An Englishman in… the middle of nowhere

What happens when an Englishman and a Russian take a 4×4 camper on a 6 000km overland trip through Botswana and Namibia? This, actually…

I’ve always been fascinated with Africa but knew I’d need a decent 4×4 to get to the places I really wanted to visit, something that was always out of my budget. That was until Leisure Wheels kindly arranged with Bobo Campers for me to take one of its Discoverer D/C 4×4s on a 20 day drive around Botswana, Namibia and the northern reaches of South Africa. Needless to say I jumped at such an amazing opportunity. I’ve been travelling for nearly 20 years but when I go somewhere new, I like to do the minimal amount of research – vaccinations and exceptional risks the exception – so I can maintain that sense of discovery and wonder. That’s why I wasn’t expecting the country north of Johannesburg to be so sparsely populated.

With a European upbringing, where there is a village over almost every hill, I wasn’t prepared for the vastness and emptiness of the landscape. And then the GPS made us turn off the nice tarmac onto a red-earth road, which soon got so rough that we were crawling along, threading our way through the rocks and patches of mud, with the sun setting and the GPS telling us that we had another 3½ hours to go… My friend Marina Kosenkova, who’d come out from Russia to join me, and I weren’t too worried, though. I’ve owned Toyotas before so knew that the brand new Bobo Campers Hilux is both capable off-road and reliable. Once I got used to the pendulous weight of the twin tents on the roof, I knew it would go practically anywhere.

This is Africa
I suppose the GPS thought I’d be driving at 60km/h all the way and it over-estimated our ETA by a couple of hours. We made it to Marakele National Park, after seven hours of driving from Joburg, 15 minutes before the gate closed. We set up camp with the sun bleeding over the sky with dozens of nervous impala milling about in the field in front of us. The first real culture shock came when a nonchalant ostrich wandered about interested in what we were making for dinner.

Welcome to Africa The two rhino idling along the road in front of us the next day was the definite wildlife highlight. There were a few of us in our 4×4s all vying for a view so I didn’t manage to get a good shot, but it was amazing to be that close to such an incredible animal. Not too close, though… The Hilux is a great off-roader but it wouldn’t stand much of a chance against that metre-long horn. The park’s off-road route was off-limits according to the Bobo rulebook but the tarmac drive up to the top of the mountains is still pretty spectacular, and backing up as close to the edge as possible to let oncoming cars inch by was good for the adrenalin. I could have taken some great photos here but we weren’t allowed out of the car. We didn’t argue as that’s a pretty sensible rule when there are semi-wild lion and leopard wandering around… The view from the top over the landscape of towering and dramatic bluffs was epic, like a backdrop of a sci-fi film when they want to accentuate the alienness of the landscape. I could have stayed up there all day. And this was only the beginning of the trip.

A long, straight road
The info I had about Botswana was limited, with a list of highlights on the route and recommended places to stop… so while we explored the country, everything was going to be an adventure. However, perhaps a bit of research would have revealed that on the road after the Khama Rhino Sanctuary up towards Maun and the Okovango there is pretty much nothing to explore. A good Chinese-funded tarmac with hardly any traffic, just a few small herds of goats and donkeys to watch out for, and it was two days of constant, unchanging small spiky bushes at the side of the road. If we could have gone up a couple of metres higher we would have been able to see what an absolutely vast landscape we were travelling through, but without a single hill, all we could see was the few metres either side of the road. It was far from boring though, the more the scenery didn’t change, the more I realised what a truly mind-blowingly immense landscape we were in. I had never experienced anything like it before and I loved it.

But for the bored, there is something that will wake them up. At first I panicked, thinking we were in the middle of an armed ambush and tried to duck behind the steering wheel. I was slightly embarrassed to discover that it wasn’t someone shooting at us, but big beetles exploding against the windscreen. Sometimes the sound of their sudden deaths was so shockingly loud I couldn’t believe the glass didn’t crack. Down a dirt track outside the small sun-bleached village of Mopipi we stopped in the shade of one of the countless spiky trees, opened the back of the truck and enjoyed lunch and some much-needed coffee. Bobo Campers provided us with pretty much everything we needed to live quite comfortably for two weeks.

The Hilux had two tents so four of us could have travelled, a big fridge, drawers with more cooking utensils than I had in my last apartment, a gas stove, and recovery equipment. The A/T tyres with a standard difflock could get us through some serious obstacles, but I knew that it’s a camper first and an off-roader second. And as you are liable for any underbody damage, I doubt anyone would be pretending to be Dakar drivers once they signed the form. It was 440C according to the instrument panel, but the blazing sun on my pasty white skin straight out of a European winter made it feel even hotter. That evening we came across a random campsite just off the road and decided to stop. Without knowing where we were, we cooked up some dinner before watching a gorgeous sunset. It was one of the images that travel companies use on their brochures, the golden arc falling behind the horizon silhouetting the trees as it went. I probably couldn’t find that place on a map again but for me, not knowing exactly where I am gives me a great sense of just ‘being’. That was one of my favourite evenings.

