We have been debating the hot topic of self drives for years. The trend seems to be that more and more clients have independently travelled South Africa and Namibia by car, and as a result they think visiting Botswana in the same style is the natural conclusion. Botswana is wilder, has less infrastructure, less tarred roads, is a much more challenging destination. Self-driving in Botswana is for the adventurous, people that want a guarantee to see the amazing game in Botswana should always choose to travel with a guide, self-driving is possible in the National Parks and Game Reserves, the famous private concessions in the Okavango Delta or Linyanti can only be accessed by plane and visited with a professional guide.
As your partner on the ground we selected a group of brave individuals to go and explore some of the parks of Northern Botswana, their mission was to test a variety of maps available in the local shops, the Tracks4Africa’s app, our self drive maps and the directions we hand out.
This is the first of a series of blogs about “Self-Driving in Botswana”, we will write about our experiences, the road conditions, the user-friendliness of the maps and Tracks4Africa app and much more, enjoy the ride…
Here is Seeletso’s impression of his first self-drive-adventure:
When I was initially asked if I would like to join a self-drive educational from Maun across Savute to Ngoma and into Namibia then back through the Panhandle to Maun I didn’t hesitate for a second. I was only concerned about traveling in the extreme heat of October (we often get more than 40 degrees in our so-called suicide-month), and the stories I had been told of people getting stuck in the thick sand in Savute and Chobe. The last time I was in Savute was in 2002 as part of a Wellness Club in High School where we put up sign posts to guide everyone visiting the Savute region, so this was an opportunity to revisit this area and to check if our signs were still around or the elephants had destroyed them.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man… my moment had come. I joined Tlotlo, Brinny and Scarlet on this adventure. Being the farm boy that I am, I nominated myself to drive all the way through the park to Ngoma in Chobe. A Wild Wheels car was delivered and handed over the day before our trip, a Toyota Hilux double cab with 2 roof tents and plenty equipment. The handover is vital to make sure that all equipment needed for the trip is in the car and works properly. The vehicle came with a GPS system loaded with Tracks4Africa maps, a satellite phone, fridge, high-lift jack, spade, sand ladder and other necessary tools. We also got a proper briefing on how to use the tools, how to lower the tyre pressure. When hiring a vehicle from a local Botswana operator the equipment is guaranteed to deal with the conditions in the parks in Botswana. Clients choosing to travel through the parks need to make sure they have the right equipment. Ready, we left Maun early morning for our first destination, the recently reopened Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge (yes SD travels in style). The drive from Maun via Mababe to Savute took us about 5 hours of solid, but not fast, driving. After the Mababe Gate (guests that stay in lodges usually travel with a voucher from the lodge confirming that park fees have been paid, at the Gate only the payment for the vehicle needs to be made, it helps to have Pula at hand, the costs for locally registered vehicles is 10 Pula a day, foreign registered vehicles are 50 Pula a day) it became a little more challenging as the thicker sand began. We reduced the tyre pressure from the normal 250 to 180 bar. The Sandridge road is the most direct and easiest way to Savute even though the thick sand there has been a challenge to many. I was up to the challenge and hoping to get photos of us being stuck. To my surprise the sand was not that tough, I do not know if it was my bush baby driving skills or the Hilux just performed better than I had expected. With the vehicle on four wheel drive the stretch was easy enough.
The main challenge of the road was a few kilometers after the Savute Gate on the side track which took us to Belmond Savute Elephant Lodge. Apparently, the trucks that came in for the rebuild of the lodge are the reasons for the state of the road. Extremely thick sand with deep burrow tracks, but nothing to worry about as long as you are driving a 4×4. From Savute to Ghoha Hills there is no thick sand, but the road requires one to drive at slow speed as it is bumpy and uneasy.
