6th June, Cape Town – Augrabies National Park. South Africa
On the 6th of June my grandson Leo and I were ready to leave for a fact-finding trip through northern Botswana and Namibia’s Zambezi region. The intention was to gather information for InfoMap’s yet to be released Zambezi map, and to check various details for our upcoming updated Botswana map too. At 5 am we climbed into my Ford Ranger 3.0 tdic, departed Cape Town in the dark and hit the N7 northbound. The sun rose by the time we reached Vanrynsdorp and turned onto the R27. By 3pm, and some 850km later, we had arrived at Augrabies Falls NP and pitched camp.
I had planned the trip not to coincide with the school holidays, as we did not want to make bookings in advance. This type of travelling gives one freedom to be spontaneous – and on this trip it all worked out! We found space at the end of every day. Sometimes you aren’t so lucky.
I have been stopping over in Augrabies NP on my travels north for years. The park offers well-maintained campsites with all facilities, chalets, a shop and a restaurant. For campers like us it’s a good start to a month away in the bush, and on this occasion the camp was fairly empty. I always find Augrabies’ arid landscape with its aloes and kokerbooms beautiful, and despite the low level of the Orange River the 60m Augrabies Falls never fail to impress.
7th June, Augrabies NP, South Africa – Two Rivers Camp, Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, Botswana
At sunrise the next morning, Leo and I headed out for a short walk along the gorge downstream from the Falls to Arrow Point, my favourite viewpoint in the park.
While packing up camp I realized that the back left tyre had a slow puncture – a screw stuck in the tread. No tragedy. We quickly plugged the hole, inflated the tyre with our ARB compressor and headed off to our next destination – the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park (KTP).
From Aubrabies NP to the Twee Rivieren gate / border control in the KTP is about a 360km drive. Leaving Augrabies we made our way east on the N14 to Upington, and from here northbound on the R360 tar road that leads across the first red dunes of the Kalahari and to the gates of the KTP. After passing the dusty village of Askam just off the R360, we proceeded to Molopo Lodge to drop off maps. Molopo has been around for years and is well established in the region. Apart from accommodation it also has a fuel station, bottle store and internet café. Next we went to see Prof Anne Rasa at Kalahari Trails Nature Reserve – a favourite stopover of mine. Visitors and overnight guests can take one of her dune walks and learn about the local ecology: everything from the dune systems, trees, insects, scorpions, snakes, large mammals and of course, meerkats. Prof Rasa is a fountain of knowledge of all things Kalahari. Our last stop was to drop off maps at Kalahari Lodge, just a stones throw from the entrance of the KTP. Offering a wide range of chalets and campsites as well as a supermarket and a great restaurant, this relatively new establishment has already become an important hub for visitors to the KTP.
As our plan was to exit the South African side of the KTP into Namibia via the Mata Mata gate / border post, we were hoping to find accommodation in Mata Mata Restcamp itself. The drive from Twee Rivieren to Mata Mata is 115km (3hrs driving at our speed of around 35kph), and we had made our calculations to just give us enough time to get to Mata Mata before dark. However, once we reached the park we found that all the camps at which we had wanted to stay were booked. So we chose to spend two nights at Two Rivers on the Botswana side of the park. On this note, visitors who plan to exit via a different gate to that which they arrived, have to spend a minimum of two nights in the KTP to avoid the park being used as a commercial transit route.
The Two Rivers campsite is fenced (unusual for campsites on the Botswana side of the KTP – however its worth noting that technically this camp is just ‘outside’ of the actual KTP fence) and consists of 4 A-frames with one shared ablution block. If you want any supplies or fuel you have to go the shop at the Twee Riverien Restcamp on the South African side, located about a kilometre away. One of the practical gains of merging South Africa’s Kalahari Gemsbok National Park and Botswana’s Gemsbok National Park into the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, is that travel between the two sides of the park does not require typical border procedures. Once you’re in, you’re in. Its only on entering and exiting that passports are required.
Two Rivers was perfect for us as we were the only people there. After making camp we went on a short drive and saw a cheetah lying amongst the dry grass, not far from the Samevloeiing waterhole.
