No.1 Original Botswana 4X4 Fly-Drive Safari: occasionally imitated, but never equalled!
We arrive at Gabarone airport, where our fully equipped 4X4 camper vehicles await us. Each booking gets their own vehicle, complete with roof-top tent, fridge freezer, cutlery, crockery, camp furniture, recovery gear, freshly laundered linen, and pretty much everything else required for self-sufficient independent travel through the remote wilderness areas of Southern Africa. We head directly into town to stock up with provisions, have a look around and generally acclimatising ourselves to being in Africa.
But everyone is keen to get out of the city and into the bush, so before long we’re off and on our way to the Kalahari, via the onomatopoeiacally-named town of Molepolole. After a couple of hours we stop at the little town of Letlhakeng, the last opportunity for fuel for a few hundred kilometres – 1,200km to be precise, and fuel-guzzling kilometres they are too, many through thick, soft, deep desert sand. Needless to say, we fill up all of our main tanks, reserve tanks and jerry cans. Fuel is cheap compared with what we are accustomed to paying, and one can never have enough where we are going.
We enter the Central Kalahari Game Reserve through the Khutse Game Reserve in the south east and, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn, we visit the waterholes at the pans of Molose and Moreswe, where we get lucky and spot lions, wild dogs and brown hyenas. All on our very first day in the bush! That night we camp at Mahurushele Pan, enjoying the first of many delicious BBQ braai’s on white hot coals of the local Mopane wood, bought on the roadside before entering the reserve – it is forbidden to help yourself to any flora or fauna, dead or alive, within any of the reserves. Quite rightly too.
We continue our journey north west through the Kalahari Desert, towards Bape Camp, which is not so much a camp, as a clearing in the bush. In Europe, it is what we would refer to as a wild camp, a secluded place of natural beauty, devoid of any infrastructure or development of any sort. Perfect if you appreciate immersing yourself in the unspoiled wilderness environment of Southern Africa. We enjoy a relatively short and easy day’s driving, along well-defined tracks without too much momentum-sapping deep sand (that will come tomorrow, a tiring day of proper desert driving), through the heart of Bushmanland, ancestral homeland of the stone-age San Bushmen people. We pass a number of San villages, including those at Kukama and Mothomelo, locations of the last few remaining clans of San Bushmen still living their hunter-gatherer existences within the reserve.
The next day is tough on the cars, and some of the people, as we negotiate the unforgiving soft, thick, deep sand of the desert, covering over 200km through Black-Maned Lion territory. It is a true test of endurance desert driving, and a stark illustration of the importance of being adequately equipped and prepared. Whilst there is nothing unsafe about doing this stretch carefully and responsibly, this is definitely not the time or the place for playing games or taking chances. The track between Bape and Xade (to where we are headed) is a demanding one, cutting right through the middle of the Kalahari, and is the last place you would want to suffer any sort of mechanical mishap. For those who enjoy sand driving through the desert though, this is a day of great fun, rewarded by a real sense of achievement at its conclusion. Plenty of beers will be sunk around the fire on this night!
Due north en route to Piper’s Pan next, location of a veritable plethora of wildlife, and a beautiful semi-wild camp adjacent to the pan. After yesterday’s challenging conditions, we enjoy a relaxing day, driving slowly along easy tracks, passing huge herds of Springbok and occasional isolated groups of Gemsbok. Giraffe, ostriches and the like are common, but this is also the land of the Black-Maned Lion, a specific subspecies with differing behaviour and appearance to other lions. In adaptation to the environment of the Kalahari, these lions generally exist in smaller prides, hunting over greater distances and thriving on smaller prey. Kalahari lions are smaller than other lions and are able to survive without water for much longer periods. Their bushy black manes give them an imposing, threatening appearance. These are the guys who keep us awake at night, with their raucous noise.
From Piper’s Pan we continue north east towards Deception Valley, pausing at the numerous water holes en route, and chalking up additional sightings of all manner of African wildlife. Think of any African animal which comes to mind and the chances are, if you haven’t already seen it, you will soon. Lions are plentiful in this area, as are cheetah, and of course their preferred fare of springbok, gemsbok, red hartebeest, wildebeest and the likes. Deception Valley is an ancient fossilised river bed, providing good grazing for the huge herds of antelope frequenting the area, in turn attracting the predators which so enthral us. During our game drives in and around Deception Valley, we will encounter lion, cheetah, jackal, hyena, bat-eared fox, and possibly leopard, though they can be shy.
We exit the Central Kalahari Game Reserve at Matswere Gate in the north, on our way to the town of Rakops, where at last we can fill our dwindling fuel tanks, stock up on fresh water and provisions, and enjoy a bit of banter with the locals. The Tswana are a fantastically friendly and welcoming people, always with huge smiles and great humour. And they love their country and their wildlife. From Rakops we take the road (potentially the most pot-holed road in Africa!) west north west to Maun, gateway to the Okavango and base for most of the safari operators. We are done with the desert for now, so it’s time to head to the delta. From the mighty Kalahari Desert to the awesome Okavango Delta, this trip offers diversity in spades. You might even see the elusive Fukawi bird!
We stay at Audi Camp, on the river just north of Maun, from where we enjoy a sunset boat cruise. Witnessing hippos, crocs and all manner of water fowl, it’s a wonder filled experience, in the backdrop of the blood-red evening sun. Then back to camp for yet another meat feast from the braai. Steaks, chops, boerewors – you name it, we serve it, authentically and deliciously. For those with an interest in overlanding vehicles, the visitors to Audi Camp provide an endless array of different models, from Land Cruisers to Land Rovers and everything in between. All well kitted out.
From Maun we head to Moremi National Park in the Okavango Delta, to our bush camp base located near South Gate. It is a semi-wild camp in that, although located deep in the bushveld, is equipped with toilets and showers. Game roam freely through, and the naughty elephants regularly destroy the water pipes, much to the chagrin of the manager, who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time undertaking remedial plumbing works. For the next few days we will be making excursions into and around Moremi National Park, an absolute treasure of a nature reserve, providing the most amazing and exciting wildlife viewings at very close quarters. If you’ve come for the big game, you will be in your element for the next few days. Moremi was the first ever wildlife sanctuary to be established by a local tribe, and very proud of it they are too. With good reason, it is exceptional, offering varied vegetation, terrain and conditions in which to experience the best of Southern Africa’s big game. The legendary Third Bridge, Fourth Bridge and Khwai Bridge – we cross them all, exploring everything in between, and experiencing the occasional challenging river crossing to boot.
After the exhilaration of Moremi, it’s hard to imagine there is anything left to be excited about. But there is, and it comes in the form of the Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Park to the east, where we stay at North Camp, marvelling at the spectacular wildlife which abounds around the main waterhole. August is the perfect time of year for big game – because the bushveld is so dry, rather than spending all of their time out grazing under cover, the animals all need to come and take water.
South of Nxai Pan, we camp out at Baines’ Baobabs, surely some of Africa’s largest, ancient sentries majestically overlooking an endless flat salt pan. From this imposing natural spectacle, we make our way east to the luxurious resort of Elephant Sands, for a very special conclusion to our adventure. Described by participants as the adventure of a lifetime!