After months of planning and preparation we were about to set off on our first overland trip. Our planned route was from Cape Town up through Northern Cape, into Botswana via Bokspits border post, Mabuasehube, Maun, Moremi, Savuti, Chobe, Kasane, Hwange, Harare, Mapungubwe and back to Cape Town via Kimberley. We ended up driving over 7,000kms in 25 days. A bit ambitious as it turned out!
The Land Rover and trailer had been thoroughly serviced and routes and distances checked and double checked. Surely nothing could go wrong? Well, yes they could!
Cape Town to Molopo Lodge
After hitching the trailer we found that the tail lights weren’t working. No big deal…a quick stop at the local auto electrician fixed that and we were soon on our way. A minor hiccup but maybe a portent of things to come?
Fortunately our first day was an easy drive to Calvinia with an overnight stop at the Blou Nartjie. Nice accommodation, friendly people and good food.
Day 2 was also an easy drive to Augrabies. A quick stop at Kenhardt for a toilet break cost R2 …One way for them to accumulate liquid assets I guess?
Our overnight stay at Augrabies was comfortable. Getting to viewing points in a wheelchair was difficult though. That was a bit disappointing but given the terrain not much they can easily do to improve access. I opted out after half an hour of bumping over concrete sleepers to get to the viewing points and ended up sipping on a beer or two at the restaurant while Pippa went on to see more of the falls. Not such a hardship after a long day on the road really!
We had another easy drive to our overnight stop at Molopo Lodge on day 3. The road up north from Upington is long and straight but the terrain was fascinating and our excitement was building with the changing scenery and increasing number of beautiful orange sand dunes. A sure sign that we were in the Kalahari.
Molopo Lodge was great. It was a Saturday evening and there was a pleasant buzz of activity out on the verandah while having a sundowner. We had an early dinner and went to bed looking forward to crossing into Botswana when the Bokspits border post opened at 8:00 the next morning. Little did we know what was in store for us!
Molopo Lodge to Maun
Day 4 and all started well with friendly border staff on both sides. The Botswana officials were housed in containers which were not wheelchair friendly so I sat out in the cold at the bottom of the steps while Pippa went in to complete the entry documents. One of the officials was concerned and came out to tell me I could wait in the car. I thanked her and said I was fine and would wait there for Pippa. She then pulled a hot water bottle out from under her coat and told me to hold onto it while I waited. How could I refuse?!!! It was a short wait and off we went on our way to Tsabong to meet my brother (John) and his friend (Graham) and their families before going up to Mabuasehube for our first night of camping in the wild.
The road between Bokspits and Tsabong is excellent and a very comfortable drive. We took it easy and got to Tsabong at about midday where we filled up with diesel and picked up food and water before meeting the others who had come up from McCarthy’s Rest. Finally we were on our way to Mabuasehube, about 120km north of Tsabong. My first real experience of off-road driving and adventure was about to begin!
The first 30km was good gravel road and we made good time. We then stopped to deflate tyres before hitting the “Mabua Highway”. All the photos and trip reports in the world can’t prepare you for the real thing…it was an awesome experience finally getting there. I was determined not to screw it up and get stuck. I put the Landy into sand mode, lifted the suspension to off-road height, switched traction control off and away we went! Graham leading, me in the middle and “little boet” John following…I don’t think he had a lot of confidence in my off-road driving skills. As it turned out, with good reason!
All went well for the first few kms but then I hit a series of bumps. I released the accelerator as soon as I saw them but it was too late and we were into them with Landy and trailer both bouncing around alarmingly. My first mistake but we seemed to have come through in one piece. No harm done (or so I thought) and on we went. I relaxed and enjoyed the drive.
The Landy was pulling beautifully and for the next hour or so I didn’t once feel anxious or in trouble. After a while Pippa asked if the trailer was okay…she thought it was looking a bit strange. I looked in the rear-view mirror and thought it looked fine. It wasn’t putting any apparent strain on the Landy either. We carried on.
A short while later John caught up and started hooting and waving, telling me to stop. He’d been traveling quite a long way behind us but had noticed for some time that the middlemannetjie was being flattened. He increased speed and eventually caught up to find that the trailer was tipped and dragging. The A frame had snapped. The initial damage must have been done when I hit the bumps earlier but I have no idea for how long we’d been dragging it. Amazing that it hadn’t sheared completely.