At the Ghoha Gate it is advisable to ask the Wildlife officials which is the better route, as the direct route is not in great conditions. Here you drive left (north west) towards the Linyanti cutline and once on the cutline turn right and the road leads you all the way to Kachikau village. Before Kachikau the tarred road comes back to life and at the nearest fuel station we pumped back the tyres to 250 bar. After a night at Chobe Elephant Camp the crew crossed over to the Caprivi Strip in Namibia then spent a few nights in the Okavango Panhandle and back to Maun. The border crossings at Ngoma into Namibia and Mohembo back into Botswana were all smooth and quick. The A3 road from Shakawe to Sehitwa has lots of potholes even though there were few patches of roadworks there and there. (We will speak more about the Panhandle section in a coming Blog).
“Insider tips from your local experts”
- It is advisable to not self-drive in the rainy season, the terrain is difficult and chances of getting stuck in mud or having to cross water are high.
- Make sure your car is loaded with all the necessary equipment before you depart for your Safari (e.g. tools, GPS, satellite phone, working fridge, lockable doors, spare wheels), check all is in a good working condition.
- When switching from tarred/gravel road onto sandy roads reduce your tyre pressure and when going back on tarred road remember to increase the pressure.
- On sandy roads please switch onto H4 for 4-wheel drive at all times, if sand is too thick and car fails engage Low range to avoid getting stuck, the next car might only come by after 24hrs.
- Respect the animals on the road, especially Elephants.
- Do not stop and get out of the car in bushes, find a clear open space for your safety.
- Always ask the people working at the entrance gates which road is better or how do you proceed forward.
Let’s start with the essential 2 rules about a stay here:
- No matter what you do ALWAYS carry your camera with you, ready to shoot
- No matter HOW freezing it seems in the morning: GET OUT THERE!!
Had I listened to the first rule myself, I could have added amazing shots of 2 honey badgers out in the open right in front of the lodge in some golden morning light, watched right from the breakfast table – instead I held on to a fluffy, moist blueberry muffin and a mug of freshly brewed cappuccino. You see: life can be full of tough choices at Belmond Savute!
When climbing off the plane at Savute airstrip, the guests climbing on said: If you want to see animals, you need to go with Robert. And my heart sank. I am a huge fan of good guiding and always massively disappointed when sitting on a vehicle with a driver who is just racing from one photographic opportunity to the next. Luckily – I was to be proven very very wrong!
After settling in, freshening up and some tea time treats we headed out on our first drive. Driving through what smelled like a herb garden my curious 7 year old son showed interest in all these smells and Robert stopped, got us some wild basil and shared stories about it. “So do you think this would keep mosquitoes away?” Which got us on to some other herbs and traditional methods and a lively discussion, plus some more sample picking and smelling. While pointing out tracks and interpreting what we saw around us, we slowly made our way towards a spot where some cheetahs were hanging out earlier. Lucky us, most vehicles had already left the 2 sleeping males, who felt now it was time to get up and get active – and to get a good look from some elevation.
After this fabulous afternoon we were so excited, that we couldn’t wait to go exploring the next morning – despite of being able to see the clouds of our own breath when exhaling. It was COLD!!
Robert had the perfect technique to battle this aspect as well – even my 6 year old daughter was comfy and toasty, after he wrapped her up in fleeces, blankets and a poncho: “ready to go to the moon”. We tried to find the lions that we heard during the night, but they tried to play games with us. Tracks literally everywhere! In all directions, back and forth, right and left, and back again – hmmm. What happened here last night?? And our imaginations ran wild.
After some fun tracking, a pack of wild dogs were waiting for us in the middle of the road, just around the corner from a mother leopard trying to catch some guinea fowls. While most cars simply waited behind the dogs, Robert decided to approach them differently. We left all the cars behind, and moved to another area, trying to anticipate their next move – and it worked! Stotting impalas all over the woods, showing off their strength, and the pack chasing at top speed. How exciting was that!! We eventually said good bye to the dogs to have a look what was happening out on the marsh.
Some lonely male wildebeest were guarding their territories, then Robert noticed that one of the wildebeest FAR away held up his tail really high – hang on…. ????? So 2 big male lions were crossing the marsh, where were they heading to? We decided to go the same way and see – a little grassveld pipit joined us, flapping and running right in front of our car, for more than 1 kilometer. Now, yes, it made it! Oops, no, it’s back…. The kids had so much fun watching it ALMOST flying off to the side, and back it was – giggles and laughs without end.
