Into the African wild, with only a Canadian and a Land Rover
The bull elephant stared us down from 20 paces, blocking the track when we startled him behind a stand of thorn trees in Namibia's Bwabwata National Park. He flapped his ears a bit and raised his tusks, his tiny eyes bright with alarm. Or was he throwing down a challenge? As driving in shifting sand is slow and uncertain, I knew I had to let him make the next move. An elephant can easily take out a Landy, so the moments passed slowly until he waved his trunk and rejoined his women and children.
Irritated by commercial safaris where tourists take photos of tourists taking photos of sleeping lions, I decided to do as old Africa hands do and go it alone. Or, ideally, with one like-minded companion. "Deranged" was the word on most lips when I outlined the project to potential fellow travellers. In our risk-averse societies, the majority are horrified at the prospect of being in the bush without a guide and a gun. But would you really want your escort to kill a bull elephant at 20 paces?
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Topic: Around Africa
Luckily for me, Leslie, a Canadian with a nomadic disposition, was up to the challenge of two women in the wild. She'd never camped and rarely drives but, following a summer job sterilising milking equipment high on the Austrian Alps, she is adept at making fires. With complementary skills, we arrived in Livingstone, the airport for Victoria Falls in southern Zambia, and met Mungo, a new white Land Rover Defender named after the Scottish 18th-century explorer, Mungo Park. Would he take us reliably into the unknown? We certainly hoped so, because the instructions for jacking up the massive body on rough ground to change a punctured tyre were seriously alarming.
Our 1,000km loop, devised by Safari Drive, Mungo's owners, took us up the Zambezi and across it to explore Namibia's Caprivi Strip, then on into Botswana's Chobe National Park and back to Livingstone on a trans-Zambezi ferry. Completing it would require rampant paperwork, frequent cash crises and saintly patience at various frontiers, but we didn't know that as we drove to our first overnight stop at Mutemwa Lodge on the Upper Zambezi. Leslie's baptism of fire behind the wheel, much of it in darkness, included deep sand, impenetrable forest and inaccurate directions. She didn't believe we'd make it, but when we did, she knew she'd cracked it. Round one to Mungo - and to us.
Built 10 years ago by Gavin Johnson, a member of the team that won the World Rugby Cup for South Africa in 1995, and his wife Penny, Mutemwa has six permanent walk-in tents, with proper beds and bathrooms, at the water's edge. After dinner around the fire and a good night's sleep, Gavin took us out for some mucking about on the river, already wide and fast flowing, 250km above Victoria Falls.
In Zambezi terms, mucking about means catching tiger fish and holding them up on sticks until the fish eagles spot them. As Gavin hurls them into the water, the big black-and-white predators screech down from the tree tops to snatch their breakfast. Meanwhile, four-metre crocodiles slither up the sandy banks to bask in the sun. The Johnsons' three pre-teen daughters, educated by their mother along with Gavin's business partner's sons, are a fine advertisement for childhood freedom in the wild.
In such dramatically peaceful surroundings, the urge to postpone the journey to Namibia until the next day was almost - but not quite - irresistible. After breakfast, I was negotiating the bumpy highway while we considered the instruction in our itinerary to change a little money into Namibian dollars before we crossed the border. We did as we were told, but assumed we'd need enough for a small bribe (not required, as it turned out) rather than cash in hand for every eventuality. In Namibia's Caprivi Strip, ATMs don't deliver on foreign cards, petrol stations don't accept plastic and US dollars are non-negotiable. If you fill up with diesel, as we did, and you haven't got shedloads of Namibian dollars or South African rand, you're stuck.
Fortunately, we'd hooked up with Dan Stephens by the time we made this error so he came over to bail us out. Whatever you might expect in the way of a guide to the Caprivi Strip, it probably wouldn't be Dan, a passionately environmental Yorkshireman who discovered this part of Africa during random travels, stayed for a year or so to explore the villages and returned last year to set up Mashi River Safaris.
"Most of the visitors are plain lazy," he said contemptuously. "They sit in the lodges drinking sundowners and expect the game to come to them." I looked up guiltily, thinking of the section in our itinerary that promised untold luxury in Sanctuary lodges further down the line. No matter; for the time being we would do it Dan's way, yomping and camping as required.
We started with an evening stroll to the Seventh Day Adventist Festival for preachers from all over Namibia on an adjacent riverbank. Predictably, Dan didn't approve of it, not so much for the spectacle itself but for the litter generated by 1,000 people cooking on open fires for a week. Before he could shift a preacher off the podium to make his point, he was diverted by a fish salesman dangling his river catch on a string. The equivalent of 20p (Dh1) secured a bunch of three, perfect for our dinner. When it comes to making chips, Dan has no equal.
Then it was time for our first camp. Mungo has an ingenious pop-up roof tent, perfect for a couple but rather intimate for friends who might snore, so I set up a separate tent at hippo level on the riverbank and waited to see what would happen. The next thing I knew was Dan shaking me awake, ready to talk us through the regional bird life and his community tourism project while his tracker led us to a newly abandoned water hole. Shamefully, we had overslept.
