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Virgin Territory

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VIEWS

Words by Grant Spolander Pictures by Grant Spolander, Craig Fox and Ben Moller

THE KWATALE WILDLIFE ADVENTURE TOUR
Botswana’s hunting concessions are scattered across the country, and are prime territories. These areas were the sole preserve of hunters until recently, when a well-known concession near Moremi opened its doors to overland travellers too. Grant Spolander grabs the wheel of a new Ford Ranger to investigate this private offering.

Have you watched the movie Armageddon? There’s a scene in it where a crew of oil rig workers need to drill a hole in a meteorite. The giant asteroid is on a collision course with Earth and they need to make a hole in the surface, insert a nuclear device and blast the meteorite into pieces before it strikes Earth and destroys life as we know it.
But there’s a small problem: they need to get off the asteroid before it rotates, faces the sun and gets hellishly hot. Of course, this is exactly what happens. As the sun rises over the dark side of the meteorite, the astronauts are suddenly trapped in a hostile world of super-heated gas and rock eruptions.
If you can remember that scene, the moment our heroes are boiled alive, you’ll have a good idea what it felt like to be in Botswana this past November.
Each morning I’d lazily crawl from my tent, wrap a damp cloth around my neck and anxiously wait for the morning sun. At around 06h00 the Central Kalahari Game Reserve felt like a slow cooker but when the sun came out it turned into an industrial microwave. The fact that I didn’t blister into a screaming roll of bubble wrap still amazes me. Sunscreen is a necessity here.
Virgin Territory Thankfully, we were driving the new Ford Ranger which happens to have a great air-conditioning system. It was early November and, according to Botswana’s travel and tourism website, also the start of the rainy season. Folks warned me that it would be helluva hot this time of year but I wasn’t worried, thinking to myself, “It’ll be raining, how hot can it be?” Nope, there wasn’t a cloud in sight.
We entered the reserve an hour or so before sunset with the outside temperature still hovering around 42° C. Keen to stay in the Ranger’s air-cooled cabin we quickly set up camp and went on a game drive before dark. Within about 30 minutes we’d spotted a wounded gemsbok with a broken horn stuck in its chest, and a pride of lions including two cubs.
Most off -road travellers are familiar with Botswana’s wildlife parks and reserves. This land-locked country may offer little in the way of palm trees and sandy beaches, but what it lacks in coastal offerings it makes up for in fauna, flora and feral adventure, with Moremi National Park holding the title spot in this regard.
Boasting more life than a Beijing food market, Moremi enjoys pilgrimage status amongst off-road travellers; the roads are strictly for 4x4s and the river crossings are deeper than a crooked cop’s jacket pocket. It’s 4WD heaven.
Unfortunately, things are changing. There’s a strong movement towards making Moremi an exclusive fl y-in destination, and self-sufficient overlanders are beginning to feel distinctly unwelcome in the reserve. Many of the park’s campsites are now privately run and the related accommodation prices have sky-rocketed. Presently, camping in Moremi can cost anything from P250 pppn, and then you still have to cough up for vehicle permits (P50 pd) and park entrance fees (P120 pp). What’s more, there’s talk that these fees may increase by another 30 percent in the not-too-distant future.
The Kwatale Wildlife Adventure tour is a new route through the northern parts of Botswana, so new in fact that this is the first-time anyone’s mentioned the name. Until its recent conception, the Kwatale route formed part of a private hunting concession.
Officially, the concession goes by the name of NG43, but to its lease holders it’s better known as Kwatale, which is ‘Old bull buffalo’ in Setswana.
More than 360 000 ha in extent, Kwatale sits on Moremi’s south-eastern boundary. The concession has roughly 1 000 km of off -road tracks interspersed with man-made waterholes and several unique campsites. During the hunting season (April to September) the area’s used exclusively by big-game hunters, then it shuts its doors in October when the season closes.
Virgin TerritoryHowever, thanks to Theo and Marnie Snyman from Safrica Wildlife, and Ben Moller from Elephant Sands Lodge, the concession will now be kept open for a select group of off -road adventurers who’d like to experience the area’s isolation and wildlife splendour.
