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Travel – Hunters Road

Pioneering spirit

Botswana’s Hunter’s Road, which parallels the country’s eastern border with Zimbabwe, can be a breeze in the dry. After heavy rains, navigating its slippery cotton soil bogs can be a very different matter. So how does a stock-standard Nissan Navara Stealth face up to this challenge?

Story Jacques Viljoen
Photography Jacques Viljoen & Anton Willemse

Mention the Hunter’s Road in the wet season and people immediately say that it shouldn’t be done, and anyone who attempts it is looking for trouble. Social media channels are rife with disaster stories. But we at SA4x4 don’t shy away from these challenges, and plan to prove the nay-sayers wrong – this time in a Nissan Navara Stealth. It’s a great base vehicle, for sure, but we do have concerns about its Toyo A25 Open Country highway-terrain tyres. A more aggressive set of all-terrains would have eased our concerns, but the timing has been very tight. Our guide on this tour, Riaan Jooste from Complete4x4, is keeping quiet, though it’s clear he would have preferred the Navara to also be protected by underbody plates, a proper bull bar, and a sturdy bumper.

After an early morning flight from Cape Town to Johannesburg, SA4x4’s Anton Willemse and I set off on the 322km drive to Lephalale to meet up with the rest of the like-minded adventurers joining our trip. In total, we have five cars, consisting of our Navara, Riaan’s heavily-modified 4.8-litre Patrol, a 2007 Fortuner D4-D diesel driven by brothers Richard and Frank Harpur, a Discovery 4 V8 owned by Rens Meyer driving with Danie Geldenhuys, and Tiaan Du Toit’s FJ Cruiser co-piloted by Albertus Basson. All of them are seriously kitted-out and fit for purpose.

Our pre-trip meeting point is at Machauka Lodge in Lephalale, formerly known as Ellisras. It offers luxury accommodation, giving us one last chance to enjoy creature comforts like a hot shower before embarking on our rough and tumble week of wild camping. With wildlife grazing on your doorstep, and a superb bar and restaurant, Machauka is a great getaway just three hours from Johannesburg. But this trip is not about luxury lodging, so after a quick ‘clean-car photo’ we set off for Elephant Sands Lodge via the Stockpoort Border Post. We take the gravel roads to the border to give the vehicles one last shakedown – a useful precaution as Tiaan had purchased his FJ Cruiser just a week prior to the trip and hastily fitted it with a range of overlanding gear.

After passing through Stockpoort hassle-free, we push through on the remainder of our 623km journey to Elephant Sands Lodge, stopping in Francistown to pick up a few last-minute supplies. Arriving late afternoon, we set up camp just as the low-hanging sun casts its last light over the Botswana flats. After a delicious steak dinner at the restaurant, we sit at the watering hole to watch the elephants do their rounds. This was an awe-inspiring moment, but child’s play compared to what we would get to experience.

The challenge begins

The entrance to the infamous Hunter’s Road we decide to use is only about 15km north-west of Elephant Sands, on the A33. It’s a shortcut to get onto one of the many cut lines that take you onto Hunter’s Road. Progress is rapid until we are halted by a tree that has been knocked over by an elephant. Riaan thinks he can get over and around it along the base of the tree, but, with soft soil underfoot, the heavily-loaded Patrol just digs itself four deep holes. While Riaan prepares to winch himself over the offending tree, the rest of the group break out their axes to clear the route.

With all the necessary safety precautions checked, the winch moans and groans as it slowly hauls the Patrol forward and over the tree. Within 50 minutes of our unplanned stop, we are moving again. So far, the road has been sandy with no sign of any mud. As they say, karma is always ready to bite you. Within minutes of my remark to Anton about how surprisingly dry it all is, the heavens open and it pours for some time.

We know we will eventually encounter mud, but no one knows how much. Even the so-called ‘experts’ warning us of the danger and border-line stupidity of our intentions can’t accurately tell us what to expect. After about 30km heading north on the Hunter’s Road, we decide to set up camp on a suitably flat and unvegetated section of the road. The sun sets through banks of cloud, with the worry of more heavy rain looming over our heads.

So far, so good

Morning comes and the eerie silence of the night is interrupted by the early risers packing up camp. It’s not clear what lies ahead, so it’s better to get going as soon as possible. After about an hour and a half of slow driving, we encounter the first bit of mud – a slushy, 30-metre-long puddle with a narrow section of hard gravel next to it. The decision is made to deliberately drive a bit deeper into the mud to see what we will be working with, in the Navara. No surprise, it gets stuck easily in the slippery stuff, but that was the plan. Drawing on that old 4×4 adage, ‘As slow as possible, as fast as necessary’, we realise we must err on the faster side if we are to get through.

