 130. Two of the chaps in our group only had day visas for Zambia, so after enjoying a few beers and watching the sun set over the Zambezi with some locals, we made a mad dash for the bridge and border post at Kazungula.
We rejoined the convoy at our base for the next two nights, Thebe River Safaris on the banks of the Chobe Rover. That night we fell asleep to the sound of grunting hippos grazing nearby. We had another early start when a game viewer came to collect us an hour before sunrise. Most wild animals are at their most active at sunrise and sunset and we wanted to be in the Chobe National Park when the gates opened. Within minutes of entering the park we started to tick off impressive animal sightings: buffaloes, zebras, warthogs, Vervet monkeys, giraffes and impalas.
Our guide’s radio crackled to life. A large pride of lions had been spotted not too far away. I saw ten or so other game viewers before I spotted the lions. They were on the hunt. We followed them for about an hour and although they didn’t make a kill it was still a privilege to just see them in the wild.
Our final afternoon in Kasane was filled with a sunset cruise, one of the must do activities when there. Once again, we were treated to spectacular wildlife sightings that included a herd of elephants crossing one of the deep channels. Just like some 4x4s they use their trunks as snorkels. Once the flaming orange sun slipped away below the horizon our memorable cruise was over. I didn’t want it to end because I knew that the next day we would start heading south again.
Instead of taking the tarred route we headed for the famed Hunters Road, a north/south cutline between Zimbabwe and Botswana. There are no fences and the animals can roam freely between the two countries. Animals and hunters use this trail to head north during the dry season. It is a rough old track and one or two of the 4x4s picked up punctures. Dylan Venter produced his ARB jack, portable compressor and tyre repair kit and within minutes the convoy was moving again.
We spotted several of the rarer antelope species, including big herds of roan and tsessebe. Elephants had dug up some sections of the track, which was now hard, caked mud. We had to proceed slowly, and it took an entire day to do 250km.
Our final night in Botswana was spent at Nata Lodge. From there is only 860km back to the airport in Johannesburg, South Africa. We had covered about 2 500km in just over a week. I left the new Defender at the VIP parking and boarded a British Airways flight to London. Our Botswana adventure was over. On the flight back, I could not help but think about the unofficial Land Rover slogan, ‘One Life, Live It’… We had done exactly that!
If you and some mates would like to do a guided 4×4 trip in Botswana, contact Bernie from MegaXplore on +27 78 630 2853 or email@example.com