As you saw (read) in the previous blog post the Kalahari is simply breathtaking in its rugged remoteness. You really need to work hard to get to where you need to be. The scorching heat, the dry and dusty conditions, the difficult track, and the sense of isolation all conspire to make you dig deep. And I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The Kalahari has always held a mystery to me, similar to the Sahara in its fascination. A vast, empty region that is a harsh environment to survive in, let alone live, like the Khoisan are able to do. There is no water here, it doesn’t rain much, and often, like this year, there is a drought that affects the whole country, wildlife and humans alike.

Out here it is a semi-desert which means soft, beach-like sand, scrub brush, thorn trees, open grass savannah, and flat, dry salt pans. It is also possibly even flatter than the Netherlands, can you imagine that? There is also nobody here. At all, if we discount the couple of hundred Khoisan occupying the Kukumane kraal (and a couple of others). And there is also only one solitary track through this wilderness.

A single track

This single track is what is colloquially referred to as a cutline. Normally a little single track that has two wheel tracks and a ridge in the middle. In South African we term this a ‘tweespoor met ‘n middelmannetjie’. It is also as straight as you can get it, and extends all the way to the horizon as far as you can see. Around here you don’t need to deviate off-course (like elsewhere, especially in Europe) to avoid a riverbed, a hill, a cliff edge, or someone’s property, you just follow your compass. Eventually, this becomes the ‘highway’, the only highway. There are no alternative routes. Talk about being committed to a single outcome.

A corollary of this single track and a small population of indigenous people is a rather large water tanker that needs to deliver water to the isolated villages within the CKGR. Since the local conditions are sand and more sand, it needs to be able to cross this inhospitable place, unaided, of course. It is a 6×6 MAN tanker that weighs, presumably, in the region of twenty tons when fully laden.

This weight, combined with the wider wheel width crushes the small ‘tweespoor’ into dust as it passes. Not exactly a problem for this giant vehicle, but it makes driving quite a challenge for those of us armed with a far smaller form of transport. You can’t quite get into the groove (spoor), since the ‘spoor’ is now wider than your car. And the sand is terribly soft refusing to offer much in the way of grip. So progress is slow…

Would You Like Another Can of Diesel?

If you hadn’t guessed it by now, this adds up to a lot more power needed to keep forward momentum. Engines rev and labour to overcome the sand that tries to suck you down and smother any form of motion. It is a constant battle not to get bogged down using all the power that the engine can offer, and to keep the bouncing to an acceptable level.

Naturally, this elevates fuel consumption to twice the norm. What is usually 9km per litre becomes 5km, and the fuel gauge drops noticeably. At the Xaxa camp, we try and do some calculations.

simple mathematics

Each vehicle is fitted with twin tanks amounting to roughly 140 litres of diesel. This should give a theoretical range of at least 700 kilometres. Our one oversight, and perhaps hubris was at play, was to fill up in Molepolole and bypass the last fuel stop in Lethlakeng. We figured that the barely ten litres wouldn’t make a very big difference in the big picture. Well, you can see where this is going…

According to our simple maths, we had already driven about 400 kilometres, half of which through very deep, soft sand. And in very hot conditions, which increases the viscosity of the sand, which we really didn’t need!

The next camp was Letiahau, a further 190 kilometres up the road, and then Kori (a relatively easy 50 kilometers beyond that), then another 50 km to the gate and another 50 km to Rakops – where we could fill up again. This added up to the furthest limit of our range (theoretically) and could just about be done. But, standing there in the heat, a decision had to be made.

Xade gate

Since the Landcruisers were now on their second 70-litre tank, and on three-quarter level, we needed to do some creative calculation. Xade Gate (eastern entry point) was 70 kilometres away and we thought some local knowledge may help us find some ‘go-juice’. A further look into the, rather small, Garmin screens leads us to believe that Ghanzi (the next big town) was 170 kilometres from Xade gate. But the going would be far easier on a proper road right (that may come back to bite us, but we all voted for this plan)? A total of 240 km seemed a better option considering the fuel we had left.

Another idea that was floated around was transferring all the fuel into one vehicle and making a run for some diesel then returning to the other ‘stranded’ vehicles, but this was soon shelved and we headed out together.

Tough Going

It was tough going once again. The soft sand wasn’t getting any easier, and neither was the heat. A couple of hours later Xade gate loomed into view and we gratefully entered the reception in hopes of good news. This was less positive than we had hoped!

They reckoned it was 170 kilometres, and an optimistic three hours, to Ghanzi (no problem with that information), but the first seventy were the same conditions as what we had just come through! Only at New Xade village did it become a gravel road. And only in Ghanzi was there a fuel station.

