Stuck in the Mud

Mana Pools (July 2013): Part 1 – Cape Town to Harare

Cape Town to Molopo Lodge

A year after our first eventful venture into off-road travelling, we were given an opportunity to join my brother John and his family again, this time to Mana Pools in Zimbabwe – we didn’t need a second invitation! Mana Pools was a place that we had both wanted to visit for many a long year.

We weren’t keen on taking the direct route up to Zimbabwe through Johannesburg and going in through Beit Bridge, so we went the long way around…up through the Northern Cape, into Botswana at Bokspits and then east across Botswana to Plumtree. The benefits of less traffic and much easier border crossings easily made up for the extra 300 or so km that we travelled.

We set off from Cape Town feeling excited and really looking forward to our trip up to Zimbabwe and Mana Pools National Park.

Our first day on the road was an easy drive from Cape Town to Calvinia. We left mid-morning and travelled up the N7. It’s a really nice road and a comfortable drive once out of the city. There were a lot of roadworks and stop/go controls between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam but the scenery is so beautiful looking over the Olifants River to the Cederberg range that it was actually not a major issue. We had plenty of time which allowed us to soak it all in. Pippa was particularly interested in the canal system running alongside the road towards Clanwilliam and beyond…it was apparently built some 40 years ago.

The result of road works between Citrusdal and Clanwilliam

We arrived at Die Blou Nartjie in Calvinia late that afternoon and settled in before having an early dinner and then to bed. All very pleasant and comfortable.

Die Blou Nartjie

After an early breakfast the following morning we were on the road by 8:00am to our next stop at Molopo Lodge in the Northern Cape. It was bitterly cold! We both enjoyed the changing landscape and scenery heading north which we found as fascinating as ever. That route certainly has some long, straight roads though!

It was bitterly cold in Calvinia!

Long and straight road to Molopo

Sociable Weaver nest on a telephone pole…one of many!

Molopo Lodge was comfortable and we had a pleasant dinner but we both felt the lodge was starting to look a bit ‘tired’ and the staff didn’t seem quite as attentive as they were when we stayed there the previous year. Maybe just an off night?

Molopo Lodge reception

…and on through Botswana

We had coffee and picked up a packed breakfast/lunch from the dining room before leaving Molopo to be at the Bokspits border post at the 8:00am opening time. We were the only travellers there and were through both sides with minimal fuss within half an hour. The South African authorities had a quick look in the back of the Landy and in the trailer but were polite and pleasant. What a pleasure!

The Molopo River road to Tsabong is fantastic. It’s in excellent condition and the drive is easy and pleasant. Can one ever get tired of that scenery? With the red Kalahari sands to the north and the lighter colours of the river bed and the calcrete cliffs on the southern side of the road, it really is a beautiful part of the country.

Molopo River bed and calcrete cliffs

Tsabong certainly brought back some memories from our previous year’s escapades! When we went past the Mabuasehube turn-off I jokingly suggested to Pippa that we turn off and take that route to Sekoma. She said she was game if I was…maybe next time.

The Tsabong ‘metropolis’ and shopping mall!

For the first couple of hours the A20 from Tsabong towards Sekoma was a lot narrower and more bumpy than the Molopo River road. Being ever mindful of the trailer and the problems we had the previous year I took it easy and was never in danger of getting caught speeding!

Regular browsers next to (and sometimes on) the roads in Botswana

We stopped for the night at the Cresta Jwaneng Hotel (used to be Cesars). Nothing much to look at and certainly not your bush type of lodge but it was comfortable and the food was fantastic…their oxtail is probably the best I’ve ever had!

The next day was a not so pleasant drive through Gaborone to Phokoje Bush Lodge outside Selebi Phikwe. The A1 highway is generally in good condition but it’s very busy and I didn’t enjoy the traffic and trucks.

I hadn’t really registered how far off the A1 Selebi Phikwe is when I did my trip planning and got quite a shock when we turned off onto the A15 and realised that we still had another 50km to travel. It was worth it though. Phokoje was a very nice stop-over with very friendly and attentive staff. The shower and toilet in our chalet were a bit cramped but were accessible in my chair…just! It was also clean and comfortable so we’d certainly go back again.

Phokoje Bush Lodge restaurant

Outside our chalet

…then on to Zimbabwe!

