The Central Kalahari Game Reserve in Botswana is the second-largest game reserve in the world. It is also one of the last truly wild frontiers in Southern Africa. We visited the 52 800km2 wilderness and experienced an earthquake, a number of technical issues, double bookings, some tough 4×4 challenges, almost too little fuel and an amazing spectacle of nature.
The man at the filling station in Rakops shrugged his shoulders. “No fuel. Nothing.” Dammit! And only 30 minutes earlier we had driven past the town of Mopipi, where fuel was apparently available. The clock was ticking, and turning back to Mopipi meant we would be cutting it really fine reaching our Passarge campsite in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) by last light. We still had about six hours of driving ahead of us. Just a month or so before our visit to CKGR, the Botswana army’s big 4×4 trucks had to be summoned to extract visitors whose vehicles had been deeply embedded in salt pan mud. When it rains, Botswana’s salt pans transform into a gooey, sticky, slippery business that will be the end of any 4×4.
We had hoped it would have dried up by the time of our visit. But you can never be sure in Africa. We had no idea what the actual conditions would be like in the world’s second-largest game reserve. There’s another African saying: in rural Africa, never drive past a filling station that actually has fuel without filling up. Dammit. We had done just that. Nevertheless, the Toyota Land Cruiser SW V8 carried just over 200 litres of diesel. Our VW Amarok had just about a full tank (80 litres) plus an additional 20 litres in a jerry can. Between the two 4×4s, we worked out that we might just make the 400km or so we planned to drive. Just. Tally-ho then. Off to the CKGR we went.
A shaky introduction
Just outside the town of Rakops, you hook a left onto a gravel road towards the Matswere Gate. This 40km track is a good warm-up exercise for driving in the reserve: plenty of sand, ruts and dust. It was also our first taste of towing a Jurgens Safari Xplorer, tipping the scale at around 1.5 tons, in an off-road environment. The Amarok 4Motion made light work of the load, but the low height of the draw bar (caravan was nose down) had us a bit worried about more serious 4×4 driving challenges that would be waiting in the reserve. Our friends in their custom Land Cruiser V8 with its 35-inch wheels and an Imagine trailer with 35-inch tyres, have rigged out their overland rig exactly to their needs. They’ve had it for three years and travelled thousands of kilometres with it. We had picked up our Xplorer two days before we were due to leave for Botswana, so our ‘rig’ was an overland virgin (in our custody, anyway).
The formalities at the Matswere Gate were completed briskly enough, and after an impromptu Amarok tailgate lunch, we headed off to Passarge campsite 2 a distance of about 106km. We were finally in ‘the wild’ – as the kids call it and we spotted some gemsbok. Then some ostrich. Some more gemsbok. More ostrich. And more gemsbok. Following the heavy rains earlier in the year that had caused all the extraction commotion, there was grass all over. Spotting that lioness lying just two metres from the track would be nigh impossible unless she was feeling bored and decided to present herself in the road. The initial track proved very much the same as the one we had used to reach the Matswere Gate. The last 20km to Passarge Valley was a different story though… the track narrowed, and there was plenty of sand. The Amarok was working hard in the 320C heat. And using plenty of fuel.
The maximum speed limit in the reserve is 40km/h, but we soon worked out that you can bank on an average of around 24km/h only. That includes stopping occasionally when you spot a gemsbok with only one horn, pulling off the track to allow another 4×4 to overtake, and so on. In the end, it took us around four hours to reach Passarge 2. This campsite was spectacular in its setting. Less spectacular were thousands of large, rather aggressive ants that traversed the whole camp. Thankfully, they retreated when the sun headed towards the horizon. We also discovered the first mechanical malady: the Imagine trailer’s jockey wheel had not been removed and had taken several blows on the 4×4 track, bending the wheel backwards. So the high-lift jack was called into action to unhook the trailer from the Cruiser… repairs had to wait for the next morning.
