Adventurer and photographer
When the smoke clears…
So there we were, watching park official Aubrey throw his toys all over our campsite, in the most colourful and expressive Afrikaans.
We had just arrived back at Polentswa camp after an excursion to Union’s End, in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP). We were late clocking back into camp, and with a strict ‘no driving after dark’ policy in place to aid the fight against rhino poachers, we had attracted the attention of Aubrey.
If Aubrey from Nossob were a pressure cooker, he’d have exploded already.
“I want you out of this park! Out!” he shouted.
But before Mr Aubrey has his final say, let’s backtrack a few days, to the start of what promised to be an epic journey in a Suzuki Jimny, a Mitsubishi Pajero, a Jeep Wrangler and a Kia Sorento. And two Bruces from Australia, too.
DAY 1: The easy stuff
We left a chilly Joburg in our rear-view mirror, armed with plenty of biltong – clearly the beefy stuff was well known to our Aussie travel companions because they insisted on stopping for some in Sannieshof.
Our band of travellers included John Rooth, better known as ‘Roothy’, one of Australia’s best-known adventurers. Also part of the gang was Gordon Shaw, a Scotsman turned Aussie.
And so, with Roothy fishing one piece of biltong out of his beard for every five that landed up in his mouth, we headed in the direction of the Red Sands Lodge and camp, situated just outside of Kuruman, for our overnight stop. As far as travelling days go, this was a just-around-the-corner 600km kind of day.
DAY 2: On the road again
Early the next morning, the campsite was a discreet buzz of activity. Fatigue was visible on some faces thanks to a suspected case of wine flu. But we had a long day ahead of us, and excitement was in the air.
Finally, everything was neatly stowed away and our convoy made haste in the direction of Van Zylsrus.
With the Jimny leading the way, we chased the horizon along the scenic, but potholed, R380 towards the R31.
About 30km from the small Kalahari town, we encountered our first stretch of gravel road. Thankfully it was well maintained and featured a combination of gravel and deep sand. While it was tough going at times, in the Kia it was all calm and plush thanks to its more comfortable independent suspension set-up.
Arriving at our Van Zylsrus pit stop, we brimmed the fuel tanks, replenished our dwindling snack supplies and pointed the convoy in the direction of Twee Rivieren.
Like a possum up a tree
This leg of the journey has more than 100km of badly corrugated gravel road, making progress quite slow. The Jimny, though, piloted by a heavy-footed Roothy, quickly left the rest of us coughing in his dust – clearly he fancies himself a bit of a Dakar rally type.
Since the Jimny was the only vehicle with a GPS loaded with Tracks4Africa, the rest of the convoy had to follow it. But when the little lorry’s dust trail disappeared in the distance, we were left without, well, direction.
The two-way radios also proved ineffective thanks to the hilly landscape. Finally we did manage to catch up to Roothy and the Jimny, waiting for us in the shade of a tree.
“Crikey Roothy, fancy a bit of off-road racing in a Jimny then?” someone covered in a layer of dust asked.
“Well mate, that’s how we drive back home,” he replied, as if us Saffers were supposed to know that Aussie overlanders reckon they are all in a race of sorts.
After performing a quick
check on all the vehicles, we were on the road again. But despite following the instructions on the road signage to a tee, we managed to get lost. Again.
Soon we found ourselves on private property that strictly forbade the use of any motorised vehicle, and were faced with a worthy adversary for the Kia – a very deep sand track.
This posed a problem. The Kia was the only so-called soft-roader on the trip (with no transfer case and not a lot of clearance to work with). It also had its stock 19-inch wheels with highway terrain tyres. It was surely going to get stuck.
We had to forge ahead regardless, and the Kia tackled the sand with gusto. It was a nervous affair, but it made it through without much drama.
After some extensive sand driving, we soon found our way back to the Twee Rivieren gate, where we were faced with a brand new challenge. Petrol? What petrol? Finding out that it was not necessary to present a passport at the border control if you intend to exit the park at the gate of entry, we completed the necessary paperwork and enquired about refuelling.
The friendly lady at the desk said that while they did have diesel, petrol might be a problem since the closest camp with any stock was Nossob, another 140km to the north.
This was not good news. Roothy’s enthusiastic driving had left the Jimny’s relatively small 40-litre fuel tank nearly dry. The only option was to tap into the Wrangler’s auxiliary tank to donate fuel to the Suzuki.
After the refuel, we headed in the direction of our overnight stop at Rooiputs. This short 25km stretch was bursting at the seams with wildlife.
Arriving at the camp we heard via the camp grapevine that a leopard had been spotted in the area. Not everyone shared the enthusiasm about seeing one, though, arguing that a canvas tent offers limited protection. DAY 3: Jump-starting, towing and POTJIE Rising early the next morning to tackle the more than 200km of corrugated gravel road ahead to Polentswa, the Pajero played dead. A door had been left ajar, leaving the interior lights activated, resulting in a drained battery.
