From the moment we started to plan this trip to Africa, I started to read blogs of other travelers in Africa and it seemed that they all really liked one country more than the others. It was Botswana. I remember thinking at the time that we must plan something special for Botswana as it has so many good reviews but with the whirlwind that West Africa was, it was one of the things that was swept to the back of my mind but all of a sudden, we were here and I had to remember all the things I had read again. I have to say, that wasn’t going to happen but we had been given a real gold mine of information on the place by a German couple we had met at Urban Camp so armed with place names and notes in the all-important black book, we headed to the border.
Now, as with the info I had read on Botswana before, we often have more important things to remember no matter how important the previous thing to remember was… this was the case with the vet clearance letter we were supposed to get signed off by some guy in a big government building in Windhoek that was all together too hard to do at the time and was ‘put off’ until we had rested, or something and all we had to do was remember to do it later. Well, we both remembered to do it, but we were 200 meters from the border when we did…
All the way down West Africa we had seen and sometimes followed vehicles loaded with livestock, usually goats through borders, and the guard would sometimes glance in the back to make sure no one was hiding amongst the animals, but usually not. Like with us, sometimes they would ask us to wind down the back windows to make sure it was only us but having a cat was never a problem and they would often say ‘you have a cat?’ and laugh us off as crazy, but no one ever cared or asked if she had papers. But here was the one and only border in Africa we were supposed to actually do something to cross with the cat and we ‘forgot’ to get it signed. We thought about signing it ourselves but without the all-important stamp that seems to make everything official in Africa, we thought we would be caught out and be in more trouble, so we just hid her. By hiding her I don’t mean we stuffed her under a seat or put her in the fridge, we simply laid a towel over her and she just kept sleeping. We need not have bothered as they just stamped our passports and gave us a gate pass that we handed to the border official on the way through the gate into Botswana without so much as even a glance into the back seat. OK, so I suppose it’s not the right thing to do but she had the vet clearance done so we knew we weren’t doing any harm other than avoiding some bureaucracy.
Botswana is different to any other African country we had been in on this trip. It has quite a small population of around 2 million, is the least densely populated country in Africa and since independence in 1966 it has had democratic elections and a thriving economy. It helped that a year after independence they found the largest reserve of diamonds in the world and this accounts for over half of their GDP now. The other thing they did was form large parks and they protect their wild animals better than any other African country. As a result, they now have the largest population of elephants and rhinos in Africa and are helping other countries restock their parks hit by ivory and horn poaching. The country has only a small white community of 3% and they largely self-manage the resources and parks alone. Chances are if you have watched National Geographic, Learning Channel or Discovery Channel and seen a documentary featuring wild African animals, part or all of it will have been filmed in Botswana and usually it would be in the Okavango Delta area which was our first destination in Botswana.