We arrive in Maun
We headed to Maun and celebrated New Year in a campsite just outside the Okavango Delta National Park under a huge jacaranda tree that unfortunately wasn’t flowering. We didn’t know we needed to go to an office in town to buy permits to get into the park and the office was closed on 1 January. Oh well, I suppose there can be some downsides to not researching things. The resident crocodile on the riverbank of our campsite provided enough wildlife. We watched him move around but knew we were safe behind a small fence… until some cows from the neighbouring field escaped and trampled it down. Then we were rather nervous when it got dark… Welcome to Africa, part 2. Around the western side of the Okavango there was still no change in terrain or scenery. In the south, however, there were a few mud-hut villages at the side of the road and I couldn’t help stopping to have a look around.

A friendly girl with a big smile came out of a reed-walled yard to say hello and she proudly took us to look at her mud hut, which she’d decorated with a huge flower by sticking sand on the still wet mud wall. I was curious to know why it seems that they choose to live in houses that look like they are straight out of the stone age but there wasn’t really a moment to ask. I found out later it’s because they live in the floodplain of the delta and so need to have easily rebuildable dwellings. On a little side note, despite it being a settlement of only about a dozen or so huts with a couple of winding dirt tracks, the GPS managed to guide us back to the main road. For a free download, Navmii has been impressing me for nearly a year now and I can’t recommend it enough.

Crossing the border
I have a healthy fear of intern-ational border posts. On a few occasions I’ve been stuck at crossings for days on end, and even once had my leg broken by an angry guard with a big stick. I was thus a bit nervous as I pulled up at the stop sign at the Botswana/Namibia border. There was absolutely nothing to fear. The guy in charge of the Namibian side had us in stitches with his over-the-top formal British accent and how he got up to ceremoniously walk to another desk where we filled in another form. It was so much fun that after the formalities I shook his hand to say thank you. Immediately after the last control gate we were on a dirt road. The Bwabwata National Park runs right up against the border in the Zambezi Region, formerly the Caprivi strip, which looks suspiciously as though it was plotted on a map by someone with a pencil and ruler. I stopped to ask a safari Jeep driver what we could see on our impromptu visit and he told us to take the next left and continue along for about 2km. We followed his directions and came right up to the most magnificent creature I’d ever seen, a huge, dark skinned adult elephant.

He was even more magnificent and majestic than the Marakele rhinos. He was gracefully striding at an angle across the track but looked at me and changed direction. I quickly jumped back into the Toyota but having the elephant be aware of my existence was a really amazing moment and I was filled with awe as I watched him drink water. We stopped to make some quick sandwiches, heading down a quiet road that led to the lazy waters of the Okavango, the thick forests of Angola on the other side of the river. I was cutting cheese and rinsing salad when a couple of girls came with bowls of clothes and started washing them in the river right next to the car. It seemed like a perfect scene of real Africa… but that was a little further down the road.

Welcome to Rundu
It was just getting dark as we got to Rundu. We didn’t see any signs for a campsite, but next to a scrapyard and a dodgy bar we found a guesthouse with thatched cottages. We threw our things down and went off in the darkness to explore the town. The security guard from a nearby fuel station warned us that it was a dangerous place, but we thought it looked safe. The next day was another mammoth drive through the mostly uninhabited scrubland of northern Namibia. Our destination was Spitzkoppe, a place much more impressive than its name suggests. The greenery had been getting sparse all day, and by the time we turned off on a dusty road towards the towering peaks, the scrub had just about given way to total desert. The ground at the foot of the otherworldly formations is dotted with campsites with fire pits and is by far the best place I have ever camped.

Even just signing in was an incredible experience. I’d recently read a book about the development and diversity of the world’s languages and there was a part on the Khoekhoe language and how the clicking sounds make it one of the most difficult to learn. And here the receptionist was speaking it to a delivery guy as we filled in the form. The local culture wasn’t exactly one in full bloom, though. The grinding poverty was clearly visible as the road into the campsite was lined with local trinket vendors sending out their small children to wave wind chimes at us. Their only potential customers the people coming in and out of camp. Once the roof-top tents were unzipped and unfolded, I got dinner ready and we followed the sunset with a fire and some stargazing from the rocks that were still radiating the sun’s heat into the cool evening.

We spent two nights here and suffered our only puncture of the trip as we hit an unseen rock somewhere in the sand that completely took out the side wall. It was then an easy drive down to the coast and Swakopmund, the first real town we’d seen since Maun, some 1 000km away. As soon as we got to the beach, I felt like I wasn’t in Africa any more. The pier and the smell of the sea made me feel like I was back in north Wales, on a summer holiday in Llandudno. I even found a place that sold pie and chips. It was quite surreal and so was the best full English breakfast this side of the equator in the Village Café. Heading south back towards Joburg, the tarmac doesn’t last long after Walvis Bay and then it’s onto a dirt road that leads through a really barren and featureless desert. At long last it felt like a real expedition into the wilderness.

