The off-road trails through Botswana and Namibia per­fectly en­cap­su­late Africa’s ma­jes­tic out­doors.

4 x 4 Australia - - Ex­plore - WORDS AND PHO­TOS RON AND VIV MOON

THE HERD was ag­i­tated: ears were flap­ping, raised heads were swing­ing one way and then the other, and dust was swirling around stomp­ing feet. We had seen what an an­gry ele­phant can do to a Hilux a few years back in Kruger Na­tional Park, so we pulled to a halt on the nar­row track. You need to treat ele­phants with a huge de­gree of re­spect, and keep­ing one’s dis­tance is a good start. Rob, our mate who was driv­ing, slipped the Hilux into re­verse, prepar­ing for a hasty re­treat.

Slowly the herd be­gan to move away from the wa­ter, their thirst sa­ti­ated, but they were in no hurry to clear the track. The ma­tri­arch still watched us in­tently, ears wide, trunk up­lifted, all the while mak­ing sure her brood was safe and happy and work­ing their way into the sanc­tu­ary of the thick mopane scrub. As we edged along the track most of the herd had van­ished into the thick bush. Heart rates slowly came back to nor­mal as we con­tin­ued on the sandy road.

We were on a side track around a flooded sec­tion of dirt road near the town of Maun, south of the Mababe Gate of the Chobe Na­tional Park, head­ing to the tourist out­post and gate­way to the famed Oka­vango Delta. The an­nual flood of the Delta was oc­cur­ring and ten­drils of wa­ter were push­ing through the parched land and across the main track, hence our de­tour. With the wa­ter came mobs of wild an­i­mals look­ing for fresh food or easy prey. This was life and death in the African bush, as it has al­ways been.

Our trip – a fam­ily sab­bat­i­cal or­gan­ised by our son – be­gan two weeks ear­lier at the lux­ury Swala Camp in a re­mote sec­tion of the ele­phant-loaded Tarangire Na­tional Park in north­ern Tan­za­nia. We did the tourist thing for the next week, tak­ing in the in­cred­i­bly var­ied ex­trav­a­ganza of wildlife in the Ngoron­goro Crater and the de­lights of Gi­raffe Manor in Nairobi, be­fore fly­ing south to Vic­to­ria Falls and the Sussi & Chuma camp on the banks of the Zam­bezi.

Here our hire ve­hi­cles – a V6-petrol-pow­ered Hilux and a 76 Se­ries Cruiser with the 1HZ en­gine – were wait­ing for the rest of our ad­ven­ture.

We crossed into Botswana at the hec­tic bor­der post at Kazun­gula and took the short ferry ride across the Zam­bezi. A few fan­tas­tic days at Sanc­tu­ary’s Chobe Chilwero Camp fol­lowed be­fore we set off through desert coun­try on our drive south – and that en­counter with the ele­phants.

We stopped in this re­mote area for a cou­ple of days, savour­ing a place where few trav­ellers pull up for more than a brief rest or, at most, an overnight stop. There were en­coun­ters with ele­phants, hip­pos and more. With no other tourists to crowd us, the girls spent an hour with a young leop­ard that lin­gered just me­tres from their car. We had ear­lier split into ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ ve­hi­cles for the day and told them not to fol­low us; they were elated and told us end­lessly about the mag­nif­i­cent, usu­ally elu­sive beast which we had missed com­pletely. Such are the va­garies of wildlife watch­ing.

Ac­cess into the Oka­vango when the flood is push­ing deep into the desert is by plane and boat, with road and track ac­cess ex­tremely lim­ited. How­ever, once you’re on an is­land in the Delta, as we were af­ter a 20-minute flight, move­ment was pos­si­ble only in mod­i­fied Cruis­ers run­ning 9x16-inch tyres on split rims.

At times we ploughed through wa­ter for kilo­me­tres, and it’s no won­der the ser­vice sched­ule on these hard­work­ing rigs – more like boats than trucks – is ex­treme, with oil changes and greas­ing of wheel bear­ings needed ev­ery cou­ple of weeks. Ev­ery year af­ter the tourist sea­son, the run­ning gear is to­tally re­built.

We stayed at the lux­u­ri­ous Baines’ Camp (named af­ter Thomas Baines, the artist who also painted in Aus­tralia when he was a mem­ber of the 1855 A.C Gre­gory Ex­pe­di­tion across the top of the con­ti­nent) and the lit­tle less ex­trav­a­gant Stan­ley’s Camp, savour­ing the in­cred­i­ble ex­pe­ri­ence of this wa­tery won­der­land, which is often de­scribed as ‘Africa’s last Eden’. While wildlife is plen­ti­ful, we’ve found af­ter four trips to the Delta (not all as lux­u­ri­ous as this one) that the wildlife isn’t as easy to find or see as, say, in Chobe.

