IV. An Unforgettable Journey through Botswana & Zambia

After an eventful and relaxing stay at the wonderful Old Bridge Backpackers in Maun, Botswana we set off to the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, despite everybody lecturing us that we should avoid going there at all cost because of the heavy rain that has swamped the area and rendered most roads unpassable. Even the Central Kalahari game wardens were extremely reluctant to let us pass. They showed us pictures of what must have been an exhausting and expensive rescue and recovery mission. A family was overlanding in an MAN truck and had entered the park a couple of weeks earlier. They got hopelessly stuck in deep mud. They were stranded in the park for several days until a crane and two recovery trucks arrived, which were specially called from Johannesburg, South Africa. As a final desperate attempt, the head game warden gave us a detailed map of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and crossed out probably some 90% of the park area in order to illustrate where we shouldn’t drive due to weather conditions.

Unfortunately, the Central Kalahari is at its most enticing when travel there is most difficult. So it was only obvious that we didn’t listen. Of course, two German know-it-all amateur Unimog drivers entered unknown territory. No risk, no fun, right?! The Unimog did an excellent job at passing even through the deepest of waterholes. Diffs locks, 2nd gear and the Unimog slices through even the hardest of terrains like a knife through butter.

As we crested the dunes, the vastness of the famous Deception Valley lay before us, dancing with the breath of the wind and the waves of blonde-eared fresh bushman grass. The sight was awe-inspiring. Here, the road conditions were deceptively better and promised from the looks of it tar-like road conditions permitting us to continue our journey at our average pace in 5th gear and two-wheel-drive. Soon later we arrived at our planned campsite. We were the only guests. There were a couple of hours of sunlight left and so we decided to explore the nearby Deception Pan to observe the slow traffic of wildlife until sunset.

Since entering the park we had strong easterly winds pushing massive thunderclouds our way and finally, there would be no hiding. The storm came pouring down like a deluge. The sandy roads were completely covered in inches of water and soon it became impossible for us to determine where the road was going. Around 4 p.m. – it was still raining – disaster struck. The entire right side of the truck was buried in thick mud at least half a meter deep. We had driven too far to the right and must have left the road which we were not able to see due to the heavy rains. On top, we were in 5th gear and driving without locked differentials. 10 tonnes of Unimog came to an abrupt halt and the engine immediately stalled. I couldn’t believe it. We got stuck all because of a simple driving mistake and a foolish attempt to cross the Central Kalahari.

As soon as the rain stopped we assessed the situation. Hope remained that we would be able to get out of this predicament by ourselves. The left wheels were still on the hard road and surprisingly the axles still had some ground clearance left, meaning that the two right tyres would have to be freed from the mud “only”. We immediately seized our only chance and started digging amidst a dramatic scenery of distant thunderclouds and final light rays of an inevitable sunset that provided us with the crucial light to work.

Just before sunset – we had been digging for almost three hours – we started our attempt. My dad went into first gear and he tried to reverse out of the situation. Like slick tyres, the right wheels spun aggressively through the mud gaining no traction. Instead of moving backwards the truck now moved sidewards deeper into the mud. The engine eventually stalled, and it was clear that all the hard labour has been for nothing. Exhausted and terribly disappointed we concluded that we should try to find some rest. The truck and therefore also our cabin was tilted at an angle of 12 degrees. Preparing a dinner would be terribly awkward and so we concluded to consume our final reserves of biltong as well as nuts and raisins.

I think I have never reached a physical as well as a mental challenge as demanding as this. My entire body was fatigued from the intense and desperate shovelling in the fading hopes of rescue. I was angry and frustrated with myself, bitter, and furious as well as anxious about our predicament. Why on earth did we enter this park!? And why didn’t we listen? However, there would be no going back. And so there was little else to do than try to sleep amidst horrifying thoughts that turned into nightmares that this would be the very end of our adventure.

At break of dawn, we got up swiftly. Despite hardly any sleep we carefully prepared a plan. We were lucky. It didn’t rain during the night and a cloudless sky was a welcoming observation. Again the entire right side of wheels would have to be cleared completely from mud. Then we would place sandboards just under and behind the tyres in order to increase traction. In addition, we would install bush winches. A bush winch is connected to the front or rear wheels, with the winch rope attached to the bush winch at one end and fastened to a tree or bush at the other. The winch rope then winds onto the bush winch as the wheel spins. While all of this planning made me feel a little more hopeful again there were cubic meters of mud to be dug from underneath the truck in order to install our fancy recovery tools. As there is no such thing as a Plan B we saw to our master plan immediately. We started digging at 6 a.m. and a couple of hours later we reached some visible progress already. Sand boards had been placed under the two left wheels of the car – those that had been spared most of the mud and we were able to connect the left and right bush winch to a thick bush some 30 meters behind the truck. The rear right tyre had been freed almost entirely. However, the worst part still remained. The front right tyre was almost completely covered and surround by mud (see picture) and the exhaustive digging would have to continue during the merciless heat of the sun. At this point, I had reached a level of fatigue that is only comparable to those terrifying 2k erg tests. A 2 km sprint on a rowing ergometer that we carried out during my college years of rowing on a regular basis to assess fitness and strength.

