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From bone-dry pans to the watery Okavango





13 February 2017


We were extremely excited, despite the hour. It was 3:30am and four of us had gathered at the N1 Petropoort fuel station on a Sunday morning in August, ready to begin our three-week camping trip though Botswana and Namibia.

Thinus and Karen drove their 4×4 Toyota Fortuner, with a Shadow 750 trailer, while my husband Gary and I drove our Toyota Land Cruiser 78 series that we had modified into a photographic vehicle in 2011. Our Land Cruiser has two fuel tanks, each 90 litres, as well as a 60-litre water tank. We also have a dual battery system for our 90-litre Luna fridge/freezer and a converter to enable us to charge our camera batteries. We have two roof racks and a game hatch in between, which enables us to pop up and take photos.

Kubu Island in Botswana was our first destination. We made our way to the Martin’s Drift/Grobler’s Bridge border post, taking our time because our Land Cruiser felt as if it had no power and juddered when going over 100km/h. It had just been for a service and we thought that maybe we had some dirt in the fuel tanks. (We discovered post-trip that the problem was due to a leaking fuel filter.) The border official asked if we had any fruit and vegetables and we paid the 190 pula road tax. We were happy to find that the road from the border post en route to Palapye is now free of potholes. In Palapye, about 110km from the border post, we filled up with fuel followed by our traditional Wimpy Breakfast at the Red Sands Hotel. We then carried on towards Serowe, driving through Letlhakane, which is just before Orapa. Letlhakane is a big town and it even has a Woolies.

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The tar road ends 45km before Kubu and becomes an easy sand road that offered some scenic photo opportunities. We arrived at Kubu just after 3pm, 12 hours after our early-morning start. Despite having booked a particular campsite, we were told at the Kubu office which campsites we could choose from. We bought a small bundle of wood and found a lovely site overlooking the pan. We enjoyed traditional sundowners by the baobab while savouring the scenery. As we were only staying one night, we didn’t bother pitching tents; instead opting for the Oz-Trail pop-up mesh tent which gave us a full 360-degree panoramic view.

Kubu Island is a rocky outcrop close to the south-western shore of Sowa Pan. When reading up on the history of Kubu Island, I discovered that this “crescent-shaped island is about one kilometre long, and its slopes are littered with fossil beaches of rounded pebbles, which are an indication of the prehistoric lake’s former water level. Many rocks on the island are covered in fossilised guano, from the waterbirds that once perched here”. We left Kubu just before 8am en route to Baines’ Baobabs where we would be camping for the next four nights. We decided to go to Baines’ via Gweta, discovering only later that there’s a better route, especially in the dry season, via the pans. After five hours of 4×4ing in very windy and dusty conditions and guessing which ‘path’ to take, we reached Gweta. Here we made sure we had filled up as the next town with fuel is Maun, some 115kms away.

We were warmly greeted at the Baines’ gate and advised that there are two routes to the campsite: the sandy road to the right, or the parallel bumpy road to the left. We opted for the sand, which was extremely bumpy, too. After a while, the Fortuner’s warning light came on, so we stopped for a bit to let the vehicle cool down. We decided that the Land Cruiser would tow the trailer to lighten the Fortuner’s load. We reached the amazing Baines’ campsite at 4pm, just in time for a sundowner before putting up the tents. There are seven enormous baobab trees overlooking the pan, named after the British artist and explorer Thomas Baines and our campsite was near three of these trees and had a seemingly never-ending view of the pan and its mesmerising sunsets.

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The following morning, Thinus discovered why the Fortuner had been struggling. Both the trailer’s leaf springs were broken and we had been dragging the trailer through that thick sand. The trailer would have to be fixed, but that could wait. We decided to visit the Nxai Pan National Park. We took the shorter, very sandy route to Nxai Pan and later learnt that while the longer route is also sandy, it’s never-the-less much better. The drive takes about an hour, depending on the condition of the road. At the entrance to the park, there’s a well-stocked tuckshop and friendly staff who advised us of a recent sighting of a cheetah and her two cubs.

The Park is approximately 2 100km2 and has several pans that were previously salt lakes. It was very dry during our visit and only the permanent waterholes had water, which is where we watched various game and many elephant come to bath and drink during the day. The following day we left camp early to drive the two hours to Maun where we had a friend who we had forewarned about our trailer problem. He was quite surprised to see how damaged and broken the trailer leaf springs were. We managed to find two brand new ones and with a bit of handiwork, we made it all fit perfectly back onto the trailer.

