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Botswana’s Fallen Giant

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One occasionally hears of some lucky individual winning the Lotto twice. I recently had a similar double-delight experience on my trip to Botswana with Protea Safari Tours: I was driving a brand new Mitsubishi Triton Athlete, and towing a Mobi Lodge. A magnificent combination! The vehicle’s two-tone orange and black body kit seemed almost custom-designed for the caravan.

PROTEA SAFARI

As Jannie Rykaart’s website says, “There can be no better place to be with your 4×4, than on a safari tour with us.”

I agree. Jannie has a full programme every year, taking well-organised and planned trips all over southern Africa. Take a look at the Protea Safari Adventure website to see all the 2018 – 2019 trips that are still coming up.

I’ve now been on my fifth trip with Jannie, and I have enjoyed them all. I particularly like the small groups and unhurried itinerary. Added to this, as I have mentioned in all my Protea Safari trips, I particularly enjoy the balance of bush camping with the unexpected luxury treats that are always planned.

Jannie is an expert off-road driver with 21 years of experience in 4×4 training, and even though the tours are not obstacle courses or endurance tests, it’s good to have such a capable guide when traversing southern Africa.

To contact Jannie, fill out the form at the bottom of the page.

Believe it or not, I had never before had the pleasure of staying in a Mobi Lodge during an extended trip. Sure, I had photographed it more than once, but this time I had it all to myself for three weeks!

What I love about Jannie Rykaart’s tours is the balance between the bush camping and the unexpected luxuries that he always throws in when you least expect it.

And although Jannie is extremely well organised, the trips aren’t about rigidly sticking to itineraries, but about spontaneity and going with the flow.

This is perfect for me. If you’ve read some of my previous adventures, you’ll know that I sometimes like to go wherever the wind blows me. So, it was great that on this trip, our group changed some of the plans… and that’s how I got to experience the beauty of Chapman’s Baobab.

The “changing of plans” started on our very first day. Our group had arranged to meet at the camping site of the Kwa Nokeng Lodge. The lodge is conveniently located on the Limpopo River, on the Botswana side of the Groblersbrug/Martin’s Drift border post:  a really great place, and I’ve stayed here before. But serendipity was to change the itinerary, and what a treat it turned out to be.

You see, Johan and Petro Welgens were driving all the way from Somerset West in their Mercedes 350 AWD Gl, with their pride and joy: a custom-fitted Imagine Cruiservan.

The other couple on this trip, Harrie and Elbie Ligthelm from Benoni, are friends of the Rykaarts and had recently acquired a game farm near the border.

So, I was only too keen when Jannie said, “How would you like to head up to meet Harrie on the farm? Ansu and Elbie will join us the next day and we can then meet Johan and Petru at the border.”

We men had a great time on the farm. We put the Triton Athlete to the test on some steep, rocky 4×4 tracks up to Harrie’s favourite part of his farm: his mountain braai-area, which has a view of the valley way below.

Harrie is a Toyota man to the core, but he grudgingly admitted: “Donner, but this bakkie is quite a vehicle.”

The Ligthelms had also persuaded Johan and Petro Welgens to join us at the farm, instead of meeting us up at the lodge, so our tour group was complete.

MAUN

After an enjoyable evening on the farm, we got an early start to our first destination in Botswana. We made pretty good time covering the 800 kilometres to Maun, as we arrived at the Island Safari Lodge just after 6pm.

The camp-site is magnificent. It is set out under huge shady trees on the banks of the Thamalakane River, and I doubt if there’s anything in Maun to equal it.

Maun is a joint humming with activity. Everywhere you look, there are Safari vehicles and 4x4s of every description. I also discovered that you can obtain practically anything you want in this town.

While camping in Maun, we met a fellow camper from the Cape who had just returned from Third Bridge, about two and a half hours’ drive north, right in the Chobe National Park.

After looking over at the Mobi Lodge, and at Johan Welgens’s Merc 350 Gl with the Imagine Cruiservan hitched behind, he said: “The road is so corrugated, it’ll loosen your teeth.’’ He then gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, as if to say, “You guys are bloody mad.”

Jannie has been traipsing all over Botswana for years, so I wasn’t in the least worried. Plus, I had a Mobi Lodge, and I’ve seen these caravans handle all kinds of conditions.

We were all up relatively early the next day, as Jannie was taking the group off to the nearby airport for a scenic flight over the Okavango Delta.

It is only after you have flown at low altitude over the Delta that you get some idea of the vastness of this jewel of the African wilderness.

And, to complete our introduction to the magnificence of the area, Jannie had organised a sunset cruise along the Thamalakane River.

When we returned from the boat cruise, we found dinner ready on a long table which had been set under some huge jackalberry trees. I love the Protea Safaris: there are always unexpected treats which make the trips extra-special.

MOREMI

Well, we knew that there weren’t going to be any “restaurant” meals at Third Bridge, our next destination, so the next day we went to the well-stocked Spar, Woolworths and bottle store before taking off for Moremi.