The delta area is big, really big, and it’s only accessible by car to the edge of the delta and only in a few places. If you want to get further in, to the lodges in the delta, you have to take a small plane. In this area are some of the most exclusive and best places for wildlife viewing in Africa but with prices at around $1,000USD per person per day, it’s not for everyone. It used to be that Botswanan parks were some of the best for travelers on a budget but the government who manage the parks saw what overcrowding and overuse was doing to the environment and the parks, so privatised most of the camping areas, then quite simply kept increasing the prices until the supply/demand levelled out and now they have very few visitors that pay quite a lot. The lodges that developed since then are the fly in type and the delta is covered in them now. Its good as they all want to provide an amazing experience and they are all working together preserving the area and encouraging diversity and it’s all of this that has made Botswana one of the safari hotspots in Africa. We looked at a lot of options for parks and camping in the area and we worked out that the cheapest place places were Moremi Game Reserve or the community run Khwai River Conservancy. They were around $75NZD including camping each so we chose the community run place as we normally do and went in. As soon as you get through the gate, the roads disappear and are replaced by 4x4 tracks that are fine 80% of the time and are great fun in places. But there are patches of the all too common very fine dust that rises in giant clouds as you pass through. If you travel too slowly it will engulf the car and fill the inside in seconds if the windows are down. That day was an amazing day for us and it felt sort of surreal to be driving around in our car amongst these amazing and wild animals that were everywhere. But it’s times like now, in the car with maybe 20 or more elephants around you in all directions, hippos, water buffalo, zebra and a variety of antelope further away as far as we can see, that we really knew why we did the hard miles and borders to get this far. That day we had an amazing encounter with the endangered African painted dog. By chance we met Phil, a British overlander driving around the place as well. We chatted with him for a while and he pointed us in the direction of a den of these dogs. After following a small dirt road for a few kms we came around a corner to find a painted dog right in the middle of the road. Wow! The den. We had wanted to see these animals for some time and there right in front of us was an entire den of dogs complete with a litter of very young pups still with their eyes closed. For us it was a jackpot wildlife sighting. We sat and watched for quite a while but they eventually got nervous about us and we left them in peace. Luxy was very happy we went as she had been nervously keeping a keen eye on the dog closest to the car from the moment we arrived… We got to the campground in the conservancy and were buzzing after the day and we agreed that it was the best day of the trip so far, which was a big call. We heard that lions frequent the camping area so were excited to be able to complete the big 5 without actually going to a private game park, only in the wild and community land (ok, a lot like a game park but many of the private parks are more like a zoo that a park). That night we looked out for wild dogs and lions. Instead we had hippos grunting and snorting with crocodiles roaming the river banks right in front of our camp. The 2 evenings previous lions were strolling through the campgrounds to the river and back but they moved on. Could have been the threat of having to deal with Luxy who usually claims the camping area around the car as her own territory, but probably not. The lions would have to wait. We headed back and drove the park again the next day and had yet another amazing day like the first. The Khwai River Conservancy is an amazing place for self-drive visitors and we really recommend it for overlanders.
We headed east and towards the Nxal Pan National Park. Botswana has a bunch of what they call pans which are depressions that in the rainy season fill with water forming giant inland seas that completely fill up with migrating birds and animals. Some are grassed pans, some are rimmed with shrubs and some with trees. Some are salt pans that have very little vegetation and stretch to the horizon. It was cool to drive across these, especially the salt pans. On one big one, even though it was only 40 or 50kms across, I felt some trepidation before starting off. The road was wherever you wanted it to be, in other words, anywhere between point A over there to point B here. It’s a bit dangerous to stray from the tracks and could involve driving around in circles for a while as every horizon looks the same and then hitting one of the many soft spots that will suck your 4x4 up to the axles in seconds. So, we stuck to the hard track and cruised across the salt. It didn’t take long for the next hill appear just like seeing land from out at sea. The hill, called Kubu Island, was a granite rock outcrop that is largely unchanged from when this part of Africa was really a sea, and the island shows signs of habitation from as far back as the stone age. At one end is the fossilized remains of an actual beach, we couldn’t find it but…it’s there somewhere. I really wanted to see what a fossilized beach looked like too… That night we tempted fate and drove off the road and into the middle of the salt lake we were crossing, so we could camp. We have camped all over the place in forests and deserts but never a salt lake, until now. It was, as you could imagine, extremely boring mostly and Luxy thought it was the worst campsite we have ever taken her to. It was a nice place to take some photos, was very quiet, and the night sky was incredible (and we didn’t get stuck).
Our next stop was another community run park. This one specialises in Rhino and is called Khama Rhino sanctuary. We were spoilt for rhino viewing at that park and while we were driving around one of the waterholes we had to stop suddenly for a White (wide-lipped) Rhino and her baby to cross the road right in front of us. Very cool. We didn’t camp in the park as just the day drive around cost $55NZD so we moved on to another excellent wild camp off the side of one of the many deserted roads in Botswana. Over the next few days we went to Francistown and spent many hours looking at maps and the iOverlander app to see where to go next but we just couldn’t bring ourselves to pay the high price for any more of the parks. The country’s tourism is set up for short stay, high quality tourism and we had pretty much done all we could afford to do. We would love to go back to Botswana and experience one of the lodges in the delta and along with Namibia, it was a place we were really sad to leave but we had a date with a hotel in Zambia that we needed to keep.