As we were driving back towards our camp, the Fortuner got a flat tyre. While the men were happy to make use of their tools, we knew we would have to make time to return and have the tyre fixed in Maun as we still had many places to visit and needed a spare. On our last day, we went back to Nxai Pan National Park and saw wildebeest, springbok, impala, ostrich, sparrowhawk, side-stripped and silver-backed jackal, elephant, giraffe and zebra at the permanent waterhole. We missed the cheetah and her two cubs, though. While we were at the waterhole another vehicle parked next to ours and advised us that our back tyre was flat – the second flat tyre of the trip.

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Sadly it was our last night at Baines’ and we again enjoyed sundowners while watching the sunset over the pan. We packed up camp on Friday and on our way out, stopped to help a couple from Germany, Marco and his wife Anna, who were visiting Botswana and were due to have spent the night at Baines’. Unfortunately, they’d also had a puncture and when Marco tried to remove the tyre, the wheel spanner from the rented vehicle had broken. They had no choice but to wait for help and spent the night on the side of the road. Once the spare tyre was on, they followed us back to Maun to get their tyre fixed, too. This was the third flat tyre of the trip and we now carry two wheel spanners in our vehicle
in case we find ourselves in a similar situation.

We decided to take a break from camping and our next three nights were spent at Guma Lagoon Camp, which is situated on the north-western side of the Okavango Delta. You’ll find the lodge 300km from Maun, travelling in the direction of Sehitwa on the A3. From the A3, you turn onto the A35 in the direction of Sakhawe. The small town of Gumare has a fuel station. We’d booked a chalet that overlooks the beautiful Okavango, opting for the self-catering option (full board is also available) as you have full access to the communal kitchen including fridges and freezers. Every night a fire was prepared in case we wanted to braai.

We hired a boat and for the next two days, went fishing for threespot tilapia (also known as yellow-belly bream), but mostly for tiger fish. We were fortunate to have found a barble run, thanks to our knowledgeable guide, and caught several. A lot of work, it is never-the-less such a thrill to catch a barble and we had great fun. Guma offers magnificent views, the birdlife is prolific and we passed enormous crocodiles lying on the banks sunning themselves. On our second day at Guma, I went to get something from our vehicle and noticed that our front left tyre was flat. Number four! Much to our delight, the staff at Guma fixed it for us so we could carry on fishing.

After a blissful three days at Guma, we left on the Monday for Namibia via Shakawe, which is about 80km from the Guma turnoff. We reached the Mohembo border post and entered Namibia on the gravel road that goes through the Bwabwata National Park, where the speed limit is 40km/h for 12km. We then left the park and joined the B8, direction Kongola. After six hours of easy travelling on good roads, including a few stops along the way, we reached Kongola. Our destination was the Nambwa Campsite in the Bwabwata National Park, in the Kwando Core area. Formerly known as the Caprivi Game Park, it is approximately 1 280km2. Our friends – Brenda, Gerhard, Carla and Anne – with whom we have enjoyed numerous bush trips, joined us just outside the fuel station. They had driven up from Joburg via Nata.

We checked in at the Nambwa reception and went to our campsites which had a lovely view of the river, but were rather small. Later that night, we were woken by elephant walking and grazing through the camp: a huge herd had surrounded us. Our tents were shaken as the elephant touched tent ropes or poles as they grazed, but for the most part they were ever so gentle. It was rather daunting and this happened every night. We mentioned to the manager that the elephant were in the campsite each night and that it could be dangerous but our concerns were dismissed as he said the lodge wants to keep the look of the “African experience”.

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The campsites were cleaned every day and there is an ablution block with a toilet and hot showers (donkey system), an area with three-pin power points for people to leave their fridges running and also a wash up place. Firewood was available at R10 a bundle. In addition to the baboons at the campsite, there is much birdlife, we saw bablers, barbets and scarlet-chested sunbirds which picked at the flowers from the beautiful sausage trees along the river. We could also hear the chin-spot batis, grey-headed bushshrike, fish eagles, lesser-stripped swallow and go-away birds.

