During my schooldays there was no TV in South Africa. Instead, we had photo-comics reflecting and directing the public mood at the time: cowboy stories like Ruiter in Swart*, Kid Colt, Tarzan characters like Wit Tier**, and Rambo stories like Grensvegter*** while at the drive-in theatres we could watch James Bond or … Kaptein Caprivi.
* Rider in Black ** White Tiger *** Border Fighter
Although it sounds absurd now, this was the era of the Border War where young men fresh out of school were drafted into the army and police force to defend our borders against the “infiltrators”, but got sucked into the Cold War.
Publications such as those above struck a chord with a nation that had to send her young sons far from home to face the boredom of patrols interspersed with the occasional “contact”- firefights with almost inevitable casualties, somberly announced on the evening news:
Much of this war was waged around the Caprivi Strip, a ribbon of land bounded by four perennial rivers – the Okavango, Kwando, Chobe and Zambezi.
This wealth of water supports an abundance of fauna and flora, including several hundred species of birds thriving in four National Parks – Bwabwata, Mamili, Mudumu and Mahango – the main interest of this particular trip. While the war had a major impact on the region during the eighties, little evidence of it remains today.
So back to the present. After last year’s trip through northern Namibia, Errol (Hermit) and I agreed to do a repeat this year. Mrs Owl is game for some game watching as well, but mrs Hermit is still recuperating from an operation.
Rough plan: head north to exit South Africa through the northernmost border post with Botswana to enter the Tuli Block. From there, ride northwards through Botswana to cross the Chobe reserve into Namibia and turn westwards, dropping in at as many of the parks along the way as we can fit in/ get allowed in. Cross the “Panhandle” of the Okavango delta and return along its southern edge before dipping north into Moremi and heading home around the Makgadikgadi pans. Before the rainy season starts.
Southern Africa is classified as a “basic hot” region, but a cold front moving through from the Cape results in snow across much of the land the week before our departure. It’s front page news!
Errol’s trip starts further south of Pretoria, near Lesotho, and his route reflects the headlines.
The weather prediction reflects the reality that this region is actually a desert (hot days, cold nights) and prompts mrs Owl to pack her Alpine sleeping bag:
This beings back many memories...
I flew in Jo'burg the day after the snowfall & nearly froze my ass off...Look forward to the RR, one day I would love to ride this area.
The enemy always wore beards :rofl
Looking forward to the report :clap
An old fart from the era.:D
HA! Brings back lots of memories. Looking forward to the report.
Off at Last
After the inevitable last-minute hustle and bustle of getting bikes ready, locating suitable camping spots and wrapping up our responsibilities, we hit the road from Pretoria via the plots on the eastern side and watch the city skyline fade away in our rear-view mirrors.
The first stop is at Harry’s Pancakes in Cullinan. It’s a long weekend and the place is packed.
Cullinan is famous for its Premier Diamond Mine where the largest diamond ever was found (3106 carats). Today you will find its two largest pieces - known as the Star and Lesser Star of Africa- in the Tower of London. The town itself is a living museum and signboards of all types clamour for attention.
Out of Cullinan on the way to Marble Hall we pass lush farmlands sporting the sort of irrigation technology that the subsistence farmers north of the border cannot even dream of.
Take a good look at these bumper harvests- you won’t see the likes of this in Botswana nor in Namibia.
Local entrepreneurs selling some of the veggies produced on those farmlands along the way to Marble Hall. The town got its name after the discovery of marble there in 1920.
We pass through the townships of the old Bantustans (KwaNdebele, Lebowa) with their colourful shops,
Clapped-out vehicles on and off the road (they look quite similar),
And the occasional river. Prime agricultural land.
We ride past Gompies Dam near Zebediela. The sluices are manually operated, no automation here.
Looking across the water towards our destination behind the Strydpoortberge, it’s time to start thinking about accommodation for the night.
The first attempt to find a suitable camping spot turns out to be a false start, as it heads back to the Rust de Winter resort.
So we end up in the capital of what is today Limpopo province, which bisects the erstwhile homeland of Lebowa (Sekhukuneland). Yeah, name changes are a national pastime here.
This is the municipal camping ground and game reserve on the edge of Polokwane (Pietersburg) where the first of many unpacking and packing exercises start. Although the campsite is a bit run down, the game reserve is surprisingly large, covering more than 3000 hectares. It boasts several of the larger antelopes, including sable antelope, hartebeest, eland and tsessebe. Bikes are not welcome.
