They say that Africa is not for sissies – I think they should qualify that and say that the backroads of Botswana are not for sissies. Our trip to the Central Kalahari and Chobe for example – definitely not to be tackled by the faint-hearted. We should have realized this when we read that one could only enter the area with a four-wheel drive vehicle.
No problem, we thought, we’ve had a 4×4 for years and have had a few successful attempts at rocky and sandy terrain – this should be no different. First mistake. Never under-estimate the challenge of the Kalahari. We were prepared, after all. We had a high-lift jack and had also acquired a brand new pair of sand tracks just in case we got stuck in the sand. With these heavy duty plastic miracle rescuers we would be home and dry. The second mistake was placing them under the running boards on the sides of the car, neatly tied on with bungy cords. Out of the way but easily available if we needed them, we thought.
Our co-travellers, Jon and Hillary, are denizens of the remotest areas of Botswana, having made more forays into the wilds than David Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley put together. Only their mode of transport was different. David and Henry probably did it all on foot or horseback, whilst Jon & Hillary have a trusty Toyota and an off-road caravan. So, we were all set and keen to tackle the unknown.
Our meeting in Ghanzi was marred somewhat by the news that Jon’s vehicle was having wheel-bearing troubles which he was having repaired at a local garage of doubtful repute. It took until late in the evening to get the car on the road again and Jon’s wallet was about P800 lighter. Not a good start to the trip!
Day 1 – Ghanzi (Tautona Campsite to Grasslands) 135kms
We were hoping to make an early start from Ghanzi, but our plans were thwarted when Jon thought that his caravan was hitched to the car when in fact only the electricals were attached and he drove forward. The wiring seperated from the plug, and the caravan was instantly without indicators, tail-lights and stop-lights. Unfortunately we didn’t have a wiring diagram, so after a fruitless two hours of trial and error attempts to get everything working, Jon took the car back to the same garage in Ghanzi. They were unable to help. He finally phoned a mate in Durban who managed to sort describe the wiring set-up.
So it was quite late on Saturday morning when 45kms further up the main road we turned off at a little village called D’Kar (named after some unknown traveller’s initials found carved into a tree in the area). Once we left the tarred road the narrow track turned to thick sand, bordered on one side by a fence and on the other by a low sand ridge covered with thick shrubs and thorn trees. Hillary had smilingly assured us before we set off that the only hazards we’d have to contend with on this deserted stretch of road were the ten or so gates that we’d have to open and close as we went through.
We bravely took the lead with a feeling of exhilaration and excitement at finally heading off on our adventure. The first few kilometers passed without incident. Apart from the soft sand and the deep furrows made by the wheels of other cars, the road was quite drivable. The high ridge between the furrows (aptly described in Afrikaans as the middelmannetjie) was covered with grass, which gently brushed the undercarriage of the car. Rob joked that one could practically put the wheels into the tracks and let the car steer itself. His mirth soon turned sour when the sand deepened making it much tougher to plough through.
I noticed things getting quieter in the car. Rob was leaning into the steering wheel gripping it tightly with both hands, his knuckles white with the effort. As we bumped and ground our way through the sand he was deep in concentration, breaking the silence only to say that it was a good thing this was such a remote road as he wouldn’t like to meet an oncoming vehicle under these conditions. “We must keep up the momentum or we’ll get stuck,” he said knowingly.
The umpteen gates that had to be opened began to pall after about number seven or eight. Fortunately, with Jon and Hillary taking up the rear, we didn’t have to close them behind us. Jon fell back slightly so that they didn’t have to drive in our dust. Things were progressing quite well until, horror of horrors, I saw a vehicle approaching us from ahead. Oh damn! They would have to get off the road somehow as we had the fence running alongside us on our left. Fortunately it was a safari vehicle so they managed to clear the ridge on our right-hand side quite easily, driving over shrubs and grass with all the ease of practice. We stopped to tell them that a car towing a caravan was coming up behind us, but they pulled off without hesitation, happy to clear the way when they met the obstacle.