That evening we had our first braai in the CKGR. And it was good. Really good. We were up at the crack of dawn the next morning, a cuppa and a rusk in hand as the sun came up, lighting up the gemsbok and the ostrich on the grass plains on the horizon. This was rather splendid. But there were some repairs on the menu after breakfast: removing and trying to repair the jockey wheel on the Imagine. Since Lourens, the intrepid Land Cruiser owner, is a man of great engineering expertise, we rigged up his Cruiser’s winch to the lower part of the jockey wheel. Our Amarok was attached via straps to the other end of the trailer, to anchor it. The delicate winching process commenced, and it pulled the wheel relatively straight again. The bracket was damaged beyond a bush repair though, so we simply removed the wheel and decided we would use the high-lift jack from then on. The rest of our day was spent driving another 30-odd kilometres to the Passarge Waterhole. But not even the gemsbok or ostrich pitched up.
The day’s main event was reserved for later that evening when we were all seated around the campfire, with some cow on the fire. Out of the blue, the earth started to shake. The Land Cruiser and the tree it was parked under, as well as the two caravans, shook spectacularly from side to side, and there was a rumbling sound emanating from the earth beneath our feet. It was an earthquake! It lasted for about 30 seconds. Later, back in civilisation, we found out that the quake’s epicentre had been about 100km from us, and it had been a 6.5 magnitude quake, recorded at a depth of 29km. Not quite what you’d expect to experience on an overland safari in the middle of the CKGR.
No Sunday (pan) lunch for us
After two nights at Passarge we headed to the more mainstream Sunday Pan camp number 3 – a 46.8km drive. We knew that this campsite is notorious for double bookings, but since new legislation limits each campsite to two vehicles and eight people, even if the worst happened and the camp was double booked, at least there should still be space aplenty. We nonetheless left Passarge as early as possible to make sure our camp space was sorted. Alas. When we arrived at our campsite, there were no less than six 4×4s and about 15 people who had arrived just before us. Their booking form also said Camp 3, so all together, we were eight cars and more than 20 people that were supposed to share this small camp.
Some negotiations followed, but to cut a long story short, we ended up in a corner, with no shade, half in the bush, within five metres of the rather unpleasant smelling long drop toilet. Most members of the group were friendly and we even managed to buy 40 litres of diesel from one gentleman. But one particular lady was not impressed by our presence. She rudely insisted that we move away from the ablution area. Since there was no space in the shade, or on the rest of the campsite (because it was full of the rest of her group), we told her to… well, to go away. Where were we supposed to go? We had been banished to the only non-shaded spot, and the temperature was hovering around the 350C mark.
Nice. We packed our kids in the 4×4s, and rather headed off to the nearby campsite four, where there was plenty of space and shade. We decided to hang around there until the campers who were supposed to camp there arrived. Annoyingly, by 6pm nobody had arrived. If we had only known! But we had already set up our caravans at the crowded campsite next door so, with the sun taking a break, we headed back. Suffice to say we had our braai in rather limited space, with the occasional long drop fragrances filtering through. Thankfully we were only booked at Sunday Pan for one night. Early the next morning we woke up to leopard tracks outside our caravan: a mother and her cub. Seems the CKGR leopards are not scared of the hordes.
With a roar, please
In a slightly negative frame of mind, we tackled the 117km from Sunday Pan to Piper Pan. Along the way the mood lifted. Other travellers gave news of two packs of lion and a huge male under a tree at Piper Pan. The long haul to Piper Pan brought more technical issues. After we had to swap the Xplorer’s deep cycle battery with a spare one countless times to keep the fridge/freezer going (we got the settings wrong), the Imagine’s charging system also started acting up. Thanks to Lourens’ technical know-how, it was soon back to charging. But between the two rigs, there always seemed to be some sort of technical issue. It’s a rough and tough place, this CKGR.