It’s pretty chilly as we cook our first supper outside and spend a windblown night in our sleeping bags, while music blares from a neighbour’s bakkie (truck).
After a windy breakfast we repack and set off for the border. The first landmark is the Tropic of Capricorn, near Vivo, from where baobabs start to appear along the road. Time for a team photo while everyone is still spic and span.
It is the end of winter and the land is bone dry, so a lot of fine sand is blowing across the road, blurring the horizon.
From Vivo, we head north to the Pontdrift border post (northernmost border between SA and Botswana) via Alldays.
This is typical bushveld country, popular as a hunting destination.
But it proves surprisingly difficult to buy game meat here, despite the trophies adorning the local butchery, like this gemsbok (oryx) with a wayward horn.
I surprise a kudu just before the border as it walks across the road by cutting my engine and rolling up to it. It panics when it notices the bikes and desperately tries to squeeze through the game fence on the opposite side. Against my expectation, it does not jump, but first thrusts its horns between the wires and then squeezes the rest of its large body through the narrow opening. We are so fascinated that nobody pulls out a camera!
Baobabs line the road as we approach Pontdrift and rocky outcrops replace the flat bushveld further south.
The Limpopo river (border between South Africa and Botswana) is bone dry (surprising, considering the strong flow upstream at Martin’s Drift). It’s just as well, since there is no bridge at this border post and we travel on gravel.
So we enter the Tuli Block region, nestled between Botswana’s borders with South Africa and Zimbabwe. This strange shaped territory was originally ceded to enable Cecil Rhodes’ British South African Company to build the Cape to Cairo railway line. When it became clear that the multitude of rivers and rocky outcrops made it unsuitable for a railway line, it was sold off to private farmers . The border with Zimbabwe follows the semi-circular "cutout", which was established as a no-go area to prevent the spread of Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD).
We crest a rise and the “Block” opens out before us:
It feels like we have landed on a different planet.
Since this is Botswana, we have to go through the Foot & Mouth Disease control process, dipping toes and tyres into a disinfectant bath as we cross controlled areas.
We meet up with our first elephants, who fortunately take little interest in us. They clearly hang around the large clearing in this area and have trod out their own footpaths, littered with droppings.
Turning northwest to Bobonong we have to cross the Matloutse river bed at Solomon’s Wall, a basalt barricade along the edge of the Mashatu reserve.
Lots of sand but no water in the river bed yet.
The “wall” ran across the river once upon a time, only to be worn and washed away by the water. The first diamonds in Botswana were found in the containment area upstream, about fifty years ago.
We see lots of kudus down the river bed while taking a closer look at the roots of the trees on the “wall” growing through the cracks.
We try to find a lodge or campsite en route, but there aren’t any.
Just before turnoff to Bobonong we pass a large ostrich farm. It's the kind of livestock that can survive in these conditions.
We decide to take a look at the Thune River Dam project. Even the local workers are decked out in Chinese overalls.
The valley and riverbed are bone dry- it’s hard to imagine where the water will come from.
The dam wall is in the process of being cast and will probably be completed by the end of the year.
The turnoff to Bobonong marks our exit from the Tuli as well as the start of a good tar road. We manage to restock our water supplies at the town’s carwash and turn west on to the Selebi Phikwe road. It is not worth dodging donkeys in the dark and so we start scanning the sides for the road for a suitable camping spot.
Less than 10 minutes out we pass a GSM tower and reach it via the service road: apart from the multitude of thorns, it’s a perfect spot and we strike camp. We pile some twigs and branches together and soon have a blazing fire going.
After cobbling a grille together with Errol’s Leatherman, we celebrate our first night abroad with the bottle of cabernet I have carefully packed between my clothes.
The next morning feels surprisingly fresh and the water in our bowl is frozen. A quick look at the thermometer explains why: it’s 0°C and the night’s minimum hit below zero! We quickly resurrect the fire and thaw our fingers with hot mugs of coffee.
I hate maintenance on a trip, preferring to do that beforehand. But I also hate riding with a fault that could cause a preventable accident. My brakes were dragging before we left and despite replacing the seals and brake fluid the night before our departure, they still feel spongy. Errol reckons they were bled incorrectly and the easiest way to fix it is by pumping fluid in from the bottom instead the top. He backs up his technique by scratching in his bags and coming up with a large syringe which he proceeds to fill from the master cylinder.