As border crossings go, entering Namibia from Angola was an absolute breeze. We walked into a big building with ‘immigration’ above the door and right in front of us was a big sign with the step by step process for driving into the country. Great! Although border crossings don’t amount to very much time on the grand scheme of things, they do amount to most of the stress we experience so to avoid this means we are on the win before we have even seen any of the country. A week back I had noticed a problem with the car. It was the front differential, left output bearing… (if you needed to know) and although it wouldn’t have stopped us, leaving it could cause more damage in the long run so I wanted to get it fixed as soon as possible. Using our favorite app, iOverlander, we found a town near the border that had a few options for workshops and headed off.
Namibia was first colonized in the late 1800’s by Germany but was handed to the British after WW1. Many Namibians still trace their heritage to the first colonizers and it shows in the way the country runs, with a touch of German precision. For the first time after leaving Morocco we are seeing people stop at red lights, wait for pedestrians at crossings and shop staff smile and greet us. The roads are maintained and they even have signs warning about the few potholes they have! We can buy anything we need for us and the car and to be honest, I felt quite at home. We stopped first at the town of Oshakati in the north and headed for one of the many workshops. The first place I went to really started well with the owner, Ozzy, sounding like he really knew his stuff. We were promised a quote the next day and we went to a campground and waited. After a couple of days, we decided that if they cannot send a quote, I didn’t want them working on the car. We went to another workshop we found in iOverlander that was listed as Land Rover experts and met Braam. We went through the things that needed doing and nothing was a problem. He gave us a price on the spot and then insisted we stay at his very flash house complete with full time house keeper and gardener so he could start straight away! Well, it was luxury for us but Luxy wasn’t too keen on the 3 dogs he had. Braam had his guys remove the diff and upon inspection the bearing could be easily replaced but the parts have to come from a town 1 days drive away. To cut a long story short, the supplier messed up and the part wasn’t sent so not only did we have to wait an extra day, it was then the weekend so we ended up staying near on a week with Braam! It was totally awesome! Braam is an expert at braai (wood BBQ) and we had some amazing food and his housekeeper was finally able to get our towels clean. Braam rides motorbikes and has toured southern Africa and has been eyeing up New Zealand for some time. We are looking forward to hosting him.
Other than fixing the diff, we also got a new ‘bash plate’ or under body protection for the front, we had a full service, got new tyres, a wheel alignment and a body lift for extra ground clearance, had a box made for the roof and installed a water tank with a tap at the back. Have to say the box is excellent and really solves the problem of what to do with our winter stuff and the other seasonal things we had that were clogging up the back seats. The water tank is also an excellent addition and we really now feel like we have finished the set-up of the car. Weren’t we going to do all this in South Africa, the home of 4x4 and overland vehicle setup? We were but thanks to the spat the SA and NZ governments are having right now, the SA embassy insisted we fly to New Zealand it get the visa… it was the only way, they said. We ended up hanging around the capital, Windhoek, for nearly 3 weeks trying to sort this out but we couldn’t make any headway against such staunch bureaucracy and we gave up. It was a real shame to not be able to go from the Arctic Circle to Cape Town as it’s a real destination for overland travelers and was a landmark on the entire trip but the budget did not include a round trip to New Zealand just to go to South Africa. When decided instead to explore more of Namibia than we had planned as we now have an extra month to deal with. And explore we did. We were in Namibia for almost 2 months!
