For many years, it had been on my wish list to drive from Gauteng to the Serengeti. Flying would be the easiest, but I wanted to drive. I have done numerous 4×4 trips into Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Lesotho, as well as through South Africa, and I have reasonable experience of this type of adventure. However, the Serengeti is over 4 000km away, and this adds a new dimension to travel – especially if one wants to do it in twelve days.
So, where does one start to plan a trip of this magnitude? My starting point was to see if some of my 4×4 colleagues would be interested. I had previously arranged a three-day trip to the Tuli Block in Botswana, when thirteen people and four vehicles joined me − in what proved to be an absolute ball. So, I hoped to get some of the same guys interested in my new mission. During one of the nights around the camp fire in Tuli, I had put the Serengeti trip on the table. The idea was met with great enthusiasm and all were in. It was agreed that I would do the planning (over the course of a year) and work up the cost estimate.
I spoke to quite a few people who had been to Serengeti, but all had flown in, and had hired a tour guide to arrange the rest. Most overland travellers seemed to have taken more than a month. So I chose my own route, through Botswana, Zambia, and into Tanzania. Going through Zimbabwe was not an option, because of the long delays at Beit Bridge.
The calculated distance was an estimated 9400km – just over 4200km to Serengeti, then 1000km in and around Serengeti, and 4200km back. Fuel cost was calculated at 6km per litre, which worked out to 1566 litres per vehicle at an average cost of $1.75 per litre: a total fuel cost of $2741.
Camping was not an option, so accommodation for the trip would be in either hotels or guest houses. This made travelling lighter, as we would not be taking the same number of supplies. I had my PA, Dalene, spend many hours trying to find accommodation in the countries we would be passing through. She compiled a very detailed list. However, by the time the list was completed, she was almost suicidal… getting info from these places is virtually impossible.
Timing was the next issue to be addressed. I estimated that we would need four days to get there, have four days in the Serengeti, and four days getting back: 12 days in total. I estimated food and accommodation costs at $150 per person, per night (sharing), plus an extra $50 a day for refreshments and snacks. That came to $2400 per person. That was R38 000 per person at the 2018 exchange rate, excluding all other costs.
I emailed my twelve mates, but eleven had meetings and work-related issues during June, when I had scheduled the trip. Going in one vehicle was not feasible, so I called some mates from Welkom who had joined a previous 4×4 trip − and got an instant, positive reply. Cost was not an issue. We were now four guys in two vehicles. Dirck Smith from Klerksdorp would ride shotgun with me in a 3.6-litre Jeep Wrangler (a four-door fitted with a 130-litre long-range tank), while the second vehicle would be the 4.5-litre Land Cruiser of John Barnard from Welkom, driving with Mark Hughes of Steelpoort. The Cruiser’s 200-litre tank would come in handy – as John says, the 4.5 displayed on the side of the Cruiser is not engine capacity, but fuel consumption.
The scene was now set for our trip, departure date the first day of June. We hoped the famous wildebeest migration would either be starting or have started; it would be a disaster if all the animals had gone by the time we got there.
Before our trip, I emphasised that − no matter what − vehicle papers, Forex, passports and vaccination certificates were not to be forgotten. Sound advice for all travellers!
Saturday 1 June: We set the B trip meter on the Jeep to zero and Dirck and I left my house at 09:00. Johan and Mark left Pretoria at about the same time. We arranged to meet in Ellisras (Lephalale) at 11:00. We arrived as scheduled, refuelled, had a snack (345km on the trip meter), and took off to the Stockport border post. We got through the border at 13:45. The route took us through Mahalapye at 14:40, and Palapye at 15:15 (580km) towards Francistown on the A1 highway.
We arrived in Francistown at 17:00 (740km), refuelled, and booked into the Marang Hotel. That night, we were invited to a braai at the house of our friends, Ernest and Carman van den Hooven, and had a super time with them.
Be aware that this trip was completed in 2013: costs and dollar-exchange rates have changed. In 2013, the dollar was 9.5 to 10.5 ZAR, and now, far into 2018, is hovering at the 14.5 to 1 mark. Our advice: expect to pay 30-40% more in fuel, border, accommodation and food costs. Our second bit of advice: go with a tour operator, such as Simon Steadman of Ultimate Adventures, who knows the drill, has selected good accommodation, and will smooth the border crossings and help sort out vehicle problems.
Sunday 2 June: At 07:00, we left Francistown without breakfast, and reached Nata at 09:00 (946km). We refuelled and headed to the Kazungula border, en route encountering a magnificent elephant close to the road. We reached the border at 12:45 (1244km), and found fifty or more trucks waiting to cross the border on the two ferries. We passed the trucks on the right and arrived at the ferry dock. To our surprise, we were the only light vehicles there and were loaded immediately. At this point, we were full of confidence that the trip was going to be a walk in the park.
However, we were in for a serious wake-up call, as ‘Murphy’ was definitely along for the ride.
The crossing went very well, and cost ZK150 000 (about $30). We landed in Zambia just after 13:00, and found what appeared to be the entire Zambian nation at the border. It was chaos, as we were swamped by people wanting to be our agent. After much negotiation, Johan and I each selected an ‘agent’ − who took our passports and vehicle registration papers and disappeared into the masses.
I am not one who suffers from stress, but I must admit that those two hours of waiting must have been the longest in my life. I had visions of becoming a refugee. However, our agent arrived just before 15:00 with all the necessary documents. The cost was KW200 000 for carbon tax, KW116 000 for insurance, and KW150 000 for red and white reflector strips for the vehicle. Plus KW40 000 for some dude who washed my vehicle without permission, and KW110 000 for the agent. That is about $113 at the (then) official exchange rate of KW5469 to one US$. Our fixers used 3000 to 1, and came up with a price of $205. Yes, we were taken; but happy not to be refugees. We also exchanged just enough US$ to KW to refuel, to get us to our next stop, Lusaka.
While refuelling, Johan discovered that the $9 000 his PA had drawn for him and Mark was gone. A major search of the Cruiser and bags produced nothing. Johan was very unhappy, not being sure if he had lost the money or if there were some other explanation. Luckily, between Dirck and me, we had enough cash to assist.
Aiming for Lusaka, we arrived in Livingstone at 15:45 (1356km) and passed through Zimba, Kalomo, Choma and Monze, to reach Kafue by 20:00 (1740km). The road to Lusaka was in fair condition, and we could keep a steady 120km/h pace. The biggest problem was the trucks and buses, coming and going. We must have encountered two or three every minute. It was mind-boggling, and I’m sure all the drivers had got their licences at a kamikaze school. I can’t remember how many times we had to take evasive action to avoid head-on collisions.
Driving at night was even worse, but as reasonable accommodation options were few and far between, we had little choice. What was a tremendous help when driving at night was the light bar I’d had fitted to my Jeep. The light extends 400 metres, and the side angle must be close to 120°. We booked into the Intercontinental Hotel on the outskirts of Lusaka at 21:15 (1786km). For $200 per night, the B&B was close to five-star, and we were happy to have a break.
For the rest of this fast-paced adventure, be sure to grab a copy of the October issue of SA4x4 Magazine.
By Harry Wagener