The following day's alarm call, a lone elephant strolling through our campsite on Njazanga Island, Dan's concession in the heart of the Kwando River floodplains, was more successful. Jumping from tents to the pontoon boat that had brought us there, we tracked the beast through shallow reed beds while Dan patrolled the landscape through his binoculars.
"Lions," he shouted triumphantly. It was the first time he'd seen them in the area and there they were, a pride of four or five, yawning and preparing to bask in the rising sun. True, they were far away, but who needs to get up close and personal before breakfast, theirs or ours.
With our guide on croc alert, we wallowed in the Kwando before heading off on our own to Bwabwata National Park on the other side of the river. Driving through more shifting sands and slip-sliding across muddy shallows with ever-increasing confidence, we ran into herds of elephant, impala and red lechwe, an antelope indigenous to southern Africa. Groups of kudu lurked in clumps of thorn, monkeys frolicked on the shores of the turquoise horseshoe lake and wild boars made seemingly aimless charges through the scrub.
And all of it was ours to marvel at, often with no human sightings for hours at a time. Sleeping out in national parks is forbidden so we spent the nights in the immaculate Nambwa community campsite. Again, the honking of hippos and frogs guaranteed sweet dreams from dusk till dawn. Mungo's comprehensive kit included a fridge, cooking equipment and boxes of provisions, so we poured chilled drinks and cooked vegetarian feasts of pasta and rice on a wood fire. The thatched ablutions block, with hot showers and proper toilets, would satisfy the most rigorous health and safety regulations in any part of the world.
After this burst of self-sufficiency, living the high life in Botswana came as a bit of a shock. The frontier crossing was quirky - a disinfectant splash for Mungo to protect the animals in the huge Chobe National Park from Namibian diseases and an encounter with a lady frontier official resembling Precious Ramotswe in Alexander McCall Smith's No 1 Ladies' Detective Agency books. Would we like to buy one of the baskets or wooden animals displayed in her customs shed? In this remote spot, she had masses of time to weave and carve.
With so few roads and excellent directions, finding the way was generally easy but locating Chobe Chilwero, a lodge in the Sanctuary portfolio - too exclusive to display signs on the approach roads - was a challenge. After so much freedom in the wild it felt strange to be enclosed by a two-metre perimeter fence topped by razor wire: who exactly was looking at who? But this is a gilded cage at the top of its game, with 15 gorgeous designer suites, a tower spa and lovely public rooms set among landscaped gardens overlooking the Chobe River's landlocked flood plains.
Cruising around in a tourist vehicle the next morning - the only time we weren't allowed to drive ourselves - felt like a cop out, but some of Africa's largest herds of buffalo and elephant provided compensation. There were giraffes, too, the first we'd seen, strolling casually around with their little heads held high above the bush. Big crocs lazed on delta sand spits and large birds fished patiently in the lagoons. As the mid-morning sun burned down, a news flash announced the coordinates for a leopard on the prowl. As one, the drivers turned and blasted towards the designated spot. It was business as usual for them, and for us, as we abandoned the mass photo shoot to return to Zambia.
While the land crossings had been relatively simple, the ferry across the Zambezi is a known hazard, a maelstrom of trucks and cars queuing and pushing to get on a relatively small craft. For visitors, a stressful situation is complicated by touts insisting you need paid assistance with the documentation and the $10 (Dh37) fee - US bills only. It would be hard to say no, but our self-appointed pink-shirted aide was efficient and inexpensive, so saying yes was probably the best way forward.
We spent the final night at Sussi & Chuma, a riverfront lodge named for the faithful servants who in 1873 carried the body of the missionary explorer David Livingstone nearly 1,600km across Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) so it could be returned to England for burial. Again, the lodge design is outstanding, with a boardwalk above a game run linking a dozen idyllic cottages. If there is disappointment in the Sanctuary packages, it is cooking that has barely evolved from the British empire: soup or pâté, perch, fruit salad and ice cream or apple crumble is not quite the dinner menu you'd expect when you're paying up to Dh2,200 a day.
In the morning, we visited Victoria Falls. Even in the low-water season, they're beyond spectacular, but the restrictive viewing path and the constant orders not to stray from it only underlined the magical freedom of driving yourself in the wild.
But trust me and try it: this is a trip you'll never forget.
If you go
Return flights on Etihad Airways (www.etihadairways.com) from Abu Dhabi to Johannesburg cost from Dh3,265, including taxes. Return flights on British Airways (www.ba.com) from Johannesburg to Livingstone cost from Dh557.
Safari Drive (www.safaridrive.com; 00 44 1488 71140) offers tailor-made, self-drive itineraries across several countries in sub-Saharan Africa. Prices depend on the ratio of campsites to lodges. A nine-day tour costs from Dh13,240 per person; a 13-day tour costs from Dh18,665.