8th June, Two Rivers Camp, KTP, Botswana
We met with the manager of the Twee Rivieren Restcamp shop, Johan, to deliver maps. The shop is a vital place to stock up with supplies before heading further afield. There are only three shops in the whole KTP – in the SANParks Restcamps of Twee Rivieren, Nossob and Mata Mata. Twee Rivieren’s shop offers the widest range of items. They have a fair selection of basic foodstuff such as meat, some vegetables, tins, rice, bread mix, water, juice and so on. They also stock a range of practical items and curios too. Any other food must be bought before entering the park – preferably in Upington if one is entering from South Africa. The Twee Rivieren shop is also an important place to stock up with water as the drives can be long, the days hot and water in short supply (if any) outside of the three SANPark’s Restcamps. The general rule of thumb in this part of the world for water-use (if you have to carry your own) is 5l per person per day, PLUS a little extra in case of any emergency. The KTP’s shops also sell wood. Visitors to the KTP are strictly prohibited from collecting and burning any wood originating in the park itself. In such an arid environment there are relatively few trees and the old dead wood that is lying about is a vital organic component in natures nutrient cycle.
Without any fixed agenda for the day, we spent our time lounging about, reading, playing cards and going for game drives. Before heading northwards on the Nossob gravel road in search of wildlife, we lowered our tyre pressure to 1.6bar in the front and 2.0bar at the back. Lowering tyre pressure helps on the sometimes corrugated sections of the gravel – its makes the drive more comfortable and also combats the creation of further corrugations. We drove for about 1.5 hours to the Melkvlei picnic site, where there are often lions to be seen. We didn’t however see anything other than the ‘usual suspects’ of springbok, gemsbok and hartebeest. On the otherhand we did meet an exited couple from London in their rented SUV who told us about a leopard sighting near Rooiputs. Their cockney accent was straight out of a Guy Ritchie movie and it was a struggle to understand a single word.
Back in the camp I started supper at 5 pm. As the sun was due to set at around 5.45 pm we generally tried to eat before it got dark. I love travelling and camping in winter although it does comes with the disadvantages of short days and long, very cold nights. You really need a big campfire to feel warm enough to sit outside – otherwise it is the sleeping bag.
9th June, Two Rivers Camp, KTP, Botswana – Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch, Mariental, Namibia
We left the Two Rivers campsite at 8 am, making our way northwest up the gravel road running along the dry Auob river valley. The road itself was in relatively good condition as the park’s management had obviously graded it recently. There are times however when the gravel can be very corrugated. After about three and a half hours of driving, including sighting six giraffe in the vicinity of the Craig Lockhart waterhole, we reached Mata Mata Restcamp and the border post to Namibia. I always enjoy staying at Mata Mata with its waterhole, hide and good camping facilities. SANPark’s also offer more exclusive chalets at Mata Mata, which although I’ve never stayed at, I heard glowing reports of. Game viewing in the area can be excellent with cheetah, lion, leopard and obviously the (introduced) giraffe. The camp’s shop has also been refurbished recently.
The formalities at the border were hassle-free and only took a few minutes. Once on the C15 in Namibia we drove through beautiful Kalahari dunes and past one of my favourite camping spots, Terra Rouge. This accommodation is located in the beautifully stark Auob river valley, set amongst old trees. However as our trip was a fact-finding mission, and as we only intended to stay at places that were new to us, we continued onwards past the small town of Gochas and on to Stampriet. With only two hours of daylight left we decided to stop for the night at Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch. As we were driving along the D1268, we found a newly crashed double cab between the rocks, next to the road. The four occupants (French tourists) were sitting or crouching next to the wreck. They were sweaty, dusty and in shock. Some local people had already stopped their car a few minutes before and had taken control of the situation. As the tourists were booked into Bagatelle we offered to alert the lodge of the incident. It seems that accidents on this particular stretch of road (about 7.5km from the turnoff to Bagatelle as you go over the dry riverbed) are not uncommon as the road comes over a hill and then veers slightly right. Too much speed and you struggle to hold the road.
We checked into the Bagatelle and were given the last available campsite between the dunes, with our own little ablution block containing a hot water, a shower and toilet. Each campsite is quite far from the next, giving a feeling of isolation. Bagatelle also offer a host of activities aimed largely, I imagine, at a large foreign tourist market (rather than SA self drivers) including walking with the local San, cheetah feeding and horse riding. Bagatelle have many free roaming species on their ranch including kudu, wildebeest, gemsbok, giraffe, zebra and springbok.
Sitting around the fire that night looking at the Milky Way, we were very conscious and grateful for being alive and in such a marvellous location. Although Bagatelle’s camping is more pricey than standard camping fees, in my experience it offers a lot in terms of location for the price you pay.
