Parched from our drive across the shimmering thornveld, we pulled up outside a wonky beer shack: ‘Ocean Bottle Store’, read the sun-bleached sign. I smiled – it was almost 650km to the sea, and just about the same distance north to the Okavango Delta, Botswana’s only major body of permanent water. The name of this remote, ramshackle off-licence seemed to testify to a particularly ironic sense of humour.
Landlocked, desert-covered Botswana has an unsurprising preoccupation with water. It has even affected the country’s currency, the pula – the Setswana word for rain, a commodity at times more precious than the national treasure-trove of diamonds.
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 – apart from stopping for a cold one at the inappropriately named bottlestore – was to fill the stack of jerry cans 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 (CKGR), 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. Even the Bushmen – to whom the reserve was originally bequeathed as homelands – needed 20,000 years to master the art of survival in what they called ‘the great thirstland’.
My father, Mike, and I 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 have captured the South African imagination). But, as relative novices in desert survival, ‘Mad Mike’ and I were relieved to know we would be tackling the wilderness with more than a loincloth and a pair of eland-skin slippers.
A trip into the Central Kalahari is not a thing to be undertaken lightly and, rather reassuringly, I had secured
the help of my old friend Bart ‘Bart-swana’ Vandepitte. More than a million off-road miles in the African bush have helped turn Bart into one of the most knowledgeable guides in the region.
The first day of our drive into the CKGR was on an arrow-straight diamond-surveyor’s track. For six hours the Land Rover powered along almost on autopilot: the vehicle was so low-geared that in second it would drive without a touch on the accelerator. The soft sand was so deeply rutted that the vehicle steered itself as if on rails. But the going was slow and at first we averaged less than 30km/h.
Our little convoy consisted of two Land Rover Defenders, fully expedition-equipped with long-range fuel tanks, inter-vehicle radios, predator-proof rooftop tents and enough packs of frozen steaks and slabs of Windhoek lager that we could survive for a considerable time before being forced into living off the fat of the land.
It took a while just to learn where everything was stored in these formidable mobile homes: 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 fresh muffins so that there was a steady supply of nourishment at hand while driving.
It sounds expensive, and it certainly isn’t cheap – but then Botswana isn’t a cheap country to visit. However, its policy of low-volume, high-end tourism has helped maintain it as one of Africa’s most pristine safari destinations.
There is little in the way of budget accommodation anywhere in the country and, apart from a couple of very exclusive lodges, there is nowhere to stay within easy reach of the great wildlife hotspots of the CKGR. We had the best of both worlds – our mobile camp and independent 4WD meant we could get the most out of this wildest of parks. With lodges in remote areas often starting at £100 a night – as opposed to the £10 we were paying for camping – the cost of vehicle hire was soon offset by the saving on accommodation.
“It’s Boer-assic Park!” complained Bart as we drew up at our first camp in Khutse Game Reserve, a spot popular with South African tourists. But it was all relative: while we could see the lights of other camps among the acacia trees, this spot on the southern edge of the Kalahari was far from overcrowded.
For the rest of our journey through the CKGR it was easy to imagine we were alone in Africa’s largest reserve. Passarge Pan, near the park’s centre, offers just three pitches. There’s more than 20km between one tent and the next – though there is a good chance you will have the whole valley to yourself.
Apart from the wildlife, that is. Jackals often came to visit us, whining at the scent of the barbecued pork, bread and butternut squash that sizzled on our mopane-wood fire. And we heard the Kalahari lions every night.
At first we lay awake in our tents, just listening to the cats pacing 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 its way up the food chain. However, within a few nights we became more accustomed to the noises 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, 5km up in an apparently empty sky; a half-eaten springbok carcass, its ribs cracked by hyenas; the fresh prints of two nomadic lions looking for an opportunity to move in on the local head cat. 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.
One morning, as I was crouching by the truck, photographing the recent tracks of a hunting pride, the hairs started prickling on the back of my neck. There was nothing – absolutely nothing – between me and the Kalahari’s carnivorous inhabitants. It was only slightly reassuring to know that Bart-swana and Mad Mike were on the roof of the Land Rovers, scanning the scrub with binoculars.
Dawn is the best time to watch wildlife, and every morning we cruised slowly in the early hours, keen and alert. Our two Land Rovers were in constant radio contact, with Bart pointing out less obvious sightings 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. We soon learned that wherever antelopes and gazelles were found, predators would not be far away. Bart would climb up on the truck’s roof to analyse their behaviour, looking for any telltale signs of tension or alertness.
We did most of our wildlife-watching from these mobile lookout posts, unless we were staking out cats or had to be ready to make a sudden escape from belligerent elephants. When the rising sun started to drive the animals into the shade we would stop for breakfast. We’d eat on the roof to enjoy our meal from what could have been Africa’s remotest dining table, sometimes among mixed herds of almost 1,000 springbok, gemsbok, hartebeest and wildebeest.
Elephants added drama to our stints behind the wheel. Botswana has a serious elephant overpopulation problem and herds of up to 400 dominate vast areas of the country. Bart was mock-charged in the lead Land Rover several times. Once an enraged bull elephant put in a serious charge that sent both vehicles fleeing back up the trail in reverse.
It is often 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 exclaimed breathlessly, as we watched our attacker smashing and harrumphing his way back into the bushes. “Nerves of steel! How on earth did you know that was a mock charge?”
A pasty-faced Mad Mike slowly looked over at the gear stick, which was stuck in third; then at the accelerator pedal, which had failed to work in such a high gear as he’d slammed down on it in a panic. Then he turned to me, ghostly white and faintly quivering.
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