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4x4 Safaris Best and Worst

A 4x4 self-drive Safari in Africa is always exciting!  Our first safari left us with some of our best and worst memories. The best was an awesome adventure that we will remember for the rest of our lives. The worst was a couple of life-threatening incidents that were entirely attributable to our lack of experience and our inadequate planning.  All of this took place before the days of the internet, when doing research for a trip was so much more challenging!

Early in 1985 my friend Gerry purchased a pre-owned Land Rover Defender. It did not take long, at one of our regular family barbeques, for someone in the family to suggest that we should all go on safari. It took a few more barbeques and several bottles of wine to plan the route and to iron out all of the details.

Both families were to share the ride in Gerry’s Land Rover with clothing, food and camping equipment loaded into our Venter trailer. The roof rack was to carry the navy surplus inflatable dingy and motor that Gerry had purchased. We welded a modification to the front of the roof rack to hold an additional seven Jerry cans filled with fuel.  At the rear we placed a 19 kilogram bottle of gas, laying it on its side.

A pipe from this gas bottle fed through a window and connected to the new portable gas freezer unit that I purchased for the trip. This we placed inside the rear of the Land Rover.  The idea was that when we were travelling the freezer would run off battery power drawn from the vehicle, but when we stopped we would open the tap on the gas bottle and light the gas to run the freezer.

 No detail was too small, or so we thought. Av got busy on her sewing machine and produced a special set of seat covers to keep the seats cool. We even packed a set of crystal glasses for the fine South African Port that would go with. Gerry rented a large tent that could accommodate all seven of us – their son Ross was about five and Deb and Ben were eight and ten years old respectively. 

Packing took a lot longer than we had anticipated and we finally left our friends’ house very early on the Thursday morning before the Easter weekend in 1985 and commenced our drive up to the Botswana border. Our last stop in South Africa was to put fuel into the Jerry cans at the Stockpoort border post.

 Disaster struck by the third fuel canister when the entire roof rack began to collapse under the weight. A quick conference ensued and we hastily rearranged the Jerry cans. Two were secured by rope onto the front bumper, with one in front of each headlight and the remaining five were placed alongside the freezer in the rear of the vehicle.  Incidentally, these seven cans were in addition to another four, two of which were fitted onto brackets located on either side of the vehicle’s rear door.

We set off again at around seven am driving through the dry riverbed, which marked the official border between the two countries.  Stopping late that afternoon in Francistown to buy fresh vegetables and a few more supplies, we continued on our way to the first night’s stop at Nata Lodge, a landmark on the way to the “swamps”.

Just after dark we had another bad experience when we happened upon a Botswana Police roadblock.  I was driving at the time and having difficulty seeing where we were going because the headlight beams were being reflected back off the fuel cans.  As I lifted my foot off the gas at the roadblock, the engine died – the additional charge drawn by the freezer had completely drained the battery!

It was necessary to pop the clutch in order to re-start the engine and I accidentally allowed the vehicle to run through the roadblock. In no time at all we were surrounded by some pretty angry and suspicious policemen, all pointing their rifles at us.  Keeping the engine running, I did some smooth talking and after waving our papers at them, we were finally permitted to go on our way.

Arriving at Nata Lodge at nine pm, after eighteen hours on the road in a small cabin shared by seven people, we were all thoroughly exhausted.  Gerry leapt out of the vehicle and ran ahead to select a site for us.  I parked the Land Rover in a very tight spot among the many tents and vehicles in a heavily crowded camp.  

Our first task was to erect the tent. Gerry, an Englishman who was not yet familiar with the African bush, had never erected a tent and failed to ask for instructions when he collected it.  I quickly became embarrassed watching him floundering around, particularly when an old farmer pulled up beside us and set up his own camp.

In no time at all, our new neighbor had erected a double bed on the roof of his Toyota Landcruiser. He then proceeded to unload an old armchair and settled down in it. With a drink in one hand and his pipe in the other, he sat and stared in amusement at our chaotic attempts to rig the tent. 

Deciding that I would rather go and start the freezer than face any further humiliation, I removed the five Jerry cans of fuel from the rear of the Land Rover and placed them on the ground alongside the vehicle.  I then opened the valve on the rooftop gas bottle, adjusted the freezer setting to operate on gas and pressed the igniter button to spark the flame for the gas.

After a couple of attempts, the igniter fired. What followed was a huge “whoosh” and the Land Rover was soon engulfed in flames. I had not realized that by laying the gas bottle on its side, liquid gas would flow down the pipe to the freezer.  Unbeknown to us, on the trip this pipe had been chafing on something in the rear compartment and developed a leak. Liquid gas had escaped through this and collected on the floor of the Land Rover the moment that I opened the valve.

Gill, who was changing Ross on the rear seat of the vehicle at the time, grabbed him by the arm and tossed him out of the vehicle. My only concern was to grab Ben and Deb and get as far away, as quickly as possible. I anticipated a monster explosion of not only the vehicle’s fuel tank but also eleven full Jerry cans of fuel located in and around the Land Rover and the 19Kg gas bottle on the roof.

The kids and I took off running through several people’s campsites until finally, guilty about the mayhem that I had initiated, I paused to look back. Gerry was valiantly attempting to extinguish the fire but didn’t quite seem to know what to do. In a moment of shame I left the kids and ran back, grabbed a blanket and used it to help smother the flames. Miraculously, the inevitable explosion failed to materialize and nobody was hurt.

