When it rains, it pours

Text: Stephen Smith
Photographs: Rob Till

The trip was billed as a Land Rover dealer weekend: a trip from Johannesburg to the Makgadikgadi pans in Botswana, to meet up with Kingsley Holgate and his Boundless Southern Africa expedition. It would be a “civilised” adventure, and the convoy of capable Land Rovers would make it a comfortable, effortless journey to the pans and back.

The plan was to drive from Joburg to KwaNokeng Lodge, just inside the Martins Drift border crossing to Botswana, and to spend the night there. After a comfortable night and a relaxed breakfast the convoy would move on, for the drive of about four hours or so into the pans, and the campsite.

The original program reads more or less as follows:

Depart for the big unknown………

Proceed to our campsite in the middle of nowhere

Watch the horizon – hopefully we’ll see a convoy heading our way bearing cappies and coke

Discussion about the roadworks on the N1

Observe five minutes of silence for those travelling on the N1

Dinner under the stars and overnight under canvas!

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it!) not everything went according to plan.

A few days before the trip was set to begin, rain started to fall on the pans. And it fell, and it fell, and it fell. In Botswana in the middle of June this is not normal, and it turned out that this was the first time in 80 years that the pans had received rain in June. At the end of a few short days over 200mm of aggressive precipitation had fallen, this in a country with an average annual rainfall of 320mm, almost all of it in summer!

Bertus Prinsloo was one of the organisers and participants of the trip, going along not just for the ride, but to provide valuable medical assistance in the event that something went wrong (a drowning, perhaps?). Bertus is one of the partners of Outdoor Medical, a company that provides specialist medical backup for events and trips throughout Africa.

While Bertus has worked with Land Rover before on other events, such as the Land Rover G4 Challenge, this time he was actually there thanks to Raymond du Plessis of Tuffstuff 4×4 Insurance. As his contribution to the

Kingsley Holgate Boundless Southern African expedition, Raymond sponsored the attentions of Bertus, or one of his colleagues, for 30 days on the expedition. This was split up into trips of five days or so, whenever it was needed.

One of these five-day stretches was the trip to Botswana and the Makgadikgadi pans. Bertus was the perfect person to have along because not only does he fit the bill as a medical professional, but he also has extensive experience in the area.

For the past four years Bertus and Outdoor Medical have been running adventure motorcycle trips into the pans, in collaboration with the crew from KwaNokeng Lodge. These weekends are held about six times a year, and have allowed Bertus and his colleagues to become well acquainted with the pans.

This trip, however, was unlike anything Bertus has experienced before. “It was an epic adventure. The trip of a lifetime, never to be repeated!” he exclaims over a cup of coffee at Monte Casino, where the group is based.

“There was a lot of ‘are we going, are we not going’, and then the guys in Kubu, Botswana, phoned us and said there had been one or two vehicles through the week before. So we were going!

“But we didn’t recce the route, which on one hand, in retrospect, was a good thing, because if we had recced it we would have got to the first hole, and turned around, like all the other travellers behind us. Then we would have missed out on the trip of a lifetime!

“When we got to the pans there were a lot of people with trailers and caravans, all wanting to try the route. When they saw our big group going through, they thought they would follow us. But when we got to that first hole, we lost all of them,” Bertus smiled. “They all turned around and decided to do something else for the weekend.”

The Land Rover expedition entered from Letlhakane, travelling to the Kubu Island office where they met a local guide from Kubu Island, who had driven that morning to fetch them.

“The original plan was to meet Kingsley at Nxai Pan, but because of the floods, this was half a metre under water,” explains Bertus. “Instead we camped on the lower Nata road that goes to Kubu island, staying there for two nights. Kingsley was coming down from Nata, en route to Gweta. Our plan was to go the Gweta way, but the water put a stop to that too.

“It normally takes us about four hours of driving, leaving Letlhakane at 11am or so, having lunch at Kubu at about 2pm, and being in camp by sunset.

But fate hadn’t read the program, and when the sun went down the group weren’t safely ensconced in camp, scouring the horizon for Kingsley’s convoy and the accompanying cappies and coke! Instead they were ensconced in yet another mud-puddle, scouring the horizon for firm land.

And when midnight came (and went) they were in a similar position, albeit slightly closer to the horizon.

“It took our convoy 22 hours to do the trip, instead of four or five, or maybe six! We got into camp the next morning at 5am, and we were served last night’s oxtail and rice,” Bertus laughs. “At one stage we did 12 kilometres across the pans in knee-deep water, where we basically followed the arrow on the GPS to camp that night.

“We were leading a convoy of thirteen vehicles across the pan, without a road. Well, there was a road, but it was underneath a foot of water so we couldn’t see it! We basically relied on the memory of the guide, and his and the mental picture of where the road is, of where the pan is compacted.

“The only times we got stuck was when people went off the road. They would see a deep hole, and decide to go around it. And once you’re in the soft stuff next to the road, you’re in trouble.”

