By Graham Jackson
This story originally appeared in the Overland Expo Sourcebook 2022.
“Miles and miles of bloody Africa!”
My dad’s dry comment was hilarious to me as an 11-year-old, to the point that as soon as we stopped the Range Rover under a baobab tree for lunch, I immediately scrawled “MMBA” in the thick Kalahari dust on the rear window.
The year was 1983, and my family lived in Pretoria, South Africa. My dad decided we should go back to the Okavango in Botswana for summer vacation. We had lived in the frontier town of Maun years before. Now that my sister and I were older, the idea of an overland trip from Pretoria across the Kalahari and the Makgadikgadi Pans and into the Okavango Delta was unusual and exciting. This was right at the infancy of overlanding as we know it today.
The plan was to load the four of us into our 1973 Range Rover, along with a lot of fuel, and head into the desert. The Range Rover was completely stock and an unusual left-hand-drive model. The V8, while the source of much glee from my Dad’s penchant for driving fast, was also incredibly thirsty. He acquired a 45-gallon fuel tank off a lorry and put it in the Range Rover’s load bay. Everything else had to squeeze around it.
We had a small roof rack that was designed for my Mum’s Mazda Rotary, but Dad put it on the top of the Range Rover to hold a large trunk for pots, pans, and light goods. That was the extent of our packing.
We had no rooftop tent, or any other tent for that matter. Our shelter would be a two-sided canvas awning off the side of the vehicle. I remember there was some discussion about who would get to sleep on the back seat of the Range Rover. That spot was never offered to me, however. My sister, Freya, four years older and wiser, mysteriously secured it.
The map we had showed very few roads in Botswana. The established way to get to Maun and the Delta was first to get to Francistown and then take the Francistown to Maun road. For my Dad, this was not really acceptable. The Francistown Maun road was established but infamous for its terrible condition. In contrast, the area from Serowe to Letlhakane was completely blank on the map. So, it seemed the obvious way to go.
We packed the Range Rover and departed for Botswana. Our camp that first night was just outside Serowe on the dirt track out of town to the North West. We were already off the map. Our awning provided little weather protection, and I remember waking up around four in the morning absolutely freezing in my cheap nylon sleeping bag. My parents slept on either side of me on the ground. They gave me the only cot we had, which was my grandfather’s during the war. Unfortunately, the cot provided no insulation, so I had an early lesson in inappropriate gear. Luckily, temperatures would increase as we headed north.
While there were no tracks indicated on the maps, there were tracks on the ground. We spent days winding down faint two-track roads as we crept deeper into the Kalahari. This was a cattle ranching area, so we would encounter small settlements, usually by a watering hole with people and cows, and often small groups of wildebeest and the odd zebra. We also came across more and more dead game, mostly wildebeest and zebra.
Though we encountered watering holes, to our surprise, we had not yet reached Letlhakane. This was before GPS. So, even though the distance traversed indicated we should have reached Letlhakane, we did not in actuality know where we were. Dad gamely pulled out the compass and said, “We just have to go north until we reach the Boteti River.” We started picking our way north. Long before we found the Boteti, we came to another barrier.
At the time, Botswana’s major export was beef to Europe, which stipulated that Foot and Mouth Disease (FMD) had to be controlled. To do this, the Botswana government built fences across the country to stop wildlife from the north interacting with cattle in the center and south. But it did this with no regard to the natural routes of migration and, during the drought of 1983, a large section was completed while the migrating herds were in the Central Kalahari.
As the animals moved north to find water, they encountered the new fence. Estimates are that anywhere between 60,000 and 250,000 animals died on the fence that year — it effectively stopped the second largest migration in Africa.
When we reached it, the scene was horrific. Piles of dead bodies lined the fence, many tangled in the wire. Those still surviving wandered aimlessly along the fence track searching for water. Groups too weak to wander stood wasting away in the sun, some standing by watering holes that were protected by humans and dogs keeping the wild animals at bay. To say this experience had a lasting impact on me is an incredible understatement. Part of the fence became known as the Fence of Death.
After crossing the fence and leaving the destruction behind, we continued working our way north. Well, sort of north, as Dad had put the compass between the front seats (where a center console would be in later years) directly over the gearbox. At one point, I looked down and saw the compass needle making lazy circles. It turns out there is enough magnetism in the gearbox to kill a compass, so we were without direction from the needle. Luckily, the sun provided enough of a direction to keep us more or less on track.
And then there it was: Mopipi Pan. Still with water from the dam, no doubt close enough to the fence to be terrorizing the minds of the dying wildebeest. We drove down to the shore and made camp. We were now fully sure of our position, having crossed the unknown and unmapped section of the deep Kalahari. Here was water and a new danger: crocodiles.
