The Road Less Traveled

Phot of Road in Chobe National Park

The Road Less Traveled

Take the road less traveled. The old adage that encourages adventure and unpredictability. Perhaps that sweet little motivational snippet wasn’t meant for two-track sand roads in the middle of Botswana.

We were leaving Maun and driving north to Kasane. There were two ways to accomplish this. There is a freeway that would take us several hours out of our way, but offered a paved road and promised to have fewer animal road blocks. It would take a full day of driving and cover 378 miles. Or, there was the road less traveled. A small, sandy backroad that cut directly through Chobe National Park. You had to have a 4×4, a lifted truck, and an auxiliary gas tank to make the journey. It was 233 miles, but would take over 9 hours. There were no services, no people, no food, no gas, just wild game, and breathtaking landscapes. Our truck was lifted, had 4-wheel drive, a spare gas tank, our mini fridge was stocked with food and water, and we even had a GPS.

A Drive Through

Chobe National Park

We were heavily warned of the extreme road conditions, lack of civilization, and the ‘proceed at your own risk’ mentality. If we broke down, got stuck, flipped over, ran out of gas, were charged by angry elephants, or otherwise had bad luck – we would have to wait for the next set of optimistically irresponsible travelers to find us. This could take days considering we didn’t have a satellite phone or any other way to communicate. If we were lucky, we would be able to break the drive into two days by staying at the only campground along the route. It was about half-way through the drive and used a first-come first-served system. If they were full, we would have to drive straight through. If this doesn’t sound like enough of an adventure, there was a gate at the opposite end of Chobe National Park that closed at sundown, around 5:30PM. If we didn’t make it out before the sun set, we would be spending the night on the side of the road.

We have this amazing routine when trying to make dicey decisions such as this. We find a local bar, order a cold beer, and ask the bartender what they would do. Nine times out of 10, they encourage bad decisions. Either way, it was out of our hands. It was decided. We would set off first thing in the morning for Kasane and we would take the road less traveled.

As soon as the sun came up, we were in our truck and headed for the main road. We stopped for a few jugs of water, topped off our gas tanks, and purchased two meat filled pastries from a street vendor. The road started out easy enough. We were hopeful and thought the initial 2 miles would be a direct representation of the remaining 231. A little sand covered a blacktop road, smooth, no animals, it seemed too easy. Roughly 30 minutes into the drive, as we started to settle in, the most incredible thing happened. A family of elephants crossed the road. Our first animal road block! We took pictures, hundreds of them, we took video, we hung out of the windows, it was surreal. Massive elephants, wild and roaming just feet from our car. This is the type of experience you can’t wait to tell someone about, that you need to share immediately, but that you can’t quite put into words. One of those experiences that will always be better in your memories, the story will never quite capture the grandeur of the situation. We sat on the side of the road until the elephants slowly vanished behind a wall of trees.

Photo of and Elephant Crossing in Botswana

The blacktop gradually disappeared and gave way to thick sand. The road was still wide, and with a little planning and proper maneuvering, we could avoid the holes and soft patches. The road eventually turned to a two-track. Two deep tire trails forcing us in one direction. We quickly learned that stopping the truck would result in getting stuck and that getting out of the truck to push or dig was a horrible idea, not only because of the lions, elephants, and other dangerous animals, but because it was debilitatingly hot. The sun was so intense your skin started to sting as soon as you stepped outside, amplified by the whipping sand that scratched your arms, legs, and face. As much as we tried not to stop or slow down, the constant animal crossings and road blocks made it impossible. When it wasn’t elephants, it was zebras, giraffes, kudus, or buffalo. Surprisingly, we eventually grew bored of seeing endless herds of wild animals cross our path. The families of elephants no longer required us to pull out our cameras. The massive herds of kudu became a mainstay on the horizon. The stoic giraffes standing beneath tall trees started to blend back in with the scenery.

As the day grew hotter, the sand got softer and the road turned to an excruciatingly bumpy and endless trail of powder and tree roots. Occasionally, we would see the road split ahead of us. Both paths would eventually rejoin, but one of them would offer a smoother ride. One of them would be free of obstructions, the sand would be packed down, the tire trails more defined. Since stopping to assess our options would inevitably mean getting stuck, in nerve-wracking split-second decisions, we would choose a side. Sometimes we chose correctly, sometimes we chose horribly wrong. Regardless of which path we were on, every few miles the sand would give out, and the front of the truck would slam down on the ground in loud and painful blows. The constant shaking rattled us and our entire truck. Everything in our backseat had been tossed together in a tangled salad of dirty clothes, coffee cups, paper towel rolls, water bottles, and muddy shoes.

DRIVING FROM

KASANE TO MAUN

About half way through the ride, we noticed three trucks stuck in the road ahead of us. We stopped on a hard patch of sand and walked over to see if we could help. Six Dutch tourists were stuck in the sand. One of the trucks hit a soft patch, the tires dug into the sand, and now the axels were buried in sand. The other two trucks had tied a few ropes together and tried to pull the firsts truck out. The sand was simply too thick and now all of the trucks were sitting in a foot of sand. We all gathered our shovels and started digging, grabbed axes and tried clearing alternate routes, doing anything we could to help. After an hour of pushing, pulling, and digging, we were all exhausted and we weren’t making any progress. We offered to drive some of the group to the campground that was about two hours north. They refused to split up and insisted on waiting for their tow truck to arrive. They were equipped with a satellite phone and had called their travel insurance company and arranged for someone to drive in from Maun to help them. They would most likely be spending the night in their trucks while they waited. They insisted we continue on. We promised to inform the officials at the campground of the situation in hopes that they could send help sooner.

