The Seventies Safari started when Hannes Conradie of Oudtshoorn bought a used SsangYong Musso 4×4 from a friend and colleague, and needed justification for doing so at the age of 72. He tells more…
Botswana has always fascinated me as being one of the most stable African countries politically. Yet I had never been there, so decided that a 4×4 tour through that country would be a nice reason to justify my crazy decision to buy a 4×4 vehicle at the ripe old age of 72.
I did not want to tackle the trip alone, though, much less pitch tents every night, so I went looking for a 4×4 tour operator. Johann du Toit, also from Oudtshoorn, fitted the bill perfectly.
We agreed on an itinerary and I committed myself to getting a tour group of my own choice together for a safari to Botswana during September. Johann would supply and erect the two-man tents, arrange camping facilities and provide two meals a day — breakfast or brunch and evening dinner around the campfire.
My Musso was to carry five people, and we also managed to get friends and families together for a total of 17 tourists. Johann brought his Toyota Land Cruiser with off road trailer and his very able assistant, Piet, to make it a convoy of five. We had six people older than 70, a couple of plus-60s, some over 45 and one young girl of 31.
We entered Botswana at the Ramatlabama border post, with Lobatse being the first town on our way. Most of Botswana’s 1,6-million people are concentrated in the south-eastern urban areas, the country being one of the world’s most thinly populated with less than three people per square km.
Next, we skirted the capital city of Gaborone, which is one of the fastest growing cities in Africa, and took the tarred road to Molepolole and Lethlakeng, where the tar ends. It is also the last place to get fuel on your way to Khutse.
Although Lethlakeng marks the start of the dry Kalahari sands, not long ago this area was reputed to be quite lush. The name Lethlakeng actually means “place of reeds”, nothing of which is visible today.
The 120km road to Khutse Game Reserve varies from hard and badly corrugated to long stretches of deep sand — not really suitable for anything but a 4×4. We arrived at the gate with less than an hour of sunlight to spare.
There aren’t any fences in or around the Khutse Game Reserve and we camped in the open bush around a camelthorn tree, with a boma with “long drop” nearby being the only semblance of a mod con.
The following day was spent exploring the game reserve, hoping to come across lion. The bush was too thick to see much, but on the open pans we saw oryx, springbok, jackal, giraffe and a variety of big birds. We did find lion tracks about 50m from our campsite, so they were around.
The second night the lions did pay a visit. One lioness sharpened her nails against the trunk of the camelthorn tree and jumped onto one of its branches (about 3m high) with the greatest of ease. She lay there for quite some time, while a second one started playing with our canvas camping chairs by knocking them to and fro, like a cat with a mouse.
In a neighbouring tent, Basie Burger thought the low groans were coming from the tent next door belonging to his brother-inlaw. So, being the perfect gentleman, he turned a deaf ear to what he took to be sounds of passion, and went back to sleep, subsequently missing out on all the feline fun…
About two hours after midnight, nature called Charl Wannenburg, and in the moonlight he looked straight into the eyes of two big cats. His son, the Springbok rugby player Pedrie, would have been proud of Charl’s dive back into the tent! The lionesses got a bigger fright, however, and scattered.
Soon everyone settled in to sleep again, only to be awakened by the most bone-chilling and terrifying roar of a male lion, right in the camp. This was the most frightening experience of my entire life. Nobody actually saw him, because nobody dared to move or make a sound.
This was followed by a most eerie silence, until we heard him growling again in the distance as he moved off towards the lionesses and the rest of the pride. Out of the window flew the theory that wild animals are scared of a fire…
At 2590 square km, the Khutse Game Reserve is large by normal standards, yet it is dwarfed by its vast neighbour, the 52 800 square km Central Kalahari Game Reserve. The Botswana government’s commitment to nature conservation is evidenced by the fact that almost 20% of the country’s surface area is proclaimed as national park or wildlife management area.
The following day we tackled the bad road back to Lethlakeng, where we filled up with fuel before negotiating a slightly better but still bad road all the way to Kang.
Close to Kang, the vegetation changed from thick bush to savanna, with grass and camelthorn trees, and we got on to the Trans- Kgalagadi highway, running across the width of the country from South Africa through to Namibia.