Back at Maun af­ter our Delta ad­ven­ture we said good­bye to half our group. They were head­ing for Jo­han­nes­burg and flights home while four of us slipped into the Hilux for a three-week jour­ney through Namibia. This was to be a low-key af­fair, with a mix of ac­com­mo­da­tion and camp­ing in places as di­verse as na­tional parks, lo­cal ho­tels, game farms, pri­vate re­serves and guest­houses. Why such eclec­tic ac­com­mo­da­tion? On tag-along trips we ran in Africa a few years ago, trav­ellers loved both the va­ri­ety and the chance to meet other trav­ellers, as well as lo­cal farm­ers and work­ers, all of whom pro­vided dif­fer­ent in­sights into life in Africa.

We spent a cou­ple of days in Etosha Na­tional Park, one of the great parks of Africa, in the desert of the coun­try’s north. A vast pan – sim­i­lar to Lake Eyre, al­though a bit smaller – forms the heart of the re­serve, but around it ebbs and flows an in­cred­i­ble amount of wildlife wan­der­ing from one wa­ter­hole to an­other. Small herds of ele­phant, many groups of gi­raffe, sprightly an­telopes and gazelles, ze­bra, warthogs and, if you’re lucky, black and white rhino. Of course, preda­tors are there too, from jack­als that show no fear of lions, to de­light­ful bat-eared foxes, snappy mon­gooses, timid chee­tahs and, sur­pris­ingly, a large num­ber of leop­ards.

From Etosha our route took us through the dry desert coun­try of the Himba peo­ple, tra­di­tional cat­tle herders who were hav­ing a hard time be­cause of the drought that gripped the coun­try. The towns are mag­nets for a mix of cul­tures and peo­ple, the most strik­ing be­ing the semi-naked Himba and the im­mac­u­lately groomed Herero women who stand out in the fin­ery of their full-length dresses and wide, cow-horn-style head­gear.

We slipped through the Namib­ian tourist en­clave of Swakop­mund, a coastal town rich in colo­nial Ger­man her­itage. The town, cooled by the South At­lantic Benguela Cur­rent, of­fers fine restau­rants, beach­side de­lights and a re­prieve from the heat that dom­i­nates much of Namibia.

From here we headed south through desert coun­try that grew drier with ev­ery pass­ing mile, and we crossed the Tropic of Capri­corn. Then the coun­try be­gan to change with short, wiry grass cover­ing the rolling plains, and we started see­ing gems­bok, spring­bok and ze­bra, even though we were far from any re­serves or pro­tected area. We stopped at the small vil­lage of Soli­taire, just a scat­ter­ing of build­ings around the road­house and bak­ery. It didn’t of­fer cus­tomers much in the way of choice, but the cof­fee wasn’t half bad.

Next morn­ing we en­tered the vast Namib-nauk­luft Na­tional Park, which cov­ers more than 50,000km² and is known for the Sos­susvlei Dunes, some of which are among the world’s tallest, tow­er­ing more than 300 me­tres above the sand plain that sur­rounds them. It was early morn­ing, the sun had just come up be­hind us and white clouds hung amongst those red-sand gi­ants. A spec­tac­u­lar and some­what eerie sight, it was one we had never seen be­fore. Feel­ing over-en­er­getic, we climbed up Dune 45, a baby of just 85 me­tres. The as­cent left us hot and pant­ing in the cool, mist-laden air, but the ef­fort was worth it, the view from the dune’s sharpedged crest mag­nif­i­cent.

The road con­tin­ues deeper into the dune field, end­ing at a car park. From there most peo­ple take a short walk to Sos­susvlei (a small ‘pan’ or dry salt lake sur­rounded by big dunes), or do the stren­u­ous climb to the top of ‘Big Daddy’; at 325 me­tres it’s one of the big­gest dunes in the area... but not the big­gest. That ac­co­lade goes to Dune 7, which at 388 me­tres above the plain makes our Big Red on the edge of the Simp­son look pretty small.

Over the next two days we headed west, stop­ping at some great pubs in small towns be­fore cross­ing the bor­der into South Africa and tak­ing in the Kgala­gadi Trans­fron­tier Park which strad­dles the bor­der of Botswana and South Africa. This park is well-known for its chee­tahs, but luck was not with us – we saw plenty of desert an­i­mals and lions, but the fast, spot­ted cats eluded us.

Af­ter more than a dozen trips to Africa, in­clud­ing a 10-month trek from the south­ern­most tip to the north­ern ex­trem­ity of this great con­ti­nent, we knew we’d be back – we sim­ply can’t stay away. What­ever you do, go to Africa at least’ll prob­a­bly feel the same!

1. Hard-to-spot lions laze away the day un­der a shady tree. 2. Mosi-oa-tunya (The Smoke that Thun­ders), also known as Vic­to­ria Falls. 3. African vil­lages are dy­namic

places to visit. 4. Watch­ing wildlife in Chobe. 3 4 The girls spent an hour with a young leop­ard that lin­gered me­tres from their car

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