[words and photograph © Mark Eveleigh]
‘Living Waters Christian Fellowship’, said the hand-painted sign on yet another breezeblock African chapel. ‘Ocean Bottle Store,’ read the sun-bleached board on the beer-shack opposite.
The Living Waters could have referred to the Limpopo, about 30 miles to the south of us across the shimmering thornveld, but ‘Ocean Bottle Store’ seemed to testify to a particularly ironic sense of humour. It was almost 400 miles to the sea and just about the same distance north to Botswana’s only major body of permanent water, the Okavango Delta.
This landlocked desert country has a very natural preoccupation with water. Even its currency is known by the Tswana word for ‘rain’ (‘pula’) – a commodity that has at times proved to be more precious than even the national treasure-trove of diamond deposits.
We had been in the country less than an hour and had already become more than a little obsessive about water ourselves. Our first priority after crossing the border from South Africa was to fill our over-sized water-tanks and the stack of jerry-cans that were tied to the roof-racks of our Land Rovers.
We were setting out to fulfil a long-time ambition to drive across the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, often described as Africa’s last great wilderness. The immensity and isolation of the CKGR have traditionally kept it beyond the reach of all but a few rough-and-ready explorers who were willing to suffer untold hardship and deprivation to penetrate the heart of what Laurens van der Post called the Lost World of the Kalahari. Even the Bushmen – to whom the reserve was originally bequeathed as homelands – had needed 20,000 years to master the art of survival in what they called ‘the great thirstland’.
My father, Mike, and I had began our own expedition in Johannesburg, where we were almost instantly saddled with the collective nickname ‘Mad Mike and Mark’ (after a couple of hard-bitten television wild-men who seemed to have captured the collective South African imagination). But, as relative novices in desert survival, ‘Mad Mike’ and I were relived to think that we would be tackling the wilderness with more than just a loincloth and a pair of eland-skin slippers.
Our little convoy consisted of two Land Rover Defenders, fully expedition-equipped with long-range fuel-tanks, huge water-reservoirs, inter-vehicle radios, recovery equipment and spares, predator-proof rooftop tents, pump-showers and ice-boxes. It was clear from the way that the vehicle was provisioned – with packs of frozen steaks and heaped slabs of Windhoek lager – that we could survive for a considerable time before we would be forced into living off the ‘fat of the land’ in the Kalahari. It had taken a while to learn where everything was stored: the clever way the dining table slid into the roof-rack; the way the gas-cooker clipped onto the outside of the cab; how to rig up the electric shower; the best place to stack the catering packs of fresh muffins so that there was a steady supply of nourishment at hand even while driving…
A trip into the Central Kalahari is certainly not a thing to be taken lightly and, most reassuring of all, I had managed to secure the help of my old friend Bart ‘Bart-swana’ Vandepitte. More than a million off-road miles in the African bush (first as a naturalist with Botswana Wildlife Services and then with Africa Unlimited Safaris) have helped to turn Bart into one of the most knowledgeable guides in the region.
While Botswana is not a cheap country to visit, its policy of low volume tourism has helped to maintain it as one of Africa’s most pristine safari destinations. I had already discovered on previous trips to the country that a mobile camp and an independent 4×4 are the perfect way to get the most out of some of Africa’s wildest national parks. There is little in the way of budget accommodation in the country in general and, apart from a couple of highly luxurious and very exclusive lodges, there is nowhere to stay within easy reach of the great wildlife hotspots of CKGR. With lodges in remote areas often starting at £100/night (as against £10 for camping) the cost of vehicle hire can often be offset by the saving on accommodation.
Free-camping is not an option in most Botswana parks and we had booked our campsites well in advance since we would be travelling through the Easter holidays. Although Bart complained about ‘hordes’ of South African campers (or ‘Boer-assic Park’ as he put it) our first camp at Khutse Game Reserve, on the southern edge of the Kalahari, was far from overcrowded by the standards of most countries. Sure enough, we could see the lights of other camps among the acacia trees at Khutse but for the rest of the journey through the CKGR it would have been easy to imagine that we had Africa’s largest reserve (an area bigger than Belgium and Holland combined) entirely to ourselves. Passarge Valley, near the centre of the reserve, offers just three pitches with more than 13 miles between one tent and the next, though there is a very good chance that you will have the whole valley to yourself.
The first day of our drive into the CKGR was along an arrow-straight diamond surveyor’s track. For six hours the Land Rover powered on almost on ‘autopilot’: the vehicle was so low geared that in second gear it would drive itself without a touch on the accelerator; and the soft sand was so deeply rutted that the vehicle would steer itself as if on rails without any guidance from the driver. But the going was slow and in the first two days of driving we only made it out of second gear a few times and averaged less than 14 mph.