After reluctantly leaving Braam’s place, we headed to the east and a place called The Caprivi Strip. As it sounds, it’s a narrow strip of land that goes to Victoria Falls. It’s an intersection of 3 countries at the falls and it gives Namibia access to the Zambezi River and reliable hydro power generation. We went to our first game park up there. It was a community park, meaning they just charge people a fee for driving onto their village lands to see animals and consisted of driving along the river front and out to a small lake or, as they are all called here ‘water holes’… even though they really are small lakes or ponds… anyway. We drove through the gate and were a few hundred meters into the drive and Christine had just finished saying about wanting to see Zebra when we rounded a corner to a herd of Zebra. It was great and we finally felt like we had arrived in Africa! That day we saw loads of animals. The village grounds are on the edge of a park and the beginning of the Okavango Delta and as is normal they are called Game Parks even though the animals are no longer there for game. We did drive past a few large properties that offer hunting but it all seems a bit lame to go into a once farm that’s been stocked with ‘wild’ animals and ‘hunt’.. The only park we visited other than community parks like the first one we found was Etosha National Park. It’s a very large park in the middle of the country that was created out of remnants of other parks and farm land. They sunk bores and created water holes, then stocked the park with animals that now live like they have always been there. The park receives some criticism for creating the habitat and some say it’s like driving through a zoo but the truth is that in all of Africa very few areas exist where people can see so many of Africa’s great and unusual animals over a short period of time. It’s very popular and most of the overlanders we have met visited Etosha. The camping areas are near the water holes and in the evening and at night the big cats and rhinos will come to drink. We couldn’t stay overnight with Luxy but we did do a drive through taking all day and enjoyed seeing loads of animals but some of our best animal sightings in Namibia were out in the wild, not behind fences.
After having so much work done to the car, we decided to do some off-road trips. Namibia has loads of tourists from South Africa and Germany and we were one of hundreds of Toyota Hilux 4x4 Utes, or Bakkie as they are called here, on the roads. We headed to the west and picked a few tracks to travel on. Most of the tracks are old roads that follow the river valleys and are a mix of sand, soft sand and rocks. As they are marked as roads on the map we had, we were looking for more than what was there so we missed our first turnoff and had to carry on for another 50ks until we could pick up the next track. It was excellent! Despite all the other tourists around we were completely alone for 98% of the time we were in the area. We later read that the area we were in is considered the last true wilderness area in the entire continent of Africa and with no light pollution the night sky was incredible too. It sure was different to what we had experienced in West Africa, which is the most densely populated part of Africa. The geology is also incredible and due to the sparse vegetation, it’s quite easy to see the land formations. Travelling the off-road tracks was actually mostly more comfortable than the back roads. Although the roads have no potholes, they sometimes have really bad corrugations that can go on for hours and hours. We decided that 6 hours of off-roading was better than 4 hours of corrugations any day. The wild camping is also amazing off the beaten track. Some nights we were the only people for many many miles in any direction. Luxy loved it too!
We had our first wildlife scare driving some of those tracks. We rounded a corner to see 4 large elephants on the left side of the road. I pulled up straight away as they were very close to the side of the road and when I stopped they would have been only meters from the car. Wooah! What’s going on?? In about 2 seconds we realized that on the right side of the car, hidden by some bushes was a small elephant! We had just come between a mother and her young, and she was not happy about that at all… Christine, who saw this all unfold seconds before me said (in her usual way) DRIVE!! and I did.. The angry elephant was on her side after all.
