A 4,000-kilometre self-driving road trip through South Africa, Botswana and Zimbabwe serves up spectacular scenery, magnificent wildlife and a mix of roadside camping and luxury safari lodges.
“Is this your first time in the Okavango?” asked Fred, our bush-ranging guide, as we climbed aboard his open-topped Toyota Land Cruiser with its comfy seats.
A supply of blankets was provided to keep our knees warm in the evening chill, and a stash of drinks and snacks for sundown.
Behind, the little Cessna Caravan roared off down the dirt runway in a cloud of dust.
Saving us a three-hour drive from Maun, the nearest town, Mack Air had hopped us here in 11 minutes.
Before us was a track through the bush to Sanctuary Retreats’ Stanley’s Camp, and the start of four of the best days I’ll ever have, viewing some of the most superb wildlife in Africa. Lions, leopards, hippos, hyena, even elusive cheetahs … all would soon seem like close friends. Well, maybe not the hyena.
But to answer Fred’s question, no, it was not my first time.
Botswana’s extraordinary Okavango wetlands – a delta the size of Wales, where a great river from Angola runs into the desert amid an Eden of greenery packed with grazing impala, zebra, elephants, giraffe, chirping insects, antelope of every kind, and alive with birdsong – was all there when I was young.
But not the airstrips, the guides, the tasteful lodges or the well-stocked minibars.
When I last visited, it was under the last days of British control, when to get into the heart of the Okavango was an expedition, not a holiday.
Back then, in the 1960s, I flew to Maun, just one dirt road and a collection of huts, on a battered Douglas DC-4 propeller plane. It was packed with rough canvas seats meant for mineworkers heading to and from South Africa.
Then it was a day or more driving in an old Ford pickup, getting stuck in the sand, to stay with family friends recruiting for the mines.
I remember the magic of a landscape like no other, where water meets far horizons that stretch into the Kalahari desert, the sun burns golden as it sets over the leadwood trees, and the stars are so bright you can walk by them. And the croaking of frogs in the night.
Would that magic still be there in an age when you can leave Britain after work one evening and be in the Okavango for a game drive and sundowner drinks the next?
This is a place now prized by – let’s face it – well-off tourists, who come in modest numbers to immerse themselves in the wildlife, the landscape and disgracefully comfortable accommodation.
At Sanctuary’s Chief’s Camp, where I finished my trip, my tent (though that’s too small a word) had two showers (one indoor, one out), a big bath, its own plunge pool (from which elephants sometimes drink), a free bar, a deck with outdoor bed, and indoors a vast bed regally draped in a mosquito net with its own fan.
All this, and wonderful staff, huge meals and those luxurious go-anywhere Toyotas to guarantee incredible sights.
Well, for me none of these changes has spoilt the Okavango. Rather, they have secured its protection by ensuring local people get jobs, there’s no pressure of numbers, and the wildlife can thrive. I loved every moment.
It was all the more special because it came at the end of something completely different: a 4,000-kilometre road trip through three countries, with many nights spent in a small tent, my partner under canvas on the roof of our vehicle, cooking our meals by moonlight over open fires. This was the southern Africa I grew up in, and which still feels like home.
First stop, South Africa
My journey started, however, with a lesson in tentcraft at Bushlore, the company from which we hired a four-wheel-drive rebuilt to resemble a Swiss Army knife.
Pull down a ladder, and a tent magically appears on the roof.
Open one side panel and there’s a row of carefully stowed mugs, pots and cutlery. Open another and you pull out a gas cylinder and screw-on burner.
There’s a small fridge, rubber mats and a hydraulic jack to get you out of deep mud, bedding, a water tank with a tap to fill the kettle – everything you need to be self-sufficient in the bush.
Our destination was Namibia, 1,300 kilometres to the west.
We spent two days driving through a South Africa few European tourists know, through monumental rain storms, ending with a night in tropical greenery at the African Vineyard Guest House (no tent required), on an island in the Orange River near Upington.
After a great breakfast (the first of many), we turned onto an empty dirt road (the first of many) and, via the breathtaking Augrabies Falls, headed for the border crossing (the first of many), where 22 iron-ore lorries queued as we had our passports stamped.
Into the deserts of Namibia
Now we were in a different land, one I wish I had discovered when young, a place of dunes, deserts, natural pools and paradise gardens in what look like arid canyons.
Namibia gripped me immediately as we drove through endless open plains, the tall grass glistening flaxen in the afternoon sun, foaming around the base of red rock hills – and then suddenly a plague of locusts, making the road slippery as our tyres crushed through them.
It was time to stop.
We could have camped, but signs pointed to Vastrap Guest Farm. Run by Hettie Steenkamp, there are simple but stylish rooms and iced glasses of excellent Windhoek lager on a farm that has been in her family since 1942.
It’s a 230-kilometre round trip to the nearest supermarket, she told us the next morning. But the birds were singing, the grass was green, the sheep fat, and the hills all around us called out to be explored.
