Posted on 11th August 2017
Southern Africa boasts thousands of luxury Safari camps that offer guests the opportunity to experience this unique region under luxurious and controlled conditions where their every requirement is met.
However, there are many clients who prefer a less structured and more hands on experience in the African bush, either as a stand alone experience or in combination with luxury Safari camp visits. This is where Self Drive comes in. Self Drive involves taking a vehicle into the African bush and being self reliant. It´s hard work, can be terrifying and exhilarating sometimes, but is incredibly rewarding. Camping each night under the stars, listening to the haunting sounds of the African Bush, water crossings, exhilarating 4X4 driving, and astonishing wildlife experiences at your own pace are part of this special experience.
We recently tested a unique self drive for our clients – The Moremi and Khwai Concessions on the edge of the Okavango Delta.
Moremi and Khwai
It is actually quite time consuming and to be frank, testing, to arrange a self drive in these concessions. One needs to pre-book camping sites that may be State owned or privately managed. Or a combination of both! The requirements for permits and payment change regularly. Credit Card and ATM machines in remote areas are few and far between, and may not work. Communication channels – email and telephone – are not always easy or reliable. This leads us to recommend that clients utilize the services of a specialist operator to arrange such a trip.
As far as the vehicle goes, it is best to hire a vehicle from a local operator in Maun (the nearest and only town in the area) that understands the conditions that you will face. For instance a snorkel and Satellite (Sat) phone are a necessity. Also avoid hiring a vehicle in South Africa or Namibia as it could be a very long time before help arrives if you require vehicle recovery – a delay that may ruin your trip – and foreign vehicle hire companies may not fully understand or be up to date with the conditions that you will face in this dazzling, but sometimes a little tricky part of Africa.
We were met in Maun by our vehicle hire company. They reserve a big refundable deposit on the hire vehicle from your credit card, so be prepared for that – and try not to destroy their vehicle. Then they have to explain their 4X4 to you and how it and all of its gadgets work – from the spade for digging out of sand or mud to the electric fridge! This can take hours and there is more paperwork to sign at the end. Eventually though you will be left waving goodbye to the vehicle hire operator while standing next to your special purpose 4X4 machine. Ours was a specially outfitted Toyota Hilux.
Our specially outfitted vehicle
First off one needs to buy supplies in Maun. Food, drink, that sort of thing. Buy enough because there is nowhere to buy supplies in the concessions. Well we did find one tiny hole in the wall Spaza shop in the Khwai eventually but…Ja, it would have been better if we had stocked up properly in the relative civilization of Maun.
Once you are stocked up, check that your Sat `phone is working – the vehicle hire operator will give you special emergency numbers to call – and off you go. Thank goodness for the Toyota snorkel. There was water everywhere after heavy rains, and not long after one leaves Maun the tar road ends and the sand road begins. Then deep, water filled dongas begin, and the sand turns to mud. It´s incredible how these specially equipped vehicles handle the mud, water, and sand, and come out the other side idling smoothly, ready for their next challenge.But of course one is there for the wildlife and wow, it didn´t disappoint. Within an hour we were running into herds of elephant, zebra, sable antelope, buffalo and impala. As usual the bird life was prolific.
Who are you and why are you here?
Our first stop was actually a camping site within the Moremi Concession that had an ablution block. Strictly to be used before dark as the only safe place after dark is at your fire or on top of your vehicle in the rooftop tent. And indeed, on our first night there was a big male leopard coughing menacingly right below us. We lay frozen still, hoping that he would take no interest in us. The leopard was looking for a mate though, just passing through.
On we drove, deeper into the Moremi, through driving rain and then dazzling sunshine. Through rivers, mud and sand. Past panting lion, an elephant graveyard, herds of antelope and elephant, stopping eventually for lunch on the wide open Savannah (so we could have adequate notice of any dangerous game approaching).
Don’t mess with me
The pace of driving is very slow. The condition of the roads or paths is partially responsible for this but of course one doesn’t want to speed through the African wonderland and miss anything – or risk hitting an animal. A Sat Nav is vital as it is very easy to get lost in the bush. Ours stopped working now and then, and we had to use a compass to give us a rough idea of our direction.
The driving is exciting but generally possible for a 4X4 novice to deal with. It’s best to go with someone who can teach you actually. Or take a 4X4 course first. Sand may require reducing tire pressure, water crossing requires slow but steady acceleration in low gear, mud requires different techniques depending on the type of mud (momentum being the key), and remember not to wrap your thumb around the steering wheel. It may break or be dislocated if the steering wheel moves suddenly. You are quite likely to get stuck or have a flat tire. It’s part of the fun although it’s hard to remember that when it’s getting dark, lions are in the area, and your vehicle is up to its axles.
One of the highlights of 4X4 driving for me was crossing a wooden pole bridge over the Khwai River. Every water filled mud hole was interesting to scary to negotiate and the odd river crossing was an experience never to be forgotten! One has to walk the river first to establish the correct path and depth for the vehicle. I could see the hippos, which were some distance away. My partner told me she doubted there were any crocs at the crossing. She has more experience of crocs than me so I took her at her word. To top it all, when I finally made it to the other side she asked me to come back to drive the vehicle through!
Khwai River Bridge
Our next campsite was just bush. Nothing else. We had to dig our own latrine pit, and set up from scratch while elephants ambled past some distance away. Next came the hessian screen for the bush toilet. Nothing about it seemed to indicate how to correctly erect and fasten it. An hour and plenty of heated discussion later we had erected some sort of screen, most likely a section of the gazebo that came with the vehicle. A sense of humour was called for!
Back to the wildlife experience. We had one of the most iconic bush experiences ever on this trip, and I’ve had a few. One evening we were sitting quietly near a river in the Khwai concession watching a large pod of Hippos frolicking in a pool below us as the sun set majestically. Enter a large herd of elephant from our left. Elephant with babies. Elephant can get excited as they approach water, and these certainly were. They began to move faster down to the water, until the lead elephants reached the water and started to splash around, squealing with excitement. The ever territorial hippos were having none of this invasion and started roaring and baring their huge teeth at the elephants. By now the babies had arrived and the adult elephants clearly saw the hippos as a threat to the youngsters. As a thunderstorm suddenly crashed down, the adult elephants attacked the hippos and started tossing them around with their trunks and tusks. Believe me, a hippo, massive as it is, is no match for an angry adult elephant with young. The hippos were tossed in the air like toys and the last we saw of them were their big glistening bottoms running away up the bank while the angry elephants screamed and thrashed in the water behind them. What an experience. We sat silent and stunned in our vehicle as it grew dark. “Did you catch that on video?”, I eventually asked my partner. “Yes, but you were swearing so much I can’t use it!”, she replied.
The elephants won this one
So the days passed, driving, cooking, watching the wildlife and sleeping under the stars. We ran out of fresh food and resorted to tinned tuna and biscuits. Then we ran out of biscuits… The vehicle never gave a moment’s trouble. Too soon it was time to return to the relative civilization of Maun, a long trip by a slightly better dirt road that skirted the area we had been driving through. The first restaurant we came to, on the outskirts of Maun, I ordered a fat, juicy, sizzling steak. No more tinned tuna for me!
We returned our vehicle, which was assessed for damage (including water damage) while I held my breath. All good though and within a couple of days the damage deposit was credited to my card. From Maun we set of in my Land Cruiser for a fascinating journey down the Eastern border of Namibia, on the edge of the Kalahari Desert. A journey I will report on soon.