For most of the trip down the west coast of Africa, we had been staying in campgrounds or cheap hotels. It was nearly impossible to find a quiet place away from people to wild camp. After leaving DRC, we have hardly paid for accommodation at all and we spent zero on accommodation in Angola and Namibia was looking to be the same, with the exception being when we were staying in towns or near to some ‘attraction’ we wanted to see. When we did stay in campgrounds, they were first class. Water, BBQ and electricity at every site and some even had your own private toilet and shower. They all had hot water too, often heated by a wood fired boiler they call a Donkey. Luxury! unlimited hot water! Anyway, due to our attempt to get the SA visa, we had spent quite a bit of time in the capital of Namibia, Windhoek. As we could only talk to the SA embassy about our entry visa between 9am and 2pm on a Wednesday (yes, that is the only time even though its staffed every day, they only process visas on a Wednesday morning…) we had been coming and going seeing things around Windhoek but we always came back to the same place, a campground called Urban Camp that is right in town, quite close to the CBD and only a kilometer or so from the embassy. We stayed a total of 10 nights at the camp all up and we were able to catch up with so many of our travelling friends, it was a bit like home for a while. It was excellent to catch up with Patrick again after meeting him in Mali and catching up with him again in Togo and now here. We also caught up with Mike and Sue who we also met in Mali. The camp was really relaxing and well laid out. Apart from Luxy getting caught up in some razor wire and needing stiches to a nearly 2-inch gash on her back (she is proud of her scar and never complained...) it all went really well, until the last time we went to leave and Luxy decided that after spending so long at this place, it was home! It was the first time she didn’t want to get in the car. We always pick her up and place her in the car (she isn’t jumping in like a dog yet) but she never struggles and will always come when we call her to go.. but not this time. We had to chase her for nearly an hour. She kept going back to campsite 11 which was where we spent 7 of the 10 nights. Poor wee thing… she really liked Urban Camp (more than she liked us…?)
It was sad for us to have to say good bye to Kevin and Steph while we were in Windhoek. We had met up again and were going to travel to the south west together but Kevin discovered a problem with the Landie that needed to be fixed and they stayed on in town. I kept telling Kevin to not look under the car. Every time he did a problem would materialize that needed to be fixed straight away but he couldn’t help himself. I am convinced that the car is in far better condition now than when they left The Netherlands and I’m sure some of the problems could have been saved up and fixed at the end of the trip when they were sure the money could be spent. Discussions around money were never far off and sometimes took over, changing the vibe somewhat. In most cases people have 1 of the following two things; time or money. Very seldom do overlanders have both. For Kevin and Steph to drive from Europe to Cape Town is an amazing achievement. Many start and never get past Morocco and I think that if it wasn’t for Kevin’s ability to keep a 31-year-old car going over some of the worst roads in Africa they wouldn’t have made it past Morocco either. We are really looking forward to seeing them again in Europe or better yet, New Zealand…
We spent a long time and many evenings discussing what we would do next. Not being able to get into SA had made us rethink the entire plan we had. When I say plan, it was a lose collection of ideas that had formed a plan all by themselves really and we had just gone along! We were at the southern part of Namibia and we could see South Africa just over there but we couldn’t go any further south. We attempted to get into the Frontier Park that spans Namibia and SA but it was also too hard so that’s it with heading south. After visiting Fish River Canyon, which is an area that they have discovered rock paintings that are said to be as old as the famous French cave paintings that re-dated the rise of modern man, we headed north. It was quite sad to leave Namibia. It was the longest we had spent in any country other than Morocco and that’s because we really enjoyed it. We headed back to the north and then towards the east and Botswana. Elephant country!
Thanks to Braam, Joe, JP, Iklazo, the team at Urban Camp and the many other people we met in Namibia for making it a great stay.
We really enjoyed dealing with the polite and friendly people at the Angola border. Nothing was too much trouble and they even showed us to an airconditioned room while they completed the paperwork for us. We had expected to as usual complete several forms sometimes in duplicate and wait in a hot room that never have enough seats for us all to sit down (I usually pull the age excuse and Kevin will stand…) but here we were sitting in comfortable office type chairs waiting for someone else to do the writing. The nice times continued after we drove down the steep road to the police post to get our car permits. They were all so relaxed and eager to chat. I think it had something to do with all the police cars being out of action and in various states of repair around the yard, they couldn’t go out and do ‘police stuff’ any way.
