The Rain Goes Down in Africa
14 days across the south African desert in a LandCruiser
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Few months ago my friend Florian invited me & Jan-Erik to a 2-week road trip across the Botswana desert and Namibia. The tour was organized by Sibylle, Florian's mom, who has been living in Botswana in'n'out roughly for the past 20 years. If there was ever a time I was going explore the south-African wilderness, this was it! Needless to say, we both said yes and the adventure started right after Christmas, on the 27th.
Note: this blog post is more of a recount of our adventures, sprinkled with a bunch of pictures, than an animal photo gallery—for nicer shots of the wildlife we encountered, check out Sibylle's blog
Note: this is a developing story, be sure to check back for updates!
Day Zero: getting to Africa
My careful planning was a bit thrown off by changed plans around the family Christmas—so instead of popping over from Nyíregyháza, I had to jump on a train in Budapest at 8AM in the morning to catch my flight from Debrecen to Munich, then onwards to Frankfurt and eventually the overnight flight to Johannesburg. Only one last short flight there to Gaborone and we were done—eventually arriving in Botswana Friday evening. It was quite a hike! I have met up with Jan-Erik in Frankfurt, so we got to enjoy each other's company for the rest of the journey (except for the flight itself to Johannesburg, but I slept that clean through that anyway!).
Due to various delays we ended up spending most of our Friday in the Johannesburg airport. We arrived in Gaborone late in the afternoon, where Sibylle & Florian picked us up.
If we wouldn't have been aware that we were in Africa proper, the monkeys chasing each other around right outside the airport terminal (and Sibylle reminding us to look out for our belongings) quickly reminded us. We hopped in the car that would be our trusty companion for the next two weeks and left for Lobatse where we would spend the night in Sibylle's house before we set out on our road trip.
It did not take us long to learn what "wet season" meant in Botswana, as soon as we set out it started raining like there was no tomorrow—we didn't know back then these rainstorms would accompany us for the days to come.
After arriving we have washed off the dust of the road with some real Botswana lager and had a nice dinner together. As a personal favorite I frequently take Tokaji Aszú (a sweet white desert wine from the Eastern region of Hungary) so I picked up an "5 puttonyos Tokaji Aszú (2008)" of the Disznókő winery while in Debrecen (after about 6000 miles, that's a well-traveled wine i can tell you!). We drank some of the bottle after diner and Sibylle put the rest aside for later in our Kalahari trip.
Everyone was rather tired at this point and we had a tough morning ahead of us so we turned in rather early. Sibylle gave me and Jan-Erik one of her lovely downstairs guestrooms, each, so I hunkered down, plugged in All The Things to charge and went to bed.
The next morning my watch informed me that I "got some killer Zzz-s" and I've slept 12% more than usual. Hell yeah, vacation izzz oonnnn! 😎
Day 1: Into the Wilderness!
After a warm shower the next morning (we suspected this would be the last one for a while—but frankly, we were not prepared) we got to have a closer look at the mansion. The semi-open indoor swimming pool and sauna we saw the night before but the balcony's view and the weaverbirds nesting on the other side of the living room window gave the place an even nicer flair.
After a quick breakfast we started loading the LandCruiser with supplies. We are heading out on a two-week road trip across Botswana and Namibia, the first 4 days of which leads through the deserted Central Kalahari, we needed to be prepared for virtually anything.
Florian had warned me, that in the Kalahari we won't have any kind of reception, much less internet—and my Google Fi subscription has decided to shun Botswana so I was looking at a really disconnected vacation. I wasn't sure how I felt about that (or how the family will feel about it, being used to keeping on top of my travels through various online channels and services.) In retrospect, being disconnected was less of a problem than I expected it to be, especially in the desert. In the towns it felt more of a hindrance.
We have left Lobatse somewhere around noon, armed with every possible thing we would need to survive for days in the desert—except for two things. Fuel and water.
We drove from Lobatse to Molepolole where we filled the LandCruiser to the rim (and also some jerry cans) with almost 200 liters of diesel fuel, and then visited the local supermarket to further stockpile on industrial amounts of water: 5 liters per person per day ends up being quite a massive stash of water.
This Superspar looks like a Spar, it quacks like a Spar, so you kinda' get the feeling it is actually a Spar... and then the power goes bye-bye and the next thing you see is people roaming the shop with flashlights, getting that last piece of grocery or diapers in the pitch-black twilight of the giant supermarket.