The five-day guided tour officially kicks off in Maun and includes four special nights at four unique places: Kwatale, Mankwe, Never Neverland and Elephant Sands Lodge. The route also encompasses day trips into Moremi and Kwai. The lekker thing about these day trips is that it allows you to experience the magic of Moremi – guided – but without incurring the high camping fees.
We took our time getting to Maun, stopping at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary for one night and spending another evening in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR). We met our hosts Ben, Theo and Marnie in the small town of Rakops, the last provision stop before entering the CKGR’s Matswere gate. Note that when I say provisions I mean fuel and refreshments; don’t count on more than that – the locals laughed at us when we asked for ice.
The CKGR deserves more than a night’s stay if you’ve never been there before, but we used it as a stopover to kickstart our Kwatale Wildlife Adventure.
The first night in Kwatale is spent at the main camp which consists of permanent tents with en suite toilets and hot showers. There’s also a boma, bar and main eating area. Looking out from the boma you enjoy an uninterrupted view of a nearby waterhole; in the dry season you’re almost guaranteed to see game.
Our first morning at Kwatale saw us drinking coffee, dunking rusks and watching wild dogs. It was a first for me – I’ve never seen them in the wild before. A camp employee tells me that the dogs are there almost daily. What an honour – the trip’s already worth it.
The daytrip into Kwai was a personal highlight. I’ve driven through the area before but its beauty and variety are so captivating it felt like we were pioneers in a new land. There’s water everywhere; channels of it rushing through grassy banks, spilling into pools and gliding under trees. Wherever you look elephants graze, hippos bath and birds soar.
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We park our vehicles beside the Kwai River; further downstream a small group of elephants play in the water. After a short lunch break we follow a track along the river bank. As we pass the elephants on our left we realise they’re part of a larger herd feeding in the bush to our right. A short while later the huge herd moves towards the river, with more and more of them appearing, almost magically, out of the mopani forest. I lose count at 30-something, choosing to enjoy the magnitude of the moment rather than counting them one by one.
We spend our third night at Never Neverland, a rustic bush camp within the Kwatale concession. There’s a manmade waterhole nearby and we’re surrounded by broken mopani trees – this is elephant country. I notice animal spoor disappearing into the thicket… something big has dragged something bigger into the bush.
I’ve heard a lot about Oom Ben but until this trip we’d never met. Most of the Oom Ben stories I’d heard were focused on his encounters with wildlife, like when a herd of elephant flattened his lodge, or when a leopard clawed his leg, or when an angry elephant cow charged into his lodge and tried to kill him.
I relayed these stories to my wife before leaving for Bots; we’re newbie parents so she’s quite nervous when I go on work trips into the bush. “Don’t worry babes, I’m going with a pro – Oom Ben knows the bush better than you know Cavendish Mall,” I told her. Her reply: “A professional at what, inducing animal attacks?”
Virgin TerritoryThat evening Oom Ben places his mattress close to the fire, and we hear hyena whooping in the darkness. I’m keen to sleep under the stars like Oom Ben but my wife’s words come back to me and I consider Ben’s history. I opt for my nylon cocoon instead.
The next morning Ben’s still alive – maybe his luck’s changed. I walk around the camp looking for hyena spoor, curious to see how close they came to the sleeping camper. I can’t find a single paw print. Oom Ben points out that unlike in Moremi, the animals in Kwatale are wild and inclined to avoid human interaction.
With November signifying the beginning of the rainy season – and the end of the dry spell – much of Botswana is desolate and barren. Although Kwatale runs adjacent to Moremi it’s not particularly wet so the vegetation is a bit dry. However, because there are so many waterholes about, you’re bound to see wildlife. Plus, very few people drive the roads here so the concession acts as an animal sanctuary… bar the seasonal hunting of course.