A few miles later we were faced with another hurdle, one we had been warned about. A river cut directly through our path. Our truck could cross water that was two or three feet deep, but nothing more. If the water was deeper than that, we would flood the engine and our drive would quickly come to an end. Our only option was to wade through the river on foot to gauge its depth. Aaron drew the short straw and climbed out of the truck with an axe in hand. He would have to walk through a few feet of animal infested bush, then he would have to wade through the mucky water that may have been home to crocodiles and who knows what else. Luckily, the water level appeared to be manageable. Unsure of the proper protocol for crossing a muddy river, we slammed on the gas and barreled right through it.

Not long after, we reached the campground. Fingers crossed that they had one space available so we could retire for the day, eat something, take a shower, and wash the sand off our burnt faces. As warned, they were completely full. Our only chance of reprieve was ripped from underneath us. It was the only inkling of civilization we would see on this drive. We found the officials and told one of the guards about the 6 Dutch tourists. She shrugged her shoulders and said “what do you want me to do about it?” The park didn’t have tow trucks and they didn’t offer assistance in these situations – odd considering this happens quite frequently. Having no other way to help, we continued on.

30 minutes later we saw an older gentleman in the middle of the road flagging us down. He was standing next to his half buried van. The sand was over his tires and from recent experience, we knew there was absolutely no way we were getting him out. He and his wife had been stuck for 8 hours and we were the first people that had passed them all day. Exhausted and broken, they seemed eager to try anything. After a few minutes of deliberation, we all decided that the best plan of action would be for us to drive the half-hour back to camp and drop off the lady so she could try to find help. Since their van was stuck in the middle of the road, we had to drive up onto the tree-filled embankment to get around them. Turning our truck around in knee-deep sand from a dead stop was laborious and challenging. With some strategic digging and careful gear shifting, we managed to pull out on the two-track. To make it over the really soft stretches of sand, we had to keep our speed above 25MPH. Which, on a sandy road, meant every bump, tree root, and hole we hit was painful for us and the truck. We eventually made it back to the campground, dropped off the woman and helped her explain her situation to the officials. It felt odd to separate the couple, but the man had insisted on staying with his van.

Image of Chobe National Park

The sun was getting lower in the sky and we knew we needed to make up some time. The road conditions continued to deteriorate, but luckily the extreme heat meant less animal road blocks. They could all be seen huddled around shade trees trying to stay cool. Neither of us were drinking water, considering there were no bathrooms, and the ideas of squatting in the African bush alongside snakes, lions, and cheetahs didn’t sound terribly appealing. Hungry, tired, anxious, and extremely aware of how easy it was to get stuck out here, knowing there was nobody that could help us, we started to lose motivation and our optimistic outlook.

The road grew bumpier and bumpier, our GPS no longer showed us on the map, and we both desperately needed to stand on solid ground. The hours slowly passed as the sun dipped lower and lower. We drove through the exit gate at 5:20PM, 10 minutes to spare. We made it, but we couldn’t find a reason to be excited just yet. There was still another hour of this treacherous road ahead of us. We saw an approaching family headed into the park. We flagged them down to warn them of how horrendous the conditions were. How the only two sets of people we had passed on the entire trip were stuck. How we were forced to dig ourselves out on a few occasions. They didn’t listen. They were excited and unflinching in their determination to make the drive… just like we had been.

An hour later, when we finally hit blacktop, we immediately pulled over to the side of the road and jumped out of the truck. We walked, stretched, hugged, ridiculously giddy after an emotionally and physically taxing 10 hours. We survived! Still 30 minutes from our final destination, but the rest of the drive would be on pavement. Realizing we were standing in the middle of lion country, we got back in the truck and drove into town. We found a restaurant that was still serving food, ordered two pizzas, and drank our weight in cold water. Exhausted, we decided to stay in a local hotel that night instead of sleeping in our roof tent. We showered in a tiny bathtub with a rubber hose and immediately fell asleep on our twin beds.

The next morning we went out to grab our bags and assess the damage done to our truck. It was covered in mud, the fog lights were dangling on the ground, and the inside was coated in a thin layer of light orange sand. Our boxes of equipment in the bed of the truck had shaken open and spilled out. Everything in our mini fridge had exploded and, the worst part, the wiring for the refrigerator had shaken loose during the drive. So the carrots, cabbage, hot dogs, yogurt, apples, beer, milk, and feta cheese had been gently simmering in 112º heat for the last 24 hours. We both hurled over as soon as we lifted the lid. It was quite possibly the most foul smell I have ever encountered. All of our food had to be trashed and we had to figure out how to clean and rewire a mini fridge in the middle of a dusty town in Botswana.

To this day, we still refer to the road from Maun to Kasane as ‘The Drive.’ Regardless of where we are or what we’re doing, all we have to do is ask “Do you remember The Drive?” and we both tense up, laugh, and reply, “How could we ever forget it.?”

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