Sandbags to Sand Dunes Expedition 2010

40,000km overland in an Land Rover

Okavango Adventures

Posted by jamesandpolls on August 25, 2010

Before leaving Livingstone we picked up a serviced and much improved PAX from the garage. With new tyres, a new windscreen wiper, a new air filter, new brakes, new bushes, new engine oil and with the engine purring we drove the 5 km to the mighty Vic Falls. Armed with rain macs that had not been used since Syria we walked along the escarpment just below the falls. They lived up to expectations – huge, beautiful and very powerful.

Vic falls

The falls were discovered and named by Dr Livingstone (obviously the locals knew it) after the Queen of the time. They are a kilometre wide and sit in the Zambezi, thus separating Zambia from Zimbabwe. After the rains the depth of water at the lip is 5m high for the whole kilometre which is pretty staggering!

Vic Falls is now an adrenaline junkies paradise with all sorts of death defying attractions. Although James toyed with the bungee jumping idea, the extent of our craziness was walking along the cliffs overlooking the falls and getting drenched by the spray.

Looking down to the 'boiling pot'

From Vic Falls, a quick 60km tar road took us to the Botswana border. The Zambezi river marks the border. Namibia, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Botswana all converge here so you can imagine the chaos. Luckily we arrived a few minutes before a stampede so managed to get the car and us stamped out and our barge ticket bought before a huge influx of people log-jammed the customs office for who knows how long. Our luck lasted as we squeezed ourselves onto the next barge (can only hold 1 car and 1 truck) to cross over. It only took 5 minutes to cross the fast flowing river during which time we spent most of our time talking to a local guy who was evidently so drunk that he could hardly stand. We were slightly worried when he started unfastening one of the ramp chains – it turned out he was working on the boat. Full marks to him for even seeing the ramp!

Botswana is one of the most stable and successful countries in Africa. It was never a colony (a protectorate of UK), it is formed of one main tribal group, the Tswana and everyone speaks the same language. The presence of the largest diamond reserves in the world doesn’t hurt and the economy has done very well. It has never been to war, elections are democratic and education is virtually free (to top it off the current President spent a year at Sandhurst!). This relative prosperity and stability could be seen straight away. Customs was a clean and efficient office and as the currency is allowed to fluctuate as dictated by market forces their were no money changes, on top of this when we left customs it was on smooth tarmac rather than the bumpy/potholed variety.

A sausage BBQ at the check point!

After stocking up in Kazangula, the border town and staying a night on the river we headed down towards the Makhadihadi Pans, which would took further two days to get to. As beef is Botswana’s second largest export they are very careful about foot and mouth disease and so have erected huge vet fences around the country to control the movement of animals and meat products. At the first of these gates our fridge was checked by a very austere looking guy who said that our sausages were illegal and we could not take them through the vet fence. There was no budging but there was no way we were going to throw them away, (meat is a treat for us!) so we pulled over, got the BBQ out and cooked them – a sight that others in the queue enjoyed and had obviously seen before from virgin Botswana overlanders!

The pans were a shallow lake but after the lake evaporated thousands of years ago they left hard baked salt flats for us to enjoy (Top Gear fans may remember the episode when they crossed these pans with the Stig following up in a beetle). We bush camped for three nights on the pans, and for three days probably saw less than 5 people. Those nights were spent surrounded by either crazy shaped baobabs or a flat white lunar surface.

On the Pans

As the moon was new we also had the most incredible array of stars. It was magical and slightly strange to be so isolated. The pictures can’t really do it justice (when can they?). Driving on the flats was also great fun. As fast as you want in any direction you like . . . what could be better! Water was our limiting factor and after 4 days away from any water we were driven to a chance find called Planet Baobab, a campsite and lodge just north of the pans. You would not be disappointed to end up here on your honeymoon with its huge pool and very cool bar and our supposed one night turned into three quite quickly as we washed off the grime and salt of the last few days.  It was also here that we found out that we are going to be in Cape Town next year as I have been accepted onto the MBA programme at UCT. Cause for more celebration and another night at Planet Baobab.

