Day 2 – Grasslands to Piper Pan 185km
Hillary’s research told us that this was a very sandy stretch with deep corrugations and one could expect to take the whole day to cover the relatively short 185 km.
Before we left Grasslands Jon and Rob tied seed nets onto the front of the cars. These are a must as they stop grass seeds from getting stuck in the radiator and causing the car to overheat. Seeds in the radiator are not the only thing to fear from driving over long grass. Grass accumulates in nooks and crannies on the chassis where it gets really hot and could catch alight. It could be burning merrily while the passengers in the car are blissfully unaware of it until it’s too late to do much about it.
We saw a burnt out vehicle in the middle of nowhere which amply demonstrated that this was a very real possibility. With lions around, possibly no-one else driving past for days and all one’s possessions, including water, gone up in flames, there was more than just a lost vehicle to be concerned about. Best to make regular checks just to be sure.
‘Road’ is an optimistic description of the tracks that we had to drive along. Quite often they are barely distinguishable through the grass and thorn bushes. Passing between thorn bushes and hearing the scratching on the sides of the car is enough to put our teeth on edge. Known as a ‘Kalahari carwash’, this scratching is an integral part of a Kalahari journey. Nothing that a bit of wax won’t fix after the trip, unless of course one has had a brush with a really strong branch. It still goes against the grain to hear it , as one’s first instinct is always to preserve one’s car.
The first part of the journey went well and we made good time. There were lots of birds around and plenty of sand grouse on the road. We had one stretch of about one and a half kilometers where we came upon a Spotted Thick-knee in the road; it took off, flying down the track in front of us instead of turning into the bush. It kept settling on the road for a second until we approached and then taking off again. It looked panic-stricken and exhausted by the effort and we were quite stressed ourselves by the time it finally moved to one side and we drove past.
I think we were all dreading the notorious sandy stretch, except maybe Jon who was game for any adventure that came his way. This was a challenge for him though as it was the first time he was pulling a caravan through this sort of terrain. When we saw the sign for the Central Kalahari Game Reserve we turned onto the sandy stretch. We stopped to wish each other luck and Rob took the lead so that he could give Jon a tow if necessary. We kept Jon in view most of the time, but had to try and negotiate the sand as fast as possible. By fast I mean between 20 – 30 kms an hour. Once in the sandy ruts, there was no turning off and one had to keep going to keep from getting stuck.
At times the sand thinned out and we were on hard ground. This was preferable, but it came at a price – corrugations! Teeth-rattling corrugations! Whenever we got to these hard patches we waited for Jon to catch up with us. The deep ruts that we’d heard about didn’t actually materialize because it appeared that we were on a new road. The original road, with knee-deep ruts ran parallel with our sandy track. If we’d had to negotiate the old rutted road we’d have got stuck for sure, in fact the vehicles would have straddled the middelmannetjie and gone nowhere.
Rob and Jon could pat themselves on the back for making it the whole way without getting stuck at all. Jon did have to deflate his tyres at one stage, but both men drove like a real pro’s. We were all very relieved when, much later, we were on solid ground and heading for the Xade entrance gate. The staff at the gate were extremely friendly and helpful as they warned us of a very sandy stretch just after we entered the Park. After a wonderful picnic lunch at Xade we started out on the last part of our journey to Piper Pan, a distance of about 79kms.
This leg of the journey didn’t start off very well, as we immediately took the wrong turn and headed off on the same road that we had come into the Park on. It was only through the speedy intervention of the Parks Board staff, who came racing after us that we turned around before we had gone too far. They had apparently been watching us through binoculars because they were worried about us getting stuck in the sandy stretch. Once we turned back and got onto the right road, we realized just why they were concerned. The sand was very deep and made for very slow going. Eventually we stopped on a hard patch to wait for Jon. When after twenty minutes he still hadn’t caught up with us, we decided to turn back. Not an easy thing to do on that road.
