Self Driving in Chobe National Park, Botswana
By Matthew Lightfoot
“I think you are either very brave, or very crazy…maybe a bit of both?” The Frenchman looks me up and down, a puzzled half smile playing on his lips. I nod. A bead of sweat trickles down to the end of my nose. My trousers are coated in dust and my shirt sticks to my back, even though the early morning Botswana Sun has barely nudged the thermometer above 20 degrees.
I’ve been digging. Digging in deep, fine sand. Vainly trying to dislodge my 4 wheel drive vehicle from the deep sandy furrows in which it has come to rest, a large concealed rock having brought my slow progress to a grinding halt as my front axle came to rest upon it.
We had expected tough driving conditions when we planned the trip. We had rented a 4 Wheel drive Ford Ranger with rooftent in Livingstone, Zambia and crossed the border into Botswana to camp in Chobe National Park, a 50,000 square kilometre expanse of sandy flatlands populated by few humans and many wild animals. The 200 Kilometre drive from our first camp at Ihaha to Savuti had taken nearly 6 hours. 6 Hours of bone jarring driving on some of the most challenging tracks I’ve encountered anywhere in the world. For the most part I was trying to follow other vehicle’s faint tyre grooves in the sand but occasionally, these had been obscured by the harsh desert wind which called for a slow-down to snail’s pace as we tried to pick out the best route, avoiding deep sand which could strand us.
We saw few other vehicles, and on the couple of occasions we picked the wrong route and became temporarily stuck, it was hard to stop our minds straying to thoughts of the unfortunate Bullens. In September 2011, Mr and Mrs Bullen, a South African couple were travelling in the same area and became stranded in deep sand. After two days, and no sign of help, Mr Bullen set off walking to find help. His wife was found safe in the vehicle 3 days later. Mr Bullen has never been found. The risk of attack from animals always has to be considered. Therefore leaving the vehicle even for a few moments to remove stones or branches from the track requires vigilance and a rooftop lookout by your travelling companion.
So our journey became quite an adventure. But once we arrived at the camp sites and pitched our roof top tent, gathered wood and lit the vital night time fire, got the Brai fired up and a couple of steaks sizzling, we knew it was worth it. Sitting by the fire, with no one else around, a couple of cold Castle Beers in hand, gazing at the amazing celestial canopy spread above us was an unforgettable feeling. And the difficulty of reaching such an isolated and wild place made that feeling even better.
Lying in our tent at night, we listened to the sounds of the bush. Hippos snorting in the river a couple of hundred yards away, the hoot-hoot of a hyena, and the distant bronchial cough-growl-cough-growl of a lion meant that a sound night’s sleep was unlikely. I felt that I hadn’t even nodded off when I was awoken by the sound of thunder. A deep rumbling which seemed to increase, until realisation dawned that it was, in fact, getting nearer. I sat up and peeled back the fly screen. Peering into the milky moonlit night, I was shocked to see an approaching blur of flashing black and white. A herd of zebra, spooked and running for their life, dashed in panic around our vehicle. The lions were hunting.
In the morning, we set off to drive to our next camp and were forced to change route and back track. A family group of 10 elephants striding down the narrow sand road towards us. Two big adults, flapping their ears to show us that they had the right of way.
So we were now a couple of days into our adventure and were becoming more familiar with the terrain, though a deep, deep river crossing had dented my confidence, and my front bumper, as I panicked with the bonnet submerged and a bow-wave crashing on my windscreen, accelerating too fast to the far bank, which I hit with an unnerving thump.
We were up before 6, rooftent packed and ready to go. We wanted to see lions hunting and dawn is the best time to catch these daytime snoozers in a more lively frame of mind. There’s really no such thing as a main road in Chobe, but the track which leads from Savuti camp to the airstrip is probably the closest you get, in that its deep sand but usually with two or three sets of tyre tracks to follow. We’d bounced along this route a few times, and seen plenty of elephants (elephants are the Chobe equivalent of pigeons in the UK!), a good count of giraffes, and untold members of the antelope family (Kudu is my favourite –delicious with fries and barbecue sauce), but we hadn’t seen any big cats.
I therefore decided that our best bet was a detour on a minor track, which we thought was marked on our map, though with hindsight, we’d already discovered that the map seemed to bear little resemblance to real life.It helpfully had GPS coordinates for various points, though that was little use to us as we had no GPS tracker. The car rental company had never mentioned needing one, and I’d assumed that Chobe would be similar to Etosha NP in Namibia or Hwange NP in Zimbabwe –Well signposted tracks, difficult to get lost as all routes lead back to a well trodden route. Unfortunately that was absolutely not the case. Chobe is rough, wild and isolated. We saw very few other vehicles there, and it was easy to envisage how the Bullen’s unfortunate circumstance arose.
I reassured my partner that it was actually very difficult to get properly stuck. I demonstrated this on the occasions we ground to a standstill by patiently manouvering clear in 4L and a combination of 1st gear and reverse. The theory seemed to be holding true, until we encountered the concealed rock, came to a standstill, and I compounded the problem by spinning the wheels in the soft, deep sand, thus burying us even deeper.
And so after 20 minutes with me under the vehicle , trying to dig us out, my partner on the roof scanning the scrubby brush for the lions we now hoped not to find, it began to dawn on me that there was no easy way out of this. We’d bitten off more than we could chew and were stuck. The sun was rising, we were on an isolated track, well away from any camp or lodge, and we could be looking at a long stay. We had enough food and water to last around a week, but 7 days stuck here wasn’t a prospect I was relishing. There were bushes with green leaves not too far away so I was already formulating a plan to get a fire going to generate some smoke signals , when we both stopped and looked at each other. A distant sound breaking the silence. Animal or human? Definitely an engine. Car or plane? I stood dripping in sweat, willing it to be another vehicle.
My prayers couldn’t have been fulfilled in a better fashion- not one vehicle but 3. A convoy of Swiss/French travellers who had roared into our camp after dark and against the rules, the previous night. Our relief must have been evident, and we struggled to maintain our reserve- English people don’t do hugs and back slaps after all!
They were experienced 4 wheel drivers and regular visitors to Botswana. After hearing we had no GPS, Sat Phone or distress beacon, Jean-Claude gave me his ‘brave or crazy’ judgement, but later admitted that on his first visit to the country they had experienced a similar fate to us. They had been trapped in deep mud for 4 hours until someone rescued them, and they vowed at that point never to visit again without a back-up vehicle. They duly towed us out and invited us to join their convoy- replete with tow ropes , a GPS and wine and cheese for a wild picnic lunch, which was disturbed by an invading elephant!
Chobe is an amazing place, and a DIY safari, apart from being a fraction of the huge cost of an organised version, is a real test of your resources and sense of adventure. I have some amazing memories and a host of tales from the trip. However, with hindsight, I would agree with my French rescuer –If you drive in Chobe as a single vehicle, you have to accept the very real risk of being stranded. Therefore , my advice would be to factor into your trip the cost of a GPS and some sort of distress beacon or tracker. We were lucky and got away with it, as Mr and Mrs Bullen showed, not everyone does.
Matthew Lightfoot is the author of The Two Week Traveller which tells of his adventures in 150 countries and is available in ebook and paperback from all Amazon stores.