As we watch the Makgadikgadi salt pans slowly appear on the horizon, we start to get a little nervous.
This is the spot where Africa´s largest inland lake used to be, 10 000 years ago. In dry weather, driving a car on this 12 000-square-kilometer plain can be a smooth and even comfortable ride.
If the snow-white salt gets a little bit wet, though, it turns into dangerous quicksand in which you run the risk of getting hopelessly stuck and even sinking to roof level.
Since you won’t come across many people on this boiling hot plain, there’s a risk of staying unnoticed for weeks – which would probably mean the end for you. Not exactly a positive outlook. Not to mention the fact that the rainy season had just started.
Fortunately, the air was crisp and the salt crust looked very dry. Cautiously, we drove our Land Rover Defender onto the tracks on the pan, which seemed to be able to comfortably hold us.
We boldly set off on our journey, appreciating the infinite void that was these magnificent salt flats. Nature’s intense contrast between the bright blue sky and the snow-white salt flats was also something to behold. However, after driving for 15 minutes, the surface became grey, blobs of salt assaulted our windshield and the car started slipping.
My palms were sweaty and my heart pounding as images of salt-sunken cars flashed through my mind. For heaven’s sake, what have we let ourselves in for, I asked myself, barely keeping the car on course.
To my relief, the salt started to turn a snowy white again – like before – and I could even see some dust tracks left behind by the relatively heavy Defender. We breathed a sigh of relief when, after only 30 minutes, the thick baobab trees of Lekhubu Island appeared on the horizon.
A mystic atmosphere still surrounds this one-kilometre long island – consisting of purplish-grey rocks, surrounded by salt – used centuries ago to perform rites of initiation for young boys.
We opened our rooftop tent as the sun turned the gnarled baobab trees with their crooked branches orange-red. Camping on this island will cost you 150 pula (about R210) per person for which you get no shower, no water and we had to make do with a so-called ‘long-drop’ toilet.
Thanks to some obvious language barriers, a long-drop would still be somewhat fancy compared to this offering: a porcelain toilet covering a deep hole in the ground, protected from the elements with only a rickety plastic cubicle.
Needless to say, we looked for a cleaner solution in the wilderness. Despite the lack of luxury (or even basic sanitation), an overnight stay on Lekhubu Island is still an absolute must.
The spectacular sunrise and sunset turns the island and the surrounding salt flats into unimaginable pastel shades. Being this far away from civilisation makes stargazing a once-in-a-lifetime treat.
Due to the high cost-low impact tourism model implemented by the Botswana government years ago, it isn’t a cheap getaway destination. A stay at the secluded lodges in the famous Okavango Delta, for instance, can cost hundreds of dollars. This is due to limited accessibility – often only accessible by small planes with spectacular boat safaris on offer.
There are, however, plenty of budget options available in Botswana, with a bit of research and some luck, one of those rare finds might just be uncovered. An example, based on our trip, is to drive from safari capital Maun to the Nguma Island Lodge on the western side of the delta.
This is the starting point for a breathtaking trip by traditional Mokoro canoe. The traditional canoe was made from a hollowed-out tree trunk, but these days, the raft is made from fibreglass in order to better conserve the environment.
Using a long wooden oar, boatman Bongani gently pushes us through the calm mirror-like water. He expertly navigates through tall papyrus plants, green elephant grass and water lilies with pink and purple flowers.
We were awestruck at the sight of the bright blue feathered kingfishers, white spoonbills and hundreds of other birds we didn’t even know existed. The Okavango Delta, otherwise known as the Garden of Eden, measures 16 000 square kilometres, making it the largest inland delta in the world. It is home to over 580 different bird species.
Stopping the boat at a delta island, our guide expertly pointed out footprints and other evidence left behind by both elephant and hippo, which had moved through the area. The foliage in the area was completely destroyed as a result. We saw torn off tree bark and even entire trees that have been unearthed as we navigated our way past elephant dung. Unfortunately, the animals themselves were nowhere to be seen.
According to Bongani, their absence can be attributed to migration. Not long after, however, we witnessed a bush suddenly begin to shake. Elephant? Hippo? There I was, scared stiff, when a metre-long bright green monitor lizard emerged. Strangely, however, it appeared to be more frightened of us, as it quickly retreated to the hills.
Back in Maun, our first priority was to wash the car since salt can take its toll on the bodywork. Due to a large number of tourists moving through the area, the car washes charge ridiculous fees.
Luckily, on the outskirts of Maun, we were relieved to find three enterprising youngsters who have built their own car wash using four poles and a net. With their high-pressure washer, which is connected to a generator, they were willing to wash our car for around R50, quite a bargain if you ask me…
In the afternoon, we made all the necessary arrangements for the upcoming national parks and campgrounds. There may be a culture of spontaneous decision-making among tourists visiting Africa but we found that in Botswana, forward planning is crucial, even for the most intuitive adventurer.
You have to pay your tickets for the national parks at the Wildlife Reservation Office in Maun before departure, and it’s also advisable to book all your camps in advance, as this isn’t always possible inside the parks.
Fortunately, Botswana offers a vast safari experience and we got to enjoy it even sooner than expected. In Maun, we camped at the Sedia Riverside Hotel. Sitting at our camping table in the evening while reading a book, nature found us when a snake made its dramatic appearance. The reptile was hardly any thicker than a garden hose and headed off without any encouragement, but needless to say, I didn’t have the best night’s sleep.
