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Solar 2: The Botswana Test

Two weeks on the road and an exploration of the Okavango Delta’s attractions is a stern test for Rob Thompson’s new solar set-up for his Imagine caravan.

Story & photos Rob Thompson

Although as a family we have travelled and camped extensively in South Africa, Andrew, a friend from work, inspired us with his stories of travel in Botswana. When our friends Stamatis and Helen suggested a camping trip to Botswana in the 2019 July school holidays we decided this was the ideal opportunity to go and see what it was like for ourselves. So the planning began. Andrew’s advice was to focus on a specific area rather than try to see the whole country in a single trip. The decision was to head for the Okavango Delta, and to use a booking agent in Botswana to simplify the planning process – they have good knowledge of what works, and could change reservations if there was an emergency.

Our two families did some rough planning of places we wanted to see and we then got in touch with Glen, from Liquid Giraffe, to help finalise our trip. We were keen to include some of the wild camping sites in Moremi but since we were booking only 10 months in advance there were no sites available. Glen suggested some campsites that were close to Moremi as good alternates. Helen is also in the travel industry and suggested we do something special in the Delta itself, which she would book.


OUR ITINERARY

Night Camp
1 Matamba Bush Camp (1 hour from the border)
2 Khama Rhino Sanctuary
3 Kubu Island
4 Maun – Island Safari Lodge
5-7 Mankwe Camp (near South Gate)
8-10 Mbudi Camp (Khwai)
11 Little Pan (near Maun)
12-13 Mokoro trip into the Delta
14 Planet Baobab
15 Woodlands (Francistown)

Day 1: The road from Durban

We travelled from Durban to Matamba Bush Lodge via Johannesburg, where we borrowed a portable electric fence from our friend Bruce, whose advice it was, as he had previously camped in unfenced Botswana sites with young kids. We got to Matamba a bit late, but it was the perfect stop for us. We made a lovely fire with the wood supplied and enjoyed a braai for dinner. The caravan batteries had received a good charge from driving most of the day, so we didn’t bother plugging into the mains.

Day 2: Khama via Stockpoort

We travelled from Matamba to Khama Rhino sanctuary via the Stockpoort border post, and we were through within 30 minutes. Border fees in Botswana needed to be paid in Pula, so we got some Pula from the currency exchange on the South African side before crossing over. The campsite selected by Glen at Khama Rhino sanctuary was amazing; we camped below two baobab trees and set up the solar panels to catch the morning sun.

Day 3: On to Kubu Island

As the trip to Kubu island was only 240km we took it slow in the morning. The solar panels did an amazing job generating 129W of power by 08.30. We left them connected while we did a bit of a game drive through the reserve.

The actual trip to Kubu Island took longer than we had anticipated. We needed to fill up extra fuel containers, and the section to the pan itself had many tracks to choose from with some heavily rutted or overgrown. We used Tracks4Africa in our Garmin which worked well and focused on heading in the right general direction rather than sticking to the exact track shown. We stopped on the pans to watch the sunset, which was breathtaking and then did the last 8km in the dark. Kubu Island itself is fairly rustic but extremely beautiful. We had a braai for dinner and set up the panels to catch the morning sun.

Before going to bed the ‘boys’ managed a run across the pan in total darkness, something we had been planning for a while. This was some of the best stargazing we had ever seen, with the milky way stretching from one side of the horizon to the other.

Day 4: The wonderful pans

We woke up early to see the sunrise over the pan and it did not disappoint. We walked onto the pan, still in our pyjamas, with coffee in hand to get a good view of the sunrise shining across the vast emptiness – and a chance to view the island on foot from a distance. We had a fairly long drive to get to Maun, so we packed up after breakfast. The panels, once again, did a great job generating 147W by 08:15.

We headed to Maun, the actual trip to get to the main road took longer than expected, with some lovely sand driving and a good dose of, “Which track do we choose?” The garage in Gweta did not have a working compressor, so we pumped up the vehicle tyres using our compressors. This was the first time we got a hint that all was not well in the Conqueror, which Stamatis had rented for the trip. The batteries were running very low, even though they should have been charging via his vehicle.

We headed into Maun to buy supplies for the next week or so. I had emailed our meat order to Beef Boys before we left and they had everything ready to go, frozen and individually packed as per our request. Travelling with fresh meat in Botswana is a complicated affair, as they have veterinary fences to prevent the spread of disease to the cattle farming areas – which is why we bought our meat in Maun rather than take it in with us. Shopping complete, we moved to Island Safari Lodge for the night – a lovely stop with spacious campsites under shady trees. Stamatis plugged in their caravan to add some charge to the Conqueror batteries, but we ran off our batteries.

