Mike Unwin
United Kingdom UK
Jul 26, 2014 July 26, 2014

Mike is an award winning wildlife writer, editor of Travel Zambia magazine and author of the Bradt Guide to Southern African Wildlife.

Category: Travel Disaster Worth Sharing

Mike Unwin’s first self-drive venture into an African game park ground to an embarrassing halt.

Easter 1989 found me in Botswana’s Chobe National Park with two companions. We were travelling in a battered old Mazda 323, which I had just bought in the capital, Gaborone. This was my first car in Africa and the trip was a spontaneous one: at last, with my own wheels, Africa was my oyster. And where better to start than Botswana’s premier reserve.

Unfortunately I knew very little about Botswana’s roads, nor about the basic principles of driving in the bush. The guards at the park entrance had eyed my puny vehicle sceptically as they waved us through. But we had made it to safely Serondella, the park’s main public campsite, where we spent the next two days exploring the riverfront loop roads without mishap. The roads were rough but not beyond us. And wildlife was everywhere.

On day three we decided to explore further afield. Our crude map showed a road heading due south into the park interior and, gung-ho with adventure, we took it. The first kilometre or so was fine, but as we headed further away from the river and deeper into the Mopane woodland, the road became sandy. Very sandy.

Anyone who knows Botswana knows that it is madness to explore Chobe’s interior with anything less than a fully equipped 4x4. But we were clueless. As my wheels began to sink I decided the best tactic was to accelerate, hoping the momentum would keep us afloat until we reached the end of the sandy stretch. But the sand just got deeper and the road hillier. Soon we were labouring forward desperately, wheels spinning and engine roaring as we crested each incline, then slewing dangerously as we skidded down the other side. I knew, with a sinking feeling, that our momentum was running out.

The inevitable happened. We ground to a halt. All my attempts to get us going again simply spun us deeper into the sand. We got out of and walked around the car, inspecting the wheels – which were now hub-cap deep. “Perhaps we’re nearly there,” I offered, wondering exactly where ‘there’ was, But from the top of the next rise I could see the sandy road continuing endlessly into the featureless Mopane. “Can we dig ourselves out?” No shovel. “What about putting a tarpaulin under the front wheels, for extra traction?” asked the other. No tarpaulin either.

This was bad. It was mid-morning, blistering hot and we had just one water bottle between the three of us. We had seen no vehicle since leaving the campsite and we had told nobody where we were heading. Mobile phones were still just the struff of science fiction. At my feet was a trail of disconcertingly fresh lion tracks. All our bravado had evaporated. What now?

Salvation arrived with the rumble of an engine and the whoop of voices. Behind us, from the direction we’d just come, a large cattle truck rattled over the hill. In the back, clinging to the sides, were dozens of young people, singing, grinning and waving. The truck pulled up beside us. The driver and his colleague explained that they were teachers from Francistown Teacher Training College on an excursion with their students.

He asked whether we had a problem. A problem? I could have kissed him. Hordes of strong, eager young bodies hauled our car around and, with me behind the wheel again, pushed us 100 yards back up the slope we’d just crested. We waved cheery goodbyes and shouted our thanks, then promptly ground to a halt again.

The procedure was repeated, and repeated again, until eventually, as the sand thinned out, we found enough traction to get under way. We whooped with relief and gratitude as we set course for camp, vowing never to mention our foolishness to a soul.