Early every morning, when the elephant were no longer blocking our exit, we drove out of the camp to Horseshoe Bend, which is about 4km from the camp. It is a beautiful setting with good views over the river. We drove on all the way up to the Botswana border road and, despite the dry conditions, we saw lechwe, impala, beautiful sable, zebra, kudu, wildebeest, many troops of baboon and herds of elephant. On the Thursday we left camp early and drove to Mudumu National Park in the hope to see some other wildlife. It was about 70km from our camp and it took us about an hour and a half to reach Mudumu. The Mudumu is in the Zambezi region on the Kwando River and is approximately 737m2. Here we saw a few elephant, buffalo, zebra, hippo, warthog, impala and kudu.

We had booked for seven nights but because the game was scarce due to the dry conditions, we decided to leave after our fourth night and make our way back through Botswana to explore other places. As we had only paid 50% of our camping fees, the lodge happily adjusted our payment. We left on the Friday and made our way to Kasane via the Ngoma border post. Lots of tourists seem to use this route for Chobe National Park, Kasane and Victoria Falls. The officials checked our car and fridges for meat and fruit products, as these are not allowed into Botswana. The road tax for Namibia was N$259 for our Land Cruiser and was valid for three months, but the officials cancel this permit when you exit, unlike in Botswana where the permit remains valid for the time specified, even if you exit and re-enter.

We managed to get accommodation in Kasane, northern Botswana, at the Garden Lodge situated on the Chobe River and arrived at 1:30pm. After offloading our overnight luggage into our beautiful, well-equipped room overlooking a lush green garden set on the Chobe river, we went on a three-hour boat ride. There are many tourist boats out on the river and we enjoyed good sightings of elephant, lechwe, huge crocodile, hippo and various birdlife, including the African skimmer. That night we had dinner with friends at the Pizza, Coffee and Curry Restaurant, which we can highly recommend. The curry was amazing. The following morning we went on a wonderful private boat ride arranged by the Garden Lodge. The Garden Lodge describes itself as, “a four-star lodge with five- star commitment” and that is certainly what we experienced.

We left Kasane en route to Nata where we had booked accommodation at the Pelican Lodge, located at the tip of Makgadikgadi Pans and close to the Nata Sanctuary. After another stop en route for a meat and fruit search, we arrived at Pelican Lodge at 5pm and although the campsite looked great, with private ablutions, power points, hot and cold water and a fireplace, we opted to rent a chalet. On our last day, we left Pelican Lodge early and made our way to the Nata Sanctuary 12km away and paid the daily entry fee of 145 pula per person. The sanctuary is approximately 230km2 with 45% of the area made up of pans. We enjoyed a lovely scenic drive, beautiful views of the pans and even managed to spot some pelicans in the distance.

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We left the sanctuary and started making our way back to Joburg via Francistown, Palapye and arrived at Martin’s Drift Border post at 2:45pm. However, before reaching Franscistown, we had to change one of the tyres that had previously been fixed as it was slowly losing air. This was tyre change five! I think the men have changed enough tyres to last them a lifetime now. Going through Francistown we lost about an hour due to road construction and heavy traffic and another hour at the Botswana border post, which was extremely busy. It’s probably better to avoid border posts on a Sunday. We carried on to Joburg via Ellisras and finally reached home at 8:30pm.

August/ September 2016 Costs Summary
Road tax (based on our Toyota Land Cruiser)
Namibia road tax N$259 for one vehicle
Botswana road tax N$190 for one vehicle

Entry fees
Nambwa Tented Lodge N$195 camping per night
Bwabwata National Park entry fee N$30 per person per day
Bwabwata National Park vehicle entry fee N$10 per day
Mudumu National Park entry fee N$30 per person
Mudumu National Park vehicle fee N$10

Fuel cost per litre
Botswana P7.23
Namibia N$11.02
South Africa R11.77

Summary fuel cost for the trip
Left home with just under one tank of fuel of 80 litres at R11.77, R941.00
Total of 3 789.65 pula for 518.85 litres
Total of N$405 for 36.03 litres
Total of R100 for 8.50 litres
Total cost of fuel = R6 372.55 (use an exchange rate of 1.3 from R to P)
Total litres of fuel = 643.38
Total kilometres travelled over 15 days = 4 333

Text & Photos: Sandra Roniger