Written by Neil Harmse
Chapter 10. Bad Luck Safari
There are times when, no matter how carefully things are planned, nothing seems to work out as one hoped. I remember one safari to Botswana years ago which seemed to go wrong from the very beginning.
I was contracted to do a photographic safari with a client who was the principal of the College of Photography in Johannesburg. He wanted to experience and compile a photographic journey through a varied wilderness region, desert, swamp and bushveld. I felt that Botswana would offer exactly the trip he was seeking.
In those years, there was not as much choice of four-wheel-drive vehicles in South Africa as there is today. Toyota Land Cruiser and Land Rover were about all. Just before commencing this trip, the Jeep agency brought out the model CJ-6 long wheelbase and, as my old Land Rover had seen a lot of wear and tear, I decided that this Jeep seemed a good proposition for the safari and decided to purchase one. I had it fitted out with a bush bar, roof rack, jerry-can brackets and high-lift jack and felt this vehicle from the USA was just the right thing for our pending adventure.
Stephen and I left Johannesburg early in the morning with the aim of travelling across the Botswana border at Martin’s Drift and carrying on to Francistown, where we planned to overnight. This stage of our journey was quite uneventful and I must admit that the Jeep seats were a lot more comfortable than the old Landy. Instead of finding accommodation in the town, we travelled a few kilometres out of it and set up a fly camp on the road to Nata in order to get an early start the following day. Little did we know what was in store for us.
After early-morning coffee and rusks, we packed up camp and set off for Nata, one of the few places where we could refuel en route to Maun. Our plan was to refuel and have ‘brunch’, then travel south-west along one of the tracks leading to the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. This system consists of several desolate pans, collectively covering about 16 058km² of nothing but white salt-covered expanse, an extremely inhospitable area with virtually no wildlife or plant life. Stephen was very keen to experience and photograph this region.
After a few hours’ grinding along in fourwheel- drive, we made our way to Sua Pan, one of the largest of the salt pan systems, where I stopped to allow Stephen to walk along the crust-covered surface taking photographs of some of the few varieties of algae which occurred in spots. It was impressive to just stand and stare across the vast expanse of white salt surface stretching to the horizon.
After about two hours, I suggested to Stephen that we get going if we still wanted to reach Maun by late afternoon. After he had stored all his photographic paraphernalia safely in his boxes, we were ready to set off. I turned the key – and NOTHING! The engine did not turn over. I tried several times, with the same result. The Jeep was dead. I checked everything, but could not get it to start. The battery was stone-dead. We were now in a very tight spot. We tried to push-start the vehicle, but because of the thick salt crust surface, there was no way of moving the Jeep. In desperation, I used the high-lift jack to raise the rear wheels, wound a rope around the tyres and, with the vehicle’s gears in second, tried hauling on the rope to spin the wheels in order to start the vehicle. We simply did not have the strength to get a kick out of the engine. It was now growing late in the day and I suggested that we get some food going and try to take stock of our situation.
After a meal of mostly tinned foods, I suggested that I take a knapsack with some food and two water bottles and make my way northwards, towards the main Nata road, to find help. I planned to leave early the next morning, while it was still cool. Stephen would stay with the vehicle and supplies to wait for my return. I warned him that it could be two days before I got back.
Following a fitful night’s sleep, and after taking some careful compass bearings, I was ready to leave the next morning. About roughly 3km along our backtrack, I heard a droning sound which I thought could be an aircraft or vehicle. As the sound got nearer, I realised it was a vehicle. After a while, I saw a Land Rover heading towards me. I have never felt so relieved in my life. It turned out to be one of the Botswana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries rangers who had seen our tracks from the previous day and decided to follow them to investigate. I could have hugged him! Before long, and with a pull-start from his Landy, the Jeep was mobile again. He offered to follow us to the main Nata-Maun road and then he would have to turn off on the Pandamatenga road. We would keep going non-stop to Maun, where we could hopefully get a new battery.
Maun in those days consisted of Riley’s Hotel, Riley’s Garage, Riley’s General Dealer and a few trading stores. The mechanic checked the battery, only to find a dead cell, but he had no suitable battery in stock. He managed to contact a supplier in Francistown who had a truck coming through the following day and would bring a battery for us.
We managed to book in at the hotel for a comfortable and congenial evening. After an excellent meal, we spent an interesting evening in the bar chatting to some of the guides and professional hunters. They included the famous Harry Selby, Lionel Palmer and Darryl Dandridge, who were killing time in the off-season. It was a great privilege to spend time with these guys and hear their hunting stories and experiences. I must say that Stephen took all this in his stride and accepted it as part of his ‘African adventure’.
The truck with the new battery arrived at about 10.30am and an hour later, we were ready to begin the next leg of our safari. We had arranged to hire two camp helpers and guides to accompany us to the Okavango. We had planned to travel along the road following the Thamalakane River, turning off along a track following the Santantadibe River, skirting Chief’s Island on the west, and making our way north to Seronga, then westwards to Tsodilo Hills in the far north, famous for its Bushman rock art.