Although the route described earlier forms the basis of the trip, the tour operators are flexible as far accommodation options go and they may alter the route depending on the season or animal movements. Fortunately, Oom Ben is a local. He’s known by… well, everyone we came across. Plus, he speaks Setswana, so he’s got a pretty good idea as to what’s best in Bots.
Two things are almost guaranteed: the tour will always start at Maun and then finish at Elephant Sands – Oom Ben’s establishment. The lodge is a great way to end the Kwatale Wildlife Adventure tour. You can pitch a tent or stay in one of 14 chalets. We chose the bed route.
On our final night at Elephant Sands I was woken by Craig – my mate who’d accompanied me on this trip – who’d worked himself into a rage about the heat. It had finally gotten to him. At 02h00 he sprang from his bed and began pacing the room. When I switched on the bedroom light I unwillingly captured the memory of a sweat-covered chommie wearing nothing but his tighty whities.
After an hour or so – and a cold shower – Craig eventually settled down in his tent, choosing to forgo the hot-house chalet. At roughly 04h00 I woke up again, this time to the sound of rustling bushes. Looking outside, I spotted a massive bull elephant feeding nearby. Then I realised that Craig had pitched his tent on the pathway between our vehicle and a large tree.
Craig had no idea what was coming, but from my vantage point I could clearly see the elephant making its way towards his tent. I considered Craig’s fate. Should I shout a warning and risk the elephant charging me, or do I let Craig peacefully die in his sleep? I mean, he isn’t gonna feel a thing if it stands on his head, maybe just a faint popping sensation as his lights go out for the last time.
I held my breath. Unbelievably, as the bull elephant reached Craig’s tiny one-man tent, it chose to walk around him, through the tree’s branches and back onto the path. I lowered my camera and took it off Action Mode. (Ed: He’s becoming a pukka journalist!)
As I lay in bed I contemplated the elephant’s act of kindness: here’s the world’s largest land animal, capable of immense destruction, yet for some reason it chose to walk around a soft -shell human.
A little while later, torrential rains poured down and lightning filled the heavens with thunderous chords. It seemed to sum up our trip beautifully: the Kwatale Wildlife Adventure Tour offers numerous attractions, some obvious, some rather unexpected.
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Ford Ranger 3.2 TDCi – R426 900
I can’t imagine a better bakkie. On top of its gorgeous looks, the Ranger offers excellent engine specs, thoughtful ergonomics, a spacious cabin, a capacious load-bay and class-leading performance.
It didn’t matter where we drove this Ford, whether waaaaay off the beaten track or through a klein dorpie, everyone recognised the new Ranger. In fact, some of the locals in Botswana taught me a thing or two about the vehicle, even though I’d attended the media launch just weeks prior.
At first I was a bit doubtful of Ford’s decision to drop the acclaimed 3.0-litre TDCi engine, but the new 3.2-litre replacement motor is even better, boasting an incredible power figure of 147 kW @ 3 000 rpm and a massive torque output of 470 Nm @ 1 500 rpm. Together, these two figures afford the Ranger a class-leading towing capacity of 3 350 kg. (Ed: Obviously, SA legislation restricts your towing capacity to the vehicle’s TARE weight unless you install an auxiliary braking system.)
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What’s surprising is the Ranger’s phenomenal fuel economy. During our off-road tour of Botswana we recorded a consumption figure of just 10.1 l / 100 km while driving through thick Kalahari sand and on gravel tracks. Put this figure against the Ranger’s 80-litre fuel tank capacity, and you have a practical driving range of 792 km. Not too shabby!
Another impressive quality – especially on a trip like this – was the Ranger’s class-leading wading depth. At 800 mm we could safely explore the wet waterways of Kwai and Moremi without worrying about drowning the Ranger’s 3.2-litre engine.
Looking at the interior, the Ranger sports exceptional cabin space and leg room, enough for a 6-foot passenger to comfortably sit behind the driver’s seat, even when that seat is adjusted as far back as it can go.
Staying on the subject of space, the new Ranger features loads of practical storage compartments including numerous cup and bottle holders. The lockable glove compartment is big enough to accommodate a laptop computer while the aircon-cooled centre console is large enough to accommodate four beverage cans.
It’s a bit sad that the Ranger didn’t reach SA sooner, but as they say, you can’t rush perfection. In my opinion the new Ranger has been worth the wait.

