Text: Guy Furby
My wife and I arrived at Botswana’s Khama Rhino Sanctuary just as the sun started to disappear over the horizon. We were late for our rendezvous, but I was just relieved that we had made it at all.
We were there to meet Kalbas Nell to join him on his Botswana’s Secret Season self-drive safari and had wanted to reach the sanctuary hours earlier, but an unforeseen problem delayed us dreadfully. Fuel was scarce in Botswana, and getting our vehicle’s tanks filled had been quite a challenge.
When we arrived some time after 18h00, Kalbas was already there. His assistants were busily erecting tents and lighting fires, and the other safari members were mingling and getting to know one another. It was a small group (four vehicles in total), but everyone appeared friendly and excited about the trip. Surprisingly, I even knew one of the other group members – an old colleague of mine named Hein whom I had lost touch with over the years. Running into him on a guided trip through Botswana was very surprising and seemed like a good omen!
Officially, this was the start of our safari through Botswana, but our personal adventure had started days earlier. In fact, it had started back in Johannesburg with a simple phone call.
Since I can only take leave during the December holidays, there aren’t many guided trips we can take part in. Generally speaking, tour operators don’t seem to schedule trips over the festive season, so I was very excited when I read in Leisure Wheels about Kalbas’s Botswana safari. My wife had never been to Botswana and I was very eager to introduce her to this wonderful country. She had also never really camped in the bush before, so the fact that professionals would be on hand to pitch the tents and cook the dinners was an added incentive.
I booked a spot on the safari and prepared my Jeep Cherokee Sport for the trip by installing a fridge and a dual battery system. As it turned out, though, this wasn’t necessary, because my trusty Cherokee wouldn’t be accompanying us to Botswana.
On Friday 17 December, just as I was sitting down for lunch, my phone rang. It was Kalbas Nell phoning to inform me that I would be driving the Leisure Wheels Nissan Patrol for the duration of the trip.
I was speechless! I had been aware of the fact that one of the convoy members stood a chance of driving the Patrol, but since the start date of the safari was quickly approaching, I’d assumed that a name had been drawn and that it wasn’t mine.
But this wasn’t the case. I was going to drive the Patrol!
Before I ventured into Botswana with the 4×4, though, there were a couple of logistical issues to get out of the way. And time was running out.
I had to get copies of my driver’s licence and proof of residence to Nissan South Africa so that they could give me a letter of authorisation to take the vehicle across the border. The problem, however, was that Nissan was closing for the holidays in a few hours and I wouldn’t be able to get to the company’s head office in time. Thankfully, the people at Nissan got all the documents in order and left them at the security gate. When I arrived at their (closed) office, all the documents were waiting for me, as promised.
With the authorisation letter in my pocket, it was time to collect the Patrol from LA Sport’s head office where Lionel and his team had just completed the finishing touches. Considering the price of the vehicle and all its accessories, I thought that LA Sport would demand photo identification, a sworn statement and possibly a DNA sample before handing me the vehicle, but they simply handed over the keys and told me to enjoy the trip.
I couldn’t believe it! Leisure Wheels had really given me their extreme 4×4 in which to head into Botswana.
We hit the road at 06h30 on Tuesday 21 December and were at the border post just after 12h00. Crossing the border was fairly hassle-free and took roughly 90 minutes, which is not too bad at all. The biggest delay was caused by the fact that there was only one cashier on duty who could collect travellers’ vehicle tax and third-party insurance fees. We spent more than an hour in that queue.
Once in Botswana, our next priority was to fill up the Patrol’s two fuel tanks. Apart from the main tank, the SUV also has a secondary tank that increases overall capacity significantly. We still had a reasonable amount of fuel left in one tank, but with its robust 4,8-litre petrol engine, the Patrol was pretty thirsty, and I thought it best to get it filled up as soon as I had a chance.
The first town we entered was Palapye. We pulled into a petrol station, but were quickly turned away. There was no fuel.
We drove on.
While searching for another petrol station, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of a horrendous traffic jam. It was complete chaos. The streets were absolutely jam-packed with vehicles.
