Following (responsibly) in the wheel ruts of Clarkson, May, and Hammond, Jim Freeman takes on the vast Makgadikgadi Salt Pans of Botswana with a Yamaha Grizzly 350 4WD ATV.
Back in 2007, the BBC’s Top Gear crew took on the wilds and expanses of the Northern neighbour of South Africa in three £1500 clunkers for its annual adventure, titled the Botswana Special.
Those familiar with the programme (and who is not?) would be aware that Messrs Clarkson, May, and Hammond face trial and tribulation along the way – both with their choices of vehicle as well as the terrain. Having followed in some small way in their footsteps recently, I can assure you that they could have saved their money, bother and blushes by instead climbing on Yamaha Grizzly quad-bikes.
Covering an area of just over 16,000 km2 in the North-eastern part of the country, the ecologically sensitive Makgadikgadi Salt Pans are about 40% the size of The Netherlands and share the topography of that country; they are flat – damned flat – and featureless.
For windmills, substitute the odd Mokolwane Palm Hyphaene petersiana with a hard, coconut-like fruit commonly known as vegetable ivory. At this time of the year, it is also unbelievably dry.
Together, the agglomeration of pans – the largest being Sua, Nwetwe, and Nxai – that collectively constitute Makgadikgadi, form one of the largest salt flats in the world. They are all that remains of Lake Makgadikgadi which, before it started drying up thousands of years ago, had a surface area greater than Switzerland.
During the January to March rainy season, however, the pan transforms itself into a vast flood plain that attracts vast numbers of waterfowl, antelope, and huge herds of Burchell’s zebra. The Top Gear mob got here in the dry winter months, though, when the ground is covered with a thin, brittle crust. What lies below is soft and treacherous … as the drivers discovered.
It is more or less the same time of year that myself and six colleagues find ourselves one late afternoon, standing next to an column of olive-green Grizzlys and getting a pre-ride briefing from our guide Ruh Budulala. We are guests of Natural Selection (https://naturalselection.travel/), a collection of owner-operated lodges launched last year as part of an initiative to make Botswana more accessible to travellers from Southern Africa.
Because, make no mistake, Botswana is expensive: the country has traditionally pursued a high-value low-impact tourism model, which means fewer visitors paying more for their stay – usually in US dollars. The Natural Selection approach is to offer visitors from the sub-continent more affordable rates that are available to all permanent residents of Southern African Development Community (SADC) countries.
One of the nine camps and lodges in the Natural Selections portfolio is Jack’s Camp, probably the ultimate expression of “glamping” in Botswana. Situated in the Makgadikgadi National Park (nearly 40% of Botswana is given over to national parks, game reserves, and wildlife management areas), the facility was established by explorer Jack Bousfield in the 1960s. Though it has evolved over the past halfcentury, it retains a strong “old world” feel.
We had reached Jack’s following a long, hot, and dusty drive in an open Land Cruiser from Gweta and Maun. After drinks, a light lunch, and welcome by general manager Charles Neared, most of us headed straight for the covered swimming pool that is (probably correctly) described as the coldest in Botswana. The next few hours were spent chilling – literally – and watching game at the nearby waterhole. Just when we thought we had shed the dust of the morning, Ruh returned and told us to mount up in the ’Cruiser. First, though, he sent us to our Bedouin-style tents. “You will find a kikoi in your tent. Bring it along.”
After teaching the about-to-be Grizzly riders how to tie up their kikois into Afghan-style shemags to keep the worst of the dust from their eyes, mouths, noses, and ears, Ruh outlined the rules. They were Top Gear-like in their simplicity: do not speed, this is not a race; keep a safe following distance and stay on the road.
Of these, the first was the easiest to obey – the 350cc bikes (Yamaha Grizzly 350 4WD all-terrain vehicles, if one wants to be formal) were speed-governed to a sedate 20-something km/h. The point is that the group travels no faster than the least-experienced rider and experience was somewhat lacking in our group.
Ruh led and, as the two of our tribe that had the most quad-bike miles under the belt, colleague Richard Holmes and I brought up the rear. He and I truly appreciated our shemags For those of you who have never ridden a quad, it is nothing like riding a motorcycle.
Actually, the worst situations I have ever found myself in are when I forgot I was not riding a bike; if you try leaning into a corner without pushing and pulling on the handlebars, you are just going straight! The first half hour was pretty interesting … lots of bunching up and sometimes banging into the back of the quad in front, and people making unscheduled departures from the road.
Our pedestrian pace and the flat terrain meant the mishaps were minor, however, and the group soon settled into a riding rhythm. A gentle cross-breeze arose, taking the dust plume away from us and giving us a stunning view of the pans as we slowly skimmed their surface.
We stopped for drinks just as the sun was about to set. In South Africa we call it “phuza time”, in Botswana it is “pula” … the same as the national currency unit. Then it was lights-on and back to our camp for the night – and what an experience that was!
We had a choice of activity the next morning – horse-riding or more quadbiking – and it was only Holmes and I that chose wheels over hoofs. First things first – disengage the speed-limiters! Then, while Holmes was setting up his drone to video the initial proceedings, I hopped up behind Ruh to do some shots of my own.
I have learned some interesting things about his family the previous evening around the campfire: his father had seven wives and Ruh had 37 brothers and sisters. When the old man died, a total of 403 , including wives, brothers, sisters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, aunts, uncles, nieces, and nephews attended his funeral. (Legally, polygamy is forbidden in Botswana but there are loopholes in the law.)
The speedo on the Grizzly is marked to 90 km/h and, while we did not get up to that, we were not far off at times. Obviously, since we were sticking to the road, we never needed to engage 4WD, but the lightness of the bike, short- wheelbase (1.23 m) and fat tekkies meant we could treat the Top Gear wallies to a Clarkson-like sneer as we passed them, up to their axles in salty sand, on our way to gins and tonic beside the coldest swimming pool in Botswana.