Notable impressions of places we stayed

Marakele National Park, Limpopo, SA Amazing to be so close to the animals. You can hear them running around the camp at night.
Khama Rhino Reserve, Botswana Expensive for non-nationals
but lovely, private sites in the dense woods.
Island Safari Lodge, Maun (Botswana) Lovely natural setting, pool and restaurant. Damn expensive tours though. We liked the pet crocodile – not sure if it was tame though!
Spitzkoppe Community Restcamp, Namibia Amazing campsite. If this place was in Europe you wouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it, but in Namibia you can sleep among the rocks. Amazing place.
Desert Explorers, Swakopmund (Namibia) A container room. Much nicer than it sounds. Town is so small it’s only a couple of blocks to the centre.
Helmeringhausen Hotel, Namibia The camp is the car park covered in sandal-piercing thorns. Oh, and don’t dare ask to connect to the internet to check your route… not recommended.
Canyon Roadhouse, Namibia Not the greatest campsite but I loved the restaurant. If you are a classic car enthusiast, you will, too.
Augrabies Falls National Park, Northern Cape (RSA) Double the price if you are a foreigner but a good camp. An even better desert drive. And if you go when the falls are in full flow, it would be amazing.
Witsand Nature Reserve, Northern Cape (RSA) My favorite place. If you are heading to or from Namibia, stop here.
Red Sands Country Lodge, Northern Cape (RSA) They made me a full English breakfast for dinner. Full marks just for that. The camp is fine, too. So is the view from the windmill.

Alone in the wild
A night in a small village with half a dozen houses was followed the next day with another dusty drive. A coffee for me and a refill of diesel for the Hilux in the little oasis of Solitaire also seemed like a good opportunity to test the Navmii GPS. Instead of sticking to the main roads, I zoomed in and plotted a much more direct route south. The ‘shortcut’ I found was 20km of spiky trees and muddy puddles. It wasn’t the hardest trail I have ever completed and the Hilux didn’t come close to getting stuck, but it was so far from anywhere that we were totally on our own. And that gave us quite a thrill. On the off-road tracks we have in Britain, called ‘green lanes’, we drive a few hundred metres to the next farmer’s gate, and that’s about it. Here, if anything had happened, we’d have perished from exposure long before anyone came by and found us.

Our next stop was the Fish River Canyon. The insane heat was like a furnace, but it’s a mini Grand Canyon and the view is spectacular. And with slightly less health and safety features than in America. Because there are no fences, you can drive right up to the edge, if you dare. Welcome to Africa. And then after 1 200km of gravel roads, on which the Bobo Hilux never missed a beat, it was over the distinctly Orange River, back to South Africa. Another short stop for lunch under the baking sun and I thought I saw something move in the heat haze down the road. I got the camera ready in case it was something interesting, but eventually realised that it was a guy pulling a suitcase along the road as though he was in a departure lounge about to board a flight. I’d just driven 30km from the border without passing a single building so couldn’t imagine where he was going. He didn’t want a lift anywhere but gratefully accepted some water and a couple of energy drinks. Then he continued walking off into the distance.

I carried on driving the way he’d come, but couldn’t work out where he’d started from. And my favourite country of the three? I have to say South Africa. And one of my favourite places is the rocky desert around the Augrabies Waterfall on the fringes on the Kalahari. The howling wind was so strong it blew up a sandstorm on the horizon and made the clouds race across the sky. I spent most of the evening with my shirt whipping against my back watching the play of light across the landscape. And parking the Hilux in the middle of it made for some good photos, too. In my opinion, at the end of a 6 500km journey, there is no more perfect place than Witsand, right in the heart of the Kalahari. A little affordable luxury is always a great way to wind down. The end of the Bobo adventure was choosing the direct route through the centre of Joburg, which was a rather glaring contrast to the natural paradise I’d been in for the last two and a half weeks. But it wasn’t the end of my first Africa experience… I’ve got two more months in this amazing place.

BoBo’s Discoverer D/C 4×4 – the real deal

Overlanding through Southern Africa doesn’t get much more comfortable than BoBo Campers’ Discoverer D/C 4×4. Based on the latest Toyota Hilux 2.8GD-6 4×4 AT, the van comes with two roof-top tents, and all the camping kit and gear four people will need. But that’s only part of the deal. You get the luxurious cabin, powerful 2.8-litre turbodiesel engine, cruise control and the six-speed automatic gearbox. Long-distance driving is no particular hardship in this 4×4 bakkie-cum-motorhome. To further aid the Hilux’s overland capability, the vehicle has a diesel capacity of 160 litres, and it also has a snorkel.

Text and photography: Robb Pritchard