Desert & Delta on a Dime

Wildebeest near a waterhole in Makgadikgadi.DDSThe exact middle of Nowhere. Wildebeest approaching a waterhole in Makgadikgadi.
For the independent traveller who looks beyond the National Parks, there are ways to experience Botswana's two biggest attractions, the desert and the delta, without having to take out a second mortgage! Intended to protect the environment, Botswana's high-value, low-volume tourism policy has made it an expensive destination for self-drive South African tourists. With the Botswana currency, the Pula, stronger than the Rand and National Park tariffs at around R300 per person per day, adventurous South Africans have explored other, more affordable Southern African destinations.Putting our newly acquired 'vintage' 1985 Datsun King Cab, affectionately dubbed the 'Blue Wildebeest' through its paces, we set off from Cape Town in August on a three-month peregrination through Botswana, Zambia and Namibia. Botswana was our first port of call and we came prepared.

Knowing that in our neighbouring states, we would find South African goods at imported prices, we stocked up before we left with camping staples like pasta, tuna and cheese wedges. We were mindful that such stockpiling causes our neighbours to refer to us as 'banana tourists' who bring everything with them and only buy fresh produce. Nonetheless, bringing provisions from home saved us a pretty packet in daily expenses, leaving us with money to visit tourist attractions and buy products unique to the country we were visiting.

The Kalahari Desert

With groaning suspension we crossed into Botswana at Ramatlabama near Mafikeng. At 10 o' clock in the morning, there was hardly any traffic and we moved through customs formalities quickly.

We followed the main tar road from Gaberone to Francistown and then west to Maun eager for our first off-road encounter with the Kalahari.

The heartland of the Botswana tourism industry, Maun is still a frontier town despite the fact that the tar road from Nata has opened it up to less hardy traffic in the last few years. Progress has brought with it a new mall, more tourists and an increase in crime. Herero women in their patchwork petticoats rub shoulders with khaki-clad bush-rangers and pilots. Everybody drives a 4 x 4. And with good reason.We filled up four 20litre jerry cans and two 25litre water containers and set off on the main Shakawe road for Drotsky's Cave. 11km from Tsao, we left the tar and headed west into the empty desert, again at high noon.

Drostky's Cave

Gcwihaba Caverns or Drotsky's Cave is a National Monument of dusty stalactites, stalagmites and flowstones in the remote west of the country near the Namibian border. This would be the first real test of the Datsun's mettle.

There are no signposts on Botswana's roads. We were travelling alone, without GPS, and, as we subsequently discovered, not so much as a compass. We did, however, have the directions from someone who had travelled this way a few months before.8 km down the sand track we passed a cattle-post. This was the last sign of human habitation until the farm of Robert Riggs, one of the last of the old-time Great White Hunters. Riggs' farm is all but at the end of the 144km slog over corrugated cut-line and sandy bush track. Not another vehicle passed us on our way in, or on our way out.

It has been a long time since the sea swept these sandy shores but the dolomite formations of Drotsky's cave are an incongruous reminder that once, water rather than sand covered these dusty plains. Here, because the cave is a National Monument, you won't have to pay for the privilege of relieving yourself in the bush and setting up canvas under the stars.

From Drotsky's, if you dare, you can complete the circuit and meet up with the tar road further north. We decided better the devil you know and retraced our tracks to the tar.

The Delta

After the dust, the Delta beckoned, Botswana's premier, but pricy, tourist attraction. However, there are ways to explore the Delta without having to part with an arm and a leg.

The Okavango Delta covers an area of 18 000 square kilometres. It is fed by the Okavango River which originates in the Benguela Plateau of south-eastern Angola. Upon encountering the flat and thirsty expanses of Botswana, the river spreads out into hundreds of snaking channels and flood plains, resulting in an emerald and silver patchwork of perennial and seasonal swamp.Some three hundred odd kilometres by road from Maun, up the western panhandle of the Delta, dry woodland succumbs to savannah and grass covers the sand. The dust and the donkeys give way to reeds, water and loamy rich soil. While a 4x4 is useful to access some of the waterside camps, you'll have to exchange your Mitsubishi for a motorboat to really appreciate the Delta.

Sepopa Swamp Stop, however, is just 3 km off the main road and is accessible to ordinary sedan cars. It's a good base from which to explore the Delta. Camping is comfortable and affordable and the riverside bar is a big attraction. Sepopa hires out motor-boats from which to fish and explore the Delta for a couple of hours. If you want to do things the traditional way, then the Okavango Polers Trust tariffs apply and a mokoro can be hired at around R320 for the day.

Tsodilo Hills. The Mountain of the Gods

From Sepopa Swamp Stop, 64km of tar and smooth calcrete carries us from the wetlands to the highlands. A 4x4 is no longer necessary to reach the 'Mountain of the Gods.' However, upon entrance into the park, the roads swiftly deteriorate and a 4x4 comes in handy.

Tsodilo is Botswana's first World Heritage site. The visitors' book at the thatched entranceway to Tsodilo shows a preponderance of CA registrations in recent days. Mountain-loving Capetonians are obviously irresistibly drawn to the loftiest peak in the country even if it is only 1 395 metres high. Of the family of three stony upswellings, the Father hill is the most prominent. A raptor soars on the winds in the cleft between the Female and Child. Incised by weather and time, the sheer rock faces have been scrubbed smooth by the passage of innumerable years.These hills shelter over 4000 rock art images at some 400 sites. The images glow in the afternoon sun, visible in the krantzes above the walking trail. Baobabs rise out of the woodlands, tall and surprisingly elegant against the massif behind them. Here, the wells and streams hold water when the surrounding Kalahari is dry. Botswana's Ayres Rock turned ruddy in the setting sun as we headed for the Namibian border.

Our three weeks in Botswana, including accommodation, petrol and car repairs as well as entertainment, came to under R400 a day for two people. Who needs the National Parks?By Laurianne Claase
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