Ralph and Angela Spilsbury, a British couple on an 18 month extended holiday in Southern Africa, explored Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve. These are their impressions:
The GOOD, the BAD and the UGLY
“It’s not a problem, the scratches will polish out.” Jack Riback seemed remarkably relaxed about the constant and severe scratching his brand new Toyota Land Cruiser 200 was receiving from the thick thornbush that seemed to line the roadside everywhere we drove in Botswana’s Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). Perhaps the fact that he is CEO of Honeydew Toyota in Johannesburg and had the full resources of a body repair shop at his disposal helped explain his calmness.
We’d been warned about the lack of water, fuel and recovery options in this park, but no one had thought to mention how the scrub would attempt to deprive the car of at least two layers of paint! Having spent the last 18 months driving
around southern Africa in a 1999 Land Rover Discovery II, Angela and I were also totally relaxed about the damage to the car. If we got out of this park with the rest of the vehicle intact, a couple of coats of paint would be a reasonable sacrifice.
Apart from the scrub, the roads in the park turned out to be better than expected – solid sand throughout, though corrugated in places, and easy to drive outside of the rainy season of January to March.
A1983 Hilux 2.8 completed the trio of cars on this trip – definitely a case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Politeness and an unerring instinct for self preservation prevents me from explaining which vehicle we believe fits each description, except to say that the Discovery is certainly not ugly or bad, despite its reputation! We had driven from Maun to meet up with our friends at Rakops, the last refuelling point before the Matswere Gate entrance to the CKGR. Having learnt the hard way, we had done our research thoroughly for this trip and were not surprised when the attendant at the petrol station in Rakops proudly announced that they had an unleaded pump, but no unleaded fuel. Five jerrycans on our roofrack and four more on our Afrispoor off road trailer would hopefully provide enough fuel to quench the thirst of our petroladdicted V8 engine for the next 1000 km or so around the park.
Ahead of us were eight days of exploring the second largest game reserve in the world – 53000 sq km of wilderness in the middle of Botswana. Our first surprise, apart from the amount of money it cost to visit this park, was the abundance of grass and trees. My impression from reading The Cry of the Kalahari, Mark and Delia Owens’ famous account of animal research in the park in the 19705, was of a stark, semi-desert sand wilderness. Visiting the site of the Owens’ camp in Deception Valley, we were struck by the number and size of the trees, the lushness of the grass and the abundant herds of gemsbok and springbok.
We would come back to Deception later on the trip, but our first night’s campsite was at Piper Pan, on the western side of the park. The mental arithmetic required to pay park, camping and vehicle charges for seven people and three cars in three currencies at the Matswere Gate meant it was mid-afternoon before we reached Deception, and pitch dark by the time we got to Piper Pan campsite.
On the way and within 5km of each other, we were lucky enough to see a cheetah hunting, a caracal preparing to hunt and, just as we looped Piper Pan, three lions blocking the road. The latter would now be sporting BF Goodrich All Terrain tyre tread patterns if we hadn’t already been going very slowly in an ultimately futile attempt to minimise the scratching the car was receiving from the scrub!
Having accidentally planned this trip to coincide with yet another long South African public holiday, it was no surprise to find five vehicles already in our reserved campsite, with another two vehicles parked nearby. It felt busier and noisier than Storms River Mouth at Christmas, but we were all too tired and hungry to bother. We huddled around the braai fire for warmth – even in April, central Botswana isn’t immune to those perpetual Cape cold fronts.
The next day we were up at dawn to see the sunrise, and the annoyance at the “theft” of our campsite evaporated as fast as the early morning mist that enveloped Piper Pan. After several loop drives around the pan we had seen a honeybadger being followed by a pale chanting goshawk, a partnership we had read about but never witnessed before. We had found the lions again – a blackmaned Kalahari male in his prime with two females – but our favourite sighting was a herd of springbok, pronking and chasing each other in the early morning sun as though relieved to have survived another night.
With two nights booked at Piper Pan, we drove in to our campsite to reclaim it from the trespassers, who at least had the decency to apologise for taking our pitch the previous day. Once set up, we quickly utilised the bucket shower cubicle to freshen up.
You have to bring all your drinking and washing water in to this park. There is water at the Matswere Gate but the supply is not reliable. The long-drop toilet, adjacent to the shower, was approached with some trepidation. It proved fine to use provided your nose was not overly sensitive! Compared to the filthy and dilapidated ablutions in Moremi and Chobe, the toilets and shower cubicles at the campsites in CKGR were a welcome and pleasant surprise. They had obviously been built quite recently and as yet seemed well maintained and clean. During our second night at Piper Pan our fireside talk – actually a continuous stream of under-the-belt, hilarious and mostly Afrikaans jokes that were patiently translated into English for our benefit – was rudely interrupted by the noise of several cars ablaze with spotlights passing nearby on a game drive round the pan.
With the nearest ranger station nearly 6okm away at Matswere, some people clearly think they can flout the park rules banning night drives. It was not the last time we were to see this anti-social behaviour, but at the end of our trip we were pleased to hear that rangers had caught and fined similar transgressors in Deception Valley. From Piper Pan we returned to Deception Valley for a couple of nights.
