Botswana. The very name conjures up visions of the central Kalahari plains, black-maned lions, bushmen, and the Okavango Delta, teeming with abundant wildlife. I always say that for me, Botswana proper starts when you see the first Ilala palm tree. That is not really true as the Tuli Block, which runs adjacent to the Limpopo river is a magnificent game-rich area with some wonderful reserves like Mashatu and others. I am talking about the part of Botswana that lies on, around, and to the north of Nata in the east and Maun, the gateway to the World Heritage Okavango Delta to the west. I took Simon up there in 2012 on our epic “Apache raid on Victoria Falls”. A trip done on TVS Apache 160 and 180’s. Botswana has the same effect on many people as Namibia. Once you have fallen under its spell, it enchants you to the extent that you simply have to go back. In my case, it has been again and again. Simon saw that he would have some time free after Christmas and feeling like some endless vistas to clear his head, suggested a “Bots trip”. Well, you don’t have to ask me twice! We immediately started planning.
So it was that the “Three Musketeers”, Simon, Bjorn [our resident ZA Bikers shutterbug] and I, topped our tanks at the Total one-stop just north of Pretoria. Joining us for the ride, the D’Artagnan of the group, was our buddy, Ryan. Let me just backtrack for a moment. Any of you that have done a road trip will know that the fun starts with the planning. Travelling by bike presents its own challenges as you have to suss out how you are going to pack all the stuff that you need on your journey. This was particularly the case for our Botswana trip as we planned to camp, as well as stay at some budget accommodation.
Simon and Bjorn had their work cut out for them, as they were travelling on Modern Classic Triumph 900 Scramblers. The bikes do not have racks or panniers as standard, so a little thought is required to stash your kit safely aboard. I found myself between Triumphs at the time, so I opted to take my Honda Crossrunner. Ryan too was Crossrunner mounted. Both Hondas had top boxes fitted, with more place to affix luggage straps. Where there is a will there is a way, so as we rolled onto the freeway heading north we all had our luggage on board and secure.
The weather was seriously warm in the last week of December, so it was at 6.30 am that we rode north under somewhat leaden skies. Clouds, pregnant with rain, were all around us, and the early morning air was cool and crisp. We planned to fuel both the bikes and ourselves at Vaalwater. Although only 200 km’s away, I wanted to see what fuel consumption the Triumphs would get at touring speeds. This would indicate our fueling pattern for the trip. With only a 12.8 litre tank, the range could be an issue. The rain held off until just before Vaalwater, where we stopped to don rain gear. The rain was literally falling in a discernible curtain on the road up ahead. Fortunately, we only had a short sharp shower before proceeding on wet roads into Vaalwater. Breakfast done and dusted, with the bikes refuelled, we were back on the road. I calculated that the Triumphs were super economical. Despite their small tanks they were good for well over 250 km’s on a refuel.
In no time at all we had revelled in the mountain pass before Ellisras [Lephalale] and found ourselves rolling through the town. You exit the town into typical bushveld, where you always scan the verges for game, particularly warthog. We saw quite a few of the chaps but got by unscathed. I was reminded of a trip that I did back in the seventies to Rhodesia with my late friend Willem. We crossed over the border later than expected, having had a run-in with the Messina constabulary for speeding. Who, us? Never!. Riding towards Bulawayo in gathering dusk and then dark, we rode side by side to maximise our headlight spread. Both Willem, on his GL 100O Honda Goldwing and I, on my 500 Four Honda, had fitted extra spots to our bikes for better night vision. We came across a Ford 20M, just before West Nicholson, which had hit a warthog. The Rhodies in the car were travelling south to spectate at the 9-hour race at Kyalami. I suspect that the guys were driving hard and hit the poor pig at speed. The engine was literally forced back in the chassis! You may hit an impala and get away with it, but a pig is solid!
We cruised into the Martin’s Drift border post just before lunch. Fortunately, we were not delayed too long and after fuelling the bikes were on our way to Itumela campsite in Palapye. By the time we arrived, it was properly hot and we felt compelled to slake our thirst and celebrate our first day in Bots with a bevvy of frosty St. Louis Lagers. We decided not to camp, so as to get an early start the next day. We unpacked, pulled on costumes, swam and settled down to scrumptious burgers and beers before retiring, happy and content, to our beds.
A quick coffee and rusk after waking and we packed the bikes and left. Palapye was still quiet as we rode out on the road to Serowe. There is something about the early mornings in Botswana. The quality and heady, almost herby scent of the air, is amazing. We fuelled in Serowe, the home of the legendary Khama family, before riding out past the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, heading north-west towards Letlekane. The scenery changed to mopane scrubland as we travelled and the heat of another Botswana day started settling on us like a blanket. Letlekane lies to the south of the Orapa diamond mine and lies on the same seam of diamonds. We stopped at the Nandos for breakfast at around 9.30.