He empties the contents into the bleed nipples on the calipers. Repeat step 1 & 2 a few times…but the result is not what I had hoped for. After a few attempts we pack it in and return to the Selebi Phikwe road. I’m not a happy chappy.
A brief excursion alongside the road to photograph some anthills …
…nearly results in some punctures.
These haak & steek (hook and prick) thorns seem to be a national concern, as a few kilometres down the road we meet a gang of workers busy chopping and burning the offending bushes.
The A1 national road between Botswana’s major cities (Gaberones and Francistown) is pretty busy, as ususal, with more gates to control the spread of foot and mouth disease.
Firewood for sale: 400 Pula for the logs (each), 60 Pula for the smaller branches in the background and 12 Pula for a bundle of pieces. People have to go further and further to find these. The density is similar to that of coal, due to the slow rate of growth, making this hardehout ideal firewood.
At the Francistown Wimpy it’s Errols turn for some maintenance when his sidestand switch connector starts playing up. I advise against cutting the wires off as these switches are quite simple and quite reliable; it turns out that someone fiddled with this one and deformed one of the spade contacts. We jumper it with a paper clip and are on our way.
After braving the traffic jams out of Francistown we cover the 190 km to Nata before turning back to Nata Lodge, which has the only decent campsite in the area.
Although the entire place burnt down four years ago, there’s little evidence of that now. Even the bathrooms have a rustic African feel to them. I’m almost tempted to shave!
The campsite is very sandy and after wallowing around for a while, we picked a spot between the trees, unpacked the bags, set up shop and prepared another great supper and washed it down with St Louis, the saviour of Botswana’s travellers.
The soft sand has its compensations when you put a mattress down and everyone turns in early so that we can get to the bird sanctuary nearby at sunrise.
Breakfast is consumed on the run as we pack early the next morning. Mrs Owl does her pied piper impression with the lodge’s dogs (and last night’s leftovers).
We don’t quite make sunrise, but the sun is still low on the horizon when we rejoin the Nata-Francistown road. The air is cool but not unpleasant.
Nata Bird Sanctuary is renowned for the migrant flamingos and pelicans that we hoped to ogle in the pans nearby. But unfortunately they only come with the rains, and the rainy season hasn’t started yet. For an entrance fee of 55 Pula it seems like a waste to see the edge of the pans with a few scavengers around, so we turn back north for the border.
Outside Nata are a few settlements along the roadside. Thatch seems to be a major industry here, and it’s used for roofing as well as fencing.
The road itself is tarred all the way – all of 300km to Kasane- but, despite some elephants and kudu early on, it’s boring as hell. Fortunately, my preparation includes a diversion to address this little problem.
It’s called the Hunter’s Road, and we reach the turnoff within an hour, crossing some of the remaining roadworks. And yes, there is a No Entry sign.
There’s a limit to most people’s appetite for boredom relief. It surfaces rapidly when the turnoff turns to this:
Crossed by that:
I have not had a run-in with an elephant yet, but the scenario of a bike digging through soft sand crossing a path with very fresh elephant tracks has all the makings of a regrettable encounter. Discretion wins, and we turn back through the elephant dung to the boring main road.
I don’t like chickening out on a challenge and keep scanning the side of the road for the next turnoff that I saw on my Mapsource. Instead of turnoffs, we bisect a huge sunflower field just before Pandamatenga:
Acres of black cotton soil (“BCS”) with rows and rows of stems as far as the eye can see- a black island in a sandy sea. This stuff has a habit of getting very sticky when wet, quickly coating tyres with a slippery belt. We soon learn that it also tends to be slippery when dry.
I know that the Hunter’s Road passes through Pandamatenga and, just before the border post with Zimbabwe, we find it and hit the dirt.
It initially looks like a gravel highway, but after a few wobbles on unexpected sandy patches and ruts of very slippery BCS “marbles”, I note a parallel track to our right.
It’s the actual border track, and was apparently laid by the then Rhodesian government to patrol its borders. Because there is a shale foundation, the surface a hard-packed and easy to ride, even if it’s only a two-track.
Apart from a short sandy section, this road is great riding.
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It doesn’t take long before we run into three men walking along our track. The leader has rheumy red eyes and introduces himself as Impala. They are firemen and everyone gets a 12 hour shift to look for any signs of a bush fire from the platform at the top of this:
I decide to go and have a look upstairs to meet the man in the crow’s nest.