10th June, Bagatelle Kalahari Game Ranch, Mariental – Maori Camp, Grootfontein, Namibia
We started our long day’s drive from Bagatelle to Maori Camp near Grootfontein. From the D1268 we joined the C21, turning east onto the C25. We filled up in Leonardville and headed north on the C20 to Gobabis. Driving these out-of-the-way gravel roads gives me such a sense of space and freedom. Namibia’s gravel roads are well maintained and although the going might be slower I prefer them to tarred highways. After Gobabis and about 5km on the B6, we turned north again on the C22. Just before Otjinene we realized that things were different to our map and GPS system. It seems that there are major roadworks happening in this area. The Namibian Roads Department is upgrading and tarring the C22 and also building a new highway (B14) that will connect Gobabis and Grootfontein. Most parts are already finished although on some sections one still has to travel on the dusty service road next to the highway.
After 720km we arrived safely at Maori Campsite just outside the town of Grootfontein and were welcomed by owner Peter Reimann and his dog Petrus. Maori is quiet with a relaxed setup, and we felt quickly at home. Camping is very inexpensive and the facilities (campsite, hot showers, toilets) are good. There are trees for shade and Peter sells firewood and delicious game meat from a small shop.
Maori was recommended to us by Johan Snyman who has written two indispensible books on travel in Damaraland and Kaokoland. His books are filled with information on the roads and tracks in the areas as well as places to stay, people, animals, plants and a ton of other information.
11th June, Maori Camp, Grootfontein – Mahangu Safari Lodge, Okawango, Namibia
In the night it became obvious that we were staying on a farm as I woke to roosters, geese and donkeys all making a hell of a noise. Neither Leo nor I really minded all that much though, and fell back asleep. That morning was very chilly – maybe 6 degrees celsius. Peter told me that sometimes morning temperatures drop just below 0 in winter (July).
We said goodbye to Maori Camp and headed up the B8 highway. On the way we stopped at Roy’s Camp to look around. Roy’s has a great atmosphere, with the capacity to hold more people and larger groups perhaps than Maori. It also has some really nice looking chalets and a swimming pool too. The campsites have hot water and clean toilets. There is also a restaurant which I’ve heard good things about. It seems like a nice option on the drive between either Windhoek and Rundu, or Etosha and the Zambezi region.
From Roy’s we had three options: turn east onto the C44, pass Tsumkwe and enter Botswana at the tiny border post of Dobe; or turn north at Tsumkwe and negotiate the 4×4 tracks of the Khaudum National Park, slowly making our way northwards; or stay on the B8 highway via Rundu and explore the area around the Mahango Game Park. We decided on the third option having done the Khaudum trip last year.
After 490km on the B8 we arrived at Divundu and the gateway to the Bwabwata National Park. Bwabwata is an unsual park in that it is unfenced, has the B8 highway running through it and is home to thousands of people. It seems to serve as both a home and corridor for animals moving between northern Botswana and southern Angola. This is free roaming elephant country – as well as being home to a host of other animals too. Visitors to this area need to take care while driving on the B8 highway as animals do cross the roads from time to time.
From Divundu we took a gravel road south and soon checked into Mahangu Safari Lodge – which Peter from Maori Camp had recommended. And what a place it was! We were given our own site right on the Okavango River. Setting up camp we watched a herd of elephants at the opposite side of the river, in Bwabwata itself. Leo went straight to the jetty in front of reception to cast his fishing line hoping for tiger fish. Even though he didn’t catch anything he came back later in a great good. That night the farm animal noises were replaced by the snorting and grunting of hippos.
Mahangu offers various accommodation options of chalets, safari tents and camping. Facilities are good, campsites have electricity and there is hot water. There is also a restaurant overlooking the river. The lodge offers various activities such as game drives, boat trips and fishing trips.
12th June, Mahangu Safari Lodge, Okawango, Namibia
The first look at the river in the morning was mind-blowing. The water was covered with early morning mist, the trees on the opposite shore showing like ghostly figures. The sun appeared and shot lances of light through both the trees and the mist. As I was weary of driving another day, and frankly preferred to stay here one more night, we hired a boat with a guide to take us upriver fishing. A big success! Not for the fishing mind you – Leo only had one bite – but for the landscape, animals and birds. Paradise! We passed Ngepi Camp with its famous funky open air toilets (among other things), dodged hippos, saw more elephants on the opposite shore and settled down to watch two giant kingfishers dart in the water and retrieve their sparkling booty.
That afternoon we went for a game drive in the Mahango Game Park. The road to the Muhembo border post (Namibia / Botswana) leads through this small park. As we planned on doing this same stretch the following day we opted to explore all the windy sideroads along the Okavango river. Returning to Mahangu we had our final supper and fell asleep, ready to tackle Botswana the next day. For me Mahangu Safari Lodge was one of the highlights of this whole trip and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to visitors to the Zambezi region.
Florian Thieme, InfoMap