After our scenic flight over the Okavango delta in Botswana, we decided to do some game-spotting in the national parks in the North before entering Zambia. We set off for Moremi national park, famous for its big game but discovered that the entrance fees are ludicrously high for a vehicle over 3 tonnes. Over 20 times more than a regular 4x4!! We discovered this after paying the regular fees and entering the park before being flagged down. We needed to cough up another £100 per day for THIS vehicle. We declined and said we'd skip the park and go to the next park, Chobe which was supposed to be better, although the same price. "The thing is, there are no refunds" was the response. We could not continue through the park before paying the heavy vehicle duty which we were unwilling to do, and we would not leave without a refund which they were unwilling to grant. A stalemate was formed. Africans are used to waiting so we were on the back foot. I proposed that if they can't issue a refund then we would wait for the next 4x4 to arrive, transfer the pass to them, and they can pay me. There were no rules about transfers. After a while they realised we weren't going to leave and we would be pestering every guest (and by extension them) until a solution was reached. They decided to issue a refund after all!
The road from Moremi to Chobe was terrible and we made very slow progress. At one point the road descended into a swamp and we were forced to take a "scenic" detour around a waterhole. The road was rough and very sandy. In an effort to maintain momentum for the deep sandy sections I drove a bit too fast over some of the bumps. At one point my head hit the ceiling. The noises coming from the back were distressing so once we had made it through, we stopped at a local tuck shop for a drink and to assess the damage. The floor was covered with our possessions, crockery smashed, and worst of all, our hot water tank had broken free, shearing the brackets. Fortunately the flexible pipework remained intact and no leak occurred. Overland builders take note. I eventually managed to secure it with a cargo strap, then padded the space with towels and jackets to hold it in place. Working in a confined space, in 45 degrees, with no draft or airflow is very uncomfortable and only manageable for short periods of time. Tempers frayed and emotions high a passing car informed us that the roads were no better inside the national park.
Our journey around the waterhole (outside any national park) brought us close to wild elephants wading through the water, mother hippos teaching baby hippos vital life skills, and a background of antelope and birds of all colours and species. These beautiful sights are harder to appreciate in the moment when a hundred other concerns are calling. I'll never be able to look at a national geographic again without thinking "I wonder what that poor photographer had to go through to get that shot".
At Chobe south gate, after being extorted we were told there were two roads: the sand-ridge road and the marsh road. Both sounded unappealing but since we had got stuck in the sand in Walvis Bay we decided to take the less sandy "marsh road" which that day was dry since the rainy season was late. We were advised it should take 3 hours driving, not to get out of our vehicles at any point, and to mind the animals. It was still morning and we had until 7pm to exit the park on our day-ticket. Even the marsh road was very sandy and the truck struggled to plough through the deeper sections. The track width of our truck is wider than 99% of the traffic that passes through the park. This meant the established sand ruts were too narrow for us. The tyres on one side were comfortably in the rut but the other was always churning through deep sand.
The park is beautiful but we saw few animals for the first few hours. We also hit the "point of no return" where we no longer had enough fuel to go back the way we came (incidentally the only way back) and must continue North on our route to hit the next fuel station. We weaved though tall grass where our high vantage point is a huge benefit if you want to see animals. Progress was slow and through sandy sections we were in second gear going 12mph praying that the truck would make it through the deep sections. After 5 hours constant driving we made it to the section where the sand-ridge road and marsh road rejoin before going through a lodge and then on to North gate. We saw a huge dead elephant being eaten by a pride of lions and other scavengers. Rental 4x4's jostled for viewing space around the carcass, telephoto lenses protruding through open windows. We didn't have much time to appreciate the rather morbid spectacle as we were behind schedule and needed to make it to North Gate before sunset in 2 hours.
Things took a turn for the worse when the sand ruts became deeper and deeper. Second gear became first and each deep patch became more of a struggle. The deep patches became longer and more frequent, the track narrower, and visibility worse as the sun began setting. A few guinea fowl ran out in front of the truck as as I reflexively lifted off, we lost the critical momentum we needed to pass through a deep section of sand. The truck dug in and we stalled.
