Sat 26th & Sun 27th Nov – Deception Valley campsite, CKGR
Mon 28th Nov – Phokoje Pan campsite, CKGR
Tue 29th Nov – Xade campsite, CKGR
Wed 30th Nov – Driving to Windhoek, Namibia
Planet Baobab – Deception Valley: 337km
Deception Valley game drives: 76km
Deception Valley – Phokoje Pan (game drive): 94km
Phokoje Pan – Xade (game drive): 171km
Xade – Manuno border post (Namibia): 348km
Total km driven since leaving Nairobi to leaving Botswana: 10,978km
Of which Kian has now driven a whopping 14%: 1,527km
STUCK IN THE MUD… IN THE KALAHARI DESERT!
The idea of traversing the Kalahari Desert always appealed to my sense of wanderlust. As we planned the trip, I thought of it as an expedition in its own right and possibly the most adventurous part of our trip. We would need to be 100% self-sufficient, would likely see very few other people and would be completely cut off from communications with the outside world. The Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR) turned out to be all of these things… and more.
I knew that the Kalahari was a semi-arid savannah made up of sand dunes covered with grasses, vegetation and even stands of forest in places, but with precious little standing water for the animals that inhabit it. I knew it was enormous, covering nearly 1 million sq. km., of which the CKGR, at 52,800 sq km or 10% of Botswana’s landmass, makes it the largest Game Reserve in Africa. I anticipated we would see some wildlife and in my mind’s eye, I imagined solitary or small groups of desert-adapted antelope sheltering from the blazing sun whilst eking out a tough existence in a harsh environment.
What I was not expecting was to find ourselves ankle-deep in water, with the car completely stuck in clay-like mud and off to the side a rather soggy wildebeest eyeing us up with what seemed to be a mix of puzzlement and amusement!
Our expedition started with us leaving Planet Baobab and speeding along tar roads to the dusty outpost of Rakops, which would be our last spot for fuel and supplies before entering the desert. As we drove west along the sandy roads, we could see evidence of recent rain, but the sand was firm and it was easygoing. We passed a small herd of Gemsbok (a chunky cousin of our Oryx and a potential new favourite antelope) and saw prints of other animals crossing the roads before we arrived in Deception Valley in the late afternoon and set our camp in a nice, shady stand of trees. We settled in, enjoyed the sunset, had a lovely dinner and drifted to sleep under a clear sky with the sound of lions roaring away off in the valley below us…
… which is why we were a bit baffled to wake to thick mist, rain and strong winds the next morning. Our plans for heading out early to catch wildlife before the day got too hot were rendered obsolete and we instead waited for what looked like a positive change in the weather to head out on a morning drive. The lull in the wind proved to be the calm before the storm and we soon found ourselves gingerly driving along roads that had turned to rivers looking over planes that were now shallow lakes… there was water everywhere we looked and more bucketing down on us from above. Having said that, the sand on the road was still firm under our tyres and we were enjoying not driving through a furnace, so we carried on, stopping to get pictures of soggy Springbok, jackals and Kori bustards.
All was going well… until it wasn’t! We’d inadvertently strayed onto the edge of a pan and the sandy soil gave way to clay-like mud with the almost immediate effect of our tyres turning rapidly but with absolutely no movement of the vehicle. So, there we found ourselves, alone in the middle of the desert in a pretty impressive rainstorm, stuck in the mud, not having seen another vehicle since we left camp and with a lone, male wildebeest standing nearby, no doubt wondering what sort of a pickle we had gotten into.
It was immediately obvious that there was no help to be found and we needed to get ourselves out of this mess, so we put our many years of experience of getting stuck in daft places to use and started working on freeing ourselves. We lifted the car with the high-lift jack, shovelled out mud, shoved in branches from nearby trees (thank goodness we had those) and managed to get the car moving again… for about 2m before we sank again. So we repeated the process again… and again… and again repeatedly… until we had clawed back about 15m and finally managed to find enough traction beneath the wheels to drag the car out and away. We’d been at it for close to 2 hours, were soaked to the bone and had been laughed at by a gnu of all things, but it had been great fun and we glowed beneath the caked mud and dirt with a sense of pride in our achievement.
As soon as we got back to camp to clean ourselves up, the weather improved and by the time we headed out in the sunshine for our afternoon game drive, the plains had completely absorbed all of the standing water. Over the course of the next 3 days, there was no more rain and we witnessed the complete disappearance of all surface water around us. As it turned out, by the time we were leaving the CKGR, we were instead worried about getting stuck on the sandy roads, with the heat of the sun loosening the road surface, making it treacherous with lots of opportunities for steadily grinding to a halt. In case you were wondering, we didn’t get stuck in the dry sand… but came a little too close for comfort a couple of times.
The CKGR was awesome! The limited road network lead us along a series of fossilized waterways, with pans that still held a little moisture and the infrequent waterhole, and it was here that we saw most of the rather impressive numbers of wildlife on our safari. In between these waterways, sandy ridges were covered with verdant vegetation but there were no animals in sight, and we instead passed the time trying to identify new species of birds in the grassland and buses. The grassy pans were covered in Gemsbok, Springbok, giraffe, Tsessebe (chunky Topi), Steenbok, jackals and bat-eared foxes and we even found a family of 4 cheetahs eyeing up, but ultimately failing to hunt, a passing herd of Springbok. The rain had woken up the insects and every pile of elephant droppings was teeming with dung beetles and butterflies, Kian insisted on going around each and every pile so we didn’t crush any insects… for the 400 or so km we were inside the reserve! We even saw the giants responsible for those big piles on the road, which was impressive given the location.
We were certainly aware of being very, very remote. We passed a bat-eared fox researcher, who Kian decided was called Owen, on 2 occasions and crossed paths with a mini-convoy of two 4x4s, driven by a cheerful bunch of Poles. This latter turned out to be rather helpful as they towed us out of the mud the second time we got stuck (oops) and saved us the hassle of having to extricate ourselves once again… I managed a badly pronounced ‘Djiekuje’ in thanks, which seemed to amuse them. Apart from that, we didn’t encounter a single other person between the entry and exit gates and could truly appreciate that up until 2015 when the Bushmen were still permitted to live on their ancestral lands, the Kalahari had one of the lowest densities of human populations on earth – approximately 11 sq km per person here, as opposed to over 11,000 people per sq km in New York.
There’s something captivating about being surrounded by this much wilderness and it was with slightly heavy hearts that we left the desert behind and embarked upon the marathon drive across the border and to the Namibian capital, Windhoek. We had something to look forward to though, as both Gillian and Kian’s grandparents are due to join us in the coming days for the final leg of our Grand Tour through Namibia.
JC … ‘Auazibau’