The thick sand of the track along the Thamalakane made for terribly slow travelling and by late afternoon, after turning off on the Santantadibe track, we decided to set up a fly camp to call it a day. We soon had a fire going with some of our fresh meat on the coals and relaxed with cold beers from the cooler box. The meat done, we placed it in a dish and were busy preparing a salad when a hyena rushed in, grabbed the dish and made off, leaving us staring and cursing. Our stock of precious fresh meat had just been drastically reduced. Our first supper turned into tinned sausages and beans, but at least we still had salad. We would have to take more care in future. Hyenas proved a damn nuisance, as they tried to get at meat and supplies in our Coleman cooler boxes and chewed one corner almost off. A few uneventful days took us into the swamps, where Stephen managed to get some good photos of game in the area, including elephant, buffalo, lion and the usual selection of antelope species. Unfortunately, trying to get shots of hippo and crocodile proved a challenge, as these would never quite come out of the water and just photographing their heads in the water made for rather indifferent images.
There was a pool with some hippo and a few fairly large crocs, and earlier we had come across a camp of local citizen hunters. They had shot a buffalo and I had the idea of drawing a croc out by baiting it with a buffalo lung. After a bit of haggling, we traded for a lung, which we hauled near the water. I hacked off a few pieces and threw them into the water to attract the creatures. Then, with the help of our guides, we started to drag the lung to the water’s edge. I motioned to Stephen to keep his camera ready. He was walking along with us as we dragged the lung when a croc of about 5m suddenly came charging out the water at great speed, heading directly towards us. I had never realised just how fast these creatures could move on land. The guides dropped the lung and fled. With a lunge, the croc grabbed the lung and, in a flash, was back in the water, lung and all. I looked around for Stephen, but he had taken off with the guides and did not even think of using his camera. He did manage to get a few photos of the frenetic activities as the crocs twisted and tore at the lung in the water.
To make up, a while later Stephen managed to take some great shots of a pride of lions which were fairly close and some cubs engaged in playful antics with the adults.
Our next misfortune came the following day, and the blame was mostly mine. While crossing one of the smaller swampy streams, water splashed up into the engine compartment of the Jeep, which brought us spluttering to a stop about midstream. The water was only about knee- or thigh-high and we climbed out to dry the spark plugs and distributor. I opened the distributor taking out the rotor and then dried and sprayed Q-20 into the unit.
After this, I replaced the cap and dried and sprayed the spark plugs. I then tried to start the engine. It simply cranked, but would not start. I told the guys to push it across to dry ground, where I would check it. After moving it about 15m, a thought occurred to me. Had I replaced the rotor? Jumping out, I found the rotor was not there. I remembered placing it on the edge of the mudguard panel, but it was now missing. It was somewhere in the water. I realised that I did not have a spare rotor – after all, who brings along a spare rotor!? Moreover, it was about four days’ walk back to Maun. Our tracks could be seen where the Jeep had moved through the water. I had everyone on hands and knees, chins above the water, groping on the bottom along the tracks, trying to feel the missing rotor. After about an hour’s search, finding bits of wood and stones, as well as the odd piece of bone, one of the guys finally found the rotor. I was so relieved that I could have kissed him! I now always carry a spare rotor as part of my spares kit.
The next few days were quite uneventful and a good variety of game animals kept Stephen busy with camera, lenses and filters. He was enjoying the trip immensely and just as I was hoping we had used up all the bad luck in the barrel, the Jeep suddenly lost all its brakes. When I pushed the brake pedal, it simply sank to the floor with no pressure. On crawling underneath the vehicle, I found the problem: a metal brake pipe had been rubbing on the side of the chassis and had worn through, leaking brake fluid out and resulting in a loss of pressure. I turned a small self-tapping screw with adhesive sealer into the broken pipe and managed to bleed the brakes with four bottles of brake fluid I had in my spares. Then we were off again, with brakes on only three wheels.
After this, our luck finally seemed to change and we managed to complete the rest of our journey northwards with no further mishaps. However, while heading back to Maun through some longish grass, we suddenly crashed to a grinding halt. The Jeep had hit a hidden tree stump, badly buckling one of the tie-rods, so we now had no steering. After a lot of head-scratching and throwing ideas back and forth, one of our guides remembered experiencing a similar problem and suggested cutting a straight mopane branch and binding it in place. We removed the buckled tie-rod and managed to use binding wire to fix a reasonably straight mopane branch on the steering system. This did not give us much of a turning circle, but at least we made the last part of the journey, very carefully, to Maun, where we could have the vehicle repaired. We then drove the long road back to Johannesburg, still with brakes on only three wheels.
Thus ended a rather disastrous safari, although Stephen enjoyed his African adventure and said it was a trip he would always remember.
Above: Discussing routes with a game warden.
Left: Stephen viewing the vast salt pans of Makgadikgadi.