John, Graham and families all helped to offload the trailer and pack as much of our camping equipment as possible into our cars. Thank goodness they were there…would have been a difficult task for Pippa and I on our own on that sandy road. We abandoned the trailer and carried on to the Mabua main gate. We arrived at closing time but they very kindly allowed us to drive through to our campsite 24km into the park…a 45 minute drive on those tracks!
And then another problem! We arrived at our campsite only to find another family setting up camp on our allocated site. An awkward situation. A bit of discussion followed before they eventually packed up again and moved off to their own site. Unnecessary and unpleasant for all concerned.
We set up camp, ate and went to bed. Not the best of days!
Next morning we were up early and off to the main gate to see what we could do to recover the trailer. Tobias the gatekeeper made a few phone calls on their satellite phone and got hold of one Hermanus Dominicus Jansen (I kid you not!) in Tsabong who agreed to come through with a portable welder. He told us to meet him at the trailer in 2 hours. We waited for 5 hours before giving up and going back to the main gate. Tobias phoned Herman again and was told that he’d had a break down but would still come through that afternoon. Yeah, right!
Back to our campsite and an extra night at Mabua for Pippa and I. In spite of everything we had a really pleasant evening. The sunset was magnificent and we were later treated to a stunning full moon lighting up the landscape.
Up again early next morning and Pippa and I went to the main gate to see what we could do about the trailer. We were now a day behind our schedule and we should have been meeting Pippa’s brother and sister-in-law in Maun that morning.
Tobias met us with a huge smile on his face and told us that Herman had arrived at the staff quarters across the road with our trailer at 8:30 the previous night. He took us across, gave us an invoice from Herman (with his bank details) and helped us hitch up. How’s that for trust?
We went back to the camp, re-packed the trailer and off we went. At the main gate on our way out we used their satellite phone to contact Pippa’s brother and let him know what was happening. We told him to carry on to North Gate and we would meet them there. Tobias advised us to head north to Hukuntsi rather than our planned route east towards Sekoma. He assured us that the road condition was no worse than the road up from Tsabong and that it was busier than the route to Sekoma. It was 1:00pm by this time and I wanted to get to Kang for our overnight stop. The Hukuntsi route would save about 70km traveling so I decided to follow his advice. The first stretch north was okay. As Tobias had said, no worse than the road from Tsabong. The stretch west though was another story. Very soft and deep sand interspersed with bone rattling corrugations. It was slow and tough going but we managed and finally got to the cut line heading north again to Hukuntsi. I thought we had got through the worst and was mightily relieved. The relief was short lived!
At almost exactly the half way mark (55kms from main gate) the suspension fault light on the Landy lit up. I carried on for a bit but then noticed the trailer swinging erratically out of the Landy tracks. Pippa stuck her head out the window and looked back to see if it had a puncture. We weren’t so lucky. The left wheel was jammed and we were dragging it. We stopped and found the trailer had lost a suspension bolt and the box had dropped onto the wheel. We didn’t have the equipment or spares needed to try and fix it so had to pack what we could into the Landy and abandon the trailer again. She’s going to have serious psychological issues!
And on we went. The Landy wasn’t happy and had disabled all special programs…no sand mode and worst of all no off-road suspension height. It was doing its best to protect itself from further damage. But we still had 50 to 60km of driving on that cut line before the prospect of a decent road. I did my best to try and ride the middle mannetjie to limit damage to the undercarriage but inevitably had to get back into the tracks because of obstacles on the side.
About an hour later just before we hit another very sandy stretch of the track Pippa said “Aren’t you going a bit fast?” She was right, I was overdoing it a bit so I slowed down. Well, bad timing. We hit the sandy stretch and promptly dug in!! Up to the chassis. I was seriously worried. We hadn’t seen another vehicle all day and weren’t likely to do so at that time of day either. We both got out and started digging. Pippa tried clearing sand from in front of the wheels while I did my best to clear sand from under the chassis. Hard going and it seemed that whenever we started seeing a bit of daylight the Landy sank deeper. We dug and cleared for over hour. Eventually I decided to have a go at getting out. We dropped tyre pressure from 1.5 bar to 1 bar. Low range selected, traction control off and I gently accelerated. No go. I tried to reverse. No go. It looked like we were there for the night. In desperation and frustration I gunned the engine. The wheels spun and threw sand all over the place but somehow found some traction. Slight forward movement and then the undercarriage freed itself of the drag from the sand and we shot out like a bullet.
