There are always going to be some trips where you never really get in sync – with the vehicle, with the weather, with the landscape, with your companions. Those adventures when every little thing seems off-kilter by just enough to trouble your subconscious, but never enough to manifest fully into a real problem. The negativity nags at you, even if you can’t quite locate its source.
Those trips where, despite the objectively amazing experience, you struggle to live in the moment, and you actually find yourself looking forward to the end. You start to obsess over tiny setbacks and minor problems, and they tar over with a black brush the great, good fortune you have to travel in remote and beautiful places.
You end up like that classic L’il Abner cartoon character who carries around his own rain cloud wherever he goes, perpetually cursed with bad luck.
The off-level adventure is hard to shake. You never really know when it’s going to happen, and the best you can do is roll with it. The journey we took to the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park last month just happened to be one of those kinds of trips. In our case, all that negative energy culminated in a catastrophic breakdown in the middle of nowhere that ended our expedition early.
Be careful what you wish for, sometimes you might get it.
Located only about six and a half hours from Gaborone on the far western border of Botswana, the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (TFP) is a cross-border conservation area shared with South Africa. We visited the northern half of the Park back in December, and with a 10 day window at our disposal we thought a trip to the southern half would be the ticket for the September university holidays.
In particular, we had reserved the Mabuasahube Wilderness 4×4 Trail – a 150km one-way track for which the Parks department grants a special permit for only one party per day, including an overnight stop at one of the most remote campsites in all of Botswana.
We had a new-to-us Eezi-Awn roof-top tent to try out, and a solar panel to keep our thermo-electric cooler up and running for long periods of time. The Pajero had a refreshed 4×4 system, including new axles, and an oil change. It was purring like a lion cub. Perfect.
But Julie was feeling under the weather on the ride west that first morning setting out from Gabs, and so was the blue Mitsu. I dealt with both an intermittent check-engine light and a mysterious transmission fault light the whole way. The radio gave up the ghost.
On checking in at the Mabuasahube gate that afternoon, we discovered that the normally efficient and accurate folks at the Gaborone office of the Department of Wildlife and National Parks had mis-calculated our reservation fees, so we spent extra time and money sorting out the shortfall. Our neighbors in the campsite next door said we had just missed the lions that had been through camp earlier, and were roaring up a storm.
The ablutions at the Mabuasahube Gate campsites, like nearly all of the public ablution blocks in the Botswana national parks, are in desperate need of repairs. Broken toilets, leaky showers, lack of running water, disintegrating roofs, and faulty electrics seem to plague all these facilities – from Mabuasahube, to the Central Kalahari, to Nxai Pans, to Khutse.
To add insult to injury, somebody else’s uncollected garbage hung in bulging bags from nails in the campsite’s shelter. I took them to the trash bin myself the next day. How difficult is it to clean up after ourselves, my fellow campers? Short answer: it’s not. Take some initiative and some responsibility. Don’t leave it for the next guy. Or the hyenas.
I don’t know if the private campsite concessions are indirectly siphoning resources away from the public campsites, but the conditions of the camps and ablutions are becoming a sad state of affairs for Botswana’s proud national parks system.
The following day we set out for the the Wilderness Trail. As we idled around the dry pans and isolated waterholes in the Mabuasahube section of the Park, the first real wildlife we encountered were white-backed vultures.
Augury of things to come?
In trying to sneak in on foot for a closer photograph of these fascinating birds, I was chastised for being out of the car by a DWNP ranger out on patrol. Regardless of what Andrew St. Pierre White says about Botswana’s lax policy about getting out of your vehicle in game reserves, you will get yelled at if they find you chilling in your camp chair by the water hole or stalking vultures through the bush. With good reason, I will add.
Do as I say, not as I do.
The Wilderness Trail proved to be as remote and spectacular as you would imagine it. This is my favorite kind of Botswana wilderness experience – when you know it’s just you and endless kilometers of a whole lot of nothing in all directions. In general, the big, fancy wildlife stayed away, though we harbored hopes of seeing those famous Kgalagadi lions once more, as their sign was everywhere.
The Mosomane campsite is, on the one hand, sublime. Perched on a small hill, overlooking its namesake pan with a generously spreading thorn tree at its center for welcome shade, it is Botswana wilderness camping at its finest.
On the other hand, the outskirts of the campsite were strewn with toilet paper and half-buried human deposits. Where I blame Botswana bureaucracy for the run-down ablutions, I can only call out my camping compatriots again for this disgrace.
If you are wild camping in the deserts of southern Africa, especially at established campsites where there are no latrines, it is imperative that you bury your waste at least half a meter deep, far away from the campsite, and preferably pack out or burn your paper.
After an exhausting day, Julie climbed into the tent early, and I sat outside with my book and my headlamp in the gathering dark, hoping to catch sight of one of the lions we had heard grunting and coughing in the distance.
Instead, I was treated to one of the rarest wildlife encounters in the Kalahari. I made friends with a barking gecko.
You begin to hear the males in their hundreds as the sun sets across the desert, and continuously all night until it rises again at dawn. They belt out a harsh and curiously loud yap that can only be described as omni-directional. Their goal? To entice the lady geckos to their dens, of course.
But this three-inch long reptile is hard to see, as they are active exclusively at night, and the males only pop their tiny heads out of their holes to call hopefully into the darkness.