We gathered ourselves, dusted off the soot and sorted our bedding. By now completely exhausted we all settled down for the night but not before Gill, for the second time that day, pronounced the trip doomed and proposed that we abandon it and return home.  The next morning we awoke to find the camp deserted – all of the other campers had risen early and already moved on. 

It took a while to clean everything. The Land Rover’s seats were charred in places. Av’s seat covers were burned beyond recognition and we had to discard them. In fact, everything inside the vehicle needed cleaning. Fortunately, having come prepared for all eventualities, we had a wire brush that we could use to clean the areas where the fire had damaged the upholstery.

Later that morning we set off on the next leg of the journey; a trip that took many hours along the rough dirt road that led from Nata Lodge to Maun, the town at the base of the swamps.  There we set up camp in a much more disciplined fashion before departing early the following day for the Moremi Game Reserve.

The road soon deteriorated into thick sandy and often low range four-wheel drive territory.  Pausing only briefly for lunch at Third Bridge, a primitive bridge constructed from roughly hewn logs of timber, we moved on to Xakanaxa camp in Moremi. Again our tent was erected with military precision. Soon after we set up camp, an elderly gentleman approached us and introduced himself as a past president of the Okavango Wildlife Preservation Society.

He had come to warn us that the previous year a student had disappeared from her tent one night.  She was believed to have been dragged out by a crocodile and was never seen again.  We had erected our tent on the same spot that her group had used, right at the waters edge.

The old man later returned to compliment us on the efficiency with which we had broken camp and relocated our tent to an area some thirty metres further back. The Nata experience had certainly made us more efficient, but clearly that alone was not enough. We failed to notice that our tent was now situated very close to the garbage pit, which was visited by Hyenas in search of food every night! 

That evening as we retired to the tent after dinner, I placed all of our loose camping gear against the side of the tent as an added precaution to warn us if anything approached the tent during the night. Sure enough, in the early hours we were woken up by a scratching sound and emerged the next morning to find that a Hyena had wandered off with our barbeque grate.

Xakanaxa camp turned out to be quite primitive, with neither fencing nor any other form of protection from any of the wild animals that freely roamed the area. One morning Av and Ben went for a walk and came running back in a panic having unexpectedly encountered a herd of elephant grazing at the edge of the camp. 

Our most traumatic experience in the Okavango came when we launched our inflatable boat and took off into the delta. We could not travel very fast since the boat came with a 2½ Hp Seagull outboard.  The valiant little motor made a great deal of noise and even more smoke, but was definitely no match for the large boat with its heavy load!

To compound the problem, we had gone no more than a kilometer before the engine ceased to function and we were forced to perform repairs. The inflatable, with four adults and three children aboard, soon drifted aimlessly into the Xakanaxa lagoon, home to a very large crash of Hippopotamus and their offspring.

Eventually some concerned campers came out in two Zodiacs to assist and escort us and we finally managed to make our way back to shore without incident. However, I later realized that as a parent this was one of my most irresponsible acts ever. Hippos are credited with taking more human lives in Africa than any other animal species and had they attacked our boat, we would have been totally helpless.

The following day we hired a decent boat, constructed from aluminium and fitted with a powerful Yamaha outboard motor. Along with it came a local guide who knew the swamps really well and who took us a long way into the delta. It was absolutely amazing – the water was crystal clear and it was possible to clearly see the riverbed at the bottom of the swamp.  Being filtered by all of the bamboo reeds, the water was exceptionally clean and when we leaned out of the boat and scooped some up, it tasted fabulous to drink!

We also went on a game drive, stopping again at Third Bridge in order that we could have a swim there. We took our soap and towels with and while some foreign tourists were sitting in their vehicle nearby and sipping their G&T’s, we swam and performed ablutions in water that we subsequently discovered might have harboured crocodiles. 

From Moremi we exited the game reserve going north through some remote 4x4 country with sandy roads up to the Chobe Game Reserve.  At one point we stopped the vehicle on the vast Linyati Plain and climbed onto the roof of the Land Rover. As far as the eye could see in every direction were thousands upon thousands of grazing animals, mainly Zebra and Wildebeest.  Quite fortuitously, we were passing through just at the time when seasonal migration was taking place and vast herds of game were on the move in search of better grazing.

Passing through Savuti, we would later encounter some of the largest Elephants that I have ever seen when we arrived at the Chobe River. We were to still to experience some more excitement on our trip. A troupe of Monkeys raided our camp at Serondella while we were out one day, causing chaos and helping themselves to our food supplies. 

On another occasion, we had a close encounter with some Lions. We had been warned that  Lions had been spotted wandering close to the Serondella camp and drove out after dark to see if we could locate them.  Having no luck, I stopped and switched off the Land Rover’s engine and lights about a mile from camp on the way back in the hope that we might perhaps hear them.

It was pitch black outside and we all stuck our heads out of the windows listening for any sound of the Lions.  Imagine our surprise when I started the vehicle and turned on the headlights. Lying on the verge of the road right alongside the Land Rover were two Lions, so close that we could almost have reached out and patted them. We had not heard them move in at all!

The trip was not quite as eventful after we left Botswana. We made our way back to South Africa via Zimbabwe where the roads were much better at the time, stopping briefly to view the magnificent Victoria Falls and then making a detour via the Zimbabwe Ruins before heading home.

Happy Travels - Mike!                                                                                                                    


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