“I might just stay and build a house here,” I said.
“You are welcome,” Hettie said. “Don’t be fooled by this, though,” she added, referring to the greenery. “It’s just rained after a nine-year drought.”
For days and nights, we travelled through Namibia’s magical lands. Here, you can drive for two hours and not see another soul. Every bend in the road brings a new view, a new spot for a roadside brew-up and endless places to put up a tent, light a fire, cook a steak, look at the stars and sleep nights interrupted only by the occasional howl of hyena.
At Aus, on the edge of the great Namib desert, we indulged again at Klein-Aus Vista’s Eagle’s Nest Chalets, built around vast granite boulders.
The next morning we set out early on well-marked walking trails. One of the joys of Namibia is that with a bit of confidence and a map, you don’t have to be confined to a car.
Mostly, though, we spent nights under canvas: first by the desert, at NamibRand Family Hideout, where for a small fee you get a pitch just below the dunes with no sign of humanity, but the comfort of a loo and a solar-heated shower. In the Naukluft Mountain Zebra National Park we pitched in a gorge beside a river. Exploring its upper reaches after a couple of hours’ walking, we cooled off in a deep pool in the milky limestone.
At dawn we walked the Olive Trail. Forget Tuscany: these wild olives grow in a tortured landscape of zig-zag gorges so narrow you can almost touch both sides as you scramble through. At one point, a chain offers a handhold as you edge toe-hole to toe-hole along a cliff above dark water.
On another farm, Isabis, Joachim Cranz welcomed us to his whitewashed home that could have been plucked from Germany – the country that once ruled Namibia – apart from the eland antlers over the door. We camped by a birdlife-rich lake, an oasis above the desert that lines Namibia’s coast, and explored a four-wheel-drive trail across his huge farm, crashing down rocky steps and through sandy streams.
By now our thoughts were turning to Botswana, and the long drive across Kalahari scrub to get there. We broke the journey in Windhoek, Namibia’s cheerfully serene little capital, and then, just short of the border, at another hospitable farm with cabins, Kalahari Bush Breaks. Where the lawn stops, wildness begins; on a pre-dinner walk we passed a herd of inquisitive giraffe.
Driving into Botswana
Passports stamped again, and podcasts easing the six-hour drive, we reached Maun before dark, handing over our car to a team from Bushlore.
From here we were in luxury, with four nights in the Okavango. We sat for hours by a family of lions, bored cubs tugging at their mothers’ ears before they marched into the dusk in search of a kill.
We saw leopards eat, and cheetahs play, and at night elephants brushed past as we slept.
The smaller things fascinated me too: termites that built seven-metre mud towers; fireflies; the tiny, yellow Smith’s bush squirrel that I swear could almost walk upside down across your ceiling; the banded mongoose; and everywhere mad male impalas in the middle of the rutting season, so obsessed with proving themselves they forget all danger and get snapped up for dinner.
At Chief’s Camp we had brilliant, informed guides, more good food and drink than we could believe, and learnt all about the annual floods that sweep through to turn grassland into lakes and thickets into islands, refreshing the vast natural reservoir on which this ecosystem depends.
Was it cheating, to spend nights in luxury? No. It was paradise. But as our Air Botswana plane flew us, home-bound, over the vast, savage lands beneath, I couldn’t help wishing I was back in my own little tent, wrestling with a sleeping bag, the embers of a fire outside and the sound of the African mourning dove flooding each dawn with music.
Two great African self-drive trips
Expert Africa (then Sunvil Africa) was the first operator into Namibia in 1992, and its managing director Chris McIntyre has written numerous Bradt guidebooks on the region. The team’s favourite itinerary for first-timers explores the Sossusvlei salt pan and the Namib desert, then takes in Damaraland’s wilderness, for rock engravings and desert elephants, before a safari in Etosha National Park.
Details Thirteen nights from AUD$3,400 per person, including car hire, some meals and activities (expertafrica.com), after flying into Windhoek, Namibia.
Zimbabwe and Botswana
Start on Botswana’s Chobe river for elephant action, then cross into Zimbabwe where the Victoria Falls steal even the animals’ thunder. Onwards to Hwange National Park (for lions, leopards, cheetahs and buffalos) and Matobo National Park where your focus moves to extraordinary rock formations and rhinos. Back into Botswana and it’s a quick “hello” to the giraffes of Francistown, then a leisurely couple of days in the Kalahari desert, walking the dunes and spotting meerkat. End in the Okavango.
Details Fifteen nights from AUD$6,250 per person, including domestic flights, car hire, some meals and game drives (responsibletravel.com). Fly into Kasane and out of Maun.
Matthew Parris was a guest of Abercrombie & Kent at Sanctuary Retreats (www.abercrombiekent.com.au) and otherwise travelled independently. Bushlore has 15 days’ 4×4 bushcamper rental from AUD$140 per day (bushlore.com)