I drove like a man demented until we finally hit gravel road as it was starting to get dark. We stopped to inflate the tyres with the sun going down on one side and a beautiful moon rising on the other. Pippa was looking around very nervously at the unfenced terrain when she put my chair back in the car!
The Landy had survived me and the beating it took on the cut line. What a car!
We still had about another 180km to go to get to the Kalahari Rest Lodge outside Kang but I took it easy and stuck to 60km/h. I was worried about damage to the Landy and also aware that we shouldn’t be driving after dark with donkeys, goats and cows being a danger on the roads. We eventually got there at 9:30pm just as they were closing the pub, restaurant and reception. Fortunately they had a room available and we could at least make a cup of coffee before showering and crashing. What a day…we were shattered.
Up again early the next morning and we headed for Maun after a good breakfast. My priority was to get the suspension fixed. The warning light was still showing and there was a chirping noise from the right front wheel area every time we hit a bump. Fortunately the road to Maun is good and didn’t put any undue pressure on the Landy. We got to Maun late that afternoon and found accommodation at Marina’s Lodge (just before Island Safari Lodge on the road out of town). The bungalow was comfortable and the staff went out of their way to be helpful and friendly.
The next morning (Thursday and already a week since leaving Cape Town) we found Letsedi Motors in Maun who are accredited Land Rover agents. In spite of being very busy they quickly had the car up and the wheel off to inspect the suspension. We were hoping it would just be a leak in the air pipe but no such luck. The air spring needed to be replaced. No spares in Maun or Gabarone and the prospect of only getting it in 6 days if Letsedi ordered it. We decided to get the part ourselves through Pippa’s niece in Jo’burg and courier it up.
I ‘phoned Herman in Tsabong and asked if he would be prepared to go and recover the trailer again. He immediately agreed and we arranged that he would take it back to his home and we’d pick it up on our way back to Cape Town later in the month. He contacted me the next evening to tell me that the trailer was fixed and safely back in Tsabong. What a star! I think he was quite relieved having it as security until I was able to pay him.
By now we were supposed to be camping with Neil and Liz at North Gate and were both really disappointed that we would be missing out on what was the main part of our planned holiday. Being stranded in Maun for at least the weekend was not very appealing but I didn’t think it wise to risk more problems by going on up to North Gate with the faulty suspension. So we stayed and tried to make the most of it.
As pleasant as the staff were at Marina’s, the lodge did have a few shortcomings. It was situated in a community area so barking dogs at night were a nuisance. The pathways to pub and restaurant were also very sandy and not wheelchair friendly. I had no shortage of willing help to push me around but I like to be independent.
We went to Island Safari Lodge for a drink and dinner on the Saturday evening. It was really nice there and the large paved verandah was a lot more suitable for my needs and independence. We decided to move accommodation and were lucky to get a booking there for the next 3 nights.
We encountered frustrating courier and customs documentation problems and so the new air spring only arrived in Maun the following Wednesday morning…a full week of our itinerary gone! Letsedi motors installed it and we were on our way to Kasane by lunchtime with an overnight stop at Nata Lodge.
Maun to Kasane and Chobe
Neil and Liz had meanwhile gone up to Kasane via Savuti and were waiting for us to catch up. Our original plan was to be in Kasane on the Tuesday and Wednesday nights and then on to Hwange on the Thursday for 2 nights. Since Pippa and I only got to Kasane late Thursday morning Neil suggested we skip Hwange. We were more than happy to agree and were lucky that Kwalape were able to accommodate us for the extra 2 nights.
We did the Chobe river cruise on the Thursday evening which was superb. Lots of game viewing from the river and the birdlife is prolific.
The next morning we drove along the Chobe river front, entering at Ngoma Gate and driving from there back towards Kasane. Although we didn’t see any predators we saw lots of different antelope, (including Sable) elephant, buffalo and of course the ever present impala and zebra. What a fantastic and unforgettable experience!
Kasane to Harare
We left Kwalape at about 9:00am on the Saturday morning. Bad mistake! By the time we got to the border at Kazangula there were queues of tour operators taking tourists to Victoria Falls for the day. We finally got through both sides at about 11:00am and headed for Harare with an overnight stop in Bulawayo.