At the moment, all is well in the Kazuma reserve and our visit is the only thing of interest. Although the tower still feels sturdy, the floorboards are quite loose.
Here’s the compound below. There is a water tank (presumably filled from a borehole) and a single tractor, but no trucks. If they spot a fire they would have to get there on foot and beat the flames with tree branches. Quite a common technique in arid countries.
Impala and his friends. They are posted here for XX months at a time, without their families. A rather lonely existence. We hand out some mini-bar booze and soon are the best of friends.
Yes, we can get closer!
He who goes up, must come down.
We leave the forest behind, pass Kazuma Pan and cross the Seloko Plains. Every now and then there’s a warthog hole to keep us on our toes.
The landscape is flat but varied, and we run into some game here and there.
The plains give way to bushveld.
As we stop for a break, I discover a passenger:
It’s a stick insect, and in his natural environment he’s almost undetectable (sorry not sure how to tell if this really is a male or female).
Parts of an elephant skeleton along the way.
Yes, they are bigger than mine.
We hit an intersection with a busy gravel road and rejoin the main road to Kazangula in a cloud of dust.
After some negotiation with the border officials, we are allowed onto the jetty to take a look at the ferry that connects Botswana to Zambia at the confluence of the Chobe and Zambesi rivers.
Two ferries are plying the waters. The larger of the two can take an entire 18-wheeler (about 35 tons)- an impressive payload.
Some of the more stylish passengers come past. They jokingly thumb a lift and one hops on the seat behind me to beat her friends to the immigration counter.
God I miss Africa....But I dont miss bundu bashing in my old Casspir !!!
Keep it coming :D
Kasane Camp & Cruise
We ride a few kilometres west on through Kasane to our planned campsite, Chobe Safari Lodge. Unfortunately, it is also the preferred choice for many tour operators and it’s packed to capacity with tour groups doing the safari thing.
The catering on these tours is something to behold.
We ride back through Kasane and eventually settle on Thebe River Safaris near the turnoff to town (Camp 5 below). It’s not nearly as crowded as we set up our tents, although this changes soon after.
Our catering is rather more modest, but we manage to borrow a “table” from Candy and Mike next door, who operate a 4x4 rental agency from Cape Town and have flown up to collect a damaged vehicle. Cold St Louis, Savannahs and “instant” spaghetti bolognaise for supper- yum!
A French family pulls up alongside as the sun sets and the father (of the four kids) sets to work erecting tents, unpacking luggage and utensils- all on his own! We invite him over for a beer and end up exchanging pictures and impressions- they have just come from Savuti, 200 km to the west in a rented Land Cruiser.
The next day is an SWM (Shopping, Washing and Maintenance) day and we start early.
At sunrise the camp slowly comes to life as bedraggled tourists emerge from a variety of tents and head for the ablution block. Interestingly, these are shared between males and females (quite common around these parts).
The French tourists strike up a conversation with Mike while we chat to Candy. They compare prices for the vehicle rental and the supplied kit. The amount of included kit in Mike’s offering is actually quite impressive: a full tool set including cable ties and duck tape, hi-jacks, fridge, cooking utensils, crockery plus the usual rooftop tent and a side-shade. In addition to that, a satellite phone is also supplied. We manage to scrounge some double-sided tape for a small helmet repair.
Since we are still in the peak European holiday season, there are overlanders galore. If you can handle the same company in a bumpy truck for an entire month, it’s an economical way to see a lot in relatively little time: most cover South Africa from the Cape through Namibia, Botswana’s parks and then finish at the Victoria Falls. Longer tours will cover southern Africa from Kenya to the Cape (or the reverse).
We want to clean up and stock up so I set off to get some basic supplies from town. Most items are readily available at the local Spar and can be paid for by card. Mrs Owl has taken a liking to the bags of salted peanuts Errol travels with. It’s something she never touches at home, but out here the salt and oil help to replenish what we sweat out during the day.
Errol checks his chain and refills his Scotty. And dunks his inflatable mattress in a bath to try to locate the source his nocturnal discomfort.
After washing our smelly kit, I lube the chains and try once again to bleed my front brakes. The improvement is marginal.
While the laundry flaps in the breeze I try out the sewing needles I eventually found in Kasane to fix mrs Owl's jacket loop, which broke at Nata. Lots of needles, but the points bend as I try to stitch. The quality is hopeless.