Jon’s car was comfortably bogged down in the sand (the caravan wasn’t dug in at all). Fortunately the Parks Board fellow who had rescued us, had seen the problem and gone back to base to fetch a tractor. What service from a Government official! We were most impressed. Once Jon was rescued and the staff had left, he assured us that he could have got going again without the tractor’s help, but as they had gone to so much trouble he didn’t want to tell them that he could manage on his own.
After this short delay, we were ready to carry on with our journey, but now when Rob tried to start our car, the malfunction light came on again and the car was dead. Oh great! This didn’t bode well. We waited for a few minutes and when Rob tried again it was all systems go. We had no idea what was causing the problem but at least we knew that it self-corrected after a few minutes.
Once we passed all the sandy bits the road improved somewhat. When I say road, of course I mean track, because once again we were driving through very long grass. The sky was a magnificent blue and the temperature in the mid-30’s. Now that the difficult parts were behind us we could relax, and what a glorious day it was turning out to be. We saw a couple Secretary Birds and Kori Bustards along the way and the odd Springbok, which made the journey more interesting. As we neared Piper Pan the vegetation became thick with catophractes plants – these are silver/grey bushes that are excellent camouflage for the many birds and animals that live in the area.
At last the sign read ‘Piper Pan’. The Pan looked nothing like we were expecting it to. For starters it was completely covered with meter high yellow grass – we had been anticipating bare ground or white salt pans. This was totally different. We were also expecting to see loads of animals, but all we saw were one or two Gemsbok and a Wildebeest. Still, there was bound to be game at the watering hole at sunset, so we headed to our campsite on the northern side of the Pan.
There are only two campsites at Piper Pan and they are about six kilometers apart, which makes each site very private. Ours was about 10 meters from the road and was sheltered by a hedge of trees and shrubs. We set up camp close to the hedge, positioning the cars and caravan in a U shape to form a laager as protection against the wild animals. As an added safety measure Jon also stretched some shade-cloth between the cars to stop lions and hyenas walking in on us. I was jokingly going on about having lions and leopards walking through the camp – hoping that it would happen so that I could get some nice action photo’s. The toilet and shower were on the edge of the campsite, in two round wooden open air cubicles. I knew I wouldn’t be using them at night!
With the camp all set and evening approaching, we made our way to the watering hole about two kilometers away. Armed with beers and salty snacks we sat quietly watching a peaceful Botswana evening unfold as black-backed jackals made their way down to sip the water. It was disappointing that no other animals came along, but we were in good spirits as we made our way back to the camp for a braai.
Later as we sat eating we heard the deep roar of a lion in the distance. What a lovely sound that is. When about half an hour later the lion roared just on the other side of our hedge, I dived into the car, trembling with excitement. Of course I was the butt of many jokes because of my cowardice, but I’m not stupid – I wanted to see lions in the camp from the relative safety of the tent or car! We quickly grabbed the spotlights, bundled ourselves into Jon’s car (ours was immobile because of the rooftop tent) and went in search of our lion.
We found him very close by – a magnificent specimen of a black-maned Kalahari lion. Although we drove close to him, he totally ignored us, not even turning his head to acknowledge our presence. What contempt he showed for mere human beings in his majestic company! On our way back to the camp we saw some bat-eared foxes running along the road. So day one in the Park ended on a high note and we were looking forward to what the next eight days would offer up!
Days 3-6 – Piper Pan
We were awake early the next morning, keen to take a drive before the heat of the day took its toll on the animals. Jon noticed a considerable amount of oil on the back of his car, which on further examination showed that the newly repaired wheel-bearings were leaking badly. This was not good news and caused Jon much anxiety over the next eight days as he was worried about the bearings ceasing up. We decided to use our vehicle for the longer day drives, with Jon doing only short night drives in his car. This suited us well because of our rooftop tent. We couldn’t do all the driving because we had to keep an eye out for our diesel supply, which could only be replenished outside the park.