Initially we had dismissed the claim from our GPS, loaded with Tracks4Africa, that it would take six hours to cover the 117km from Piper Pan. But sure enough, just over six hours after we left our overcrowded camp, we arrived. And duly caught sight of a massive male lion, a few hundred metres from the main track, under a tree. Since the lion had clearly been unmoved for some time, and considering the kids were rather restless after the long drive, we headed to our camp. And bliss, we were all alone! We set up camp with a hop and skip and things were looking up again. We soon headed to the pan to go and get a closer look of the lion. But Murphy wasn’t finished with us yet: the lion was no longer under the tree. We drove around the pan for quite a while, but the big brute had vanished. And there was no sign of any of his female colleagues. Thankfully, we had three nights at Piper Pan.
The next day we searched for the lion. Any lion. But we couldn’t find them. On the second night we were all gathered around the campfire when we heard it: the roar of the King of the Jungle. My young lad sprinted to his mom, leapt into her arms and clung to her like there was no tomorrow. We reckoned the lion was about 2km away. We searched for the origin of the roar again the next day. Besides the normal lion feed of gemsbok and ostrich, we also found wildebeest, springbok and giraffe. But no lion of any shape or form. Eventually we decided that the lion had probably caught some dinner, and that they were all feeding. The male lion probably went over for the free meal, as the males tend to do.
On our last day at Piper Pan we kept an eye on the skies. Clouds were packing together. Rain was clearly on the menu. Rain and a Botswana saltpan form an unholy union against 4×4s. The surface turns into an ice-skating rink, and the mud sucks in a 4×4 of any shape or form. It’s a really nasty business. Lourens, in his V8-powered Cruiser with its 35-inch wheels, was gleefully looking forward to the prospect of using his newly acquired recovery gear to extract – inevitably he reckoned – the Amarok and Xplorer from the quagmire. That night it rained. And it rained a lot.
Take (the) cover
We woke up to a wet Kalahari. Lourens had a spring in his step… I was less optimistic. Towing the heavy Xplorer through the deep, muddy ruts would be a challenge, for sure. We hit the tracks as early as possible. It was about 70km to our next overnight stop at Lekhubu wild camp, and if we were going to play recovery games, the earlier we got going, the better. The mud started 2km from our campsite, on the track that runs along the edge of Piper Pan. But the slippery mud was not my biggest worry; with 420Nm of torque and the Cooper Discoverer STT Maxx off-road tyres, the Volksie had plenty of poke and grip to drag the heavy Xplorer through the mud. The deep, muddy ditches and ground clearance were a problem. In places, momentum was the only way to get the van through. So it was a toss-up between speed and not damaging anything. Alas. After one particularly tough series of slippery ditches, which included a reverse to get the caravan around some trees, there was a rather unpleasant scraping sound from the caravan. Blimey. The protection plate under the water tank had been killed, and was dragging behind the Xplorer. We unbolted the mangled aluminium plate. The plate had destroyed the Xplorer’s water pump, too… double blimey.
Off we went. More mud followed. More sliding, bouncing, under-the-breath cursing. Thankfully for us (but not so much for Lourens!) the mud ended shortly afterwards… and from there the going was easier, less frantic. Curiously, we encountered a roadblock on the main road leading north towards Motswere Gate: several fellow campers were parked in and around the road, chatting up a storm with no thought of pulling off the track to let other vehicles through. We eventually made our way around this rather unexpected traffic jam. We arrived at the Lekhubu Camp several hours later.
Thankfully, we were alone. Well, we were alone to begin with. After setting up camp on this small site, a rental 4×4 roared into camp. The two Germans had also booked this site: another double booking. Thankfully, they couldn’t have been bothered less, and simply drove past the main site on a small track and made their camp under a nearby tree. Meanwhile the Imagine’s water pump was also acting up, so we couldn’t pump any water anymore. At least we had a Front Runner water tank with a tap for drinking water. By that stage, all of us were a bit over the charm of the CKGR. So we made the decision to skip the last night’s Sunday Pan booking, head straight for the Motswere Gate, and start heading home.
The final hoorah
The next morning we packed up early. I reckon it’s fair to say we were all very much in the mood for a hot shower, a white porcelain scooter and a good old 220V connection. At the Motswere Gate we signed out, and the official enquired why we were leaving early. We told her about the bugger up at Sunday Pan, and she nodded her head, sympathetically. “This big group was supposed to be on Sunday Pan campsite 4… the person who did the booking typed in the incorrect camp number on the group’s booking. That group stayed there for four nights and we had many problems with other people who had also been booked on campsite 3,” she said.
