The annual Makgadikgadi Pans Mountain Bike Adventure in Botswana is a three-day 150km ride across the pans restricted to 30 riders. The reason for this small field is that the organisers want the riders to feel that they are the only people on the planet – something that is not hard to achieve on a 12 000km² pan
Text: Patrick Cruywagen
Photography: Patrick Cruywagen and Gustav Oosthuysen
Anyone who has been to the Makgadikgadi Pans in Botswana will know that they are not kind to your 4×4. The mud and fine white dust seem to get in everywhere. So when providing logistical support to 30 mountain bike riders, you want a vehicle that can carry massive loads and handle whatever you throw at it.
While the older leaf spring Land Rovers might have been the first vehicles seen by most indigenous African people, today the Toyota Land Cruiser is the undoubted King of Africa. That is why we insisted on using one again when we headed to the Mountain Bike Adventure. We would be towing a heavy trailer and had to carry most of the riders’ bags and gear.
About 500km from Johannesburg and not far from the Martins Drift border post, we realised why Toyota SA took so long to launch this vehicle in SA. We had already used 100 litres of fuel! We were towing a big trailer and averaging just over 120km/h, but the consumption was a bit on the excessive side.
Once in Botswana we made a beeline for Elephant Sands, just over 50km north of Nata. There we met up with the support crew in their Land Cruisers and the rest of the riders.
Local resident and co-founder of the event, Ben Moller, had organised a really varied crew of Cruiser owners. This made them just perfect for operating in the hostile pans, where many a seasoned explorer and adventurer has come a cropper.
This was the second time that Jim French from the UK had come along to help us out in his expedition-prepared 4.2-litre diesel Cruiser. Jim is a real Soutie as he was born there, but he has one foot in Africa and the other in the UK, dividing his time between the two countries. Jim owns a very successful Land Rover dealership in the UK, and no expense was spared in kitting out his Cruiser, as most of his personal travel is done solo. He normally brings up the rear of the convoy so that if something does go wrong up ahead he can assist accordingly. He has everything from the bright orange Maxtrax recovery device to a satellite phone so that he can call home to see how many Land Rovers his son, James, who now runs the business, has sold.
Ben Moller owns the whole fleet of Land Cruisers that we are using for the trip.
Hosting an event on the pans is a logistical nightmare. The white dust and mud are not kind to vehicles. All supplies have to be brought in, including water, wood, food, portable toilets and tents.
Our first night of camping is at Kite Camp. You can just about see Kubu Island from there. Pierre van der Bol owns the campsite and no one knows the pans better than him. Pierre normally drives one of his Mad Max-style beach buggies a kilometre or two ahead of the first cyclist so they know which direction to go. The buggies have VW Beetle engines, on which Pierre is an expert. In fact, one of them runs with a wooden piston he created. His staff uses his 1973 F250. It is one of the stars of the show, as it carries the water and the wood.
One of the characters in our crew is Christo Pieterse, the bush guide from Touch the Wild. Christo has never owned a pair of shoes in his life and his feet are like old pieces of biltong. His 4.5 EFI Cruiser is carrying all the extra fuel for the quad bike and he has aptly named it Tank. His girlfriend, Duif Burell, is in control of the kitchen and this makes her popular with the hungry riders.
While in western Zambia recently, Christo stepped in when a drunken worker confronted an employee, and got a knife in the chest for his efforts. He does not let this get him down and shows me the hole in his chest and the bag he has to use “to drain the fluid”. (We had not met him before, and when we got back home, we Googled him. The first thing that came up was a YouTube video of Christo using his Cruiser to recover a stranded buffalo from a mud hole. What a character!)
As we are cycling in the event, we have to leave Ben in control of the convoy. George Borstlap is made camp commandant, which is to say that he has to ensure that everyone is happy and that they eat, sleep and cycle at the right times.
Logistical support is vital on the pans, so the role of the Cruisers cannot be over emphasised. This has easily been the most successful Makgadikgadi Pans Mountain Bike Adventure so far, thanks to the role played by the Cruisers and their helpful owners.
The first day’s cycle is only 40km and takes the riders from Kite Camp to Kubu Island via some of the nearby smaller islands. The track is hard and we make good progress. Most cyclists stop at one of the islands, which has several bonsai-styled baobabs on it.
The highlight of the first day is undoubtedly the finish at Kubu Island – a baobab-covered rocky outcrop in the middle of the pans. As most riders still have loads of energy left they allow themselves a few laps of the island just to take it all in.
The second day’s 68km stage is the toughest. Riders leave Kubu at sunrise and make their way along a 10km rock-strewn track towards Adventure Camp. Here the rocks are replaced by sand during the crossing from Sowa Pan to Ntwetwe Pan.
After the cyclists descend onto Ntwetwe Pan, it’s a long slog to the campsite. The pan’s surface changes all the time, making life difficult for the riders. Medic Etienne van Niekerk, who is on the quad bike, stays with the last riders to make sure they reach the camp.
The third and final day is only half the distance of the long second day, but it’s into a tough head wind. This stage enters what is known as the long thin finger, found in the northern part of Ntwetwe Pan. Despite the fact that you can see the buggy marking the finish, it still takes a long time to reach it because out on the pans you can see for miles and miles. Eventually our tandem pulls up next to the buggy – and the beer-filled cooler box!
The Makgadikgadi Pans Mountain Bike Adventure is not a race but rather an adventure. It’s about cycling in a very special part of southern Africa. This probably explains why half of this year’s riders have already signed up for next year.
The game viewing vehicle transported all the riders into and out of the pans. The diesel V8 had to tow a big trailer and the riders’ gear, while Christo’s Tank took the fuel and some of the water. They easily managed the tasks assigned to them.
The V8 fuel bill was a little higher than expected, but the driving experience and the immense power of the vehicles more than made up for that. So if you own a Cruiser and want a rather different experience of the Makgadikgadi Pans, then by all means contact us. You can either cruise across the pans in your mountain bike or else just use your Cruiser.
Want to ride it?
Want to be a 4×4 volunteer?
In 2015 we will once again be looking for Cruiser (or Land Rover) owners and drivers. If you are interested, please e-mail [email protected]
Where we stayed
Elephant Sands, 50km north of Nata. As summer approaches and the water holes dry up, elephants move to this area. It is not unusual to see big herds there from August to November. Accommodation varies from a campsite to chalets and new luxury tents. The food is excellent and owner Ben Moller’s story-telling is legendary. For more details, go to www.elephantsands.com or tel 00267 7344 5162.