Yesterday’s acacia thorn might have been a better option!
Since the camp is right on the Chobe river, we hear the grunting of hippos through the night. Although there are warnings about the hazards of crocs and hippos, this all that separates us and them:
We book on a river cruise (the first of many), get collected at three and dropped off at the jetty. It’s a huge boat, two decks and lots of seats, but no drinks on offer.
The view from up here is excellent, although the draught of the boat precludes it getting close to the shore. The confluence of water around this area supports a wildlife wonderland.
We come across a crocodile still chewing the bloody remains of an unfortunate animal’s leg.
The island between the Zambesi and Chobe rivers is packed with elephants. They use their trunks to rip out bundles of grass and reeds, while egrets follow in close pursuit to catch whatever gets disturbed by this activity.
Waterbuck and lechwes thrive in this wet environment.
A pod of hippos waiting for sunset to go feeding.
Closer to the edge- some intrepid fishermen cast their nets from tiny craft. Safety last!
All too soon, the sun sets and people start snapping away at the spectacular view. It's one of the highlights of every day we spent in this area.
Very enjoyable report so far- thank you!
Hitting Namibia again
After our rest day its time to pack up for our final destination across the border. From Kasane, there is a road bisecting the Chobe Park that leads to the Ngoma border post.
It looks like this at ground level. Up ahead is a control point…
…where every vehicle has to fill in the names of rider/passengers and registration number. Different books for entry and exit allow correlation between the two control points (there is another one at the exit of this corridor).
We do spot some game amongst the shrubbery, including giraffe, buffalo and antelopes, but they tend to keep a safe distance from the traffic even though nobody actually speeds.
At the exit, some pointers to the dots on the map before we leave Botswana.
The Ngoma border post has a spectacular view over the Chobe floodplain down below, with a sprinkling of baobab trees on the slopes down to the water bearing the scars of elephant’s affinity for these trees.
Down below the locals busy themselves with fishing in the shallow water.
We head for the customs counter…
…and find a sign to make me feel really welcome:
The paperwork is quick and painless, and now it’s time to paint Namibia!
The road to Katima Mulilo is arrow-straight because the landscape is so flat everywhere.
As the floodplain fades in our rear-view mirrors, I start looking for signs of water supplies. Despite the apparent abundance of water in this area, we are actually traversing a semi-desert: all the water comes from rivers formed in the highlands of Angola and Zambia, far north of here.
We spot storage tanks every kilometre or so, with connected taps nearby. Initially I assume they are filled from a borehole, but that requires a pump and electricity, which are not in evidence.
The answer is soon revealed. Large diameter pipes, fed from a reservoir distribute the water to the tanks. But it’s a work still in progress.
Although there is water for drinking, there’s not enough for agriculture unless the swamps reach your property, like this one.
Most villages aren’t so lucky, and the men are working in the cities to earn an income for their families, leaving many properties deserted. The soil is like beach sand and only the hardiest of plants are able to take root here.
Across the road, these kids are looked after by their mother…
…and grandmother, spending her twilight years surveying the patch of sand in front of her hut.
We soon approach the capital of the Caprivi. I have Hippo Lodge loaded as a waypoint, but it’s closed down.
We follow the road a bit further past swathes of water, ending up at the Island View lodge. The facilities are top notch, with lush lawns overlooking the island after which the lodge is named on which we pitch our tents.
This time we are adjacent to the mighty Zambesi. We decide to do another sunset river cruise to see what it looks like upstream of Kazangula.
Most of the animal life here consists of birds, with a few crocs lazing in the setting sun, but we also spot an otter eating a fish. Hippos are given a wide berth by our nervous captain, who’s had a run-in with them before.
It’s obviously the dry season, going by the exposed roots above the waterline.
Further on, near Katima, a pump tower shows just how high the water can rise here.
We pick up a couple at the Protea Hotel upstream. They turn out to be Marco and Sylvie, who've ridden all the way up from Swakopmund. They’re from Germany, and have shipped their bikes over to tour the area. They are heading south while we are now heading west- little did we know we would meet up again!
Another stunning sunset follows us back home.
The lodge sells cold Tafel and Windhoek lager, as well as pretty decent braaipacks, and we make use of proper barbecue facilities for a change. It’s great to be in Namibia again!
Great RR & Photos
Thanks for posting...just amazing:clap:clap:clap
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