Roadtrippin' Botswana: Part 1

When a best friend of nearly 15 years spontaneously pitched the idea of a roadtrip in Southern Africa, I didn’t hesitate before agreeing. There are some adventures that you just know are going to be utterly fantastic and this was one of them. Chess and I have been friends since we were 11. After she set up a marine conservation organisation in Mozambique a few years ago, I’ve been promising to go and visit her. Finally, the opportunity was here, with a slight detour through South Africa and Botswana first!

We needed to pick up Chess’ Toyota Hilux (Tonia the Toyota) in Pretoria, South Africa, so that made sense as our starting point. From there, we mapped out a route that took in a lap of northern Botswana, covering as much distance as possible in the ten days we had to play with, while also making time for the photography jobs for lodges and activity providers we had lined up. It was going to be a full-on ten days.

Let the adventure begin

As the first day finally arrived, Chess and I could barely contain our excitement. We had a relatively straightforward day ahead of us, an eight-ish hour drive to Khama Rhino Sanctuary. The further away from South Africa we travelled, the more remote and bare the landscape around us became, giving us a taste of what was to come.

It was late afternoon by the time we reached Khama Rhino Sanctuary and we wasted no time in exploring the 4,300-hectare reserve. We had until sunset, at which point we had to be at our allocated camping spot on the far side of the conservancy.

 
 

We spent a few hours bumping and winding our way along the sand roads without passing another vehicle. The reserve is home to rhinos, zebras, hyenas, wildebeest, giraffes, impalas, kudu, and so much more; as first safari experiences go, it was not bad going! Self-driving meant we had the freedom to stop whenever we wanted so we could both quietly climb out of the car to photograph the wildlife.

As the sun slowly set behind us, we began to make our way towards where we were supposed to pitch our tent. This wasn’t your average campsite; the pitches are spread throughout a large area of the reserve and each one feels very isolated. You’re still very much in the game reserve, unprotected but for a few trees around the cleared area.

Tonia the Temperamental Toyota

Still a few miles from our site, Tonia the Toyota came to an abrupt standstill. Chess and I half laughed at each other, thinking she’d stalled. Upon trying to restart the car, we discovered that Tonia was not playing ball: there was no response when Chess turned the ignition, in fact no response from anything we tried. We couldn’t even close the windows, suggesting the battery had packed in. This was apparently not uncommon for Tonia the Toyota, so we hopped out to try the usual quick-fix… To no avail.

As darkness set in around us and the stars began to appear overhead, it became increasingly apparent that we were stuck for the night. Trying not to panic, we decided to walk towards the main entrance gate in the hope of passing someone who would be able to help us. It didn’t take long for the darkness to have us on edge, and we suddenly became very aware of the fact that we were alone in the bush at night, with no substantial light or defence-mechanism.

Soon we halted in our tracks and agreed that walking through hyena and rhino territory in the pitch black probably wasn’t the most sensible idea. Turning around abruptly, we made our way back to the car as quickly as possible. Our only option was to pitch our tent in a small clearing nearby and wait until daylight.

Thankfully, Chess and I are both very good at seeing the positives in a bad situation. In this particular situation, those positives came in the form of cold pizza, a bottle of wine and watching a movie on our laptop in the tent. As the last of the film credits rolled off the laptop screen, we lay down for an interesting night’s sleep.

First thing the following morning, we managed to flag down a car. The driver (one of the elusive rangers we’d spent hours trying to get hold of the previous evening) managed to get Tonia started again in no time; all of the bumping around the day before had caused something to come loose but he soon had us back in action.

Where Elephants Rule

Back on the road, we had another long slog ahead of us in the car as we headed north to Elephant Sands, a bush lodge and campsite located on an unfenced 16,000ha private conservancy in north-eastern Botswana. Their tag-line is “Where Elephants Rule”, and we immediately saw why as we turned off the potholed tarmac road and onto the track leading to the lodge. Several elephants were slowly plodding across the bush, heading for the safari tents and chalets.

Elephant Sands is built around a large waterhole. Walking between our safari tent and the main area of the lodge we had to pause several times to check we weren’t about to walk straight into the path of an elephant – they understandably have right of way over pedestrians…

 
 

After a delicious dinner, Chess and I are made our way down to the firepit, which was right by the waterhole. We were joined by a few scruffy-haired American and German guys who were five months into a truly epic trip, cycling from Cairo to Cape Town. As we shared adventure stories over beers and a crackling fire, we were joined by more and more elephants. At one point, we watched, captivated, as over twenty elephants came within ten metres of us, on the whole contentedly minding their own business. There was the occasional tussle which would culminate in one trumpeting victoriously, the other ambling away in defeat.

Heading West

We were up and away early the next morning, but not before waving goodbye to our new cycling pals and wishing them luck for the final month of their amazing adventure. We had incentive to be efficient in getting on the road today: we had been warned several times about the state of the road we were about to follow between Nata and Maun. It was apparently riddled with potholes and our progress would be slow and disrupted, despite only having 400km to cover.