Day 5: Airborne from Maun

Before our next leg to Mankwe we drove into Maun and hopped on an hour-long flight over the Okavango Delta. This amazing experience gave us a good overview of the Delta itself. We saw the hippo paths in the water and were lucky enough to spot a rhino and two lionesses on the move.

After the flight we did the final pack up and headed north to Mankwe, stopping to buy firewood just outside town. The price of wood increases dramatically the closer to Moremi you get. The road north starts as tar and then transitions to a dirt road that sees lots of traffic. Even though there was a grader actively maintaining portions of the road, it’s very corrugated. We dropped tyre pressures and tried to stick to 40km/h to keep the rattles to a tolerable level, plus stopped every 20km or so to make sure all doors on the caravan were securely closed and nothing had come loose. This is something we have added to our travelling routine after a previous bad experience in the Baviaanskloof.

We eventually got to Mankwe, having enjoyed some exciting sand driving to get to the campsite itself. Even though we had booked and paid for a campsite we had been upgraded to a private camp with permanent tents so we didn’t need to do too much setup of the caravans. Since we were camping where there were wild animals we erected the portable electric fence to act as a deterrent, only using it at night until we went to bed. The campsite itself was nice, with an ablution block with showers that you need to heat the water for. There is no electricity so we hauled out the solar panels to catch the last of the sun. There is a fire pit with a grid, which made for some lovely evenings around the fire and under the stars.

Days 5 & 6: Mankwe surprises

After a night of hyenas calling close by, we woke up to two surprises: a large spoor in the camp and some alarmingly low battery levels in the Conqueror. We made sure the solar panel for the Conqueror was in the sun and gave it a good wash as we would be heading out to North Gate for the day. Our solar setup, on the other hand, was working amazingly well, pushing out 173W at 10:50 – our batteries safely being kept fully topped up with lots of headroom.

When we returned from North Gate the batteries in the Conqueror were still not charging; not a great situation, as we were going to be without electricity for the next seven nights. We decided to connect the Conqueror to our caravan and have our solar setup charge both vans, as we had an MPPT charger and much larger, high-efficiency panels.

The following day we did a trip to South Gate, which was a long drive and, with the lower water levels, we did not see as much game as we did around North Gate. If we were to do it again we would probably have just spent a lazy day at camp and skipped South Gate altogether, as the time in the car each day was starting to take its toll.

On the bright side, even though the batteries on the Conqueror were not fully charged they did seem a lot better.

Day 7, 8 & 9: Mbudi camp in the Khwai

We packed up and headed north to Khwai, where we stopped at Mbudi community camp; probably the nicest camp we have ever stayed at. It is just so beautiful and since it’s on the river the game viewing from our camp chairs was very good. When we arrived we spent a bit of time selecting the best spots for the two caravans, so we had shade. Once the caravans were in place we got a visit from an elephant who happily ate from the tree near our site before checking us out and casually moving off to the river.

Once the elephant had moved off we set up the electric fence around the whole camp, just in time for a hippo to walk past too. We put up the solar panels and again connected the two caravans, as during the trip to Mbudi the batteries did not seem to have charged from the car at all. Mbudi is also pretty rustic but there is an ablution block with toilets and showers fed by water from the river, which is relatively clean but certainly not drinkable. In fact, the last supply of safe drinking water had been Khama Rhino Sanctuary. Even the water in Maun was not safe for drinking due to extremely low rainfall.

We did some day trips into Moremi via North Gate, which is an easy 10km drive and we were very lucky with our game viewing. We spotted leopard and lion on the same day, which completed the Big 5 for us.

Mbudi is a practical compromise for those with kids, as there is still plenty of game around since the reserves themselves are not fenced and there are basic amenities which make it a bit more comfortable.

The SunPower panels had been doing a great job of powering two caravans, pushing out a whopping 990Wh in a single day. We decided to have a look and see if we could identify the issue. After removing the covers for the battery compartments on the Conqueror, we found the battery terminals on both batteries had worked themselves loose, probably on the corrugated roads. This would explain why the batteries were simply not able to charge.

