Breakdown in Botswana

Breakdown in Botswana

Dear Diederek
Thank you for loaning us your bucket-of-bolts rooftop tent 4wd.
We’ve left the driveshaft on the side of the road.
Here are the GPS co-ordinates.
Watch out for the lions 🙂

Night was falling fast. The Mopani trees were silhouettes now, concealing everything from steenbok to donkey to elephant, all potential dangers on the road to Maun.

We shouldn’t have been on this road. Hell, we shouldn’t have been on any road. We should have just finished our dinner of pap and sous, washed down with cabernet sauvignon. We should be starting to skewer our marshmallows to roast over the dying embers of the fire, sipping Old Brown Sherry. We should be listening to the quiet of the bush, anticipating every leaf crackle, aware of our proximity to the real Wild. We should be at Khwai development campsite, a wilderness area on the edge of the Okavango Delta.

Our trip to Bostwana was drenched in nostalgia. It was our first return since leaving 14 years ago. We chose to travel through the sparsely populated centre and north of the country with rooftop tents and little else. My mum and I had painstakingly planned every leg of the trip: knowing where we could get fresh food, where we would have to bring water, and where we would have no phone signal. The expedition was a steep learning curve for the obsessive planner; as it so happens, one really cannot plan for every contingency.

Despite no bedding in the tents and no functioning seatbelts in the back, we were trekking through MMBA (miles and miles of bloody Africa) with high spirits and reasonable success. Up to Maun, we had tar roads, phone signal, fuel stations and fairly frequent towns. After Maun, it would be dirt and bush. Africa would be extremely loud and incredibly close.

When we set out from Boteti, our last campsite before passing Maun, we did so at a leisurely pace. We watched the sunrise over the almost completely dry riverbed. Every bottle, canteen and container we had was filled with sweet fresh water. We had our last showers for two days, relishing the hot running water. The trip to Kwai would take a maximum of four hours, including a stop in Maun for fresh fruit and vegetables. We would be there well before dark, in time to set up camp and cook dinner without tempting any predators to join us.

The road turned to dirt not long after leaving Maun. Bouncing over corrugations, we kept an eye out for game, without much luck. Entering the Moremi game reserve this changed; we started to see giraffe and elephant. Lots of elephant.

These ones acted differently to any elephant we’d experienced before: they were thinner and wilder, much less comfortable with cars and roads than their counterparts in other national parks. They crossed the road at speed, often emerging from the dense Mopani forest out of nowhere. If a car happened to be in the path, it would almost certainly come off second best: not a thrilling prospect. Eyes peeled for elephant torpedos, we continued with caution.

By this point, our GPS ETA was steadily jumping out. Alarm bells, we had missed a turn quite a while back, probably while watching out for elephant herds. Turning around was the only option; going forward would add two hours on to the trip. Arriving after dark would make us potential lion bait. We backtracked to find our missed turn: a small track, barely a road, that created dissent among the four of us: is this really it? Blind faith in the GPS won out and we turned down our track, half expecting it to peter out, leaving us stranded and surrounded by Mopani and elephant.

With jubilation, we reached a main(ish) road (kind of) and put pedal to the metal, determined to arrive by 5:30 with sunset being at 6:30. Thundering down the road, hurtling towards the middle of nowhere, we were abruptly arrested by the sound of something grievously and loudly amiss from the undercarriage of our car. Our stomachs and moods collectively dropped through our chassis. Immediate conclusion was a tyre, so we sprang into action, ready to best the world record for a tyre change in the middle of the African bush, on full lion alert. However, all four tyres were intact.

Under the car we had a giant stick of metal dragging on the ground: the universal joint on the driveshaft had sheared (Dad knowledge), leaving the rear driveshaft hanging. After some discussion, it was decided that we could detach the driveshaft and continue in two-wheel drive to the campsite, and turn back to Maun in the morning. Beyond Khwai it would be impossible to drive without 4wd.

Dad and Brother, car-savvy man and spanner boy, went about detaching the drive shaft. Mum and I, armed with two cap guns apiece, were on animal watch, because no one wants to be lion food as well as stranded. With only one (false) alarm raised, we hefted the drive shaft into the back of the car, and continued onwards, at speed, painfully aware that getting bogged in sand would mean being stuck all night in an elephant crossing corridor.

Arriving at the track to the campsite, we were confronted with the deep sand we’d dreaded, and had to make the heart breaking decision to give up our destination and make the return trip to Maun, now perilous with the sun setting and night falling.

Our light-hearted joking was now sporadic, and tinged with hysteria. The rollercoaster day had taken its toll, and pure disappointment was setting in. We still were in danger; hitting livestock after dark was very likely. We’d just hit the tar road when a cow started crossing in front of us.

“I have no brakes.”

Dad pumped the pedal with no results. Oh shit shit shit shit.

Gears and handbrake it is then.

We crawled into Maun with nerves as raw as a fresh lion kill. The sign for Audi Camp was the most welcome sight. Booking into bedded tents for the night and eating at the restaurant was starkly different from what we had planned. We didn’t get to Kwai that night. We didn’t get there the following night. Our Okavango experience was snatched by ill fate and a faulty universal joint.

On opening a beer that travelled the bumpy, eventful road from Boteti to (almost) Kwai and back to Maun, Michael (brother) uttered: “Shaken, not stirred.”

A sentiment shared by all.

Photos provided by the author

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