As we the hit the dirt, the two-way radio Jannie supplies on his trips crackled to life: “Keep a good distance between vehicles so that you don’t have to chew dust from the person in front, but stick to 40 to 50 five kilometres an hour.”

It’s the perfect speed to travel. Numerous hire vehicles approached from the front, usually leaving the jackalberry trees in a storm of dust. You recognise the hired 4×4 by the rooftop tents, but an even better giveaway is that, when you stick up your paw in greeting, they look through you as if you’re trying to bum a couple of Euros. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to work out that their heads are most likely hitting the roof-lining every few seconds.

We rolled along, seeing elephants, kudu and herds of impala, until we reached the South Gate entrance; and from there, we headed up to one of my favourite camps in Africa.

Third Bridge has just seven campsites, all under large shady trees. The camp is spread out to the right and left of the entrance-gate office and small shop, and there are two large, pristine, ablution blocks. Hot water comes from large solar water-heaters.

At the back of the ablutions are the scullery sinks; and some are large enough to wash your clothes in, if you need to.

Monkeys can be a nuisance in the camp, so don’t leave food lying around, and keep your tent closed at all times.

NOTE

If you are a Caravan & Outdoor Life reader, you’ll know that I’ve been on Protea Safari’s tour to Moremi before. That’s why I’m not going into too much detail about the campsites we stayed at last time, but am rather focusing on the joy of touring southern Africa, the beauty of Botswana, and my fantastic towing combination.

New readers, or those who missed my previous article, can take a look on our website; or get the February and March 2018 edition of the magazines.

Moremi is a game reserve, as opposed to a National Park. It was named after Chief Moremi III of the local Batawana tribe from Ngamiland, and was the first wildlife sanctuary to be created by an African tribe in their own area.

The reserve has a magic mix of pans, mopane woodlands, acacia forests, savannah, floodplains and lagoons. These diverse habitats are home to an equally diverse range of animals, which include impala, tsessebe, buffalo, wildebeest, elephant, zebra, lion, cheetah, wild dog, and more than 400 species of birds.

The beauty of camping in Moremi is the “high-quality, low-impact” model used by the Botswana Government in their parks and reserves. This offers an experience you won’t find anywhere else in Africa. You need a 4×4, as the roads or tracks are left to their own devices.

You feel as if you have a huge slice of original Africa all to yourself. Looking at the pictures now, I realise that I’ve forgotten quite how many animals we saw while driving on the miles of small tracks surrounding Third Bridge. There was a large herd of elephants and their young coming down to drink at one of the pans at sunset, a pair of honey badgers trotting along next to our track, a herd of buffalo crossing the road…

That night, as we braaied, a small Scops owl would occasionally (and suddenly!) swoop down from the spreading branches of the Sausage tree above us to catch an insect in the arc of the caravan’s outside LED light.

Later that night, I heard the sudden clang of the braai grid being thrown around, and in the beam of my head torch saw two glowing eyes looking back at me. Hyena! What a lekker feeling to be totally safe inside my luxurious Mobi Lodge.

KHUMAGA

Soon it was time to head back south to Maun to stock up on supplies again, before driving south-east to the Khumaga Wildlife Camp on the Boteti River, right on the edge of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.

We got to Khumaga via the Maun-to-Rakops road and a ferry trip over the Boteti River.

The campsite is great, with nine stands and two ablution blocks. Like the facilities at Third Bridge, they are kept pristinely neat and clean.

We found that the water at one ablution block wasn’t always really hot, but the other bathroom, which was a 200-metre walk away, always had piping-hot water.

Each campsite has a big steel braai, a large steel cage-like dustbin, a braai pit, and a water tap. The water comes from a nearby borehole and has a sulphurous smell, so it is better to stock up with store water. There is no electricity at the camp.

Khumaga is well known for its proximity to the zebra- and wildebeest-migration that usually happens between April and December.

I reckon that the drive along the Boteti River from the campsite is probably one of the best game-viewing drives in Botswana, and possibly one of the best in southern Africa.

As we headed down the first track down to the river’s edge, I thought first that I was dreaming. There were black dots everywhere, interspersed with hundreds of striped chaps. Obviously, the wildebeest and zebra had moved from the pans down to the river. It is the sort of sight that is once seen, and never forgotten.

The beauty of Khumaga is the fact that it is literally a ten-minute drive from the camp down to a game viewer’s paradise.

CHAPMAN’S BAOBAB

At camp, we had a “meeting”. On the itinerary, we had planned to go north into the Nxai Pans to visit Baines Baobabs. But then, a strong dose of serendipity and a group decision took over, and we agreed to go west instead, to Chapman’s baobab at the Nwetwe Pan.

Jannie had seen it in its full glory, but this venerable thousand-year-old sentinel of the pans had fallen on 7 January 2016. I am just so glad that we headed out to pay our respects to this fallen giant, that had been one of the three largest trees in Africa, and a national monument of Botswana. It was well worth the fairly-long trip out over the savannah, past small pans and occasional stands of lonely Ilala palms, to get to the famous baobab tree.

It is hard to describe the feeling that you have when you walk around this gigantic collection of the roots, and almost dinosaur-like trunks, of the fallen giant.