Day 10: Little Pan luxury near Maun

We packed up camp and travelled down to Maun, the highlight was seeing a whole herd of giraffe run across the road ahead of us. The grader had made some good progress on a few sections of the road to Maun, but there were still some rough sections that needed patience. We had arranged to spend one night at a new luxury lodge just outside Maun called Little Pan, and what a treat that was. The lodge itself is amazing, with a huge fixed tent for the lounge and kitchen area. Accommodation is in private fixed tents with en suite bathrooms and an outdoor shower for the more adventurous. From the moment we arrived the lodge staff made us feel so special. We all jumped into the swimming pool, even though it was the middle of winter and later that evening we had an amazing meal out under the stars.

Stamatis arranged for an extension cord, so the mains charger could recharge the Conqueror batteries, but we had just tied the solar panels to the roof rack on the Landy, as they had been working so well.

Day 11 & 12: Into the Delta on Mokoros

We left Little Pan clean and refreshed, and looking forward to our next treat – which was poling into the Delta on mokoros, where we would spend two nights at an all-inclusive pop-up campsite. We parked our vehicles at Tswii Mokoro Trails and left the Conqueror plugged into the mains, while I strapped the solar panels onto the Landy’s roof rack for what was going to be the acid test – no ventilation in the caravan with a running fridge and solar panels that would be partially shaded and not aligned with the sun during the day.

When we arrived at the boat station we had a quick packed lunch and were then split into two people per Mokoro, with each Mokoro having its own poler. Liam, who is just seven and had needed special permission to come on this trip, went in a mokoro wearing a life jacket and his own guide. He was treated as precious cargo. The rest of the luggage, camp equipment, and supplies went in extra mokoros, which I must say made us feel like something special was on the way. The mokoros navigate along the paths used by the hippos at night, making for some lovely scenery and tight turns. It took about an hour to get to the camp, which was set up in a clearing under the shade of some trees about 50 metres from the water itself.

We were extremely impressed with the camp; there were dome tents – each with their own washbasin. There was a bucket shower and a pit toilet, a kitchen area with a fire to cook on, and a lovely long table with chairs for meals and relaxing around.

Each day we woke just before dawn to see the sunrise and then did a long nature walk, often past wild animals. We got quite close to many animals but our guides always kept us at a safe distance, and once we had watched for a while we would move on and leave the animals in peace.

We returned to camp for brunch and a lazy day relaxing, playing cards, having mokoro poling lessons, or swimming in one of the hippo paths away from the bigger hippo pools. The Botswanan guides quickly learned to play Uno and were beating us after a few rounds. On the last evening, we took a mokoro trip to see the hippos and then watched the sunset; one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.

That night we had a fantastic meal, prepared by Betty the chef, and the guides made sure we had a great time by singing and dancing around a roaring fire, an evening the kids still talk about. The next day we watched the sunrise and then, after breakfast, packed our bags reluctantly, not wanting to leave. We returned in mokoros to the boat station to meet our transfer back to Maun. When we returned, I was quite nervous about the fridge, which had been in a closed caravan for two days with solar panels getting shade for large parts of the day. I needn’t have worried, as the fridge was still running perfectly and although the solar panels had not quite generated enough power for the draw, it was enough for the batteries to be sufficiently charged. The Conqueror, on the other hand, had somehow lost connection to mains power and the fridge had turned off completely.

Day 13, 14 & 15: The long road home

We started the trip back home, which was broken into three travel days, the first night at Planet Baobab in chalets with dinner included. This made for a relaxed afternoon and evening. The next day we headed to Woodlands Stopover in Francistown, where we shared three chalets between all of us and had a lovely braai. The last day we drove from Francistown, via the Stockpoort border, all the way back to Durban, a long day indeed. In hindsight, we should have headed back to Matamba from Planet Baobab, which would have made the trip back to Durban a bit easier.

A wrap

As a holiday destination, Botswana is fantastic with probably some of the most stunning campsites you will ever go to. We never put out the groundsheet or the awning on the caravan, as there was no need to and the evenings in July are mild enough to enjoy around a fire with no more protection than a warm top. The SunPower solar panels were the star of the show. They performed amazingly well powering two caravans for over a week, which pretty much means we can now choose any off-grid campsite and be self-sufficient for as long as we need. The portable electric fence we borrowed from Bruce was also a hit, as it helps with peace of mind, especially with small kids around, enabling the adults to relax in the evenings. Lastly, using Glen and team helped a lot, as we pretty much had the prime campsites at each stop and, logistically, it could not have been simpler.

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