We heard the Kalahari lions every night and jackals often came to visit, whining at the scent of the barbecued pork, garlic-flavoured braai bread and butter squash that sizzled on our mopane-wood fire. At first we lay awake in our tents listening to hungry lions out on the pans. The deep echoing roar of a lion in the darkness of an African night is one of most blood-freezing sounds imaginable, echoing back to a time when mankind was just another source of protein – frantically struggling to claw his way up the food-chain. Within a few nights we became more accustomed to the noises, however, and were able to remind ourselves that, with luck, the local predators were unlikely to have more than a passing interest in us.
The mornings would reveal some of the mysteries of those haunting nocturnal hours: vultures swooping down from their lookout posts, three miles up in an apparently empty sky; a half-eaten springbok carcase with ribs cracked by hyenas; the fresh prints of two nomadic lions looking for an opportunity to move in on the local boss. The signs in the sand could be read like the morning paper and Bart helped us to unfold the drama of the night clue by clue. As I crouched by the car, photographing the recent tracks of the hunting pride, I could feel the hairs prickling the back of my neck…and was only slightly reassured to think that ‘Bart-swana’ and ‘Mad Mike’ were on the roof of the Land Rovers, scanning the scrub with binoculars. We did most of our wildlife watching from these mobile lookout posts, unless we were watching cats or (as in the northern parks) had to be ready to make a sudden escape from belligerent elephants.
We soon developed the habit of eating breakfast and lunch on the roof too. We would awake before first light to set off for an early game-drive. We were in constant radio contact between the two vehicles and Bart would point out less obvious sightings that we would certainly have missed: the jerky movement in the grass that turned out to be a meerkat; the flick of a white-tipped tail that revealed a cheetah’s hiding place; the dappled shadows in an acacia that gave away the position of a female leopard with two cubs. Wherever the antelope and gazelles were to be found, the predators would not be far away and Bart would invariably climb up to analyse their behaviour, looking for any telltale signs of tension or alertness.
Dawn is the best time to watch wildlife and we would cruise slowly until the rising sun started to drive the animals into shade. Then we would prepare some breakfast in the back of the Land Rover and climb onto the roof to enjoy what could have been Africa’s remotest dining table, sometimes among mixed herds of almost a thousand springbok, gemsbok, hartebeest and wildebeest.
Although driving in the Kalahari bush demands concentration it was not a particularly intimidating off-road experience. Further north in Makgadikgadi Pans (known to the Bushmen as ‘place of water’), however, the driving got more technical as we side-slipped along swampy trails. Further north still, along Selinda Spillway, Linyanti Swamps and Chobe National Park the elephants did what they could to add some drama to our stints behind the wheel. Botswana has a serious elephant overpopulation problem and herds of up to four hundred dominate vast areas of the country. Bart was mock-charged in the lead Land Rover several times and once an enraged bull elephant put in a serious charge that sent both vehicles fleeing back up the trail in reverse.
It is often notoriously difficult to distinguish between a mock charge and a real one when three tonnes of angry pachyderm is bearing down on you.
On our last day in the country I was leaning out of the passenger window photographing a herd of elephants when a young bull charged us. Because of the thick acacia and his determined silence (a bad sign) we didn’t spot him until he was almost upon us.
Even as I braced for the impact I was yelling: “Go! Go! Go!”
But with impressive sangfroid Mad Mike held his ground and kept the Land Rover immobile until the elephant skidded to a trumpeting halt just a couple of metres short of the vehicle.
“Wow,” I said breathlessly, as we watched our attacker smashing his way back into the bushes. “Nerves of steel! How did you know it was a mock?”
“I didn’t,” said a pasty-faced Mad Mike. “We were in third gear, so when I slammed the accelerator down in a fit of panic we just didn’t move!”
“But is it for me?”
A trip into the heart of the Kalahari constitutes one of Africa’s greatest safari experiences but the remoteness, the extreme terrain and the inherent risks of such an expedition mean that it will not appeal to everyone. It is necessary to enjoy the driving in itself and to look on eight and nine hour stints behind the wheel, often on rough dirt tracks or deep sand, as part of the experience. The driving is not highly technical and the Land Rover Defenders are powerful enough so that even a novice bush-driver soon realises that there are few obstacles that they will not power through.
Anyone with any experience of camping is likely to be surprised at just how comfortable a mobile safari can be. The guide will prepare a variety of hearty meals over an open-fire, with as much (or as little) help as the clients care to give. Meals are eaten at an aluminium dining table and coffee and drinks are enjoyed around the fire (the ‘bush telly’).
You shower in the open-air behind the vehicles with an electric pump-shower, or in ‘ablution blocks’ on larger campsites. On longer trips into the Kalahari water will be limited and you might go a day or two without showering if reserves need to be guarded.
The chances of getting seriously hurt by dangerous animals are extremely slim but anybody who does not actively enjoy the feeling of being in the heart of what is essentially an unpredictable wilderness might not appreciate the long, frequently noisy, nights in predator territory. The Kalahari lions are often in attendance and in most other parts of Botswana you are almost certain to be visited by (far more dangerous) elephants. Barring serious insect phobia or extreme predator paranoia, however, few travellers will find that they are unable to adapt to the ‘rigours’ of life on a well-prepared 4×4 safari.