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10 Years After (Zimbabwe swansong – Part 2)

2 October 2017

Neville Lance and his wife Pat have learnt much about overland travel in the decade since their first trip into Southern Africa with “no equipment whatsoever other than a pup tent and a National Geographic Africa Adventure Atlas”. This month, Neville continues his 10th anniversary trip story, as he and his friends head to Victoria Falls, Chobe and Savuti.

I knew as a result of reading everything that I could lay my hands on that there was a campsite at Siabuwa, but had no further details. The road from Karoi to Siabuwa was long and arduous, and I figured that if we were going to find the campsite, I’d better get on with it. Bill’s VW Syncro wasn’t designed to cope with the potholes, middel- mannetjies and all of the other anomalies that this stretch of road had to offer, but I knew that Cobus would stick with him so I barrelled on ahead to locate the campsite before dark. Just as well. There was nothing in Siabuwa to indicate a campsite, but as we pulled over to wait for the others, about 30 children crowded about the vehicle and we started to chat. They were inquisitive, well informed, helpful and just fun to be around. We asked them where we might find a campsite and they all shouted “Vicki, Vicki”, pointing up a side road into the gathering dark. I was reluctant to investigate in case the others came past and missed us.

Before we had decided what to do, a guy knocked on Pat’s window and introduced himself as January. He said that he was he was in charge of Vicki’s property while she was in Johannesburg for Easter, and that we could camp there. I explained that we needed to wait for the others and so he offered to unlock the property and wait for us. By this stage it was virtually dark and I was afraid that I wouldn’t find it, so we asked the kids to please wait and keep an eye out for the other two vehicles and to wave them down and tell them we would be back soon. We went with January to find the campsite and then returned to the road, about 300m away, to find no-one, nada, not a soul.  More than an hour had passed since we had first arrived so assuming that someone had broken down, we started to backtrack down the ‘road’, more aptly described as a nightmare of potholes, ruts and ridges. After 20km of backtracking, we found the others: Bill gallantly battling along with his severely challenged ground clearance, and Cobus clearly frustrated by the slow pace. The time has come, the Walrus said: “Bill, it’s time to buy a proper 4×4.”

Vicki apparently runs a mission for unwed mothers and lives in a caravan. There’s a long drop toilet and although January said there were showers, they weren’t working. Nevertheless, it was a safe and secure place to overnight in an area where the kids are fantastic and engaging. They inundated us with questions about the equinox, how the GPS works and what constitutes a good diet. When we answered their questions about Pat and my respective ages, they laughed and shook their heads in disbelief. The teenagers and youth, on the other hand, were very sullen. Probably because of the dire lack of opportunity that surrounds their everyday existence.  The following morning we made for Vic Falls with a ‘quick’ detour to Binga. Don’t bother unless you plan to stay there. The road from Binga to Crossroads was corrugated and potholed and has no scenery of value. We continued on to the A8 up to Hwange and Victoria Falls.

Here we camped at Main Camp in the centre of the town, which was once again, clean, affordable and convenient. After a great cooked camp breakfast, we walked down to the falls, spotting an elephant a little way off the side of the road just before reaching the pay station. Remember to take your passport with you to qualify for the SADEC rates, which are considerably less than those for overseas visitors. We had to negotiate a quick taxi ride back to the campsite to fetch ours in order to get the discounts, getting the driver down from $15 to $5 for the return trip, it’s really important to haggle.  “The Smoke That Thunders’ (the name given to the falls by locals before Livingstone named them after Britain’s reigning monarch at the time) were full to overflowing this year and could really only be appreciated from the edges. The rain forest was saturated with water and the updrafts of wind carried so much moisture that any effort to view the falls from one of the many viewpoints meant getting drenched, but this is still a whole lot better than seeing them dry, I guess. For any first-timer they are an experience never to be forgotten and for us, this second time around was in many ways even better than the first. If you have never been to Vic Falls, go now.