Halfway through shopping the a power outage struck and the entire giant shopping complex went dark. People (including me) would continue shopping, as long as the generators would supply enough power to operate the cashiers' machines, with a guard standing in the entrance, checking whether all the exiting customers have actually paid for the produce in their trolleys.
We set out to cross the Kalahari from south to north. Most of the central Kalahari is a nature reserve, the Central Kalahari Game reserve, the south tip is a separate reserve, the Khutse Game Reserve, this was our entry point to the wilderness.
We haven't spent much time in Khutse, our night camp were already in the Central Kalahari reserve, so after a quick gate check and paying the park fees we were on our way... well, we were supposed to be, but the car didn't start. We learned our lesson—the hard way—in redundancy.
Crischa & Sascha
Sibylle told us early on into the planning that to go to the heart of the desert one must at least bring two cars, in case something would happen to one of them. This was when Crischa, Sibylle's best friend decided it was time he had introduced Sascha, his 5-year-old son to the trials of life in the desert, and they accompanied us for Sascha the Botswana part of our journey.
Crischa is a budding hunter (although, he'd mostly just affectionately refer to himself as "a pig farmer with a giant industrial mincer"), and in the days that followed his wit & skills have ended up saving our butt numerous times in the middle of the wilderness. We have also learned a ton, some of these learnings I'll try to share further below.
Four days in the desert—in a broken car
Crischa disconnected the cable from what seemed to be a faulty secondary system, but the car still wouldn't start.
It is highly suspected that the separately installed secondary battery system caused the engine trouble, but we never actually learned what exactly happened. Seemingly the troublesome secondary circuit has completely drained & killed the main battery, so we needed to jump-start the car from Crischa's LandCruiser. This dance would become a frequent occurrence in the following days, but we decided that this little inconvenience shouldn't spoil our quest. Nevertheless, our desert survival trip was not off to a promising start...
After this short intermezzo, we were finally in! A few minutes into Khutse we already had our first wildlife-spotting experience, courtesy of some Red Hartebeests peacefully grazing by the roadside.
We haven't spent too much time enjoying Khutse's hospitality, but even with that—the several hundreds of kilometers of a drive from Lobatse and the time spent (wasted?) on stockpiling and at the park gates—it was already past 6PM as we arrived to our campsite, at the edge of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve.
Most south-African countries are 1 hour ahead of Central European time in the winter months—6PM here is already dusk, with at 8PM being already pitch-black (due to the cloudy skies and lack of light pollution in the desert). This campsite was one of the better ones: equipped with a (bucket-)shower and latrine ("toilet"), and a designated fireplace. We needed to pitch our tents & get the campfire running quick. Fumbling in the dark outside the camp, searching for firewood was strongly discouraged, especially in the late hours.
First night's dinner would be open-fire grilled steak & grilled cheese. Crischa's rooftop tent literally took seconds to set up so he dove into bringing light into the darkness and we enjoyed the crackling fire and nice juicy steak late into the evening. We didn't know (although, we should have probably suspected from the piling clouds) that these luxuries we'll be missing a lot for the following nights...
Day 2: The Heart of the Kalahari
- *Grapefruit juice..?
- No, really, why grapefruit?
- Umm... readily available?
- For the Europeans. Here, noone likes it. I think it tastes like sh⋆t
Although it rained quite a bit on our first night, by the time we got up the thirsty desert plains have soaked up all traces of the overnight storm. The weather was nice long enough that I got to go on a quick walk (a bit further away from the camp) and record some morning nature noises: the desert felt remarkably docile.
Our breakfast then was cut short by another shower rolling in, so we hastily packed and set out to cross the reserve towards the north to our next campsite. These alternating storms and blazing hot dry runs would continue for the whole day (and pretty much for the rest of our desert adventures) to provide us with plenty of adventure and excitement for the rest of the week...
Peekaboo—some heads pokin' out!
We have barely left the camp behind we soon started seeing curious animal heads poking out form behind the roadside bushes:
Since human presence is ubiquitous in these parks (to a point where I was often joking about how these parks are amusement parks for animals to do human-watching) most animals will give you a long, inquisitive stare, as they assess how much threat you may pose to them. Needless to say this makes for excellent photo opportunities, and it is easy to lull ourselves into the belief that they are posing just for us. :)
Village visit: Kukama & Mothamelo
In crossing the desert our journey had led through various little settlements, such as Kukama (pictured) or Mothamelo, to which in my notes I have just referred to as "The village with exactly one car — and a football field". That description actually manages to grasp the extent of poverty and seclusion in these areas—bearing in mind it took us two days, two cars and days of precautions to reach these villages from the nearest inhabited areas.
