Stranded in Moremi

After three visits to Botswana exploring Kubu Island, the Okavango Delta and the Moremi and Chobe Reserves respectively, the next trip – to drive from Maun to Kasane via Savuti – was planned a year in advance. But the best-laid plans…

Text and photographs: Henk van der Ham

We were certainly prepared: Jerrycans to hold 100 litres of petrol, a snatch rope with shackles, spade, sand tracks, radiator netting, new all-terrain tyres, air compressor, tyre pressure gauge and also tracks4africa GPS software for Botswana.

There was just one downside. My brother-in-law from the Netherlands, Cees, could only be here in November, in Botswana’s rainy season. We decided to go as far as we could, trusting information from the authorities and turning back only when too much mud would prevent us from continuing.

The straightest route was directly from Maun to the Mahabe Chobe South Gate. But as heavy rains had fallen earlier over the whole northern area, we wanted to avoid this road with its deep mud and planned to drive through Moremi, via Third Bridge.

Arriving at the Moremi South Gate, we were told that November is the last month that tourists can pay and enter through the gate. We were also told that the road conditions were acceptable, but more difficult farther north.

Sticking to existing tracks after being told to do so by a safari operator who towed our Jeep out of a mud hole where I had tried an alternative line, we arrived at Third Bridge. That night we were wakened by a rainstorm and heavy wind.

We decided to get to North Gate, and if they did not recommend the road to Mahabe Gate and Savuti, we would turn back. Again we splashed gently through the pools, trying to follow other tracks, but most of them were washed away by the rains of the previous night. As advised, we walked through some of the bigger pools.

But then came a smaller pool, which looked unnecessary to walk through.

The Jeep’s nose dived down and there was a second of darkness as a wave of muddy water splashed over the windscreen. The engine died and the Jeep came to a stop just before the edge of the pool. Oil was floating on the water.

I managed to get the engine running and drive to drier soil, where closer inspection revealed two holes in the sump punched through from the inside. Broken piston rods!

This was scary… Two elderly men, with an altogether broken engine, halfway between South and North Gate on a flooded road, wild animals around, and very few passing vehicles because the road was now officially closed.

After a couple of hours, a small safari vehicle and later a parks maintenance vehicle stopped by and we asked them to report that we needed a tow.

Soon we realised that we would have to spend the night and pitched our tents. Dinner comprised of biltong, beans in tomato sauce, and yoghurt, and we were loudly serenaded by frogs, insects, and a variety of animals. Lions roared in the distance.

The next day we woke early, and waited. At around 10:30am two huge safari wagons arrived. They reported lions and elephants not far from there, and said sleeping another night at this spot would be far too dangerous.

They promised to make radio contact with a certain Mac, who has a tow-in service in Maun.

By 3pm, while we started making plans for a possible further night in the bush, a Land Cruiser truck with huge tyres came splashing through the pools. It was Mac!

He hooked up a solid bar and towed us all the way to Maun, 145 km away! This wasn’t a pleasurable trip, having no power steering and splashing through deep pools, wondering whether the Land Cruiser would make it.

But Mac’s driving skills were superb!

It was almost dark when we arrived at the Audi Camp in Maun. Mac promised to pick us up the next morning to make further arrangements.

He took us to a transport company that travels twice weekly to Johannesburg and we were able to organise for the Jeep to be transported to Johannesburg.

Our first thought was to fly back with only the necessary stuff, but again our friend Mac, who had even lent us an old Land Rover to get around with in Maun, had a wonderful opportunity for us.

At his workshop was a motorhome belonging to a well-known 4×4 hire company near Johannesburg, and it had to go back! Gratefully, we loaded our stuff in and drove home.

The Jeep Cherokee had to undergo a complete engine overhaul that cost R48 000, and towing and transport added another R7620. Maybe this could have been avoided if a snorkel was fitted. Because this was not an accident with body damage, the insurance company did not pay out.

Although a very expensive and costly safari, it was a truly unforgettable experience. The challenge still remains to complete this route another year but, of course, in the dry winter season!