While you’re there, make sure you visit the Victoria Falls Hotel. Much like the Bulawayo Club, it harks back to a bygone era. Everything about it is over the top, and the cost of accommodation is well beyond the means of ordinary mortals such as myself, but a meal on the terrace is quite affordable and an absolute must on a beautiful autumn evening. From here, as we watched the colour of the bridge and the mist from the falls change with the light, it reminded us of what an important international tourist stopover this place is.  We crossed back into Botswana at Kasangane, where I had a bit of a dust-up with a stout lady who one minute earlier had allowed Cobus through with all his bacon, but decided that mine was uncooked meat and needed to be confiscated. When I suggested that she enjoy it she became quite nasty and threatened to send me all the way back to destroy it, before having to do the whole passport thing again. All the while she clutched the pork with a real ‘I’m never going to let you go’ look of determination and instructed me to pack up and move out.

Good Friday in Kasane was much like any other day, and we were able to stock up on diesel, food and booze for the next leg of our trip without any trouble, before popping in at the Chobe River Lodge for breakfast. Despite my advance warnings, the others all thought it was a bit expensive, but what the hell, Pat and I may never pass that way again so we indulged and enjoyed the really amazing spread that they put on offer.  We then decided to do the river drive to Ngoma with Cobus and Colleen and on to Muchenche, where we would meet Bill and Jules whose VW Syncro would never have coped with the middelmannetjies and other obstacles we had to negotiate to escape the wrath of a really cheeky young bull elephant. The river drive is a must: you get to experience the pinnacle of Chobe’s beauty with all the animals, birds and incredible views across the floodplain. With the benefit of hindsight, Pat and I were somewhat sad that we had not spent more time in this area in 2013, when instead we had rushed through Ngoma on the tar road in search of Caprivi, which aside from the odd highlights was generally a disappointment.

With all of the stories we had heard along the way about the Khwai floods, we had tried at Ngoma to book for both Savuti and Linyanti, both were full, but where else were we going to go? Pat and I have always barrelled ahead, whatever the odds, and somehow always managed. We gave Cobus and Colleen the options: stay with us, go with Bill, or go home. With some trepidation (I think), they decided to take their chances with us (Maun was a long-distance option if the worst came to the worst). But we had the night at Muchenche for everyone to decide.  Muchenche was a revelation, right on the banks of the Chobe, it was quite simply the best campsite we had ever stayed at. The little private ablutions (shower, WC and HWB) were spotless, the water hot, the campsite raked and the fireplace clean. Bronwyn, the manageress took the time to come down and introduce herself and chat to us about our plans. When we mentioned Savuti and Khwai she took one look at the Syncro and said, “Uh uh, that will never make it”. So the following morning we said our goodbyes to Bill and Jules and felt confident that they would enjoy their plans to go up to Caprivi and round and down to Maun via Shakawe, Sepopa and Sehithwa. The time has come the Walrus said (again): Bill, it’s time to buy a proper 4×4!

We left with Cobus and Colleen who had decided to brave it with us, and took off for who knows where.  We hit the road, literally. The sand was deep, there were puddles, the middelmannetjie was enormous (the Syncro would have stopped after 200m), and the bush was thick and green after all the rain. About halfway to Savuti, I saw a big Toyota Prado or Land Cruiser approaching and pulled off at the first available spot to let them through. It was a couple of more or less our vintage, and they stopped to warn us to take the airport road into Savuti as the normal route was flooded. We exchanged pleasantries and I mentioned that we had not been able to get a booking in Savuti or Linyanti. He leant across to his wife and after some words with her, passed me a booking form stating that they had booked at Savuti for six nights, but only used three, and that we were welcome to the other three. Wow! What a break! I thanked him profusely and offered to reimburse him, but he wouldn’t hear of it. Thank you; we did make a note of your names but somehow managed to mislay them. If you read this you will know who you are, and may the gods of the bush always be with you.

Three days and nights in Savuti…don’t you just love it when a plan comes together? And what a three days they were, riddled with great sightings, an old ellie that died and became sustenance for three handsome young male lions, a beautiful martial eagle that had taken out an Egyptian goose (or something similar), and was parked in a tree for as long as we wanted to photograph him. Elephants that drank and swam and snorkelled purely for our pleasure, white- backed vultures that gathered in the hundreds in wait for the elephant pickings and performed the most stunning aerial ballet. Squirrels, striped mongooses, a whole array of birds that visited us in our campsite and a leopard that lay on a rock playing cat and mouse with us, with a bored expression. A forest of baobabs. What a wealth of beauty: it was magical.