We headed south and wild camped at what could have been a rubbish tip except it wasn’t. It sure did make a good act of looking like a tip though and in the morning after sifting through some of the rubbish to get shampoo of all things, we headed on. We had by now restocked our food and fuel and were ready for a few days off the main roads so we headed for the famous Shipwreck Coast on the north coast of Angola. After heading to a campground and having a look around, we decided to check out a spot further up the coast only accessible by 4x4. We drove along the beach in front of the rusting hulks and found the small track up a canyon to a grassy plateau. It was a great spot and we spent the afternoon taking in the view. There are dozens of broken and rusting ships, from medium sided passenger ships and freighters, to steel fishing boats and barges, as far as we could see in both directions. The beach down in front of us was also a popular picnic spot, as we were able to observe. The next day Kevin, Christine and I swum out to a ship and explored the decks above water. As we came back to shore, a rogue wave hit my back and knocked my glasses off my head into the water just as it was receding back sweeping them away in a second with zero chance of finding them in waist deep water... My only prescription sunglasses were now amongst the millions of tons of trash rotting away at Shipwreck Coast… We left not long after with me in a slightly grumpy mood and Christine seeing the trail of money getting thicker the further south we travelled.
We headed straight to Luanda the capital of Angola. What an awesome city and it was the first city we had seen on the West Coast that had a big marina full of pleasure boats, just like at home! How do I know? Because we stayed at the marina right in the middle of the city. For some reason, the marina let overland travellers stay in the car park for free. We can use the toilets and showers, take water and sometimes they even have free wifi. We were still phone shopping and hit the town to see what we could find. We headed off with Kevin and Steph to a big new mall on the other side of the city. We nearly bought 2 phones but after some thought we came up with the idea of getting my optometrist to send some new glasses and he can put the phones in the box and we have 2 problems solved at once! That was it. We ended up just buying KFC at the mall and then decided on how we could all get back to the yacht club. We cramming into an already very full minivan bus and we were off! At that stage and for most of the trip we didn’t actually know where were going but it was in the right general direction. Kevin monitored progress on a mapping app and we managed to get back to the cars OK. That night I made contact with my optometrist and got things underway. Everything is going to be sent by DHL to the capital of Namibia, the next country for us and now we had a deadline to meet the package.
We headed to the south of the country via the coast and made a few stops along the way. A side road took us to a cave system that was massive! We walked down a path about 1 kilometer to the valley floor with a small stream. To our right and into the side of the valley we had just walked down was the entrance to the cave. It was 40 or 50 meters high and inside the first 300 meters of the cave the ceiling got higher still and was lined with thousands of bats. It stunk! We walked right through and back and in the hottest part of the day, back up the valley to the cars at the top. Luxy just hung out by the cars when we were gone and was sleeping in the shade when we all got back...such a good cat!
On the way south we stayed at 2 wonderful places for free right on the beach. The first was a resort where the owner has a soft spot for 'real' overlanders and we can camp in the carpark and although the pool was green with little beetles swimming in it, the place was really nice, 5 star. The second was a restaurant on the beach in Lobito. They had an area to one side out of the way of the diners and we set up camp right there. Luxy had fun on the sand and managed to avoiding the beach dogs that slept right under our car all night. The next day we agreed on a destination and headed off. Earlier while checking over the car I had noticed a problem with the four-wheel drive and when Kevin texted to say the road to the campsite we were heading to was very bad we decided to take another way and meet up later in the week. We camped just off the road on the way to a really interesting area that has some amazing canyons and in one place, some arches that have been formed with erosion from the wind and rain. Although the arches weren’t too interesting, the road to and from them was incredible. We dropped of a plateau down a road with countless switchbacks and amazing views around every corner. It was great that we had to do it twice as the arches were quite a way off the main road. Needing to keep our schedule to collect the package, we continued south to the border stopping only to look at the war relics and discarded tanks that lined parts of the road to the southern border. In no time, we were at the border ready for Angola crossing number 4 into Namibia and for the first time in 11 border crossings, we didn't have Kevin and Steph with us in their Landie.
it's Our Epic Trip...
David & Christine are from New Zealand and are embarking on a trip around the world the slow way, on foot and by personal vehicle. This could get interesting!