Sunset on the the edge of the Pans

So well rested and restored we headed from there to Maun where we were to stay with Kirsty and Grant (although Kirsty is in the UK at the moment  . .  so just Grant). A real treat to have a bed and great company, braiis and local knowledge (at last we have found some gas with which to cook, we have spent the last two months cooking everything by charcoal, thus even a cup of tea in the morning takes and hour for the charcoal to heat up and the water to boil!) Maun is the launch pad for safaris into the Okovango Delta – one of the wonders of southern Africa. The delta is formed by the Kovango River which starts in Angola. Instead of flowing west to the Atlantic the river heads south east and ends up in the low lying area of north west Botswana, where it slowly sinks into the earth. This year the rains were so great in Angola that the river is at its highest for over 40 years.

The delta is safari at its most exclusive and remote. Our plan was to drive into the national park (much of it private land for the lodges) and try and see as much as we could but after talking to a few locals with expert knowledge we realised that we would probably spend as much time winching ourselves out of the mud as we would sightseeing and game watching, all thanks to the unusually high river. Instead we decided to spend two nights in a canoe on the delta, a decision which turned out to be a great one. After a 50 minute James Bond style speed boat ride through the river channels we reached the canoe outstation.

On the Mokoro!

The canoe (or mokoro) is about 15 feet long and a foot wide so it was quite a squeeze once we had got our camping gear and food and water in. Jeeby was our guide and poler, who would be punting us, Venice style, for the next two days. After a three-hour pole through narrow delta channels with long grasses either side we reached our camping spot, about 100m from where we had been watching a huge elephant from the boat! It was on the edge of a small island, which had the big 5. Within about 5 minutes of setting up camp a big snake slithered a few metres from the tent.. we really were at the mercy of wild creatures here, just us and the animals – no gun or anything! We made a fire to keep any curious animals away from our tents before getting back in the mokoro for a sunset trip to the hippo hangout. Watching an elephant shaking a palm tree with its trunk to get the coconuts as the sun went down was a highlight. We definitely felt more ‘at one’ with the flora and fauna and more vulnerable in our tiny dugout canoe than a noisy landrover. Either that or the elephants in Botswana really are three times the size as others elsewhere.

Walking Safari (His 'n' hers Safari gear - not cool)

Jeeby had forgotten his tent, so the next morning we were relieved to see that he hadn’t been dragged off by the lions in the night. We went on a morning bush walk feeling vulnerable as we tripped over massive elephant poo and saw huge lion paw prints. Luckily we just saw animals who ran away from us rather than the other way round. The mokoro ride back was just as magical as the way out, and we saw a big python swimming across a channel. Arriving back at the mokoro station covered in spiders from the grasses and mosquito bites we felt that we had experienced the delta in it’s rawest and wildest form – who needs a luxury lodge?!

Arriving back at Grant and Kirsty’s house, as fate would have it, was Heike, the owner of the Kalahari Flying Club and after a beer and some debate we came to an arrangement where we could go flying over the delta – doing it as a flying lesson for me with Polls in the back.

Spot the white knuckles

The flight was amazing. Not only for the aerial view of the delta and the animals below but also for the hour lesson (that has been recorded in my new pilots log book!). Top Gun here I come! Huge thanks to Heike, surely the best instructor in the world, for giving us such a great flight and for giving us such a good deal. The Kalahari Flying Club (KFC) in Maun is a must stop for anyone wanting a scenic flight over the delta.

Unfortunately our week in Maun must come to an end tomorrow. We feel very at home here, not least because of the amazing hospitality from Grant. We can not thank him and Kirsty enough and are only sorry not to have met Kirsty and the boys (we will have to come back for sure). Our next stop is back into the bush. The Tsolido Hills are an ancient spiritual range of low hills towards Namibia where we are going to camp for a few days and explore the hills which host some of the best rock paintings in the world. It will be a shame to leave the comfort of Maun but nice to get back on the road for the final 6 weeks to Cape Town…

View of the Delta from the plane

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One Response to “Okavango Adventures”

  1. abs said

    brings back so many happy memories from the bush. Glad all’s going well and keep safe xxx

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