After leaving Savuti, we decided to see if Khwai (and the co-ordinates that Neil had so kindly given us), were accessible. No dice, we hit deep marshland every way we went, it was wet, wet, wet. We tried heading towards Khwai village but people along the way said the entire river route was flooded. There was nothing to do but turn around and head for Maun. I remember that road from 2007 when we visited Moremi after our jaunt to Kubu Island and up through Gweta, it is an awful road. Approaching Maun, we pulled in at Okavango River Lodge and set up our tents. We spent two nights there eating and drinking on the pleasant restaurant terrace, and partaking of their breakfast in the mornings. On the one full day that we spent there, we split up to each take a one-hour ride in a four-seater plane which was being piloted under observation by a trainee pilot. What a joy. My wife’s Hyundai Atos is faster than this little plane (and considerably less bumpy), but what a way to see the Okavango swamps. Again we say, do it! The same evening we went out on a two-hour sunset cruise along the waterways, watching people, birds, trees and the most amazing Okavango sunset. After leaving Maun, Cobus and Colleen travelled to Johannesburg to see their son Tim and we scooted on down to Gabs for another couple of nights with the Hunts before winding our way home.

Ten years after and the Ranger is as good and comfortable as she was on day one, and despite thinking that this was our last bucket list trip, it turns out it wasn’t. During these past 10 years we’ve visited and written about the Richtersveld, Kolmanskop and Sossusvlei, Baviaanskloof and the Bedrogfontein and the amazing Hemel en Aarde valley and Salmonsdam. We’re already looking forward to what we’re going to do next, definitely Khwai next year with Neil, and then who knows? Maybe the Serengeti and the Mara, maybe Gorongosa, maybe just the old Postal Trail in the Cederberg. But there’ll definitely be something…

Trip details
We filled up in: Cape Town, Beaufort West, Kimberley, Gaborone, Francistown, Bulawayo, Chinhoyi, Karoyi x 2 (approaching Mana and returning from Mana), Victoria Falls, Kasane and took on 50 litres extra, Maun, Letlhakane, Gaborone, Lobatse (just to top up with cheaper fuel), Hopetown and Beaufort West.

We did a total of 7 935km at a cost of approximately R12 027 taking conversion rates into account.

Diesel in Botswana is roughly 25% cheaper than in South Africa despite being refined in and shipped through South Africa to areas generally further north than anywhere in South Africa.

In Zimbabwe, the cost would be much the same as in South Africa, but as they tend to work on an exchange rate of R15/$ when the actual exchange rate was around R13/US$ when we were there. In the end it worked out to be about 14% more expensive than in South Africa.

Cross-border fees
Road transport permit – 3 500kg Return (allows entry + return entry after going through Zim): BWP90
Motor vehicle insurance: BWP50
National road fund: BWP50

Motor insurance pool, third party liability (bought at AA in Cape Town): R330
Carbon tax: $15
Road Accident Fund: $10
The last two payable at Customs on entry

Siabuwa (Vicki’s campsites)
Approximate co-ordinates: S 17º 28.209 E 28º 02.353 (Ask in the village opposite the shops for directions)
We paid $5 pppn – basically a backyard stay – has a long drop and no showers when we were there.

Victoria Falls restcamp and lodges
They don’t take bookings for campsites, but there are always stands available. With large trees, lawns and four-star ablutions, it’s walking distance from everything.
$10 pppn camping
$8 per vehicle per night

Chobe River drive from Sedudu to Ngoma
Conservation fee payable at Sedudu Gate: BWP120 pppd
Vehicle: BWP100 pd

Muchenche Campsite
Right on the Chobe River, beautiful views, large trees, raked and clean. It has a small shop for basic supplies and five-star ablutions. (Best campsite ever.)
S 17º 57.269 E 24º 40.668
BWP140 pppn + BWP15 bed levy

Savuti Campsite
Very sandy with mites that bite (wear socks and shoes). Large trees and three-star ablutions (depending where you are it can be a long walk to the ablutions)
S 18º 34.231 E 24º 04.178
Park fees: BWP120 pppd
Vehicle: BWP100 pd
Camping: BWP150 pppn

Okavango River Lodge Campsite
Basic campsites under large trees, super restaurant and bar and three-star ablutions.
S 19º 55.454 E 23º 30.483 (approximately) but you can’t miss it on the road south to Maun.

Text and photography: Neville Lance