That said, seeing fancy modern cars (not just four-wheel-drives, but all kinds of cars, sometimes multiple) in twig-fenced residences, parked besides traditional huts in towns across both Botswana and Namibia never once ceased to amaze me for the rest of our trip.
We didn't end up spending too much time in Kukama—crossing the desert was a several hundred kilometers long endeavor, we got to keep moving. As a parting gift, Crischa handed a loaf a sliced bread to the villagers from our stash and we got back on the road...
Towards the Heart of the Desert
Halfway to that day's campsite we have stopped for refuelling and stretching our legs. We have brought over a hundred litres of diesel and gasoline in jerry cans that kept bouncing around on Crischa's car on the rugged desert terrain so he had to keep adjusting and tying them down time and time again.
As we were early into the trip, and we haven't interacted much (travelling in different cars), this was the first time I got to hang out a bit more with Sascha. Well, as it happens, he seemed a slight bit more interested in Baela and ginger cookies (they are amazing. both.) at this point still, but baby steps.
As his initial suspicion dissipated, Sascha would earn himself the "little monkey" moniker (even though he seemed to prefer little tiger), as the little energy bomb would make a point in climbing everywhere and everything, even (or rather, especially) if that "thing" happened to one of his fellow travelers. :)
Jan-Erik grabs the wheel
Until this time, it has been mostly Sibylle and Florian who were driving our car, so it was time for Jan-Erik to jump behind the steering wheel and get a taste of kicking the tyres on a 4WD in the Kalahari!
As I noted then, he chose the perfect time for doing so, as he'd get to experience all the fun the desert had to offer: from spouting dust puffs as one is tearing through the deep sandy trails to peering out from behind the windshield in raging rainstorms and sledding in the post-shower mudbaths.
Even discounting the frequent showers of the wet season, the Kalahari was nothing like what Hollywood's depictions of deserts (with their looming infinite sandy dunes) might have set you up for. Both the flora and the fauna was rich, with scurrying insects, chirpy birds and varying degrees of vegetation all around—the view never got boring for even a second.
Even though we were well-equipped with various maps and guides, and have even received a map at the entrance, finding our way around the desert was not always trivial. The car's built in GPS navigation was not of much help in the desert, roads and trails would shift around (or even become completely impassable) with the volatile weather, signs would be damaged or missing altogether. We were relying tons on Crischa's wayfinding skills, and Jan-Erik's foresight in downloading the
maps.me app and Botswana's offline map both proved indispensable.
Turns out, Open Street Map's data (that maps.me uses) has surprisingly accurate information on not just the map and trails of the Kalahari, but even the various campsite-locations.
Open source saves the day—again!
Xaxa Waterhole camp
Talk about perils of wayfinding, we missed a left turn trying to find our campsite. Quite soon we realized our mistake, but there was no way of letting Crischa know who was leading the way! Crischa is also not know of his relaxed pace of driving his V6, so a 10-minute car chase ensued and we were several kilometers in by the time we managed to get his attention.
This really got me thinking about how useless all the technology packed into our hight-tech mobile phones are in the absence of network coverage (and how it really shouldn't be!). Also made a note to pack some old-style walkie-talkies next time...
After eventually finding the campsite, overlooking the waterhole, we could already see another storm rolling in. This meant nice sunset pictures—but also a priority to get the campfire going.
With the unending parade of rainstorms, the campfire has become our number one desert home furnishing, and with the frequent storms and hungry cats around, one of the first things erected once we settled down for a new campsite. Another such home improvement staple would become the makeshift rain shelter/tent we would bring up every night from now on to be able to stick it out against the raging elements until dinner was ready. That said, even keeping the fire alive throughout the evening storm long enough to have Crischa's special, house-made sausages grilled to perfection had become a challenge on its own.
Crischa has been after elephants that whole day (week), on this evening, though, we would only get to lay our eyes on some recent tracks and a fresh pile of dung—maybe few hours old—in the bushes around the camp. "Darn, we missed it!", we thought, but little did we know then that the desert had some surprises in store for us...
[to be continued...]