An overland trip to Botswana need not be a lengthy and complicated affair. In fact, if you have a few days to spare, you could easily squeeze in a brief yet rewarding trip.
THIS WEEK Leisure Wheels will once again be hosting a large group of 4x4s on an overland trip. We have done this many times before, as regular readers will know. We have led luxury SUVs through the dunes of the Namib, double cab bakkies into the Kaokoveld and compact SUVs to Chobe and Moremi.
This year, no less than 18 compact SUVs will accompany us to Botswana and Zimbabwe. We will be visiting places such as Chobe National Park, Kasane and the Victoria Falls.
Taking such a large group out of the country is obviously quite a task. For example, we have to arrange to transport the vehicles across the border on trucks, book flights for the guests to the pick-up point and find accommodation for 40-odd people.
So, to lay the groundwork for our year-end trip, we recently visited Kasane for a few days, and in the process noted that an excursion like this to a neighbouring country need not be a long and daunting undertaking. All you need is five or six days, and a journey to a destination such as Kasane is well worthwhile.
JOHANNESBURG TO NATA LODGE
Flying to Kasane and renting a vehicle at the airport is an effortless but pricey way to visit the area. There are regular flights from SA, and it is a simple matter to rent the vehicle of your choice.
If, however, you live in the northern provinces, there is no reason why you shouldn’t drive to Kasane. If you are willing to hit the road early, you could get there in a day. A better option, though, is to spend the night at Nata Lodge.
Situated about 8km south of the small village of Nata, the lodge offers pleasant accommodation in the form of chalets or large safari tents. At just more than R1200 for a twin chalet and R970 for a safari tent the accommodation is fairly pricey but not exorbitant, and there is a restaurant where you can enjoy a good evening meal and a hearty breakfast. Be warned, though, that restaurant meals can be expensive. A simple English breakfast will set you back more than R100.
To be honest, Nata Lodge isn’t as impressive as it once was. It is still the best overnight stop on the way to Kasane, but service standards have slipped a little over the last year or two, and our recent visit left us a little disappointed.
James French (ably assisted by his wife Dianne) used to be the manager at Nata, and he ran a very tight ship. But the good news is that he is now at the excellent Chobe River Lodge in Kasane, where we spent three nights during our trip.
We left Johannesburg at six o’ clock on a Tuesday morning and headed north on the N1. The best option is probably to travel through Lephalale (previously Ellisras) and cross into Botswana at the Grobler’s Bridge gate, which is what we did. We turned off the N1 at Modimolle, and passed through the town on the way to Lephalale and Grobler’s Bridge.
Our vehicle was the Mercedes-Benz ML400. With its 245 kW of power and 7G-Tronic automatic gearbox, it made swift work of the roughly 450km to the border. For long trips, a vehicle like the M-Class is obviously ideal. The kilometres fly by when you are cosseted in the SUV’s comfy cabin.
Grobler’s Bridge is a relatively peaceful border post, so getting through usually isn’t much of a problem. It took us less than 30 minutes. Just one point: it’s advisable to have 140 pula ready for third-party vehicle insurance and road tax. The Botswana authorities are a bit reluctant to accept rands at the border, but will take them if the notes are new. For some reason they aren’t keen to accept worn notes.
Once across the border, we travelled through Palapye to Francistown, where there are plenty of service stations and shops, so it is a good place to refuel and stock up on provisions.
It is worth noting that we did not find 50ppm diesel on our trip, not even in Francistown and Kasane. We were in a petrol-engined Merc, so this wasn’t a concern, but we nevertheless looked out for low-sulphur diesel, knowing that so many SUVs nowadays require it. If you make this trip in a diesel vehicle, ensure that it can take 500ppm fuel, otherwise a trip to Botswana could become a real hassle.
The roads in Botswana are generally in excellent condition, an exception being the first 20km directly after the border, so completing the roughly 180km between Francistown and Nata Lodge by evening was not a problem, especially in the ML400.
We arrived at the lodge just before 17h00, feeling remarkably fresh considering that we had travelled about 860km. After a drink at the poolside and an early dinner, we turned in for the night.
It is only 300km from Nata Lodge to Kasane, so if you leave at about 08h00 you can be in Kasane before lunchtime. The road is quiet and in great condition, so it’s about a two-and-a-half hour trip. We left Nata Lodge at about 08h00 and were in Kasane before 11h00.
ON THE TOURIST ROUTE
Like Maun, Kasane is one of Botswana’s popular tourist towns. As you approach it, you soon spot game-viewing vehicles stuffed with khaki-clad Europeans.
Kasane is a must-visit destination, but it isn’t off the beaten track and you will soon be rubbing shoulders with many overseas visitors. Also, remember that you will be paying the same inflated prices that they do, made worse by the increasingly pitiful state of our rand.