The tree was named after James Chapman, an early explorer who accompanied Thomas Baines in 1861. Later, people like David Livingstone, Courtney Selous and Robert Moffat also visited this tree that stood out as a navigation beacon in those relentless, and mostly bone-dry, salt pans.

Apparently, it also served as a post office in those far-off days. Travellers heading north would leave their letters in a hole in one of the gigantic trunks, in the hope that another traveller going back to South Africa would deliver it to their loved ones.

We could only marvel at Jannie’s description of what the spot looked like when the tree was still standing.

We were still walking around the huge trunks when there was a sudden shout from Jannie: “Quick, guys! Come and look at this!”

He was pointing at some small shoots that looked like hairs on some gigantic warthog. There were tiny green leaves on the shoots. Perhaps, in a couple of hundred years, visitors would be heading out to Botswana to see the re-growth of Chapman’s Baobabs.

I guess what these Baobabs and the vastness of these plains and pans does, is simply tell you that you are just a grain of sand in the greater scheme of things. What a fantastic way to end our stay in Botswana. Chapman… I hope to see you again soon.

MITSUBISHI TRITON ATHLETE SPECIAL EDITION

I have to make a disclaimer here: I am a bit of a Mitsubishi fan. You can’t help becoming one after an almost 4 000 kilometre trip with seven Pajero Sports towing off-road caravans up to Epupa Falls, and on through Van Zyl’s Pass, without missing a beat.

So, it was great to have the new Triton Athlete towing a Mobi Lodge for a three-week test on various road surfaces.

The Triton Athlete Special Edition, to give it its full title, is based on the award-winning Triton double-cab 4×4 automatic derivative.

If you are a caravanner, you’ll be happy to hear that the new sporty-looking Triton Athlete (fully imported from Thailand) has had its towing capacity upgraded to 3 100 kg!

The Athlete comes in either grey or white. We had the grey, with its stand out orange-and-black exterior trim. This sporty feel is carried over to the inside with duo-toned black leather seats with orange-trim inserts.

Something that I was constantly aware of on this trip was the extreme quiet inside the cabin.

Not only does the Athlete have a really luxurious car-like feel inside, it also has the safety features that will keep any family happy. I recently became a grandfather, so I could not help taking note of the seven airbags, the industry-leading Isofix child-seat anchors, the high-tensile steel body offering stronger body reinforcement, and the side-impact protection bars.

The vehicle comes standard with potent Bi-zenon HID headlamps, daytime running lights, a multifunctional steering wheel, a shift paddle for the 5-speed auto transmission, a smart-key system with engine starter button, and dual zone air-conditioning.

Under the hood, the Triton Athlete arrives at your door with a 2.4-litre MIVEC VGT turbo-diesel engine producing 133 kW at 3 500 r/min, and a massive peak torque of 430 Nm at 2 500 r/min.

I had plenty of time towing the Mobi Lodge over terrains that varied from rough corrugated sand tracks, to good gravel roads and highways. It is so easy to tow, that drivers will have to keep reminding themselves that they have a house hitched behind them.

Jannie Rykaart is an off-road trainer for Mitsubishi, and knows the Super-Select II four-wheel drive system like the back of his hand. With its 28° approach angle, departure angle of 22°, and break-over angle of 25°, this vehicle is incredibly good in the serious off-road stuff.

MOBI LODGE

Leon gives one probably the most detailed demonstrations that I have ever received of a product. He began the demo by explaining the design philosophy behind the Mobi Lodge. “From the beginning, we started out with the idea of a double-axle caravan. It had to be spacious enough to have a proper island bed, a proper bathroom, a well-equipped kitchen… and it had to be able to be set up in less than five minutes.

“But, perhaps the most important of all was that it had to have plenty of ground clearance, all-terrain wheels, and a true ‘go-anywhere’ capability.”

Anyone who has ever owned or even simply seen a Mobi Lodge, would know that they knocked it out of the park! This is a luxury caravan that you can take to the roughest camping areas in Africa, as well as to the five-star campsites on the east coast.

After a few nights in the Mobi Lodge, I could only imagine the joy of being able to stay in Africa for months on end in this incredible caravan.

If you were wondering… yes, it really does set up in less than five minutes. It’s as easy as unhitching, sliding out the bedroom, dropping the support stays and opening the giant kitchen hatch − and you’re ready for coffee or a drink after a long day of travel.

What I really like about the Mobi Lodge is the feeling of space, light and comfort. The slide-out bedroom transforms the caravan into a room that feels like home. I like walking around the bed, sitting at the fold-down table, and looking out at the surrounding bush.

The bathroom is superb: no trying to squeeze into a cramped little space. And you can take a shower standing up as you do at home − and burst into song.

On the more technical side, I found it one of the easiest caravans I have ever towed. Wherever I pointed the Mitsubishi’s nose, the Mobi Lodge followed easily and effortlessly.

The Mobi Lodge is, without doubt, one of the most comfortable caravans I have ever tested, and it is as capable off-road as it is rolling along a major highway.

I think it more than lives up to its hype.


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By Richard van Ryneveld

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