The border between Zimbabwe and Botswana started out as a wagon trail used by early traders and hunters. Today it’s a challenging route, even for experienced off-roaders with the right equipment. Especially if it rains…
Text and photographs: John Woodhill
Imagine two Englishmen from the 19th Century British Border Commission sitting in a London office. One is clutching a long wooden ruler and the other, while looking out the window, a cup of tea. With complete disregard for any tribal, ethnic or religious differences in the region, Ruler Man draws a long line on the map of Africa.
Separating colonies in southern Africa seemed that simple. You just drew a straight line from A to B. Vide Namibia’s eastern border…
Why then, we wondered while negotiating some thick elephant grass on the border between Botswana and Zimbabwe, does this line not run straight?
The answer is easy to explain: Hunters’ Route. Nearly 140 years ago, inspired by David Livingstone’s travels to the Zambezi River, traders carved out a twisting wagon trail, which later became the border between the then Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and Bechuanaland (Botswana).
To a band of modern-day travellers it also became known as “mud and madness”. Attempting to pass this way in the rainy season, as we did, was like trying to snorkel under the Victoria Falls. Things WILL go pear-shaped.
It took us five days to travel the 275km border line from the Elephant Sands Lodge on the tarred but potholed Nata-Kasane Road to Kazungula in the north.
Our experienced guide and Botswana/ Zambian safari-operator, Christo Pieterse from Touch the Wild, says you could probably drive the same distance in a day during the dry season.
The easily identifiable route basically consists of a treeless 10m wide channel between low, overgrown sand banks – much like a ragged cut-line – meandering northwards towards the confluence of the Chobe and Zambezi rivers. En route you pass the unbelievable, straight cut lines that run from here all the way to Moremi Wildlife Reserve in the west.
Driving from the south, the scenery builds up to a climax, with Kazuma Pans offering a magnificent alternative to the typical mopane bushveld and a sprinkling of Rhodesian teak in the south.
The area just south of the village of Mpandamatenga, where our convoy stocked up on fuel, water and beers, has lots of shade and groves of beautiful flowers. Much farther north and past Kazuma, huge acacias lead you into the Leshoma Valley and the last few kilometres to the Kazungula border post.
We turned back 5km from the end because of marshy land cutting across our path. At that stage we were travelling alone, without the insurance of strong back-up that we had for most of the trip.
Apart from Mpandamatenga, where we made use of the clean facilities at the Panda Rest Camp, the only signs of humans on the Hunters’ Route were the odd vehicle track and old metal railway sleepers that were used as border markers and now lie scattered about, remnants of a bygone era.
You get the feeling that traffic along this route might have been much heavier more than a hundred years ago than it is today. The reason is that 19th Century travellers used it as a trade route, while modern travellers are here only for their pleasure.
That said, even the folk from yesteryear used it to get close enough to the Victoria Falls to go sightseeing on foot.
The Hunters’ Route has much to offer, thanks to the fact that the area is still in pristine condition and that the numerous pans hold the potential for superb game viewing. We used the openness of the borderline to camp every night, and sometimes accidentally went and did our thing in Zimbabwe.
Having the fenceless Hwange, Zimbabwe’s largest national park, on the other side for most of the way enhanced the bundu experience. We saw buffalo, elephant, giraffe, zebra, a variety of antelope, lots of birds and a black mamba. At night, lion and hyena became garrulous.
The best time of the year to go game viewing would be soon after the rainy season – just after the route becomes passable but before the small and shallow pans dry up.
So why, you may ask, did we attempt this trip in March? In some ways, we had the best of both worlds. We were able to detour around some of the toughest obstacles, but this trip was in essence a 4×4 venture to learn about driving in deep mud and clay and to tackle the allimportant business of multiple vehicle recovery.
So we went right through the middle. Or rather, we tried to go right through the middle.
And boy, did we see some recoveries!
Our convoy consisted of a dozen 4×4 vehicles ranging from two extreme purpose-built rockclimbing competition Jeeps – to help with recovery – to Land Cruisers, Defenders, a Pajero and three different brands of bakkies. No trailers were allowed, and the reason for this soon became pretty obvious.
All in all, the petrol-powered V6 vehicles outperformed the diesel 4x4s, with the normally aspirated versions finding it almost impossible to keep up good momentum in the longer stretches of dark, sticky clay.
Although a vehicle’s capability to have plenty of engine revolutions in reserve is vital to success, two other factors proved even more important – good ground clearance and the right tyres.
Most participants had their verhicles fitted with either Goodyear MT/Rs or BF Goodridge All-Terrains, while Eddie Pieterse of West Rand Off-Road Centre, who organised the event, had Simex Jungle Trekkers on his Defender 110 2.8.
At one stage Eddie managed to idle his way right through a tough stretch, but prolonged use of these tractor-type tyres probably caused wheel bearing problems. With all the revving and recovering of stuck vehicles in the mud and water, problems with differentials, steering and alternators turned the trip into a lesson in survival.
Eddie believes that using the correct tyres for specific conditions is non-negotiable. “It is very important that your tyres have the kind of tread that will get rid of mud congestion, so that you can keep traction and get out of a deep rut if you have to. A tyre with an aggressive tread pattern will break the wall of mud that builds up in front of it. This is the only way to get out.”
Although mud and sand can present much the same kind of obstacle, this gumming up of normal on/off-road tyres requires patience: you do not want to go first, but rather fall in behind someone else so that you can use the track to keep momentum. But when the front-runner gets stuck and the spoor becomes scrambled, the real fun and games begin for the next cars.
The Hunters’ Route in the wet, combined with camping right on the border, was a wonderful, unique experience that now seems just a dream.
Although it has not been too difficult to arrange access to the area up to now, future travels may be stopped by new restrictions.
Said Christo: “The day after we finished the trip, I was told that wet season travels on the Hunters’ Route might be a thing of the past. I believe that hunting concessions and wildlife conservation regulations between the main road and the border line will restrict future travels in that area – summer and winter.”