On the way to Ghanzi we were intrigued to see a snake eagle fly over the road with a huge snake dangling from its claw. Ghanzi is considered to be the capital of the Kalahari and is known for its cattle farming. There are a lot of Afrikaans-speaking cattle farmers in the district, who emigrated from South Africa some time during the previous century.
Some are descendants of the legendary pioneer, Hendrik van Zyl, who arrived at the same time as the Thirstland Trekkers and is notorious for killing 103 elephants in one day in 1875.
From Ghanzi the road turns north towards the Okavango Delta and the town Sehithwa near Lake Ngami. The landscape becomes slightly hilly and we saw the first baobab trees.
Baobabs can be up to 4000 years old and grow to more than 40m in diameter. There are countless legends about these “upsidedown trees”, one of the more interesting being that God gave a tree to each animal. The hyena was last in line, and was given this strange-looking baobab. In disgust, he pulled it out of the ground and replanted it upside down.
Maun, home to more than 40 000 people, is the gateway to the Okavango Delta and the tourism capital of Botswana. It is a busy town where African cultural tradition seems to meld happily with western influence.
At its busy airport we chartered four 6- seater planes to fly us over the Delta – the sole reason why we visited this town.
Returning in the direction of Sehithwa, we turned north along the western edge of the Delta towards Gumare, where the vegetation changed to thick mopane forest and we spotted the first elephants crossing the road.
Just before the village of Shakawi, we turned off to the banks of the Okavango River to camp for two days at the Shakawi Lodge. It is quite incredible that this volume of water had travelled for about seven months to get here from its Angolan source, 2000km away. Only 3% of it will reach the southern part of the Delta, before disappearing into the desert sand.
At the panhandle of the Okavango Delta, we were now about the farthest away from home on the trip, having travelled more than 3000km.
We were heading for the Caprivi part of Namibia, passing through the village of Shakawi, the border post at Mohembo, and on to the Mahango Game Reserve, where we camped at the Rainbow Lodge, just short of Bangani on the banks of the mighty Okavango River.
This truly is a beautiful camping site under the huge jackalberry trees, on a surface of grass instead of Kalahari desert sand for a change. We also enjoyed the luxury of a swimming pool and a bar.
Here we learned that jackalberry trees and sausage trees are the only ones used for the making of a mokoro, or dugout canoe. The fruit of the jackalberry is sweet and tastes almost like dates.
In the reserve we saw rare antelope such as roan and sable. There is a wide variety of wildlife and we counted 12 different species of large mammal in an hour of slow driving through the park.
The road to Katima Mulilo is 310km long, straight and monotonous through mopani forest, but is newly tarred. We crossed into Zambia at the Sesheke Bridge across the Zambezi River. It is advisable to take your patience pills beforehand. The border post facilities are primitive and the red tape can take quite a bit of time.
From here, a perfectly good tar road takes you straight to Livingstone through mopani forest. The Zambezi Sun International Hotel is on the outskirts of Livingstone, and with the whole area being a game reserve, it is common to see elephant in the road, and giraffe, zebra and monkeys roam about freely in the garden areas of the hotel.
The Kazungula ferry was used to cross back over the Zambezi into Botswana. We were lucky to pass through quickly, since there were 54 big trucks on the Zambian side and 70 on the Botswana side waiting to cross.
We camped at Toro Lodge for two nights, on the banks of the Chobe River. This is a tributary of the Zambezi and is known by different names in different areas. At its origin in Angola it is called Kwando, then it becomes Linyanti as it passes through the Caprivi, then the Itenge before it finally becomes the Chobe.
The next day we got up early for a morning drive through the Chobe Game Reserve, renowned for its big herds of elephant. Here we saw the sable and also the rare puku, which is found only here, in Zambia and in Tanzania.
A game-viewing boat ride on the Chobe River was one of the highlights of our safari, because you can get very close to the elephants and other game as they drink at the riverside.
On the 12th day it was time to turn south again on our way back to South Africa. We camped at an exclusive island on the Sowa Pan, one of the three large pans that form the Makgadikgadi. This is the largest salt pan in the world, its silver-grey surface covering more than 12 000 square km. Soda ash is mined here.
At Palapaye (the name refers to impala that used to thrive in the area) we said goodbye to each other and drifted off in different directions for home.
This tour proved, if anything, that although older people enjoy their comforts, they can adjust to more trying situations in the wild, thanks greatly to the experience and awareness of a tour leader such as Johann du Toit.