The border crossing at Plumtree was a breeze and we were through both sides in less than an hour. We didn’t have far to travel to our next stop-over at Shashani Lodge between Plumtree and Bulawayo.

Shashani Lodge is off the A7 between Marula and Figtree. The access roads are dirt track but they were firm and dry so there was no problem driving on them. There’s quite a steep climb up a kopje to get to the lodge and because of the angle of the car once we crested the hill I had no idea which way we’d be turning. That got the heart pumping a bit but fortunately there were no surprises when we levelled off and I could eventually see the track again!

It looked steeper coming up…must be the camera! 🙂

There was a problem with access to the lodge though and a fine example of the perils of relying on internet advertising and online booking. The website said that Shashani Lodge was wheelchair friendly. It wasn’t…clearly evident by the difficult access to the lodge from the parking area. Anyway, Pippa went in with the caretaker who had met us to assess the situation. She came back to say that it was a difficult route to our chalet but once there it was lovely and that the room, bathroom and toilet would be accessible in a wheelchair. We decided to give it a go.

Well, with the caretaker giving a hand, off we went. We bumped our way over a bit of difficult terrain to get into the lodge (which was beautiful) and then went out the front to the pathway and a series of stairs leading to our chalet. It was a steep climb and difficult going with the stairs compounding the problem. We arrived in one piece but Pippa must have lost a few kg’s and I certainly gained a few grey hairs. Pippa was right though…it was stunning!

A view of the front of the lodge


Pub…sadly closed with no one else about!

The easier part of the route to our chalet

A not so easy section

Then the next problem. We asked the caretaker if we could arrange to have dinner sent to the room. The poor guy. With eyes the size of saucers he told us that Shashani was totally self catering and that he was the only staff member on the premises. Oh dear…the website said meals could be arranged! I think the poor guy had visions of us leaving and having to help me back to the car so was very relieved when we said we’d manage with the cheese and biscuit’s that we had in the car. Thank goodness we also had wine and whiskey which was sorely needed! He was saved from further exertions…at least until the following morning when we left.

Shashani is beautiful and the view towards the Matopos is stunning. Well worth the effort and we were both very pleased that we stayed.

A view of the chalets from the lodge

Part of the view from our chalet

Beautiful scenery from our room with a view

and even a bit of wildlife way down below us

The manager of the lodge (who lived off site) arrived with her husband in the evening. She’d been contacted by the caretaker and told about the wheelchair and meal issues. She was full of apologies and offered to go and fetch some meat for a braai. We declined the offer and invited them to stay for a drink. They accepted and went to fetch beer from their car. We were glad they stayed. They were a really nice couple and it was great having some company…we were the only guests at the lodge that night! She was very surprised to hear about the information I saw on the internet. Apparently the website is run by a third party and she was unaware of it claiming wheelchair access and meals and assured us that she would have it corrected. It has been.

Pippa enjoying the sunset from our balcony

…but she wasn’t overly pleased to have had this visitor!

So after what turned out to be a very pleasant evening and after a good night’s rest we left early the next morning for Harare with a stop at the Railway Museum in Bulawayo. Pippa was keen to see some Bissett family history on display there. This included her Great grandfather’s letter of appointment as General Manager of the Bechuanaland Railways Company signed by Cecil John Rhodes in 1897.

We struggled to find the museum and at one point I suggested that we skip it and carry on with our journey. A very bad mistake! One look at Pippa’s face told me that I was in trouble thick for even considering that option, which was incentive enough for me to sharpen my navigation skills very quickly! We found it and I’m glad we did. Pippa was thrilled with her visit and came back with a couple of memorable photos.

Letter of appointment

Beautiful old steam engine

Gracious carriage

The drive from Bulawayo to Harare was uneventful and we arrived at Jill and Ant’s house later that afternoon (Jill and Ant are Pippa’s sister and brother-in-law by the way). It was great seeing them again and being on the receiving end of their wonderfully warm hospitality…although Jill can be a bit cheeky at times! 🙂

We were in Harare for 2 days during which time we stocked up on provisions needed for Mana Pools. We also managed to source a back-up for the deep cycle battery powering our trailer fridge which was showing critical signs of terminal illness. A good thing that we did as it turned out.

Part 2 – Mana Pools to follow soon.

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