GPS POINTS (WGS 84)
Kwatale camp
S19º 35.707 E23º 55.221
Never Neverland camp
S19º 34.386 E24º 32.503
Mankwe camp
S19º 21.766 E23º 53.812

 

SA4x4 Route Guide

WHERE WE STAYED
Kwa Nokeng,
S22º 59.998 E27º 56.415

Virgin Territory Typically, it takes four to five hours to drive from JHB to the Martin’s Drift border post; for most people that’s a full day’s drive. Once you cross the border you’ll find a Caltex fuel station on your left, along with a bureau de change, a small shop, a fast food restaurant and a dirt track leading to the Kwa Nokeng lodge. As far as stopovers go there couldn’t be a better place to recharge, refuel and stock up on pula. Choose between a river cottage (P835), chalet (P495), luxury tent (P495), permanent safari tent (P245), or pitch your own tent in the campsite (P70 pppn). Call +267 491 5908 or go to www.kwanokeng.com for more info.

Khama Rhino Sanctuary,
S22º 14.072 E26º 43.194

Virgin Territory If you’d like to see rhinos before they’re all locked up and packed away from poachers, the Khama Rhino Sanctuary is the place to go. Established in ’92, the reserve is a community-based wildlife project aimed at protecting this endangered species while facilitating an ongoing breeding programme. You can camp (P60 pppn) or stay in a 2-sleeper chalet (P415). The campsites feature running water and ablution facilities and they’re open to the wild. Call +267 463 0713 or go to www.khamarhinosanctuary.com for more info.

Elephant Sands Lodge,
S19º 44.935 E26º 04.265

Virgin Territory Almost every well-travelled overlander is familiar with Elephant Sands. The lodge lies just north of Nata on the A33 highway and is a great stopover for folks travelling to Chobe, the Caprivi or Zambia. The lodge is meticulously cared for by owner / manager Ben Moller – one of the most interesting and captivating people I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. Elephant Sands features a great restaurant, swimming pool, waterhole which elephants regularly visit and an awesome bar / pub built around a half-flattened tree – the one Oom Ben hid behind when an elephant charged him. You can either camp (P60 pppn) or stay in a 2-sleeper chalet (P540). Call +267 735 364 73 or go to www.elephantsands.com for more info.

TOUR DETAILS
The Kwatale Wildlife Adventure Tour is a joint venture between Safrica Wildlife and Elephant Sands Lodge. Each guided five-day tour is open to a minimum of three and a maximum of four vehicles, and runs from October to the end of March. The tour costs P8 000 per person, which includes guide fees, park fees, camping costs and catering – coffee and rusks in the morning, brunch in the late morning, pre-dinner snacks and dinner. If you’d like to camp at Khama or the CKGR en route, the operators will make the necessary bookings for you. For more information, or to make a booking, contact Marnie on 081 456 3759 or Jaco on +267 734 451 62. Alternatively, email them at safricawildlife@lantic.net.

FUEL
You’ll need to fill up in Maun before heading on the Kwatale Wildlife Adventure tour, as you won’t see fuel until the end of the trip in Nata. Both these towns (Maun & Nata) will take petrol, cheque or debit cards when filling up, but the card machines aren’t always reliable so have pula ready. During our tour we used approximately 120 litres of diesel with the Ranger recording a fuel consumption figure of 10.1 l / 100 km.

WHERE TO BUY PROVISIONS
Maun isn’t a small town so you’ll have no problems finding supplies here. The tricky part is way down south when you cross the border as you’re not allowed to bring beef into Botswana. Oh, and tomatoes are also prohibited – something to do with fruit flies. Remember to bring lots and lots of drinking water, as this place gets blerrie hot in the summer.

ESSENTIAL GEAR
Naturally, an air compressor and tyre repair kit are essential. If you’re travelling solo and want to visit the CKGR on your way up don’t underestimate the size and loneliness of this reserve – a sat phone wouldn’t be a bad idea. At the end of the dry season a radiator net and fire extinguisher are must-have items. Thanks to 4×4 MegaWorld for lending us the necessary overland equipment and for making this trip possible. For more details on 4×4 MegaWorld and their limitless off-road offerings go to www.4x4megaworld.co.za.

TYRES
The Cooper Discoverer ATR is ideally suited to this kind of all-road terrain. It provides excellent on-road performance and the extensive zig-zag siping increases water evacuation and provides excellent traction in the wet. The tyre is also solid in off-road conditions with its 5-rib tread design and enhanced cut and chip resistance. Call 0800 335 722 (toll-free) for your nearest dealer.

ROAD CONDITIONS
The tarred roads in Botswana are generally in good condition. Off-road you’ll encounter thick sand and lots of gravel. Moremi and Kwai are waterlogged so be prepared to wade your way through.

MAPS & DIRECTIONS
Tracks4Africa will navigate you around Botswana but the Kwatale concession has not been mapped. Fortunately, the tour’s guided so there’s no need to worry.

VEHICLE REQUIRED
A 4×4 with low-range and respectable ground clearance is a necessity for places like Moremi, Kwai and the CKGR. A suitable set of AT tyres will be fine as far as rubber’s concerned.

RISK
Northern Botswana is a malaria area so be sure to take precautions.