We left the camp before breakfast, heading for the watering hole. The only animals we saw there were black-backed jackals and Northern Black Koorhaans. We circled the whole of Piper Pan and another two pans further on, but were out of luck. Jon and Hillary assured us that they had seen lions and a leopard here on their last trip to the area, and loads of honey badgers, but it was a different time of year and animals were quite scarce. The birdlife was pretty good though and Rob was in his element photographing the many raptors and Ant-eating Chats. I must mention here that we had two completely tame Kalahari Scrub Robins in our camp that almost got themselves squashed underfoot wherever we went.
We took one final drive to the watering hole before heading back to the camp for the day. Rob stopped to watch a jackal walk past the car and as I leaned over to get a closer look at him the muscles in my back went into spasm. I screamed in agony, alarming everyone in the car. Each time I moved the pain was excruciating and I knew that I was in trouble. We would be in the middle of nowhere for eight more days, with no doctor and no way of sorting me out.
Fortunately I felt no pain if I just sat dead still and surprisingly little if I walked bent over double, but if I tried to straighten up it was sheer hell. Hillary proved her worth greatly when she opened her First Aid kit and brought out some TransAct patches and Neurofen tablets. These helped enormously and at least gave me comfortable nights. I was to suffer endlessly until we reached Maun.
It was at about this time that we realized that we were averaging at least one disaster a day, sometimes more. It became something of a joke really, but we were grateful that we were able to overcome most of the obstacles – not every one, but practically all. One of the most disappointing catastrophes was Rob’s new camera lens that packed up on our second day in the Kalahari. Fortunately he had brought a spare, but over the next few weeks he would curse the loss of this piece of equipment.
During the heat of the day, when the animals were sleeping in the shade and not very visible, we spent most of the time at the campsite reading or doing chores like washing and cooking. Our ablutions were quite unique but very effective. Jon had brought along a portable shower kit which consisted of a 5 litre weed killer bottle, complete with pump action and an adapted shower nozzle. We showered at mid-afternoon every day in the open-air cubicles as that was the warmest time. We first poured in boiling water and then topped the bottle up with cold water to prevent us from scalding ourselves. After a quick spray to wet the body, it was a race to soap oneself and then rinse off before the water ran out. Two of us managed to shower with as little as three litres of water. And did we feel great after a good wash.
Everyone going into the Kalahari has to be totally self-sufficient as there is no water, no petrol available and no shops. We took 200 litres of water with us for the ten day period, which turned out to be too much, but if we’d been stuck for days it would have saved our lives. There are also no staff to clean up , so all rubbish has to be taken out of the Park. The system works well and we found everything to be pristine and clean. Jon would crush all our metal cans with a brick to make them less bulky to carry out and all paper or cardboard was burnt. It’s incredible how much rubbish one collects even on a short camping trip.
It is an amazing experience to drive around a game reserve for a couple of days and not see another vehicle. It gives one a false sense of ownership and breeds selfishness. On our last evening at Piper Pan we were dismayed to see we had company at the watering hole – two vehicles from Gauteng. What an intrusion, we felt.
Once again we were disappointed by the lack of game and hoped that we’d have better luck at Passarge Valley, which was where we were heading the following day. The sunset, however, made up for the lack of animals. It was magnificent.
We had a whole flock of guinea fowl that took up residence in a nearby tree at night. It was a noisy affair as they settled down to roost, but their silhouette against an orange Botswana sunset was stunning and we were happy to see them come back each evening. We also had a little hare that favoured our campsite and we saw him every evening, which was rather nice. We loved the situation of Piper Pan, but the lack of game was somewhat disappointing, especially as the guide books say that Piper Pan has the most game in the area. However, if one sees the whole experience as a relaxing holiday time in a beautiful remote spot, it doesn’t really matter if the animals are a bit scarce or not.