The rest of our day is rather uneventful, with consistent progress allowing us to do about 160km in the course of the day. Eventually, we stumble upon a massive mud section. From our standpoint, it looks to be at least 100 metres long, and fairly deep given the lie of the surrounding land. There’s no hard shoulder either. This is exactly what we have been warned about. We will have to walk the obstacle first to evaluate the depth and establish the best line through.

After about an hour of contemplating the situation, we decide to call it tomorrow’s problem and set up camp under a magnificent Baobab on a cutline about 100 metres before the mud.

While we are getting the braai going, we hear a heavy groan coming from the bushes. Expecting the approach of a wild animal, our worry is laid to rest as Danie emerges from the bushes, red-faced and limping. His ‘facilities’ chair had broken and the groan we heard was him falling off the chair. We can’t help but laugh at his pain, while he rants about the product’s safe load rating. To this day, he will not admit what damage was done by falling off the chair.

The nights to this point have all been overcast and cloudy, but tonight there is not a single cloud in the sky. With no air or light pollution to speak of, we can admire the vividness of the Milky Way in all its glory. This evening is probably my favourite of the entire trip. Sitting with new friends around a wood fire next to a Baobab, under a star-lit sky on the border between two countries, is a memory that will live with me for the rest of my time.

As nice as the evening is, there is an undercurrent of concern around the fire. Conversations often fade away into silence. We are not sure how we are going to take on that monster section of mud. It’s like waiting for your child’s Matric exam results; you know they should pass, but the ‘what if’ voice runs rampant in your head. All the vehicles are capable, yet a lapse in concentration for just a second can result in sinking chassis deep in the mud.

Caution to the wind

Dawn creeps up on our fourth morning and camp is packed up at a brisk pace. We want to finish Hunter’s Road today. The cars roll up to the mud and the drivers decide to walk the section to find the best route. An hour later we have a plan. The Navara will go first so that if it gets stuck it can be recovered backwards – the preferred way to recover vehicles in similar situations if the vehicle has a rated recovery point in the rear (which the Navara does).

Then it’s showtime. With a combination of momentum and luck the Navara sails through the mud, followed by the heavily-laden Patrol, which leaves deep ruts. Up next is the Land Rover. Unfortunately, the mud turns its tyres into slicks and it loses momentum and bogs down. In case you didn’t know (I didn’t either), the Discovery 4 has a sensor on the undercarriage that detects if it is lying belly flat on the ground, allowing the air suspension to raise an extra few centimetres to get you out of sticky situations.

With this mode activated and mud tracks placed in front of all four wheels, the V8 screams as it tries to release itself from its muddy prison. Eventually, the tyres grip on the tracks and the vehicle slowly makes its way out of the mud. Just as it reaches the end, with everyone cheering, we see a puff of smoke that quickly turns into a cloud. Disaster strikes; we have a broken car. As Rens stops, coolant is pouring from the engine bay.

The possibilities run through our heads: burst radiator, water pump? Bonnet up, we inspect the engine bay for any obvious signs of damage, to no avail. We conclude a pressure release valve is doing its job, but after the fluids are topped up to confirm our theory, our spirits are broken as it starts dripping from the same area.

Our GPS tells us we are just 30km from the historic town of Pandamatenga, from where we can at least call someone to try and find a solution. The Discovery is hooked up to the Patrol with a tow rope and we start making slow, steady progress. After about 20 minutes, the convoy is brought to an abrupt halt as the Patrol is running hot. The only other car capable of safely towing the Discovery is the 4.0-litre V6-powered FJ Cruiser. Owner Tiaan graciously agrees to get the Disco to safety after being persuaded with a tank of fuel. The FJ seriously impresses us, barely breaking a sweat pulling the Disco up the steep sides of a dry riverbed.

I am in the Disco and, after enjoying the silence of what feels like driving an electric car (sorry, Rens), we roll into the Engen petrol station in Pandamatenga. Riaan heads off to see if he can get contact information for a mechanic, and literally within two minutes Jannie the mechanic arrives and starts diagnosing. He’s also stumped at first and recommends we take the vehicle to his workshop where he has the proper tools to locate and fix the problem, whatever it might be. We can’t quite figure out how he got here so quickly until we discover his shop is just 200 metres down the road.

After removing the airboxes, intake manifold, and a fuel line, the culprit is revealed. A coolant distribution component constructed of two fused plastic halves has split under pressure. The nearest replacement part will be in Johannesburg. This is where Jannie, the bush mechanic, comes into his own. After cleaning the part out, he epoxies the two halves together, Q-Bonds over the epoxy, and finishes off the repair with a few self-tapping screws. He tells us he has fixed plenty of sumps using this method. At the very least, he says, it will last until Rens can get the Landy to Johannesburg to replace the part.