Slightly deflated we set off and played the cards we were dealt. More of the bouncing in the Hiluxes as we walked the tightrope between a little more speed and a little less rodeo. You only average about 20 km/h in these conditions, and with one eye on the GPS, the kilometres roll off very, very slowly!

Outside the gate, this is a twin track twin-track. Which means a parallel set of tracks and the possibility of traffic in the other direction (of which we had quite a few, including Police, and mostly driving Landcruisers). So we also zig-zagged back and forth between tracks to find a smoother ride. But it didn’t matter what you did, the sand is unforgiving.

New Xade

Roughly seventy kilometres from the gate (and as predicted by the guy in reception) we came into the village of New Xade, and the prospect of a firmer road. Fuel tanks were now around half full on the reserve tanks, so we weren’t equipped for further ‘bundu-bashing’ (bushveld driving) as far as diesel levels were concerned.

As mentioned previously in the Kalahari blog post this village was built by the government to house the Khoisan people who were displaced from out of the CKGR. This harsh governmental decision was repealed in the mid-2000s and some Khoisan elected to go back into the Kalahari, which is after all their ancestral home. However, the Khoisan are now reliant on the government for their basic needs, hence the water truck. An inappropriate decision, especially considering certain hunting concessions in other parts of the country.

I could fully understand why certain Khoisan would opt to go back into their Kalahari since we found New Xade not to be a very charming place as we traversed the village four times looking for the ‘road’ to Ghanzi. Our GPSs were all extremely confused and kept trying to send us into the wilderness without even a track to follow. Luckily we found the gravel road! A super wide and recently graded hard-surfaced luxury on which we reached heady speeds of eighty kilometres an hour!

A Hitchhiker

We picked up a local just outside New Xade. David was holding out his thumb next to the dusty road (and boy was it dusty and hot!). He needed to get to Ghanzi (over one hundred kilometres away) to draw some money from an ATM. He would then hitch back to New Xade again, an incomprehensible idea for us Europeans!

He was very well-spoken, being a schoolteacher living somewhere near Gaborone. The reason he was up here in these parts was to check on his cattle. It seems quite a common thing in Botswana to own cattle that are ‘housed’ elsewhere, at cattle stations.

Cattle are currency as well, and form part of the marriage payment, where a bride is rumoured to be worth up to eight cows. Many of the people we met were still single (not yet married) perhaps due to the ‘lobola’ tradition.

David, as owner of seventy cattle, would seem to be quite a wealthy man, although his goal is to reach 200. If you are wondering why he was hitchhiking, it was because his car had broken down the day before. But it was just really nice to have a chat with a local for an hour or so, everyone we had met so far was super friendly!

Ghanzi

Ghanzi looks a little scruffy, but the fuel station stood out like a shining beacon! We were supremely grateful to pull in and get the diesel flowing into our tanks. We had driven 650 kilometres and (the Hilux) took 125 litres. So we didn’t have much in the way of margin. In retrospect, we might even have made it to Kori and Rakops (and spent a further two nights in the Kalahari). But we needed to make a decision, and it served to show that in Africa you go with the flow. There is a plan, but it can change…

Palm Afrique

We consulted our booking agents – Ultimate Routes – not knowing it was a Sunday. You kind of lose track of the days around here. They were most helpful (after coming back from church) and recommended Palm Afrique Lodge and Campsite as a good option to stay over in Ghanzi. It was now after four in the afternoon and everyone was very hot and very tired, so the prospect of a pool sounded awfully good.

Palm Afrique is arguably the only campsite in Botswana with actual green grass (you mostly encounter either sand or sand). There are good showers and flushing toilets (what luxury is this?), a restaurant, a bar, and the aforementioned pool which became a haven for about three beers. Then a braai in a proper barbecue area (what luxury!) before turning in early to a rather civilised but noisy (crickets and birds) evening. And – unusually for us, after days in the pitch black night – there were lights in camp as well!

In Africa, you Go with the flow

So perhaps a less-than-ideal ending to our Kalahari experience, but equally, as mentioned, you go with the flow. The fuel usage was rather more than predicted so we did the prudent thing, and now we know (and so do you) to take an extra can of diesel next time…

It is absolutely worth going to the CKGR, the incredibly remote environment wakes your senses like nothing else (or perhaps an elephant walking through the camp, but that’s a story for another time). You can’t really get lost out here since there is only one road, but you can leave everything behind when you go. Just take your sense of adventure and open your senses. There is nothing out here, but that’s exactly the point!

Now we head further north to the centre of the universe – Maun.