After sitting in the traffic for a while, the cause of all this confusion suddenly became clear. We weren’t really sitting in a traffic jam. We were actually waiting in a queue for fuel! Apparently, there was a massive shortage of fuel in Botswana and this was causing havoc at the few stations that still had petrol and diesel.
Rather than wait in this endless queue, we decided to travel on to Serowe and try our luck there. It was only 60km away, so we knew we’d be able to make it.
We found a petrol station shortly after entering Serowe and drove up to one of the pumps. At first, the situation seemed promising. We were met by an enthusiastic attendant who waved us in. When he realised that we were driving a petrol vehicle, however, his bonhomie disappeared. They still had diesel, but no petrol.
Once again, we drove on. We stopped at another garage, which couldn’t help us either, but one of the attendants told us that a station up the road had apparently just received some fuel. I thanked him for the tip, but remained sceptical.
Despite my reservations, though, we checked out the garage he had mentioned. And to our surprise, we discovered that they had indeed received fuel. But a massive queue had already formed and it took us more than two hours to reach the pumps. Nevertheless, the tanks were eventually filled and we were back in business. We could finally head for Khama Rhino Sanctuary.
As mentioned, we only arrived at the sanctuary after 18h00. When we explained the reason for our tardiness, Kalbas said that he had experienced the same problem. In fact, he had eventually given up trying to find fuel and headed straight for the sanctuary. He had to get everything in order before his clients arrived and couldn’t waste time driving from one petrol station to the next. Upon arrival, he phoned a contact in Maun to find out how widespread the problem was. The news wasn’t good. The entire country was out of fuel.
Only one option remained: the safari would have to be cancelled.
Botswana’s secret season would remain a secret. Group members would spend one night at the sanctuary, and then head their separate ways. For a brief moment, we considered exploring Botswana on our own. Kalbas even gave us a tent to use and pointed out some places on the map that would be worth visiting. But in the end, we decided against it. It just wasn’t worth the risk. Sitting in the middle of Botswana with no hope of finding fuel would be a catastrophe.
Obviously, we were very disappointed. Our much-anticipated adventure had come to a very premature end. But the reason for Kalbas’s decision was understandable. Leading a convoy of vehicles into an area without fuel is hazardous. And, of course, we still had the Patrol, so everything wasn’t lost.
We headed back to South Africa (thankfully with enough fuel to cross the border), and spent a week at a game reserve near Bela Bela (Warmbaths). This gave us a chance to test the Patrol in off-road conditions and it impressed us tremendously.
I’ve been driving 4x4s for quite some time. My first encounter with off-road driving was in my army days w
hen I regularly drove a Unimog. And compared to most vehicles (especially an old army Unimog!), Nissan’s SUV is supremely comfortable. We drove on a heavily-corrugated dirt road at about 80 km/h and the unevenness of the surface was barely noticeable. The TJM suspension installed by LA Sport undoubtedly had a lot to do with this.
The Patrol is also great on off-road trails. We spent a day on Mabalingwe’s 4×4 track and the vehicle never faltered. It climbed up and down steep, rock-strewn slopes with the greatest of ease. In the one or two instances where I engaged low range, it was only because I felt sorry for the Patrol’s torque converter.
At one stage, while driving down a steep slope, we encountered a vehicle heading in the opposite direction. It was a very narrow track with a huge drop on one side, which meant that the vehicles couldn’t pass one another. I realised that the other 4×4 could perhaps pass us if I moved out of the way a bit, but that would mean climbing a steep, 500mm embankment. Most vehicles wouldn’t be able to make it, but the Patrol crawled up in the blink of an eye. The other driver couldn’t believe his eyes! It just proved once again that ground clearance and approach angle are what matter most.
The Patrol is large and thirsty, which means that it isn’t ideal for daily commuting in heavy traffic. But in off-road conditions it is unbeatable. Those with the money to buy a dedicated off-road vehicle and kit it out properly won’t be disappointed by the Patrol. It truly is an extreme 4×4!