Mark and Delia Owens chose this place as their base camp for its remoteness so that they could research animals – primarily brown hyena – that had not encountered humans. The 10 public and numerous commercial campsites in the area, coupled with the close proximity of Matswere Gate, means that it is sadly anything but remote now. On the way to Deception the Land Rover decided to remind us who was in charge by throwing the temperature gauge towards the red zone. Was this to be a repeat of our Etosha experience, where we were towed out of the park after a radiator gasket split?
Fortunately the engine looked perfect, with no sign of water or steam anywhere. The mystery was solved when Isaac and Liesel, following in the Hilux to ensure they collected any bits that dropped off our rig, noticed a deep groove in the sand behind our trailer. Further inspection revealed the culprit. The trailer jockey wheel had come loose with the repeated corrugations on this stretch of road. We had been ploughing the Kalahari until the Land Rover quite rightly decided it was not a tractor!
Game viewing at Deception was disappointing, so we enjoyed the scenery and used the shade of the trees that 30 years previously had been home to the Owens, to sit in our vehicle and watch the world go by. The world in this case seemed to be mainly Japanese tourists, wearing facemasks, on the back of game-drive vehicles. We had witnessed the same strange facemask behaviour in Chobe and at the Victoria Falls. It remains a mystery to us as to whether the Japanese are frightened of germs, dust, bad smells, Aids or all of these. A tradition of our 18-month trip has been a glass of chilled white wine for sun downers in game reserves though, come to think of it, we’ve had sun downers most days, whether in a game reserve or not!
On our last afternoon at Deception we were sitting in our car enjoying sun downers when a Botswana Defence Force convoy of Land Rovers and other vehicles approached at speed. Though mentally reassured that I had only just poured the wine, I began to fear the worst and thought this was excessive force to deal with a possible drunk driving offence. It was with some relief that I realised the convoy was passing by, so we waved and received a wave back from a lone figure in the back of an expensive looking 4×4.
Some time later it dawned on us that this was Botswana’s new president, Sir Ian Khama – certainly the first and undoubtedly the last time any president will wave to us,unless Thabo Mbeki would like to thank us for redistributing our limited wealth to Land Rover garages and liquor stores the length and breadth of South Africa! Leopard Pan campsite, our next stop, was private and quiet compared to Deception and more like the remote setting we’d expected.
Outgoing campers warned that lions had been in camp the previous evening but they didn’t visit in our two nights there. Instead, we saw and heard a lone lioness on the pan each morning, calling for her pride – perhaps those that had passed through camp before our arrival? At Leopard Pan we said goodbye to Jack and his camping buddies, Ronnie and Joe. Ahead of them lay the long journey back to the rat race of Johannesburg. We were more than happy to be staying on with our Vryburg cattle farming friends, Isaac and Liesel, as we’d saved the best for last – Tau Pan. This is certainly one of the most beautiful locations in CKGR, and the campsite is superbly positioned under large shade trees with panoramic views around and across the expansive pan. We were busy getting the fire going and preparing the braai at Tau on our first night when the loud and close roar of a lion interrupted Isaac’s 158th joke of the holiday (this one was in English but still not repeatable in print!)
Several minutes later our torches picked out the awe-inspiring sight of a large male lion strolling casually past camp, about 3om from our fire. While Angela retreated to the car, I tried to keep the video camera steady and film this magnificent animal. Listening to the tape now, I swear you can hear my heart thumping and knees knocking! We saw the lion again the next day with his pride – a lioness and two cubs Other wildlife highlights of our three days at Tau Pan were bat-eared foxes and nother cheetah hunting. Thanks to the unquenchable thirst of our V8 engine we had to watch our mileage, so when it was offered we jumped at the chance of taking Isaac’s Hilux for a circuit of the pan. The heavy steering, lumpy suspension and absence of air-con reminded us why we’d chosen a Land Rover Discovery in which to do our southern Africa tour. If only it had the fuel economy of the Hilux!
Our Kalahari trip was over all too soon. While the choice of camps is clearly personal, we would recommend Piper, Leopard and Tau. We would also recommend taking a vehicle that you don’t mind getting scratched, or spend money on a protective coating for the paintwork if you want to sleep easier at night. While we were in the park, rumours abounded about Tau Pan being passed to a private lodge operator, the privatisation of the management of the other campsites and the implementation of a new booking system from January 2009 that will require everyone to pay fees in full before arrival. If the latter avoids the need to carrylarge sums of pula into the park it will be better and safer for everyone, and if privatisation of the management of the campsites stops double or treble occupancy then it will be a welcome move.
As for us, after 18 months of spectacular sightseeing and wildlife watching, we are going back home to the UK for a short dose of rain, traffic jams and unaffordable living costs! Then we are off to Alaska for a couple of months to enjoy some cold weather, big mountains and different wildlife. Having been badly bitten by th.e Africa bug years ago we will of course be back, dusting off the Land Rover and, assuming it starts, pointing it in the direction of Zambia and Malawi.
Such has been the pull of the Central Kalahari though, we are already planning a return trip for next year that will take us through the park and down into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park via Mabuasehube.
We thank Leisure Wheels Magazine for this article, it was published in August 2008 – Issue 52