We pushed on, glad that it was now a quiet early Saturday afternoon when most people are already at their destination. We expected a clear ride through to our campsite at Grasslands. Suddenly we came to a corner where the sand was especially deep and yet another gate had to be opened. Rob cursed as he jammed on brakes, worrying about getting going again once the gate was opened. He put the car into gear and tried to pull off. The back wheels spun furiously in the sand and the smell of burning rubber filled the air. It was clearly now time to engage four-wheel drive, which up until then we had managed to avoid. Once we were on our way again the rubber smell was still strong, but Rob assured me that this often happened when wheels spun in sand.
About five minutes later a warning light flashed on the dashboard and the car lost power and slowed down to a crawl. Alarmed, Rob stopped and pulled out the trusty car owner’s manual. The book wasn’t exactly reassuring when one was in the middle of nowhere on a Saturday afternoon and it read: “malfunction – take vehicle to nearest service provider.” Quite scary when we had no power and it was impossible to turn around on the narrow track.
By now Jon had pulled up behind us and jumped out to find out what the problem was. “Give it a minute or two to cool down,” he said, “maybe it will fix itself.” Sure enough, when Rob started the car the malfunction light had gone off, power was back and we were able to proceed with our journey. “Aren’t these self-repairing Toyota’s wonderful,” Jon laughed. We spent the rest of the way anxiously watching to see if the light came on again, which fortunately it didn’t. This wasn’t a good thing to have happen when one was about to go into the wilds of the Kalahari for ten days. I was secretly thankful that we had been so understanding and patient with Jon about his car problems – hopefully he would feel the same about ours!
The sand was getting ever deeper, more gates had to be opened and it looked like the ninety kilometer drive was going to take a good couple of hours, but we pressed on. When another car approached we were again in no position to pull off the road. The other fellow braked about ten meters in front of us and a young man jumped out of the front passenger seat to direct operations. He turned some knobs on the front wheels to put the car into four wheel drive and instructed the driver to pull the car up onto the bank on our right. Easier said than done. The wheels just slid back into the deep furrow in the road. The driver reversed and tried again. Same result. He then climbed out of the car to have a look at the terrain. He was very well dressed in a nice suit, which was actually quite out of place where we were. His decision was to reverse back even further and try another spot to ride up. Once again his tyres slid back into the rut in the road.
This was going to prove more difficult than we thought and of course there was a caravan coming up behind us too. By now two other passengers had alighted from the car. At first glance they looked like bulls in drag, or perhaps the driver was taking two bulls to a fancy dress party. Then we recognized them as being Herero ladies, who wear hats in the shape of bull’s horns. To anyone who has never seen this particular headdress it must look quite strange. I’ve often wondered at the origins of this peculiar form of adornment – the best explanation I could come up with is that they remind the men of the lobola (bride price) they have had to pay for the women – usually in the form of cattle. But I digress ….
Eventually, the other driver managed to get two wheels up onto the ridge but his vehicle was still halfway across the road. We would have to try and squeeze past him somehow. With very little space to maneuver, Rob pulled his side mirror in and just made it past without touching the other car. Whew! That was a close shave. Relieved we pressed on hoping that that would be our last encounter of the day. Alas it was not to be.
About a kilometer up the road we saw yet another car heading our way. “Goodness,” I said, “this is like the main road of Underberg on a Saturday morning!” This time it was a hearse bearing the name “Joyce’s Funeral Parlour”. With dismay and some difficulty we managed to pull over onto the verge. “Let’s hope there isn’t a whole funeral procession,” Rob quipped. Well, there was and there wasn’t. The procession was very broken up with cars coming at odd intervals. So it wasn’t like we could just sit and wait for them all to pass by. Every time we got going again we met yet another mourner. Eventually about sixteen cars later we cleared the last of them and were able to proceed with our journey in relative peace. It was a relief to see the Grasslands gatepost looming up, assuring us that we’d arrived safely at last. It could only get quieter as we drove further into the Kalahari.
The manageress at Grasslands struck the fear of God into me when she commented on the road we were to drive the following day. “There is a very sandy stretch for about 26 kilometers just before you get to the Xade Gate,” she said. “You will have a real battle towing a caravan through that, especially as there are deep ruts as well. At least you have two vehicles so you can pull each other out, but it is going to be a very tough drive.” I was secretly hoping to goodness that Joyce’s Funeral Parlour didn’t have any more business in the Kalahari that weekend! Imagine meeting them on that awful road.