Five minutes and a jumpstart later, the diesel engine came back to life.
With everyone ready, we jumped into the Jimny, and calculated that if we keep the variable valve timing (VVT) engine in its optimum range, we might just make it to the petrol station in Nossob, 110km to the north.
The added weight the Jimny was carrying didn’t help our petrol-saving effort and we were soon forced to try different fuel conservation strategies. Nothing seemed to make any difference, however.
Along the way, we spotted a leopard next to the road. It may have been the same leopard rumoured to be hanging around looking to eat tourists in canvas tents. But then again, it could just as well have been a casual day visitor. We continued onwards regardless.
Eventually the fuel light started blinking urgently – and we were still 60km from Nossob. Okay, so we knew we had lost that fight. The question was just how far we would make it before running out of petrol.
Surprisingly, we mustered another 40km before it finally spluttered to a halt. Standing next to the gravel road, Gordon, the Scottish Aussie, came to the rescue with the Pajero. He attached a snatch-strap to the front of the Jimny and provided
a quick tow briefing.
“Alright mate, when I show you this hand, you should stand on the brake. Oh, and don’t forget to keep to my right.”
And off we went, the Jimny being tugged along like a little Venter trailer behind the bigger Mitsubishi. We soon got used to it, though. But a few clicks later, drama: Gordon stuck his hand out of the window, indicating, in no uncertain terms, for us to brake, brake, brake.
Stomping on the brake pedal, we watched as the Pajero became airborne in front of us, courtesy of a ditch… thankfully though, we had scrubbed off just enough momentum for the Jimny to stay in contact with terra firma.
We finally reached Nossob, and more importantly the fuel station. Gordon, putting on some of his best Aussie swagger, duly proclaimed: “Gee mates! Have I got a story to tell! I rescued a Jimny!”
Reaching our final stop on the trip, Roothy volunteered to try his hand at oxtail potjie. Since the potjie had travelled all the way with us on the Kia’s Front Runner roof rack, it would have been a shame to not actually use it.
But while Roothy is considered to be a formidable bush cook on the other side of the world, making a potjie for a group of South Africans... well, that’s a whole different ball game.
“It’s really simple, isn’t it? It’s just mixing a bunch of veggies, some meat and you hope for the best,” the man with the big beard reasoned.
Suffice to say that Aussies should stick to rugby, cricket and didgeridoos. Although Roothy’s attempt was okay, he clearly needs to practise a bit harder at the potjie business.
DAY 4: The rough road
On the final day of our short adventure, we were greeted by a spectacular sunrise. The sun’s rays soon filled every nook and cranny of this barren landscape and whatever cold remained from the night before made way for temperatures soaring in the high 30s.
Our mission was simple: reach Union’s End on the Namibian border and hopefully see some members of the Big Five on the way. On paper, the 73km journey shouldn’t have taken more than two hours.
Piloting the Jeep Wrangler for this stretch, we soon encountered a very unpleasant corrugated dirt road. The Jeep, even with its tyres deflated to 1.4-bar, was shaking and rattling like you wouldn’t believe.
As a result, we had to slow to a crawl as each vehicle in the convoy was cursed with a chorus of a thousand rattling noises. It was so bad in fact, that talking on the radios became nearly impossible.
So we had to make a decision: Turn back and have a spot of lunch or endure the African massage. We opted for lunch.
The king of the Kgalagadi
After lunch, we deflated the tyres even more and stocked up on water before giving it another shot. A short while later, near the Kannaguass watering hole, we heard the bone-chilling roar of the infamous blackmaned Kalahari lion.
The roar reverberated through the plains. Birds, like in the movies, really fled in noisy panic from the nearby trees. Naturally, we went in search of the origin of the sound. A long search later, we admitted defeat – the lion was not in the mood for socialising.
And then the penny dropped: we had to be back at camp before sunset. Climbing behind the wheel of the Pajero, we studied the map and realised we had, in fact, landed up quite a distance from our camp, near Union’s End.
The clock was ticking and the sun was closing in on the horizon with more than 50km back to our Polentswa camp.
The strict curfew and hefty fines imposed by the park on visitors is not without good reason. The increase in rhino poaching has forced the park to limit traffic at night in order to easily spot a possible suspect vehicle after dark.
Clockwise from left: The skeletons of the Kalahari trees casting long shadows as the sun moves in on the horizon. Massive bird colonies are a common sight throughout the Kalahari. Nossob is one of the Kgalagadi’s main camps. The start of another scorching day in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park. Later that day, a 'ranger' accused us of being rhino poachers. But Aubrey, the 'ranger' missed one vital detail: there apparently aren't any rhino in the Kgalagadi.