Fueled and fed, we rode on, turning left just before Orapa diamond mine. The discovery of an incredibly rich seam of diamonds forever changed the financial future of what was then just a poor African country. The yield at Orapa soon eclipsed the diamonds being mined in the fabulously rich mines in Kimberley. Once again the scenery changed. The endless plains of the Central Kalahari, with its pans, started opening up to our left.
We fueled up in the small town of Rakops and then rode a few more km’s before turning down a sandy track to our first campsite at Rakops River Lodge. The lodge is built on the banks of what is a currently a dry Boteti river. The Boteti is a river of many moods. When the Okavango Delta has benefitted from good rains in Angola, from where it’s water comes, the Boteti flows strongly for well over 200 km’s from Maun. This attracts teeming herds of game, including many elephant, which makes travelling through this area amazing. The current drought experienced in Botswana has virtually totally dried up the Boteti, to the point that it is hard to imagine it in full flow.
Fortunately for the hot and thirsty foursome on this trip, both the pool and poolside pub were wet. We lazed by the pool, watching a family of Bee-Eaters cooling themselves and hunting unsuspecting insects with low flying aerobatics over the pool. Every now and then they would do a high-speed belly drag in the water to cool themselves. As the sun dropped low in the west, we pitched our tents in a comfortable campsite, complete with a Lapa and spotless ablutions. We got a hardwood fire going for atmosphere, while Simon and Bjorn busied themselves with taking photos of the Scramblers superimposed against a spectacular sunset.
I had planned the dinner, so we started off with biscuits and mussels and cheese, whilst sipping on a Bells and water. At this point a local cat put in an appearance. A tabby with four white paws, he got christened “Boots”. The friendship was sealed with a couple of mussels and a helping of white cheese. Boots chilled around our campsite for the duration of our stay really endearing himself to us with a really cool personality.
Thai curry was our main meal followed by tinned peaches and custard. We relaxed around the fire with a “Polisiekoffie”, coffee made with a dash of Spiced rum. A shower and to bed put an end to a great day.
We woke to some serious peals of thunder shortly after 4 am. Not wanting to pack up wet tents we got up and started striking camp. The threatening rain never pitched, passing to the north. We took photos of the bikes on the pans in the early morning light, then rode off towards Maun, 200km’s distant. We rode down to the Drifters camp 30 odd km’s before Maun for a coffee, braving some soft sand. It is magnificently located on the Boteti river with a grassed campsite under shady trees.
We then rode on to Maun and breakfasted at a cool spot on the outskirts of town. Old Bridge Backpackers was our accommodation for the night. It has a real “Cool Runnings” vibe. The camp overlooks a river, with tables scattered on beach sand in the shade of a massive old strangler fig tree. Walking to our safari tents the resident Monitor lizard came waddling out of the hedge just ahead of us. Bjorn took one look and exclaimed “Holy crap, is that a Komodo dragon”? Simon was looking around for an escape route, while Ryan was fumbling around with his phone to capture the huge reptile “on film”. The lizard simply disappeared into the hedge from where it had come.
I took the guys on a cruise through Maun, showing them, amongst other landmarks, Riley’s Garage, established in the 1940’s. Aircraft landing on the dirt airstrip two kilometres away would taxi through the village to fill up at Riley’s from a dedicated drum of avgas, dispensed with a hand pump. The tarring of the road from Nata changed the face of Maun forever. Previously only accessible by 4×4, it was now open to all and sundry. It is no longer the wild little frontier town that I visited in 1984, where there were no tar roads and it catered primarily to the safari trade. Today it is a vibrant little tourist hub, the springboard into the World Heritage Okavango Delta. That night we dined on pizzas, watching the crocodile and hippo in the pool in front of the backpackers. Old Bridge rocks at night, with the thatched pub doing a roaring trade. Fed and watered, we retired to our tents. Simon and Bjorn had a rough night, bugged by mozzies and rowdy backpackers, so were a little the worse for wear the following day. Ryan and I seemed to doze through the worst of it.
The next day was New Year’s eve, which we planned to spend at Planet Baobab in Gweta, 200km’s from Maun. This is a special place. Built literally in the midst of a Baobab forest, it has a spectacular pool and funky infrastructure. Simon organised a chalet for himself and Bjorn wanting a good nights sleep, whilst Ryan and I pitched our tents in the neat campsite.
What followed was a chilled day next to the pool followed by a steak dinner and an evening of revelry at the bar, chatting with foreign tourists. We did not quite see the New Year in, but heard the cheers from the comfort of our beds before drifting off to sleep.