It has taken about two hours to fix the problem and, with the rest of the group having left to our destination for the next two days, Rens and I have a solid 130km to cover to Senyati Safari Camp. We are more than happy to finally join the rest of the group at the camp’s bar for an ice-cold beverage after a stressful day.

The bar overlooks a watering hole and, as we enjoy our welcome drink, two adult and one baby elephant are enjoying their afternoon cooldown swim a mere 15 metres away. Senyati also has an underground bunker that brings you within two metres of the watering hole. Be sure to spend some time here if you visit this area. There is just something breathtaking about being so close to these magnificent animals.

After flopping in the pool with the clothes I have on, we have some downtime while Riaan prepares our dinner for the evening – perfectly-seasoned and braaied Botswana fillets. Dinner is interrupted often by a local menace: sandflies. Only myself and one other guest are lucky enough to escape the plague. Our fellow adventurers wake up the next morning with their ankles looking like a something out of a horror film. The non-shoe-wearing crowd have sustained 20 to 30 painfully itchy bites per ankle. This is something to look out for, as the only remedy is proper antihistamine medication and creams. Boots and socks are highly recommended at all times, despite the heat, as scorpions are also a problem across Botswana.

Kicking back in Kasane

On our fifth morning, the group splits up to attend different activities and we agree to all meet up in the afternoon for a sunset boat cruise. A few group members visit the Victoria Falls, two others visit Chobe National Park, and Riaan and I go to Kasane to stock up on supplies.

In the afternoon, Kasane is our kick-off point to go explore the Chobe River and visit Sedudu Island (or Kasikili Island if you are on the Namibian side) on a small aluminium riverboat. The island was the subject of a territorial dispute between these countries, resolved by a 1999 ruling of the International Court of Justice (ICJ) that the border runs down the thalweg of the river immediately north (not south) of the island. The dispute arose because of the imprecise wording of the agreement concerning the northern boundary between the colonial powers of Germany and the United Kingdom, which settled the geographic interests between German South-West Africa and the Bechuanaland Protectorate in the Heligoland-Zanzibar Treaty signed on July 1, 1890.

Elephants cross the river from both countries to roam free on the island, especially older elephants with worn tusks. On the island, the soil is much softer, making grass easier to pull out. It’s well worth spending the money on an afternoon boat cruise. There are various cruise options with prices starting at R300 per person. Not only will you experience spectacular sunsets over the water, but you might also get to see, as we did, bird species including African Fish Eagles and Long-toed lapwings.

Buffalo, buck, and giraffe are common along the river. As we trundle along the river, a hippo spots us and disappears under the murky water. Fearing the worst, there’s an overwhelming group: “Move, move, move!” The poor 50hp outboard motor’s pistons are almost knocking against the engine cover as the annoyed hippo pops out of the water a mere three metres from the boat. It still amazes me how fast a hippo can shift itself underwater – it covered 10 metres in seconds. This felt like a very close call, but we at least get great photos and video of our little hippo encounter.

After the skipper parks the boat about a metre away from a crocodile lying on the island, we decide it’s probably time to head back to shore. You can only endure so many close calls with dangerous animals.

That evening Riaan treats us to a wonderful dinner of 100 braaied crayfish tails. There is something special about eating seafood that came from the West Coast of South Africa in the bush in Botswana. It goes without saying that after a few days of only eating red meat and chicken, seafood is a refreshing change of pace.

At around 22:30 there is a commotion around the watering hole; the sound of elephants trumpeting echoes through the camp. Camera in hand, not knowing what to expect, I make my way to the bar overlooking the watering hole. Some 20 elephants are taking a late-night bath, with the dominant bull pushing at anyone smaller than himself. An hour flies by as I take in the chaos erupting just 20 metres from me. It’s too dark to get decent photos, but the moonrise over the horizon is a spectacle to behold.

Going for Goo-Moremi

It’s a solid 640km stretch to Goo-Moremi, our final destination on this trip, so we get on the road early. The hours and kilometres roll by, until at the 340km mark Riaan ducks off on one of the cut lines that pass below Sua Pan to break the monotony of the seemingly endless arrow-straight tar roads. Our gravel detour adds 100km or so to the journey, but it is well worthwhile to see Kukonje Island. From there, it’s just another 50km to Kubu Island, all reachable in the dry season.