There are three luxury lodges in town that cater to overseas visitors and offer premium accommodation. These are the Chobe Safari Lodge, Mowana Safari Lodge and the Chobe Marina Lodge. We’ve been lucky enough to stay at all three, and Chobe Safari Lodge remains our favourite. Considering the levels of comfort and service, it is pretty well priced. And the food is excellent too. As mentioned, James French is now manager, and on his watch it has become better than ever. We enjoyed every moment of our three-night stay.
If you are looking for slightly cheaper accommodation, Water Lilly Lodge offers comfortable air-conditioned rooms, and Senyati Safari Camp has good overland camping accommodation.
The Zimbabwean town of Victoria Falls in a mere 80km from Kasane. The Kazungula border post is 12km from Kasane, and can be negotiated easily enough.
That said, there are a few things to keep in mind when crossing into Zimbabwe. Firstly, Zimbabwean officials can be pedantic about what you need when travelling on their roads. You need a fire extinguisher and triangle, as well as a reflective vest. You must have white square stickers on your front bumper and red squares on the rear bumper. If you don’t have all these items, you will be fined.
Also note that Zimbabwe charges access fees and CO2 emissions taxes that border on extortion. If your vehicle’s engine size is three litres or less, it will cost you US$50 to get into Zimbabwe. If the engine is bigger than three litres you have to fork out US$70!
Still, the Victoria Falls are a wonderful sight and if you’ve got all the way to Kasane, you owe it to yourself to go to the falls as well.
After spending a day in Kasane organising things for our October visit, we travelled to Victoria Falls on the second day. The entrance fee to the falls is US$20 per person for South African citizens. Like us, you could easily make it a day trip from Kasane.
CHOBE NATIONAL PARK
Our third day was spent scouting Chobe National Park. The Sedudu Gate is located just outside Kasane and offers immediate access to one of the best game-viewing routes in the park. This is, of course, the much-vaunted River Route along the Chobe River.
There was a controversy when it was announced a few years ago that only the lodges’ game-viewing vehicles would be allowed on the route between 06h00 and 09h00 each day, and the rule still holds. If you are in your own car, you have to wait until after nine to get onto the road. It’s disappointing to be deprived of the best game-viewing time, but don’t let that put you off. You will still see plenty of game later in the morning.
You don’t need a pukka off-roader to venture into the park. Your vehicle has to be a 4×4, but the roads around the Sedudu Gate, including the River Route, are not bad at all. A compact SUV without low-range gearing could handle them with ease.
Our ML400 was equipped with an off-road package, which meant it had low range and an adjustable suspension, but we didn’t need either. The vehicle’s standard 4Matic 4×4 system was more than equal to the task.
Park fees are 50 pula per car and 120 pula per person.
Once you’ve spent the day in the park, be sure to take a boat cruise in the afternoon. All of the lodges offer cruises. If you’ve already paid 120 pula in the morning, you won’t have to pay again to enter the park by boat. But you have to pay for the cruise – about 275 pula per person.
We took a sunset cruise and were blown away by the experience. Nothing beats exploring the park by river. It is expensive, yes, but worth every penny.
After three nights in Kasane, it was time to head home. We were away for five nights altogether and managed to cram an awful lot into the trip. Kasane might seem far away, but it is actually very accessible. Don’t put off that trip to Chobe. Leave home on a Thursday, return the following Tuesday, and spend five wonderful days exploring one of southern Africa’s best overland destinations.
The ML400 offers the perfect combination of on-road comfort and off-road ability. This isn’t a hardcore 4×4, but it can do a fair bit of gravel travel when necessary. It is sure-footed and very comfortable. The only thing that hampers it on a trip like this is the low-profile tyres.
As mentioned, our vehicle was fitted with an optional off-road package. This provides features such as low-range gearing and adjustable suspension.
The M-Class isn’t intended for 4×4 trails but the vehicle performs well in loose sand. More importantly, though, it is a joy to drive on tar and made the long drive to Kasane very enjoyable.
Engine: Three-litre, V6 twin-turbo, petrol
Power: 245 kW @ 5500 r/min
Torque: 480 Nm @ 1400 r/min
Transmission: 7G-Tronic seven-speed automatic
Fuel consumption: 9,3 litres per 100km (claimed)
Retail price: R900 452
Nata Lodge is the ideal place to spend a night on the way to Chobe and Kasane. Twin-bed rooms are priced at 880 pula, and the twin-bed luxury safari tents are priced at 700 pula. Exchange rate at the time of writing was 1 pula = R1,36
E-mail: [email protected]
Tel: +267 620 0070
CHOBE SAFARI LODGE
Situated on the banks of the Chobe River, Chobe Safari Lodge is our favourite lodge in Kasane. The lodge is pricey, but considering the quality of the service and accommodation, is a real bargain. You’re certain to enjoy your stay. Twin-bed rooms are priced at 1295 pula.
E-mail: [email protected]esafarilodge.com
Tel: +267 625 0336
Exchange rate at the time of writing was 1 pula = R1,36