The cab was filled with the harsh, shrill, tone of the warning buzzer. Kim looked at me in despair. I felt like she looked. I tried once to move off again but the sand was far too deep and the truck wasn't moving. At that time, I realised how unprepared we are. No sand-ladders, spade, winch, or recovery equipment. We had two options:
1. Attempt a bush recovery.
2. Wait it out and hope we get rescued.
Self recovery still left the possibility of leaving the park that evening and wild camping just outside and recovery could occur at any time during the night. I felt we had to try. I had learned from Namibia that failed attempts can make the situation much worse so we were to throw all we had at our first attempt. The threat of predators, amplified by the numerous warnings at the gate and in the guide, lingered in the back of my mind as I stepped out of the cab. Kim was placed on lion-watch and was to yell and beep the horn. We left the engine to idle - we had discovered that most animals really dislike the sound of it and often run away.
I deflated the tyres as low as I dare (40psi) to widen them. I dug out the deep sand in front of the wheels with my arms and collected some branches that I buried under the stuck wheels. All the while occasionally looking over my shoulder, aware that big cats pounce when your back is turned. We engaged the temperamental diff-lock and selected first gear. Revving the engine up to the torque band and dropping the clutch the tyres lurched and grabbed, the truck hopping up and down, inching forwards. Back outside. Dig, re-position branches, dig more. Try again. A few more inches. After about 5 attempts we passed the deep patch and in first gear, began crawling our way though the sandy path. The sky was bright red now and getting darker every minute. Before long it was pitch black, headlights illuminating mere meters of the sandy track, still in first gear going 5mph. The noise of the engine reverberating the inside of the cab.
After an hour, during which neither Kim nor I spoke to each other, we saw lights in the distance. The gate! But there were 2 lights, and they were moving. A vehicle was coming our way! There were no passing places and leaving the track was impossible for us. Then the lights seemed to disappear and go out of sight. As we got closer we could make out the gate and just inside was a huge 6x6 truck in military colours, carrying a cargo of a dozen armed soldiers. They flag us down. They look surprised to see us. I explain that we got stuck. They ask who helped us and I respond that we self-recovered. They laugh. They inform us that the gate is closed but that we can camp there. We set up camp, cleaning all our possessions up off the floor for the second time that day and cook dinner. In the morning we had 40km to cover before hitting tar roads.
The next morning, after a rushed breakfast we left through the gate and the staff delivered a crushing blow to our morale. We learned that the worst roads were yet to come. The 40km route to the nearest tar road is closed and a 60km detour is recommended, "but even that is very sandy". We set off early, having lashed everything down, and committed to first and second gear the whole way. It seemed more trucks (perhaps military ones) used this road and we were able to find wider tracks to follow. At any point there were three paths to choose from on the wide road but crossing between them was only possible at certain points. You have to pick your path well as you end up committed to it. After about 3 hours of constant driving we were 2 miles from the tar road. This news was exciting until the road abruptly deteriorated from a wide dirt track covered in sand to a single track, covered in sand, with trees either side, climbing up a hill at a steep gradient. The sand had formed moguls, ridges, and furrows and was uneven left to right. The final section of our 12+ hours of driving were the worst. We slowly climbed up the sandy hill, red-lining the engine in first gear - the truck hopping and lurching steadily upwards. As we crested the hill we caught a glimpse of the tar road a few hundred metres on which raised our spirits. The descent was very steep and sandy - the truck slid slowly down but id not struggle. At the end of the track we passed a sign that stated "4wd strongly recommended, 2wd is possible but corrugates the road". It was impossible to imagine a 2-wheel-drive vehicle making it even 10m past that sign.
We joyously drove onto the smooth tar road, parked up and re-inflated the tyres to 90psi, practically kissing the ground as we did so. We had a break at a local tuck shop to rejuvenate by consuming soda and nik-naks. From there we headed to Kasane and booked into a lodge with a pool for a few days of well-deserved rest. We found an Indian restaurant that served a vegetarian mushroom curry which we enjoyed on more than one occasion.
From Kasane we were to cross the border into Zambia and spend some time in Livingstone off the road. We were pre-occupied with driving and neglected to film some of the worst bits but a short video of some of the roads is on our YouTube below.