In South Africa, at the time, there was an urban war going on. Households would leave their trash out for the trash collectors, and roving bands of dogs would have a field day and spread the trash everywhere. To help combat this, one company developed a ‘dog-proof’ rubbish bag by impregnating the plastic with chemicals. From experience, it was more a PR stunt than an actual innovation. We heard (from somewhere) that they were quite effective against crocodiles. So, as we made camp on the shore of Mopipi Pan, I was handed a dog-proof rubbish bag to put over the end of my sleeping bag to deter crocodile attacks during the night. Bush legend? Not sure, but I wasn’t eaten.
From Mopipi we tracked up the Boteti River. The next night, we camped on the river bank, again taking crocodile precautions. The track to the river was extremely steep and sandy. Dad was concerned we may not be able to drive back up. So, he and I went investigating for an anchor point in case we needed to use the winch in the morning.
We had a cunning plan. I was so excited about the prospect of using the 8274 winch bolted to the front of the Range Rover that I didn’t sleep much that night. The following morning, after not being eaten again, we found hyena and leopard tracks in camp — perhaps dog-proof extends to other species as well. I was stunned that we had so many visitors because I never saw or heard them, despite thinking I had hardly slept.
After we packed up camp, I rushed to the top of the sandy climb so I could photograph the perilously stuck Range Rover, when the getting-stuck inevitably happened. To my dismay, the Range Rover just ambled up the slope with nary a wheel spin, as they do, and I had to hide my disappointment when I climbed back in.
We had lived in Maun years before. So, upon returning, there were people we were eager to visit. We also needed to stop at Riley’s, the local outfitter, that also served as the fuelling station, mechanic shop, and hotel. I am happy to say Riley’s is still there today.
Moremi Game Reserve, our goal in the Delta, was a wild place. Unlike today, there were no established camps, and the road into the Reserve was a sandy and rough two-track. Visitors were few and far between. There were no fences in or around the park. There were also no services, and getting stranded or breaking down could very quickly become a dire survival situation. I knew little of this and was excited to get down the long road and into Moremi. The deeper we went into the Delta, the wetter it became, but Dad had a plan. There are few landmarks in the Delta. A series of rickety pole bridges served as the only human infrastructure.
We made basecamp at Third Bridge, a place that today has a large established camp and ranger station. At the time, there was nothing but the bridge. We set up the awning off the Range Rover, started a small fire to keep the lions away (and for cooking), and watched the wildlife that surrounded us. Thinking that I could fish in the waterway under the bridge, I made a crude fishing pole out of a stick and a piece of string with a buffalo thorn and biltong as hook and bait. I caught nothing. Even the monitor lizard that lived under the bridge was uninterested.
One night, we had lions come by. Apparently, the fire worked to keep them away because we were no longer using rubbish bags. Again, the only evidence of them passing was tracks in the morning.
The encounter that did wake us one night was the elephant herd. They passed right through our camp, silent as could be, but one tripped on the awning guyline, and mum, dad, and I were woken up by the awning collapsing on us and a loud rumble as the elephants sped up and announced their displeasure. Clambering out from under the canvas, we could see the gray shapes quickly departing. The fire was out. Dawn wasn’t long away, so we re-started the fire, re-erected the awning, and sat around. My sister had heard the scuffle from inside the car but, far from concerned, she just laughed about it.
We did find the lion pride that had come by on a kill not more than two kilometers from our camp. It was great to watch them over the course of a couple of days and to listen to the male defining his territory at night.
All too soon, we ran low on food and water and had to pack up and head back to Maun. We had spent a week in the real African wild, surrounded by animals, and had only seen one other vehicle at a distance. A flat tire made us pause on the track out. Dad was changing the wheel when Freya saw a large puff adder snake crossing the road not far behind the car — a reminder to always step carefully.
The route back followed the established tracks, as school holidays were coming to an end, and we had to return.
This trip left three indelible marks on me as a person. It ensured a lifelong sympathy with wildlife, wild places, and intelligent conservation. It enshrined Moremi and the Okavango Delta at large as one of my favorite places on the planet. Finally, it cemented my love for overlanding and exploration.
After many trips back, Botswana still holds a special place in my heart. Over the course of those trips, I learned (or figured out) that we had not actually camped at Third Bridge, but rather at Fourth Bridge. Since Dad was so adamant it was Third Bridge at the time, after he died and I took his ashes back to Moremi, I spread them at Third Bridge so they could eventually go downstream to Fourth Bridge and our camp there.
Whenever I’m driving the tracks in Botswana, I always remember Dad’s refrain: “Miles and miles of bloody Africa!”