The thirteen Land Rovers were a mix of Defender 90s and 110s, including a limited edition SVX, a Defender 130, Discoverys, and even a Range Rover Vogue.

“The 130 was our saving grace,” says Bertus. “If it wasn’t for that vehicle, we might have had to leave some vehicles there. Because of the long wheelbase, by the time the back wheels fall into the hole, the front wheels are already through it, so it just didn’t get stuck.

“There were also two guys who were a great help: Jannie Stroh from Land Rover Experience Kyalami, and Harry Katrakilis, the Dealer Principal from Fourway Motors Land Rover, who was aptly nicknamed Dirty Harry, because he has covered in mud from his toes to under his hat.

“If it wasn’t for their experience and driving skills…” Bertus shakes his head. “You must remember that we had guys on the trip who had never had any experience of driving offroad. The trip was to take dealers, members of the Land Rover Owner’s Club, clients of the dealers, and also three financial guys from Old Mutual, who had donated money to the Boundless Expedition. They were there to hand over a check to Kingsley.

“So if it weren’t for those two, keeping everyone calm and getting the vehicles unstuck, we would have taken even longer. And we were very lucky that we had a good group, because when you tell people it will take you between 4 and 6 hours, and it ends up taking 22 hours, things could go wrong pretty quickly. But everyone was in good spirits, and having guys like Harry and Jannie there helped a lot, keeping people positive.”

“As I said, we were also very lucky that we didn’t do a recce, because if we had we would never have experienced what we did. We were very fortunate to do that trip, because the chances are that we’ll never see those conditions again in our lifetimes.”

“And besides the flooded pans, the trip was great for me personally, because it had a real purpose, and wasn’t just another holiday. It was called ‘Two Expeditions Meet’, ours meeting Kingsley’s. We took up things like mobile libraries and a thousand blankets for the local community, as well as 750 pairs of soccer socks.

“We only learnt later that socks are like a religion in Botswana, the brighter the better, and the people there were so excited about them that we battled to give away the blankets! But it was great for the community to benefit directly from us visiting. Normally we might buy lunch from them, or curios, but we don’t really interact, and here we could.

“And the entire expedition enjoyed the experience. Not everyone is lucky enough to meet and work with Kingsley, but almost everyone dreams of spending at least a few days on one of his expeditions. This trip gave dealers, clients and sponsors alike a real taste of what these trips can be like, and the conditions that Kingsley and his Land Rovers experience daily.

“Apart from this particular, once-in-a-lifetime trip, we asked Bertus about his life as an outdoor medic.

“Kingsley refers to us as ‘travelling adventure medics, following mad people around the world,'” laughs Bertus, “and that’s pretty much what we do.”

“Our job is to keep everyone safe, although on this particular trip there wasn’t much to do, besides the normal thorns and that kind of thing. Except for Jannie! He made it through all 22 hours of recoveries through that mud, and then when we were packing up to go home, and he was helping to load a motorbike, he got his finger caught between the bike and the trailer, and broke it. Are you squeamish?” Bertus asks, before showing me a gruesome pic of the injury.

“Usually on bike trips we see things like broken ankles, collar bones and arms, and occasional major injuries such as chest and facial injuries. We’ve also had one minor heart attack on a trip.

“The planning that goes into a trip is fairly intense. Luckily here is a Red Cross helicopter based in Pietersburg, which is our closest evacuation. But should we not get permission for the helicopter to cross the border, then we will transport the patient to the border. Because our job is not to get you, the patient, to hospital, but to get you to the nearest main road or airfield and get you out of danger and into better care.

“We only evacuate when the injury is life-threatening, or limb-threatening, or will definitely get worse on the trip, like open wounds. Most of the time we can deal with the injury to the extent that the guy can complete the weekend, and then get to a hospital at the end of the trip. Only twice have we had to evacuate immediately.

“Sometimes the biggest problem is that people won’t leave. All we can do is make our recommendation that they get to proper medical care as soon as possible, and we can assist them with that, and look after them until they are fetched. But we can’t force people to leave, and they’ve already paid for the weekend. And as soon as the pain-medication kicks in, they don’t want to leave!”

At the end of the day it sounds as though Kingsley’s description is characteristically accurate: these are indeed “travelling adventure medics, following mad people around the world”. But you’ve got to wonder who the mad ones are, considering it was the medics who called this, with a 22 hour slog through the mud, the trip of a lifetime, and considered themselves fortunate that it wasn’t called off!

Bertus’ Top Tip:
One of Bertus’ tips for travelling safely in Botswana is not to touch firewood with your hands, once it’s in the fire “If you watch the locals, they’ll never touch wood in the fire with their hands. They’ll either use another branch, or kick it with their shoes. Scorpions often live in dry wood, and when it’s put into the fire, they move to the end furthest from the heat, which is also the part that you pick up to move it!”