Guided by the direction of the male lions and following the pipit we ended up with the rest of the pride, some females feeding on a wildebeest and 5 cuddly little fur balls, roaring like their dads, schmoozing their mums and eventually, collapsing and falling asleep all on top of each other in a cub heap.
Back at home we hung the sage and the wild basil – to test how much of a mosquito repellent they are. And asking: “So what was your favorite bit in Savute?”
- the cute little cubs
- and remember the funny pipit who ran with us for SO long
- and the honeybadgers at breakfast
- and the elephants up close from the hide during tea time
- oh – and of course: THE HEATED POOL !!!!
Thank you so much to Robert, our fantastic guide, for an all-round, all senses, mega fun experience. For teaching us about the bush, for putting it all into context and all the stories about the background and history of the animals we saw.
What a safari experience!
Our Selfdrive Trip from Maun to Khwai and Savuti!
Have you ever wondered what it takes to get off the tarmac and explore the sandy tracks of Botswana’s National Parks in a 4×4? We did. With our mission set, four of us Safari Destinations girls, calling ourselves the SD Angels departed Maun early on a Sunday morning for a five day self-drive safari through Moremi, Khwai and Savute.
Leaving Maun, the small village of Shorobe marks the end of the tarmac. From here to the buffalo fence is a big wide stretch of calcrete road where we had our first encounter with someone driving far too fast and almost wiping us out. We quickly discovered slow is the answer, as people generally tend to drive too fast and run into trouble.
From the buffalo fence there are two ways of getting to Khwai. You can either go via Mababe Village, staying on the calcrete road or head through Moremi Game Reserve via South Gate. We decided to go through Moremi as we were in no rush, since the route is more scenic with much better opportunities for spotting wildlife. The road between the buffalo fence and South Gate is quite narrow, passing through mopane forests and very sandy, so the driving is quite a bit slower and we let our tyres down to about 1.6 bar to deal with the terrain.
Once we reached North Gate and exited Moremi Game Reserve, we crossed over a proper bush bridge made from Gum Poles and into Khwai Village. To get here took us approx four hours from Maun, stopping for game sightings on the way. In Khwai, we stayed at both Khwai River Lodge and Khwai Tented Camp, however other options in the area include Sango Safari Camp and Machaba Camp.
For self-drivers, the road network around Khwai is quite disorienting. As a result, it’s best to arrange your game viewing activities with your lodge as the professional guides know the area, where the game is and what signs to look for in tracking animals, resulting in a more enjoyable safari.
Leaving Khwai for Savuti, there are two possible routes. Different people gave us different arguments and opinions on whether we should take the Marsh Road or the Sandridge Road. In the end, we took the Marsh road which is longer but a lot more scenic, traversing the Mababe Depression and the Savute Marsh. There is a lot more wild life on this section of road especially around the Savute Marsh and we saw leopard, cheetah, elephant, wildebeest, giraffe, impala, the list goes on. This road can become flooded in some areas, and very slippery in the rainy season. In October, it took us approximately four hours to drive the Sandridge route.
In Savute, we stayed at both Savute Elephant Camp and Ghoha Hills, however other options include Savuti Safari Lodge, as well as SKL’s Camp Savuti next to the public campsite.
Returning from Savute, we drove back towards Khwai on the Sandridge road, which was a lot quicker with better road conditions. Although quicker, the driving is through a lot of Mopane and we only saw elephant and steenbok driving this way. In the winter months before the rains, this sandy road can get very churned up and a lot of people get stuck. Taking this route back to Maun and skipping Moremi Game Reserve on the return took us approx 5 ½ hours.
