Watery roads and salty pans

On the Monday morning we drove back into Maun to book our trip into the Central Kalahari. We’d planned to stay for 3 nights but the first availability they had for 3 nights in government camps (c30 pula each – less than £3 – compared with more than 10 times that in the privately run camps) wasn’t until Wednesday night. So we had 2 days to kill first. We wanted to see some of the Makgadikgadi Pans which lie further east of Maun, so we decided to head there for a night. We’d been told by the parks department and the camp site we planned to stay at that the direct road just north of the pans was closed due to flooding. The alternative route went to the south of the pans and would have added 450 km to the trip. But we’d met other travellers with 4×4 vehicles who were getting through the flooding and from what they told us we knew the depth of the water, about 500mm, should be fine for the Landy. There were also recovery vehicles working on site so there was a back up if we did get stuck. We went for it.

The road was tar, with some excellent sections but large parts that were badly pot-holed. It’s a real pain trying to dodge a pot-hole in a 2.8 ton vehicle at 50mph! After about 240 km we started to see water at the sides of the road and occasional evidence of recent flooding on the road but nothing now. After another 30km we started to think that maybe the water had receded, but then we saw the vehicles in the road ahead…

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A little bit of surface water on the road…

The road was awash. We pulled up and had a chat with a lorry driver who’s rig was stuck in the middle of the flooded road alongside another truck that had gone too close to the soft edge. There was a third one stranded further along. The tow truck, which was currently on the other side of the 800m length of flooding, wasn’t big enough to pull either of them out so they were waiting for a bigger one which they had been told was on its way. Gareth set off with Slasher to check the depth of the water. He returned just after the tow truck came back. We had a chat with the driver and his mate. The mate told us it was risky. Didn’t we want to use the tow truck? Didn’t we want a driver to take our car through? (At a cost of course). The boss told us we’d be fine. We knew who to believe and having walked it Gareth already knew we could do it.

With various wishes of “good luck” from a group of German tourists who’s coach had just turned up, we set off. 800 metres is a long way to drive through water, especially when the land on either side is also flooded! But the abandoned trucks helped show the line of the road and, taking it steady, we made our way through. It was slightly nerve-wracking but actually good fun. The road surface was solid underneath us and the main worry was that we’d find a deep pot-hole to throw a spanner in the works. We didn’t and made it through without a hitch, feeling rather smug that we’d done it in our trusty Landy, (nicknamed Eningu, which means porcupine in one of the Namibian dialects, on account of the number of things strapped to and sticking up from her roof) whilst some other 4×4 drivers were waiting for the tow truck to carry them across. Smile 

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HMS Eningu sets off on her maiden voyage

After testing the brakes to make sure they were dry and hence working we carried on to our destination, the Nata Bird Sanctuary The lady at the kiosk said we could camp but that the sanctuary was closed. Too much water. They didn’t tell us when we’d enquired the day before. We asked if we could go and see how far we could get. She said yes but that someone had got stuck after 2km the day before. We promised to turn back if it looked too wet.

The sanctuary sat at the far north-eastern corner of Sua Pan, one of the two pans that made up the Makgadikdadis. The pans are the remains of an ancient sea that dried up millennia ago. During the winter months the pans turn into a desert of salt-encrusted dry mud, the top crust thick enough to drive a vehicle on, sometimes. But where the crust is too thin, or the vehicle too heavy, you break through and down to your axles in a thick gloopy mud that sticks you firm. We were told that even with a second vehicle to help pull you out it could be incredibly hard to break free. People die out here, and the pans are so vast and the tracks so variable that it might be weeks or months before someone takes the same route you did… Nevertheless we fancied driving on the pans. Smile

Unfortunately for us, we were here at the wrong time of year to do this properly. It was the end of the rainy season and the pans sometimes do have some water in them. But this year, the late and unusually heavy rains in Botswana and also in Angola, the rains from which feed this area of Botswana, meant there was huge amounts of water. Hence the flooding on the road and an unusually large amount of water on the pans. We headed into the reserve, the tracks of which were actually really firm. We got 6km, not 2, onto the pan until we reached proper water and had to turn back.

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So, we were out on the pan, but this wasn’t the scorched salt pan that we’d hoped to see. Where there wasn’t water there was mostly grass, with occasional areas of dry pan dotted around. It was a beautiful place and we were the only ones out there. Just as we like it. Smile.

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Makgadikgadi Pans – amazing what you can do with camera angles…

A few Wildebeest wandered around and by the water there were plenty of birds including Black Herons, several of which had their wings spread forward in a sort of umbrella shape, providing shade over the water so that they could see their prey. We disturbed a falcon, maybe a Lanner, which dropped its prey, a decapitated wader of some kind.

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Blue Wildebeest on Sua Pan

There was a beautiful sunset. We had finally started getting the stunning colours that we remembered from our first trip to Botswana. Apparently it’s to do with the dust in the atmosphere from dry Namibia, which is west of Botswana.

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A beautiful sunset….

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…is best enjoyed with a sun-downer!

We had a slightly noisy night as the camp site was near the road. With the north road hard to pass it seemed most of the lorries were coming past us, from early in the morning. Tired, we headed back to Maun, this time with Angela driving as she also wanted a go at the water crossing (now that Gareth had shown it was possible… Smile).

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Back through the water again

The stranded lorries were still there and only as we got towards Maun did we see the rescue truck heading on its way. Africa time…

With all the pot-holes we found that the steering was getting a bit wobbly again. We needed to see a mechanic about a couple of other things so we headed to one that had been recommended to us. He confirmed that the track rod, which we’d had adjusted in Livingstone but had been warned might need replacing, did indeed need replacing. The mechanic knew of someone who was breaking two Discovery 1s so agreed to try to get hold of the part for us. We arranged to return the following Monday, after our trip to the Central Kalahari to, hopefully, get it fitted. In town, we filled the tank and Jerry cans up with fuel, stocked up on water and other provisions, and headed for our camp site en route to the park. We had a lovely night at Drifters’ Camp, a site right on the banks of the Boteti river, and after a fairly leisurely start made our way south.

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The River Boteti

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A lovely spot for a camp site

Next stop, the Kalahari desert.

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