Our headlights were illuminating the tall, wooden, arched gate. ‘Welcome to Chobe national park’. Through those gates were elephants. Further beyond that was the border to Zambia. But we were in a pickle; we could go no further. It was dusk and the park was closing. The game lodge we wanted to spend the night in was still about three hours away, and the guards wouldn’t let us drive at night. What’s more, there were no hotels for many hours back the other way.
Wessel was proving to be a very talented negotiator. He convinced the guards to let us put up tents just outside the park gate, in a clearing, fifty meters into the bush. Because there didn’t appear to be any fences, we were pretty much camping in the national park.
We noticed a lot of broken trees surrounding us, seemingly a common feature in Botswana. Elephants had smashed them. We set up the tents, put cream on our aching sunburn, used a puncture repair kit to fix a tyre we punctured in Namibia, and began cooking a meal of Chakalaka, a spicy South African canned vegetable stew.
As we sat around the fire stirring our chunky, soupy, (affordable) meal, one of the guards from the gate walked over, hunter’s rifle slung over his shoulder. He introduced himself as Mr. O, and reminded us that this was hyena territory. We needed to pack all our items in the car after dark, especially food.
And also, he cautioned, we should put the small tent away and share the big tent, as close to the car as we could. As he walked away, we gave each other nervous looks. By 7 o’clock, we had eaten, packed, and zipped ourselves into our tent. Our first night of freecamping in Africa was underway.
We fell asleep and slept comfortably for a few hours. Then, Wessel shook me awake with a shhhh. Jeff was already awake, sitting bolt upright. “Listen!!“, Wessel whispered. A deep, throaty roaring sound was audible, a chilling baritone voice. We had heard it at Tina’s farm in Namibia. A pride of lions.
A cold sweat came over me. They were probably a couple of hundred metres away, and I knew that lions are active communicators at night. I pictured Tsabu, the lion we met a few days earlier, his commanding face, his huge paws. I didn’t know anything about staying downwind or safari etiquette, and I imagined three humans in a tent would be an easy midnight snack.
I needed to pee, but there was no way in hell I was leaving that tent. It was about 11pm, and I decided to hold it until sunrise. I caught bits of sleep here and there, but every noise from outside woke me up again, and the other boys too, at regular intervals. I considered if it was a good idea for the three of us to get up and run into the car, which was parked nearby. In the end I shivered my way through the night, and woke up the next morning glad to see the sun again.
After a cup of coffee and a discussion of how insane it felt to have camped with predatory African wildlife, we drove over to the gate to Chobe national park, where the guards were standing around talking. We told Mr. O about the lion noises, and he replied with enthusiasm; “Oh yes, the lions, they live here too!“. Super, thanks for telling us, we thought.
He showed us a map of the park, and the location of a visitor’s centre about halfway through. The park was massive, about 12,000 square kilometres, and we suspected the drive would take most of the day. It was hardcore offroad, they warned; high clearance four wheel drive was mandatory.
Luckily we had the car for the job, and we couldn’t wait to put it through some trials. Jeff took the wheel for the first shift, and we wandered through a rough winding trail of soft yellow sand in two wheel ruts, snaking through the scrub.
We didn’t even need to steer as the 4WD system pulled the front wheels through the grooves created by the sand. The trail was so narrow, cars coming the other way had to drive up into the bushes to give room. We spotted antelope skitting across the road in this part of the park, and there were lots of elephant-damaged trees.
After about 3 hours we arrived at the halfway point, the visitor’s centre, where we had a rest. Wessel went inside with our road map to ask directions to the north-east exit of the part, the closest to the Zambian border. Jeff and I posed for photos with huge elephant and kudu skulls and bones on display outside.
The first river crossing was a kilometer down the road, and we were bouncing in our seats in excitement, like little boys. I was driving, and Wessel and Jeff hung out the windows the gauge the depth. A high clearance truck crossed before us, showing that it wasn’t too deep.
We drove down into the river in first gear with low-range on, keeping the revs low. The water got as high as to cover most of the tyre. On the other side of the river we saw gazelles and ostriches, which ran away as we approached. Zebras skipped across the road to our delight.
Wessel stopped me driving. “Go back, go back!” he insisted, and I reversed, until I saw the elephant in my rear view mirror. It was standing right on the edge of the road, grazing, and we studied it’s ancient face. We reversed slowly and carefully towards it, as far as we dared. We took some close up photos of it, and drove on.
The dirt road deteriorated into deep sand, for kilometer after kilometer, arranged in dunes perpendicular to the road, like speed bumps. I tried driving fast. The car bucked and jumped violently, and everything that wasn’t tied down went flying, including Jeff in the back seat, who was thrown up against the ceiling of the car.
The only way was to drive slowly, and it felt like we were sailing over endless lumps of sand, rocking back and forth as we crawled forward. It was hypnotising and mentally exhausting driving. It was very hard work keeping the speed in check, and we were getting frustrated and losing our temper with the lumpy road.
Jeff and Wessel were sitting in the windowsills of the car, hanging onto the roof rack, for a birds-eye view of the drive. “Stop, stop, stop!” Jeff suddenly yelled. Wessel jumped out of the car, pale as a sheet, holding his finger. He had been holding onto the high-lift jack on the roof rack, when the metal jack slid forward, slicing a gash in the tip of his finger. I patched him up with our last antiseptic wipe and a bandage.
Some South Africans heading in the other direction stopped and we had a quick chat, informing us that there was a bar ahead. We made our way there, and as we drank some cold cans, we realised we had forgotten something important back at the visitor’s centre; our extremely detailed map of Southern Africa. Damn. GPS was useless in many parts of the continent.
We left behind three important items over the course of our Africa travels.
1 – A box of antiseptic wipes back at Tina’s farm.
2 – Our invaluable road map here at the Chobe National Park visitor’s centre. We could never replace it.
3 – To our detriment when camping, we lost our pillows in Zambia.
Our only option was to keep going forward and try and buy a map in Zambia. We hoped that Livingstone, our next stop and a popular tourist area, would sell maps. As we exited the park past roadworks, baboons eyed our car on the way past. Then, with aching backs, we touched blessedly smooth highway. A junction pointed to Botswana, Namibia, and our next destination – Zambia.