To self-drive successfully through the parks, we recommend a good 4 x 4 such as a Land Rover, Toyota Hilux or Landcruiser. It’s essential the car has 4×4 and has good clearance. This driving cannot be done in either a 2WD or a 4WD without the height to manage deep sand and water crossings. For good vehicles carrying the essential equipment as standard and good back-up service in case of emergencies, we recommend Travel Adventures Botswana. Essential items to pack are a high-lift or air jack, two spare tyres, spade, axe, tow-rope, jumper-lead cables, tyre pressure gauge and air compressor. If you don’t have a long-range tank, you will need extra fuel as driving in sand uses a lot more fuel than travelling on tarmac. You should always have plenty of drinking water, basic food supplies, a GPS, satellite phone and a well-stocked first aid kit on hand in case of getting lost, stuck or experiencing break-downs. Of course, you will also need your park entry permits for your vehicle and for yourself, together with any confirmation from lodges you’ll be staying at which confirm they’ve pre-paid park fees on your behalf.
Bush Ways and Mayonnaise
“Who wants mayonnaise? ‘ Masters asks. There’s a moment of silence where all five of us fail to jump on his offer. ‘It’s good for the eyes!!!’ he says, putting another spoonful on his dinner and passing the jar down the table. ‘If you don’t see any animals tomorrow, you know who to blame.”
We’ve just arrived in Savute. It’s the end of October, it’s HOT and we’ve just met Masters who will guide us through this area and later on to Khwai. We’ve also just learnt Masters’ best-kept secret for spotting game, except that he isn’t too concerned with keeping his trick in the bag.
We had returned from an incredible sunset over a waterhole which we shared with a cross-legged elephant and a few roan antelope. As Masters had pulled out the G&T the roan scattered and herds of impala sprinted out of the background. “See’ said Masters ‘we were so lucky to see that Roan. If we’d turned up a little later, we wouldn’t have seen anything at all.”
We were quickly learning that this was the advantage of being on a mobile safari, spending two nights in each area, driving around the same corners but seeing different things on the horizon each time. Just when we’d begun to recognise the roads and game patterns in one area, we’d travel to the next campsite and look for it all again on a different backdrop, but with the same guide who understood what we’d already seen and where we’d already been. If we hadn’t seen something yet, Masters usually had a quick solution. When we put hyenas on our wish-list he pointed to his shirt and grinned, “It’s the Bushways logo! You’ve already seen one.”
In the wide-open space of the Savute marsh we spent our time chasing wildebeest, watching elephants sleeping standing up against trees, a big male lion bending a branch under his chin for a pillow and wild dog collapsed in a mess of legs and ears under the closest shade they could find. The animals regarded us vaguely but didn’t bother stirring as our cameras clicked away. Despite the intense heat which kept most animals in the shade, we came across plenty of elephants butting their heads against trees, hippos yawning out twisted laughter and a herd of buffalo big enough to be counted at a thousand, give or take a few. “That’s my favourite animal’ said Masters ‘because with that one…eish…the buffalo doesn’t mock charge, so if he comes for you, it’s already too late!” The rest of our group had already heard these tales in Chobe, spending their first night on safari wide awake as buffalo entered the campsite and Masters’ tales repeated in their minds.
On the road between Savuti and Khwai we watched green open spaces turn to long yellow grasses and closed-in mopane forest before stopping for tea in open grasslands of the Mababe Depression. The landscape was yellow and the sky a blazing blue that formed mirages on the horizon. “As soon as the rain starts, this place is green, green, green and full of thousands of zebra and wildebeest.” It was hard to imagine that we were only a few weeks away from a complete landscape change that would come with the first rains.
Arriving in Khwai, Masters found us seven lions under a tree, across the road from two signs pointing in opposite directions. “Welcome to Chobe” on the left and “Moremi Game Reserve – 20kms” on the right with no fences in between to impede the animals’ movements.