It transpired that the state of the road had been somewhat exaggerated and the majority was actually fine. That said, the bad sections were bad. It became a matter of slaloming our way between what would be best described as crevasses, often opting to simply go off-road as it meant smoother passage.

During the moments of respite provided by smooth(er) tarmac, Chess and I were able to take in the landscape around us. Arid, flat plains stretched as far as the eye could see, intermittent clusters of green trees appearing to fleetingly break up the otherwise soft, tawny-coloured landscape. Passing through Makgadikgadi and Nxai Pan National Parks, huge salt flats were exposed, white and reflecting the immense heat of the day. We had no aircon in the car so our windows were constantly wound down in the hope of a cooling breeze… Unfortunately, we instead had to accept the warm air that poured in.

Maun: Tourist capital of Botswana

After five hours of constantly scrutinising the road ahead for potholes, slamming on the brakes and swerving from one side of the road to the other (the standard Botswanan style of driving), we finally reached Maun. As the fifth largest town in Botswana and reputedly the “tourist capital” of the country, we knew we were in for a busier setting than we’d experienced so far in Botswana.

Thankfully, the guesthouse we were photographing (Waterfront Guesthouse) and using as a base for the next few days is slightly removed from the city centre. It’s beautifully located right on the banks of the Thamalakane River, the balcony or terrace of each room looking across the water. An almost perceptible peace shields the property from the busyness of the nearby city, heightened by the tall trees gently swaying in the afternoon breeze, their leaves rustling quietly and birds flitting between the branches.

 
 

Ride Botswana

We had an adventurous few days planned for Maun, starting with a two-hour horse riding safari with Ride Botswana. Reaching the stables, we were welcomed by our guides Femke and Chief, and introduced to our steeds. Quite often, horses at holiday parks or activity centres will be “happy hackers”; gentle, calm, perfect for beginners – but clearly bored of their job. All they know is to follow the tail of the horse in front of them. This was not the case with the horses here. They were impeccably behaved, but through their meticulous schooling rather than boredom.

Mounting up and leaving the yard, we immediately began making our way along wide, sandy tracks, the sunlight falling gently through the leaves of the trees overhead and casting dappled shadows across the ground below. Mere minutes into the ride, Chief beckoned us to a halt, pointing out a flock of ostriches, chicks tottering around tentatively at their mothers’ feet.

From then, our sightings only got better. Zebras, giraffes, impalas; none of them were remotely phased by the horses passing close by. At one point, as we watched a baby giraffe, we heard the thunder of hooves as another giraffe stampeded past behind us. It reminded me how lucky we were to be able to get so close to the wildlife in a less obtrusive way than in the usual safari vehicle.

It was with a distinct sense of disappointment that we finished our ride a few hours later. I would have happily continued for the remainder of the day, content as I was winding through the sand and pale grass on horseback, eyes constantly roving the landscape for signs of other animals.

 
 

Taking to the air

The next morning, Chess and I were up just after sunrise, giddy with excitement. We’d managed to find ourselves a last-minute helicopter flight with Helicopter Horizons. We would be flying over the Okavango Delta, a UNESCO World Heritage area and one of the Seven Natural Wonders of Africa. Though March is not the best time of the year to visit as the river is yet to come this far South, we did not let this deter us.

Our pilot for the morning’s excursion was an entertaining Irish guy called Joe. This was my first time in a helicopter, and I’ll admit that I was a bit disconcerted upon seeing how small the aircraft was. There were no doors on either side; the only thing keeping me inside was a seatbelt. I wedged my camera bag between my feet, somewhat paranoid that my second lens would escape and fall to its demise (thankfully this didn’t happen).

Seatbelts buckled and headsets firmly in place, our ascent began. My stomach lurched as we rapidly shot upwards through the air and left the comfort of the airport behind. The higher we climbed, the more the tiny helicopter was buffeted by the wind, bouncing and tossing from side-to-side.

Catching myself tightly gripping the sides of my seat, muscles tense, I decided to consciously relax; I wanted to enjoy the experience and get the most out of it, and that wouldn’t happen unless I put the thoughts of imminent death to one side. This was easy to do once we had passed over the Okavango boundary and Joe dropped our height. Immediately, photo opportunities appeared, and my head pivoted relentlessly as I tried to take in what was below.

Lush plains spanned the entirety of my field of vision, a smooth mishmash of green and yellow grass, clumps of trees with elephants and giraffes visible in the shadows, and the blue of rivers and streams zigzagging off into the distance. The helicopter soared over lines of buffalo plodding along in file and towering elephants calmly making their way across the bush as if without agenda or destination. None seemed remotely disturbed by our appearance overhead.

 
 

A few hours later and another fantastically memorable experience ticked off, Chess and I loaded our packed bags back into the back of Tonia the Toyota and hit the potholed road once again. We’d had a busy, adventurous few days in Maun, but the wilderness of the bush and two last lodges now awaited…