I’m sitting on top of my bakkie, staring out across Mpayathutlwa Pan. The name means ‘the stomach of the giraffe’ in Setswana, and from this vantage point the pan does look a bit like a stomach – long and oval, with a tapering curl that disappears behind the knot of camel thorn trees to my right.
I assume the name derives from the shape. When my friends and I asked the smiling official at the Mabuasehube Gate, he’d chuckled and nodded – apparently the translation was right, but I don’t think he was giving me his full attention. The sound of our engines had summoned him back from his lunch and the hot, deserted gatehouse wasn’t somewhere any of us wanted to be. In no time at all he waved us through. There were no computers to consult or online forms to fill in – just a huge, battered ledger showing the handful of vehicles that had passed through the border over the past few days. The Botswanan side of Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park is like that: quiet and easy going, with only the most common sense of rules and plenty of time to sit and think and take in the views.
And what views.
Night is falling now as Mpayathutlwa Pan falls away in front of me, golden in the evening light. It’s not the cracked, white salt of the Makgadikgadi further north, nor is it nearly as vast. The pans in Mabuasehube are only a few football fields or less in size, and Mpayathutlwa is covered in low scrub and grass. But the horizon forms that same distant line, with thunderheads building in the navy-blue sky above. A hundred metres away, out in the middle of the pan, three oryx and a lone red hartebeest are grazing. They seem relaxed in the gathering dusk, but then they didn’t see the lion tracks we passed on the road in. I know I’ll be keeping close to the campfire tonight.
The camp here at Mpayathutlwa has just one tap, a pit loo, and a wooden A-frame for shade. There are no fences, shops or rangers on hand, but we’ve come fully equipped. Even though the shadows are lengthening across our solar panels, the freezer is still humming and there’s ice in my drink. I might even have a hot shower, thanks to a built-in gas shower in the bakkie’s side panel. This is not roughing it.
But showers aside, there’s just so much to look forward to. Tomorrow we tackle the Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail, which starts just up the road. It’s a 175-kilometre, two-day 4×4 route that runs east to west through the park, starting in Botswana and finishing in South Africa on the western bank of the Nossob River. The trail overnights at Mosomane Pan, where there are no facilities at all and, as only one group can book the trail at a time, we’re guaranteed to be completely alone.
It’s that isolation that makes this route and this part of the world so appealing. Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail isn’t a major technical challenge, but a chance to get as deep into the Kgalagadi as possible in the few days we have available. The tracks across this region are sandy, with a few low dunes to cross, but our 4×4 bakkies have handled them fine so far. There’s already been some thick sand on the access road into the park and the vehicles didn’t struggle in the slightest, so there’s every indication they should handle tomorrow’s trail with ease.
But that’s tomorrow. Right now the sun has almost set. It’s going to be an early start so I’d best get moving – time to go light that fire. First things first, though: I think I’ll go grab some more ice for my drink.
This article first appeared in the August 2014 edition of Getaway Magazine.
You could do a Johannesburg-to-Kgalagadi round trip in less than five days, but it wouldn’t be much fun. Spend any extra time you have on the Botswanan side and you’ll have the place practically to yourself. It’s light on facilities and you’ll be hundreds of miles from a flush loo, but that’s what a fully kitted 4×4 vehicle is made for.
About the Trail
The Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail is a two-day 4×4 route that starts in the Mabuasehube area in Botswana and ends near Nossob rest camp in South Africa, with an overnight stop at Mosomane Pan. Mosomane has absolutely no facilities – you’ll need a GPS to even know you’ve arrived. Take everything you need with you. The trail takes just one group booking at a time and costs 200 pula a person on top of the usual park entrance and vehicle fees (see above). A 4×4 is essential.
On the Botswanan side
There are seven rest camps in the Mabuasehube area. Three have waterholes (Mabuasehube and Mpayathutlwa pans, and Mabuasehube Gate).
1. Mabuasehube Gate has an ablution block; the other two have pit latrines and a single tap at each stand.
2. Mabuasehube has four stands: campsite one with beautiful views from a low ridge to the west of the pan; two and three are together to the south; and the fourth is on the low eastern side.
3. Mpayathutlwa has three stands, well spaced along the north of the pan.
Botswana Department of Wildlife and National Parks handles bookings and park entrance (valid for 2014) is 20 pula a person a day, plus 4 pula a vehicle a day and 30 pula a person a day to camp. Half price for under 15s.
To book: Tel +267 318 0774, [email protected]
On the South African side
Powered stands at Nossob and Twee Rivieren are between R220 and R265 for two people (depending on season), then R72 per additional adult and R36 for kids under 12. Park conservation fees are R66 a day for SA residents, R33 for under 12s, and free for Wild Card holders. Annual fee increases apply. You can find SANParks latest tariffs here.
To book: Tel +27(0)12 428 9111, www.sanparks.org
What we drove
AVIS Safari Rentals has two types of vehicle available; we took one of each. Both are Ford Ranger diesels, one an automatic 3,2 litre SuperCab and the other a manual 2,2 litre Double Cab. Both vehicles have traction control, trailer sway control, electronic tyre pressure monitors and stability programmes. The tyres are BFGoodrich all-terrain, and the vehicles have upgraded suspensions to handle the weight of the kit. This includes solar panels, a 90-litre fridge/freezer combo, gas-heated shower, 80-litre water tank, shade awning, fully fitted kitchen, braai kit, recovery kit, linen, towels, table and chairs, plus all sorts of other basics. All you need to do is stock up on food. The SuperCab’s pop-up roof tent is excellent and takes 10 seconds to open and close, perfect to get going quickly for an early game drive.
R1 300 to R2 100 a day, depending on the season and vehicle configuration. This includes comprehensive insurance and unlimited kilometres. Pick up/drop off in major South African, Botswana, Mozambique and Namibian cities.
Tel 011 392 5202, Cell 084 200 4030, www.avissafarirental.com
Need to know
South Africans can get a free 90-day visa at the border and Avis Safari Rental vehicles come with all the necessary paperwork. You’ll need about R200 a vehicle for taxes and insurance.
You may be checked for meat and dairy products at the border. Regulations change frequently, so be safe and stock up at Shoppers Supermarket in Tsabong. It’s a large, modern store with everything you’ll need, but avoid the pies which aren’t Botswana’s best.
Mabuasehube Wilderness Trail ends at Nossob Rest Camp in South Africa. You’ll need to check in there, but immigration is handled at Twee Rivieren (border open from 7 am to 4 pm). You can also exit the park at Twee Rivieren but remain in Botswana; this road continues down the Nossob River and turns east along Botswana’s southern border. You can then use any border post to return to South Africa.