The lions were almost impossible to see, even as we stared straight at them camouflaged in the yellow grass. “It’s because I eat mayonnaise” Masters reminded us. As we jumped out of the vehicle on the Khwai River for sundowners, there was a burst of activity on the radio and Masters bundled us back in the car “There’s a leopard over that way…let’s go!” As the sun dipped towards the horizon, we bumped along off-road and came upon a female leopard making contact calls. We watched her as she jumped up on branches, circumnavigated termite mounds and prowled around the vehicle. Heading over to our campsite in the now pitch-black night, Masters told us to look for shining eyes as he moved his flashlight across the bush. Impala, impala…more impala, then suddenly several pairs of eyes caught the light and we found ourselves amidst ten or so spotted hyena fighting over the carcass of a baby elephant. We sat and watched as their curved ears caught the torchlight and they pulled meat from the carcass, rocking it back and forth in a little tug of war. “See?’ says Masters “Bushways watching Bushways!”
Just as we’d thought we were done for the night, a civet ran across the road in a spotted blur and we arrived back at our campsite to find our tents made up, our showers ready and food almost on the table.
Over dinner we discussed food, “I don’t understand how you foreigners each so much’ Masters said piling the mayonnaise on his dinner ‘if we do that, we get fat.” We tried to protest that people don’t normally eat us much as they do on safari, but he cut us off, ‘did you eat your mayonnaise? If we don’t see anything tomorrow, you know who to blame!” By now, Masters has made his point and everyone around the table takes a spoonful.
The next day we see the hyenas again, sleeping under bushes as vultures move in on the baby elephant. In the daylight we can see the tiny protrusions of the elephant’s milk tusks from the skull. We see waterbuck, giraffe, zebra, red lechwe, hippos, warthog, Egyptian geese, bateleur eagles and saddle-billed storks. We stop for a mokoro excursion in the afternoon and everyone comes back with water lily necklaces and hats. That night we see the spotted hyena again, munching on baby elephant for the second night in a row.
On our last night we’re a little sad to think it’s back to the real world where we don’t find ourselves in the middle of herds of antelope, elephant, wildebeest and buffalo every day. We hear hyena calling in the night and lions roaring close by in the morning. We’re all excited over breakfast, hoping to catch the lions before we leave.
For a long time we find nothing. We visit the spot where we found the lions last. Nothing. We drive several tracks looking for spoor. Nothing. We turn the next corner and meet a vehicle hurtling down the track, the guide behind the wheel motioning for us to follow. We pick up the pace and arrive at a clearing in the bush where two lionesses are running across the clearing, herding their cubs off. “This is interesting’ says Masters ‘they’re nervous about something.” He moves the vehicle and we see three big male lions in the bushes. “I think they’re trying to kill the cubs so they can mate with the females” he says. We watch as the lioness lead their cubs quickly off, stopping, looking over their shoulders and moving further into the brush. Masters moves the vehicle to where he thinks they may emerge from the shrub and sure enough, a few minutes later they walk right past us. Masters giggles and gets on the radio ‘they’re walking towards our campsite’ he says, ‘I need to radio the camp staff to get in the car.”
“I think they might go to the river for a drink’ says Masters, putting the car in gear. It’s a guess that pays off. As Masters parks by the river we wait a little while and sure enough, the lions emerge. “The girls might just take their cubs across the river for safety. Those big male lions will try to track them. This isn’t something you see often, cats don’t like getting wet and crocodiles are a threat to them too.”
The lioness round up their cubs and take them to the narrowest part of the river, belly-flopping into the water and beginning to paddle. Very soon, all nine are treading over to the other side. We’re feeling a bit inspired and all cheer ‘mayonnaise!’ as the lions emerge looking soggy and worried before disappearing into the Moremi Game Reserve on the other side of the Khwai River. A moment later we’re also on the road out of Khwai, heading back to the real world on the calcrete road to Maun.
Bushways Fully Serviced Mobile Safari
6 Nights in Khwai, Savuti & Chobe
Combine with: Victoria Falls and the Okavango Delta on our 10N Authentic Lodge & Mobile with optional extension to Meno a Kwena on the Boteti River/Makgadikgadi NP.
Access: from Maun or Kasane/Vic Falls or Livingstone with Northbound and Southbound departures throughout the year.