In his haste to get to our destination, Riaan misjudges a little wet patch and, without enough momentum, the Patrol comes to a slithering but gracious halt. Strange how the tables are turned, as the Navara is roped in to pull the Patrol out of its misery before we call a quick pit stop at a spot overlooking Kukonje Island. With the sight of dust devils hovering over the pans, I realise that a future Botswana pans trip is in order.

After about nine hours behind the wheel of the Navara, our arrival at the campsite can’t come a second later. It’s been a very long and hot day, with the mercury nudging 38°C. We only arrive at 19:45, still needing to set up camp and cook dinner. Once again, Riaan serves up beautifully-basted fillets and pap. One by one group members head off to their tents, as exhaustion overshadows the appeal of sitting around a glowing campfire. It’s an early night for most, on our last evening in Botswana.

The thumbs-up

It’s at breakfast the next morning that reality kicks in and we realise what we have achieved. Our plucky Navara has conquered the Hunter’s Road in the wet season. We did not perhaps drive the full length of the old road, but at every tough point the Nissan dived in and blasted through every challenge. For sure, it proved itself a capable and comfortable 4×4.

THE HUNTER’S ROAD

These days, the Hunter’s Road refers to a strip of land all along the Zimbabwe border of Botswana, stretching from just outside Nata in the south to Kasane in the north. The off-road track along the border runs parallel to the A3 and passes through many hunting concessions, forest reserves, and tribal trust land and villages. It gained its name as a road used by wagons in the later 19th century, as traders moved goods from South Africa to Kazungula, on the banks of the Zambezi.

Road conditions may vary from season to season, with heavy rain in the summer making some sections of the existing road impassable, while during winter (mid-year) the road dries out and is easier to negotiate.

Driving down from Senyati to Pandamatenga, you may be stopped by the Botswana Defence Force informing you that because of the high levels of poaching in the area the Hunter’s Road should not be used. There is, however, no signage indicating this and the locals who do use the road agree it is not a prohibited route.

ACCOMMODATION

Lephalale – Machauka Lodge
GPS co-ordinates: 23.6732° S, 27.7438° E
Type of accommodation: Rooms
Price: Starts at R900 per night
Offers: Luxury accommodation with DSTV, restaurant, bar, and free WiFi. It’s in a major town, so you can get any supplies you might have forgotten.

Nata – Elephant Sands Eco Camp
GPS co-ordinates: 19.7496° S, 26.0714° E
Type of accommodation: Chalets or campsites
Price: Campsite R164 per person per night, chalets start at R1 243
Offers: Restaurant, bar, slightly iffy WiFi, 360° panoramic views of the Botswana flats. The camp is centred around the watering hole.

Kasane – Senyati Safari Camp
GPS Coordinates: 17.8723° S, 25.2357° E
Price: Campsite R273 per night per person, chalets starts at R2459
Offers: Every campsite has its own lapa, toilets, and showers. A very busy watering hole, featuring elephants, warthogs, various buck, and an incredible variety of birds. WiFi is available, but only when the bar is open from 17:30 to 21:00.

TRIP HIGHLIGHTS

Toyota Fortuner D4-D 2007
Richard Harpur: Great laughs, almost got eaten by a hippo, was stung by a scorpion, had cars breaking down, and elephants making sounds similar to those from a Jurassic Park movie while sleeping in a 1mm thick tent 50 metres away. Had hyenas sniffing around our head while we slept. And we had two Toyotas that never had an issue, and never got stuck…

Frank J Harpur: It’s great when a bunch of strangers get together with one goal in mind – to conquer Hunter’s Road in the wet season. I experienced unity and camaraderie like never before. This is what Mother Nature can do for you.

Toyota FJ Cruiser
Tiaan du Toit: Camping under a baobab, the Milky Way, fireflies, a stalking hyena, great food, and friends. What a privilege!
Albertus Basson: Sandflies, scorpions and mosquitos, hyenas, elephants, and angry hippos. Along with some very capable 4x4s and strangers that became friends, this trip was epic and will be etched into my memory forever.

Discovery 4 V8 petrol
Rens Meyer: With wild animals lying behind the bushes and waiting for you, it is surprising how calm this unspoilt piece of land can make you, even during the most chaotic moments. Also thankful for the new friendships created.
Danie Geldenhuys: It was a nostalgic journey through time.

Nissan Navara Stealth
Jacques Viljoen: Experiencing a different part of a country I had previously visited and realising what I missed the first time. I was amazed by how quickly strangers can turn into good friends.

Anton Willemse: Although the sandflies nearly carried me away, the red soil of Botswana under my feet and the black cotton soil between my toes will last in my memories, just like the friendships I made.