The following day we set off to the Moremi Game Reserve. Shaken and stirred as a result of the bumpy gravel road, we soldiered on with the destination finally in sight. We noticed that our car was making more noise with each passing minute. Concerned, we inspected the source of the noise, only to find that the coil spring mounting at the right front wheel had broken, resulting in the coil bouncing against the bodywork.
Although we were only a few minutes away from entering Moremi, we decided to return to Maun. If the mounting were to break completely, we wouldn’t be able to drive at all.
In Maun, we went to SunRise Motors where Dutchman Pieter van der Grift set up his workshop 24 years ago. Luckily, he was eager to help, starting the repairs on the Landy immediately.
A mere three hours later and the work was finished and we paid our dues of 1 638 pula (about R2 300). It was a lot of money, especially considering the suspension would fail again in exactly the same place a few days down the line.
The next day, we finally reached the south entrance of the Moremi National Park Game Reserve mostly unscathed – except for our wallets – surprised to see two elephants so soon.
This reserve is part of the Okavango Delta, and therefore partly consists of marshland, this can result in some impassable roads during the rainy season.
Luckily for us, most roads turned out to be drivable as we were spoilt with sightings of zebra, impala and kudu nibbling on juicy grass. We also encountered a herd of buffalo not looking too happy with our presence.
Camping alongside the River Khwai, we knew that wild animals are a regular feature. Thanks to the absence of boundary fences, animals can and do casually enter and curiously investigate around the tents of campers. Not something we could say we had done many times before. For R400, this is Africa at its wild best.
While enjoying a glass of wine, we observed kudu ambling past, in all their magnificence. In the distance, a snorting hippo could be heard, tempting a closer investigation. This, however, might not be such a good idea.
Upon entering the adjacent Chobe National Park we spotted a pride of lion sleeping under a roadside tree. We weren’t the only surprised ones, as the pride looked at us in amazement, probably not used to vehicles and this much attention. They soon lost interest though, and continued their morning nap.
After an hour of soft sand driving, we were treated to another wildlife spectacle in the Savute area. Dozens of elephant were bathing and drinking from a local waterhole. It felt like we were living a National Geographic episode when they started communicating to one another with growling and trumpeting.
We also learnt that these animals can cause quite the racket. When they are not unearthing trees, which causes some serious deforestation, they also unintentionally terrify nearby campers. In search of water, these giants would slip their trunks through shower windows of campsites, causing campers to hysterically flee in their birthday suits.
Putting locks on the windows didn’t solve the problem as the elephants still managed to open the windows. Out of sheer desperation, the campsite owners finally built an elephant-proof wall around the campsite to keep the animals away.
It wasn’t long before we spotted another pride of lion next to the road, drinking from water puddles caused by an earlier downpour.
After days of primitive camping, we wanted a taste of the luxury that Botswana has to offer. We stayed at the Chobe Game Lodge, arguably the most luxurious lodge in the country, situated on the spectacular shores of the Chobe River.
We received an invitation to join a private sundown cruise in a solar-powered boat. Tour guide Gobé steered the noiseless vessel through the water, all the while pointing out fish eagles, warthog, hippo, crocodile and a troop of 40 baboons. Just when we thought it couldn’t get any better, we saw dozens of elephant trotting down a sandy cove.
The next morning we were treated to a safari on an electric Land Rover Defender. Not only is this car environmentally friendly, it also provides a much better way to observe animals in the wild.
This occurred to us when spotting a herd of impala. Instead of dashing off in another direction, they curiously looked up, and for the first time in our life, we heard how they sniff and grunt. Two male impala even started fighting nearby, pounding their antlers together.
Chobe Game Lodge is the first lodge in Africa using electric Land Rovers for its game safaris. “We want to reduce our footprint,” explained Johan Bruwer, manager of Chobe Game Lodge, proudly. South African company Freedom One converted the lodge’s three Land Rover Defenders from electric. Next up are the Toyota Land Cruisers.
So, a cool electric experience to round off an eclectic Botswana expedition.
Botswana is still one of the wildest wild places in Africa. And if you plan smartly, you don’t need to break the bank to afford visiting it.
It is still one of Africa’s real ‘gardens of Eden’.
Facts: Makgadikgadi Salt Pan
The once enormous Lake Makgadikgadi covered an area bigger than Switzerland.
The only plant life found on the pan itself is blue-green algae.
The baobab trees found on the islands of the lake and surrounding areas serve as local landmarks.
One of these trees, named after James Chapman, served as an unofficial post office for 19th century explorers.
Facts: Okavango Delta
The Okavango River is the only permanent river in Africa that flows east without reaching the ocean. One of the reasons for this is evaporation.
The average size of the Okavango as it enters Botswana is around 200 metres wide and four metres deep.
Hippo act as the Delta’s channel builders while their dung serves as fertiliser.
The delta is home to the only fish-eating owl, the Pel’s Fishing Owl.
The Okavango Delta was the 1 000th site to be included on the UNESCO World Heritage list.
The delta is pretty-much flat, with less than two metres of variation in elevation across its entirety.
The Okavango Delta is home to 71 fish species.
The most populous large mammal is the lechwe antelope with a population of 60 000.
Facts: Chobe National Park
Chobe is home to around 50 000 elephant, probably the largest population in Africa.
During rainy seasons, more than 450 bird species can be seen.
Chobe was Botswana’s first national park.
Text: Andrea Dijkstra
Photography: Jeroen van Loon