Say what? So that big group was supposed to be on the vacant campsite 4? And we had been bundled into a corner next to the long drop, in the blazing sun? Okay, so the big group didn’t know about the typo at the time, but it was rather annoying. We covered the 70km to Mopipi – and that filling station with fuel with no further complications. There we filled the tanks to the brim. Crunching some numbers, we worked out that we would just, just have made it with the fuel we took with us into the reserve. An extra 50km and the Amarok would have run dry. However, that extra 40 litres we had acquired at Sunday Pan added some peace of mind. Getting stranded without fuel in this huge reserve with small kids is not really ideal. Later we arrived at TuuThebe Lodge and campsite, situated between Orapa and Letlhakane. Suffice to say that we spent some quality time in TuuThebe’s ablution facilities.
And in summary…
The Central Kalahari Game Reserve is one of Southern Africa’s last really wild destinations. There is nothing. No shops, no fuel, no water, no electricity. It is also massive. You’d need the best part of six months to properly explore this wilderness. But therein lies its charm. It’s the utter remoteness, the vastness, the back-to-basics conditions, the truly wild appeal of this reserve that makes it a worthwhile destination. After our eight days there, we reckon the next time we head there we’d skip the Passarge, Sunday Pan and Lekhubu campsites and just head straight to the serene Piper Pan for three nights, and then head out again. One day we’ll return and find those Kalahari lions. It’s just one of those things we have to do.
1. Motswere Gate
Tel. +267 653-0084/85
2. Passarge camp 2
Location: S21.26847, E023.47694
Good: Serene setting
Not so good: Ants, bucket shower system broken
3. Sunday Pan camp 3
Location: S21.33196, E023.68810
Good: It’s a camp
Not so good: Double booking capital of CKGR
4. Piper Pan camp 2
Location: S21.79286, E023.21486
Good: Awesome setting, best we had
Not so good: In the rainy season 4×4 driving can be challenging
5. Lekhubu camp
Location: S21.59250, E023.74722
Good: It’s a camp
Not so good: Wild camp, so zero facilities
A quick guide
The reserve was declared in 1961, and it is larger in size than the country of Denmark. It was originally proclaimed to protect the fauna and flora of the area, and was also intended to provide the indigenous San people – who had lived there for thousands of years – with a natural habitat to pursue their raditional hunting and gathering lifestyle. This is a wilderness area and overland visitors need to be fully self-sufficient. The reserve recommends that visitors travel in groups of at least two vehicles, in case of a mechanical problem.
The following are considered vital
• 4WD vehicle with extra fuel, two spare tyres (or at least one spare tyre with a tyre repair kit)
• Minimum of 10 litres of water per person per day
• Vehicle fluids, tools and emergency spares
• Spade and other recovery equipment
• First aid kit and torch
After our adventure, we can also add the following:
• Malaria medication
• Two-way radios
• Satellite phone
Visiting the CKGR is not cheap. The camping costs are P120 for adults per day, kids pay P60 per day and there is also a levy of P50 per vehicle per day. So for our family of four, that worked out at P3 280 for eight days. That equated to R4 264 (at R1.30 per pula). Fuel expenses for the Volkswagen Amarok amounted to a total of R3 075.36, with an average consumption of 14.5 litres/100km towing the heavy Jurgens Safari Xplorer. Interesting to note: in Botswana we paid P7.50 per litre of diesel. That worked out to R9.75 per litre. In South Africa we pay more than R11 per litre. Another interesting bit of trivia: the big Toyota Land Cruiser V8 D-4D used the same amount of diesel cruising at 120km/h that it did dragging the Imagine van through the sand and mud. Average consumption worked out around 16.6 litres/100km.
More information: botswanatourism.co.bw/destination/central-kalahari-game-reserve; [email protected].
Text and photography: Danie Botha