TOUR INFO

Complete 4×4 Adventure tours has been offering overlanding adventures throughout southern Africa since 2012. Custom tours are offered to Mozambique, Swaziland, Botswana, Lesotho, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia and Angola. The next Hunter’s Road adventure takes place in Jan-February 2021. For more information, contact Riaan Jooste 0645380585 / info@complete4x4.web.za

RIAAN’S PATROL

Want to know how a tour guide equips his vehicle? This is a short list of the equipment on Riaan Jooste’s Nissan Patrol 4.8 GRX Auto. A lot of great 4×4 brands are included in this working vehicle that, while not new, needs to perform reliably, month in and month out – plus work as a mobile kitchen and recovery unit.

Dastek Unichip, Viper exhaust, Front Runner roofrack, Quickpitch 270 degree awning, Quickpitch Quick Shower unit, 200W solar panels roof-mounted, Ratel 4×4 Front bumper, Ironman 12 000LB Monster winch, Baja Designs LED bar, TJM 50mm suspension lift, Outback Drawer system, 105-litre Snomaster, 40-litre Engel, 3x105Ah deep-cycle batteries, 40A Ring Automotive DC-DC charger, Bosvark UHF radio, BFG KM3 mud-terain tyres, Tracks4Africa GPS maps v19.12, Garmin Montana 650, ONCA 4×4 Smittybilt recovery gear.

WHAT YOU NEED

We recommend you include the equipment below when tackling a muddy challenge such as the Hunter’s Road in Botswana.
All-terrain tyres
Sand/mud tracks
Air jack (The ground is too soft for any other type of jack)
At least three cans of Peaceful Sleep or Tabard (You will be surprised how much you use)
Two jerrycans each of fuel and water
Tow rope and snatch rope
At least one vehicle with a winch
Purchase a Botswana Sim card for your cellphone. You only need your passport and it’s a lot cheaper than roaming. I paid about R210 for 4GB of data.
GPS with updated Tracks4Africa
Waterproof clothing

NISSAN NAVARA

People had their doubts about us being able to drive on Hunter’s Road in a standard Navara Stealth, a special edition with an array of visual upgrades to distinguish it from the standard LE-spec double cab. Amazingly, even with highway-terrain tyres, the Navara demolished any obstacle in its path. A proper low-range gearbox and bucketloads of torque from its 2.3-litre turbodiesel made crawling through deep mud a breeze. At no point on- or off-road did we find the vehicle lacking for power.

The heavy-duty, five-link coil rear suspension (as opposed to the traditional rear leaf suspension) offers exceptional ride comfort, absorbing the bumps across a wide range of terrains. It also offers superior handling and cornering ability on gravel and tar. After taking a drive in all the vehicles in our group, I found the Navara as comfortable, if not more so, than most of the vehicles that joined us.

Powered by an advanced twin-turbo diesel engine producing 140kW and 450Nm, with a wide torque curve from 1 500rpm, the small turbo gets you moving at low engine speeds while the larger one delivers linear, constant power for easy cruising. The seven-speed auto isn’t the smoothest shifter on the block, but it does help keep fuel consumption within frugal limits – we achieved a very credible 9.6 to 9.8 litres/100km on average during our trip.

The shift-on-the-fly 4WD system allows you to shift from 2WD to 4H while driving up to 100km/h. 4-High is ideal for light off-road driving, while 4-Low is for serious off-roading in sand, snow, or deep mud. When the highway calls, 2WD keeps things more economical. When starting on an incline, Hill Start Assist can help keep you from rolling backwards. It simply holds the brakes for a few seconds so you can switch from brake pedal to accelerator with confidence. If you are driving down hilly terrain, Hill Descent Control automatically maintains a steady speed to help you safely get back on the level.

The Stealth sets itself apart with bold orange detailing on the front bumper and side skirts and all chrome blacked out. The orange theme continues to the interior with orange stitching on the seats, giving it a refreshing style. Neat interior touches include a 12V power socket on top of the dash for your GPS and in the load area for your fridge.

Manoeuvring is made easy with a four-camera Intelligent Around View Monitor, which gives a bird’s-eye view of the vehicle. It’s useful for parking in tight places or spotting obstacles you cannot see from the driver’s seat off-road.

Overall, the Navara offers a great package for anyone who is looking for a no-compromise bakkie. It has all the power you will ever need and rides more comfortably than any other bakkie on the market. If you’re heading off the tar often though, we recommend you fit a set of proper all-terrain tyres.

PRICING

2.3D LE 4×4 AT DC – R670 300
2.3D Stealth 4×4 AT DC – R683 200

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