Yet, we were lucky again. Around 1 p.m. my dad heard a distant roaring of an engine. We both jumped up and blocked the road in high hopes to see a car. Indeed, it was a passing 4×4. The car stopped and two young men, Marcus and Rafal from Berlin stepped out of the car. Both of them offered their full support and at a tearing pace, we were able to place the remaining sand boards underneath the two right tyres. This was it. Our final attempt. We triple checked the car from every angle. My dad started the engine and let it run for several minutes in order to warm up the engine. “Good luck, dad! Let’s do this!” – Those were my final words I passed to my dad before stepping away from the car with Marcus and Rafal. It was almost too terrifying to watch as I anxiously pressed my hands against my head. Suddenly you could hear the swift change into first gear and the low grinding noise of the motor carrying its ferocious power to all four wheels evenly. Slowly but with persistence, the Unimog started to accelerate and shortly after the vehicle slingshot out of the mud and back onto the road. As if lighting struck, I jumped into the air and screamed my lungs out of happiness and joy. We left the park shortly after and headed to Kazungula for repairs and maintenance. We did it! The adventure continues…

We arrived Senyati Safari Camp a couple of days later. Here, we noticed that one of the wheel-hub gears was leaking oil. Also, two fan belts were in direct contact and almost destroyed themselves. The fan belts were no big problem. Replacing and fixing it was easy. However fixing the oil leakage for one of the wheels was a different matter. But for some reason, we weren’t very worried. After our uplifting stay in the Central Kalahari, there was little that could shock us. And indeed, it is almost unbelievable, with the help of four wonderful South Africans (many thanks to Kevin, Ilona, Andre and Barbara), who were camping just next to us we found Ken Webster. A formidable mechanic in Kazungula who owns a Unimog himself (#TIA!). He was happy to help and all too soon we were back on the road.

The Kazungula border from Botswana to Zambia is a bit of a hassle compared to our surprisingly easy entry from Namibia to Botswana. The paperwork and process on the Botswana side were a piece of cake – hardly any queue to have our passports stamped for exit, and to get a temporary export permit for our Botswana-registered vehicle. However, on the Zambian side, things got a bit more difficult. When approaching the border, anyone looking remotely like a tourist will be approached by one of the many Zambian ‘fixers’ persistently offering help. We tried to resist but eventually gave in. The process on the Zambian side is confusing, spread out among multiple buildings, with few obvious instructions. And at least two of the fees (council and carbon tax) must be paid in cash in Kwacha, which is hard to get outside of Zambia. However, we eventually managed to get all the necessary documents and were allowed to enter Zambia.

After experiencing the luscious Zambian landscapes of Victoria falls and an amazing rafting trip on the wild Zambezi River, our next event was to give wildlife, especially cats, another chance in Zambia’s famous South Luangwa National Park. So far our game viewing has been somewhat limited due to the thick bush which provides plenty of hiding spaces and narrows the view substantially. During our two-day stay in the over 9,000-square-metre-large park and thanks to our formidable guide, Moses, we experienced more wildlife than I had on all previous safaris combined. From giant herds of zebras, impalas, hippos, elephants and buffalos roaming the never ending grass plains to unique Rhodesian giraffes and multiple prides of lions sitting in the tree and finally also that elusive leopard that I have been so desperate to see. Not one, but astounding five leopards have crossed our path over the course of two morning and two night drives. Thanks to Moses’ cautious and skilled driving we were able to observe these beautiful creatures over several minutes only a few feet away from the car.

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The biggest highlight of them all was on our first night drive, during which Moses predicted that the pride of lions that we observed during sunset would go hunting soon. And he was right. The minute the sun disappeared the four lionesses and the lion headed towards the nearby herd of impalas constantly on the watch for the countless dangers that surround them at night. Moses carefully followed the lions until we witnessed the lions splitting up to surround a single impala. At this point, we had to turn off all our lights and set completely frozen in the car carefully listening to what might happen next. Only the worried screams of distant baboons sitting in the tree tops drowned my listening capabilities. The lions would make a move any minute now and indeed a few minutes later we heard a loud clash. Moses knew exactly what had happened, turned on the car instantly and accelerated to the hunting ground. We were driving so swiftly in the dark that I had no idea what was going on nor where we were going. A few seconds later we witnessed the male lion with the impala’s neck between his teeth. He was showing off his catch proudly before slowly turning around and disappearing into the bushes. To this day I cannot believe how fortunate we have been. It seemed as if our patience had finally paid off.

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There exist many contenders for the title of Africa’s best game park. The Serengeti, Amboseli, Ngorongoro Crater, Etosha, Kruger, Moremi and perhaps Mana Pools would certainly be high on the list. But South Luangwa is one of the lesser known national parks in Southern Africa, which provided us with the best game viewing to date. I counted just eight other vehicles on the road – giving us the perfect opportunity to get up close and personal with wildlife without the crowds.

Elephants trundling over wide-open savanna. Baobab trees shooting knotted branches skyward. Grasslands crunching underfoot as the sun taps down. This is Zambia, a landlocked African country with heart, soul and wild green untouched beauty like no other. You can see it in the gorgeous landscape. We are now in Lilongwe at the wonderful Mabuya Camp carefully planning our next steps. ‘The Land of the Lake’, ‘The Warm Heart of Africa’… Malawi certainly attracts its share of snappy catchphrases, and these sum up much of what makes this small African country so well liked. Not only do the climate and lush vegetation of the lakeshore conform effortlessly to every stereotype image of tropical Africa, but the people of Malawi exude a warmth and friendliness that made us feel at home instantly. Malawi may well be the most laid-back African nation that we have yet explored.

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