That little guy, whom I named “Bob Barker” graciously let me film his nightly ritual, as I stretched out in the sand on my stomach with the scorpions. My theory is that they dig the opening of their burrows deliberately into a shape that acts as a kind of “megaphone”, which amplifies the volume of their calls.
In any case, it’s one of the best wildlife experiences I have ever had anywhere. Thanks, Bob.
Our third morning on the road saw us up a bit late, but confident that the mere 90kms of track between Mosomane and the Nossob Rest Camp on the South African side of the Park would make for a relaxing day.
This, of course, was not to be the case. Scattered with steep and very loose sand dunes, the road to Nossob was a brutal one. On any other trip, I would likely have relished the challenge, but after a while it just seemed like dangerous work. The road had seen almost no recent maintenance as far as we could tell, and the corrugations and deep pits were taking a toll both on us and our poor Mitsubishi. Several dunes took multiple tries, backing up to find different lines, to finally get over the top.
At one point, the Pajero’s transmission, through a combination of user error and over-exertion, gave up. It refused to shift into or out of any gear at all. An acrid smell permeated the cabin, and we coasted to a stop at the bottom of a particularly large dune.
I disconnected the battery, and crawled under the truck as Julie kept watch for lions. I cleared out the accumulated brush and grass from the chassis, all in the hope that a computer re-set and a mechanical cool-down would solve the problem.
I spent time making sure all the electrical connections were tight and the fluids were topped off. We shared a snack, and I fulminated quietly in the increasing heat of the day. After an hour or so, and a few false starts, we got back in gear (literally).
We took it easy on the final 60kms into Nossob – as much as we could traversing the dozens of sand dunes – trying not to stress both the vehicle and ourselves any more than we needed to. Crossing the dry Nossob River bed around 3:00pm, we were relieved to roll into the South African side of the TFP, and through the gate to the Nossob Rest Camp.
Nossob is a small oasis of civilization on the edge of the desert. The ablutions are beautiful – cleaner and more luxurious than my own bathroom at home. The store is stocked with ample supplies, including a full selection of gins, whiskeys, beer, and wine. The campsites are populated with South African adventurers and their impossibly complex, but very appealing, caravans (camper trailers to us Americans) and canvas tent-cities. There is a swimming pool. The kids from the next few campsites over, new friends made on the road, played a truncated game of cricket.
We were lucky enough to stay in the same campsite we had back in December. We reveled in the hot water, and tracked the local jackals with flashlights as they ducked and prowled around the camp after dark. The sunrises from the Nossob camp are simply breathtaking.
But the luxury was short-lived. We needed to head back east into Botswana the next morning to make our way to the Motopi camp, approximately half-way between Nossob and Mabuasahube, to complete our TFP loop.
We had hoped that the route back to Botswana would treat us a little more kindly than the Wilderness Trail, as it’s the main road between the South Africa and Botswana sides of the TFP.
Well, maybe not.
That’s Julie on the shovel working to free us from a very large and very broken-up dune just 20kms from Nossob. Thankfully the weather was relatively cool and overcast, and with some help from our Frontrunner Sand Lizard traction boards, we extracted ourselves in 20 minutes, and found a different route over the great mountain of sand.
The Nossob road proved to be just as terrible as the Wilderness Trail the previous day. It was slow going, but with just 70kms to cover, we took it easy. We encountered our only humans late in the day: a jolly and rotund South African with flowing white hair in convoy with his family, headed west from Mabuasahube. He sported a “Jah Rule” Bob Marley t-shirt, and his belly rubbed the bottom of the steering wheel in his Land Cruiser.
“It’s pretty awful out here, hey?”, he said, elbow propped over the open window of the Cruiser.
I nodded, and was about to solemnly agree, when I realized that he was laughing out loud, chuckling and shaking his head at his own ironic joke. Clearly he was having the time of his life, despite, or maybe even because of, the awful road.
What the hell was our problem?
We laughed at the joke afterwards, feeling a bit sheepish about our bad attitudes.
We were out in the middle of nowhere, experiencing the travel we love best every day, finding new horizons on remote roads around every turn, and sleeping in sublime solitude every night with our gecko friends. What the hell did we have to complain about?
We arrived at the Motopi campsite just a few kilometers later, early enough in the day to set up a comfortable campsite and indulge in a few hours of reading, and to start feeling better about ourselves in general.
Then the bees attacked.
We don’t blame the bees. They do what they need to do.
We had felt their wrath in the Central Kalahari back in March, necessitating an early morning retreat from a remote campsite as they angrily chased after our Land Cruiser.
But we did spend most of that evening cowering in the Pajero as the bees swarmed in unceasing, uncountable waves over the dinner I had started preparing just a few minutes before. We cut bait and ran to the truck; they hovered around the doors and banged angrily against the windows. We listened to an audiobook and ate Doritos.
It was well past sunset before we could emerge. Some of the bees had drowned themselves in our pot of miso soup, their comrades abandoning them reluctantly in the dark. We cleaned up as quickly as we could, scraping together the remains of our dinner, and finally crying uncle.
Retreating to the Eezi-Awn, I think both of us wanted to be somewhere else. But later that night, in uneasy sleep, we heard the lions again, faintly in the distance, but close enough.
I wouldn’t have wanted to be anywhere else in the world.