New years day dawned with the promise of serious heat. Riding out of the camp towards Nata the readout on my Crossrunner was already indicating 32 degrees at 8 am. We planned to breakfast at Nata lodge. Over breakfast we debated accessing Sowa Pan from Nata Sanctuary, as Simon was keen to give Bjorn the opportunity of snapping the Scramblers with the incredible backdrop of the pans. I rode across the pans from Kubu island to Gweta a few years ago, so had some experience of the dangers which could present themselves. I was concerned about the extreme heat. The sun reflects off the white pans and you get cooked from the top and bottom! I opted to go straight to Elephant Sands with Ryan and let Simon and Bjorn do their thing on the pans and join us later. The 17” front wheels on our Crossrunners would be a bit dodgy on the pans, whereas the Scramblers, with their 19” fronts were more suited to traversing dirt. By this time the mercury was nudging 38 degrees!
Ryan and I took ourselves off to Elephant Sands located 58 km’s north of Nata. Elephants Sands is a unique place. 250000 litres of freshwater is pumped into a narrow drinking trough, 5 metres in front of the lodge. The natural water is brackish, so the Eli’s freak for the fresh stuff and collect there in large numbers. The Botswana authorities take a zero-tolerance stance on poaching, with poachers being shot on sight. As a result, the Elephants are calm and tolerate humans in close proximity. To sit in the campsite and have an elephant amble past you literally within 3 metres, is exhilarating and initially downright scary! Typically during the summer months, the abundance of rain results in very few elephants visiting the lodge. The current drought has however resulted in plenty of the gentle giants pulling in. As we battled the deep patches of sand on the road to the lodge, Ryan was blown away to see elephant literally all around us. I always enjoy taking folk there for the first time to see their reaction to the pachyderm spectacle. We parked in the campsite and went for a cold one and a swim, whilst we waited for our buds to arrive. This is where the tale takes an interesting twist.
By mid-afternoon, Simon and Bjorn had still not arrived and I started getting uneasy. A lady from reception brought me a phone saying that there was a call for me. It was Simon. This is what he told me. After we left, they bought a 500 ml bottle of water each and left for the pans. It was wickedly hot as they rode the 9 km’s to where there is standing water, where you will typically see pelican and if you are lucky, flamingo. At this point, they saw a large herd of springbok in the distance. They rode after the Springbok which started to move off as they approached. As the herd wheeled and ran, our heroes followed them, revelling in the incredible sight and feel of following the magnificent antelope across the seemingly endless pans.
You need to have your wits about you when you ride the pans, as every now and then you cross areas of grass between the pans. Eventually, feeling really hot and bothered from their ride, they stopped, only to realise that they were totally disorientated and lost.
They did not have a clue which way to ride to get off the pans and back to Nata. By this time their water was gone and they were seriously thirsty. Choking down rising panic, they rode hither and thither, before deciding to try and retrace their steps. Backtracking, they eventually got back to familiar territory and literally, after hours on the pans, in searing heat, they rode back to Nata Lodge. Despite downing numerous drinks they felt so spent that they could not face the ride to Elephant Sands and booked into Nata lodge. The staff at the lodge were most sympathetic and told them that their experience was in no way unique. Over the years they have rescued many a traveller from the pans. Experience is a hard teacher, she makes you sit the exam before giving you the lesson!
Ryan and I had an amazing evening at Elephant Sands, eating our dinner literally within yards of at least twenty elephants jostling around the water trough. The next day we found the sand much easier to ride after a bit of rain in the night. We headed south through the wonderful fresh early morning cool to Francistown, where we smashed a Wimpy breakfast before riding on to our overnight stop at Kwa Nokeng Lodge, on the Botswana bank of the Limpopo river. Over a pleasant dinner on the deck over the river, we mulled over what had been an epic road trip. Back in our tent, we had no trouble falling asleep, pleasantly weary from our day in the saddle.
Up bright and early, we rode to the head of the cue waiting for the border post to open, then out dragged the cars to the passport control. 20 minutes later we were through the border and sorted and on our way home, with the bikes running sweetly at 150 kph. Breakfast in Vaalwater, then back on the bikes to Pretoria, we arrived back home mid-morning. Simon and Bjorn left Nata Lodge the following day and rode straight through to Pretoria [approx 800 kays] in one single day, they arrived back home early evening.
Another Bots trip, complete with new memories and experiences all done.
It’s only a matter of time before that Gypsy in my soul starts to stir again and I reach for my map book and start the planning. Namibia and the road through the Khomas Hochland to Swakopmund and up into the Naauwkloof, now there is a thought……