Just before Hwange we pulled off the road and Neil got out his car and came to ask if we felt like a pit stop at the Baobab Hill hotel. Another mistake! We got going again only to be stopped a hundred yards further along the road at the first of many police road blocks. We were both fined US$10 for stopping in a no stopping area. No point arguing…we were assured that there was a sign further back although none of us remember seeing one! That was one very happy policeman.
We carried on up to the Baobab hotel where I proceeded to break probably the only public toilet seat left in town. Funny in retrospect but I nearly did some serious damage to myself. While I was transferring from my chair onto the toilet the seat snapped, my hand slipped off and I went face first into the cistern. I bounced off that and ended up on my backside on the floor with a cut on the side of my face…the start of an impressive black eye. There were some amusing and disbelieving comments from the family when we got to Harare the next day, and Pippa was “grilled” !
We stayed with family in Harare for 4 nights. It was great seeing them and some old friends again. Sad to see how run down the infrastructure is though.
Harare to Mapungubwe
From Harare we went to Mapungubwe. We should have managed it fairly easily in a day but got held up badly at Beit Bridge, mostly on the SA side. It took us over 3 hours to get through. We ‘phoned SanParks when we got to Mussina and were told that we could go straight to Mazhou campsite and then check in at the main gate the next morning. I knew that the access road to Mazhou was on the road near Pont Drift and assumed that there would be a sign. There wasn’t and we ended up having to go back to the main gate where we were lucky to find a couple of staff members still there (it was by then after 7:00pm). They gave us directions and we went back and eventually got to the campsite after 8:00pm.
What a great place. Mazhou in particular was brilliant (even with ablutions catering for wheelchairs!) and Mapungubwe as a whole is amazing. We didn’t get to see much game in the (far too short) 2 days we were there but the scenery and atmosphere is fantastic.
And finally we head home!
And all too soon it was time to head back home. We still had to fetch the trailer from Herman in Tsabong though.
So crack of dawn we pack up our stuff and head off on our way to Kuruman to stop overnight. A long drive and the last hour and a half on the N14 in the dark was terrible. Just a never ending procession of trucks going in both directions.
Up again at ‘sparrow’s’ the next morning and we went through the border at McCarthy’s Rest quickly and without hassle. Herman met us at the Caltex service station on the road to McCarthy’s at about 10:00am with the trailer. Interesting meeting him for the first time! He said he does quite a lot of recovery work in the Mabua area. Not only trailers. It seems he’s quite a good bush mechanic as well and has helped get vehicles going after breakdowns.
We left Tsabong at about 11:00am and headed back to Molopo Lodge via the Molopo River road to Bokspits for our final overnight stop. Being a Sunday the roads and the border post were quiet and we got to Molopo early in the afternoon. We spent a bit of time in the afternoon re-packing the trailer and clearing the clutter from the Landy in preparation for a long drive home the next day. Unlike our stay there on the Saturday night 3 weeks earlier, Molopo Lodge was very quiet and we had an early dinner and then off to bed.
Our drive home the next day was long, tiring and uneventful. We left Molopo at 6:00am and went via Springbok to miss the stop/go controls on the Calvinia road. A good decision and we arrived home in Cape Town at about 7:00 that evening.
Well, the memories and stories gained from our holiday weren’t quite what we expected! We’re still disappointed to have missed Moremi and Savuti but can honestly say that it was over all a fantastic experience. We’ve learnt a lot for our next adventure. Primarily that the African bushveld doesn’t forgive inexperience. Next time we’ll allow more time for things that can (and do) go wrong! However, as Pippa’s eldest son said “Mum, you could have gone to Kruger and come back with stories of the proverbial Big Five, but instead you came back with a REAL story and adventure!” At the time, it was very stressful, but looking back, we had a lot of fun and learned a great deal along the way – and we got to do off-road camping to boot!! Now that we aren’t such greenhorns, we look forward to our next trip.
For details of accommodation and campsites that we used on our trip please see here. I must point out though we didn’t envisage setting up a database to be published on a website so at this stage the detail is based on memory. I must also stress that when I talk about wheelchair accessibility I refer to my own needs and capabilities which will be different to others.