Former broadcaster Richard Driver swaps the comforts of a guided tour for a self-drive safari through the wilds of Botswana, navigating rough roads, elephant traffic and visiting predators
"If a lion walks into your camp tonight you must welcome it by just remaining still and quiet. He probably won't be interested in eating you anyway."
Within minutes of the park warden's cheerful warning the sun drops below the horizon and the warm glow of the African sunset is replaced by darkening colours.
The rooftop tents of our hired Toyota Hilux are raised under the dappled shade of two giant ebony trees, within spitting distance of the narrow waterway of the Khwai River, on the north eastern edge of Botswana's 5000sq km Moremi Game Reserve.
As the first of the evening stars begin to flicker in the sky, the presence of a large male elephant contentedly munching on the leaves of a tree no more than 50m from our camp makes us tense up in our folding camp chairs. Deeper in the darkness a tree branch snaps with a resounding crack and the mournful screams and trumpeting of several more elephants add to the sense of excitement and danger.
Later in the evening a troop of baboons edges close to the fringe of our camp. They glance at us with an air of indifference before drifting away into the darkness beyond the light of the campfire. No lions come to visit during the night, a lone brown hyena the only predator to leave fresh spoor in the sand.
We are 10 days and 3000km into a six-week Southern Africa overland adventure, travelling independently on a self-drive basis, with no tour guide, no fixed itinerary, no luxury lodges and no package deals to smooth the way.
We are self-sufficient, with an auxiliary battery, fridge, gas cylinder, cooker plates, a supply of food, long-range fuel tank, a good set of all-terrain tyres and a kit that elevates the vehicle's suspension just enough to give us clearance along the worst tracks.
Firewood for our campfires is purchased from villagers on the roadside for 20 pula ($4) a bundle. At one San settlement on the edge of the Kalahari Game Reserve an appeal to purchase firewood is mistaken for a request for a demonstration of the age-old nomadic fire-lighting technique.
A diminutive, elderly Bushman clutching an axe, a small bundle of dry straw and two sticks of wood emerges sleepily from his kraal. He begins to energetically spin a tall thin stick against a base piece of wood and within a few seconds creates sufficient heat to set the handful of dry straw ablaze.
We're taking advantage of the dry season — which runs between May and September — to escape New Zealand's winter rain and explore Botswana. The weather is temperate, rainfall is zero, most of the deadly snakes are hibernating and the roads are much less challenging, with no mud or flooding to contend with.
I've had a working relationship with Africa for more than half my life — I am continually drawn back to the people and landscapes of this exciting and diverse continent — but previously the wildlife has been pretty much an incidental backdrop to the demands of producing television programmes.
This trip is about taking time to simply enjoy being in Africa by way of a good old-fashioned family motoring holiday without the pressures of work.
A fully equipped self-drive four-wheel drive safari camper expedition is the perfect way to immerse yourself into wild Africa. For around $200 per day you have a mobile home capable of traversing the worst of Africa's terrain and the freedom to create your own itinerary.
A good GPS unit is essential. Some of the official campsites in the national parks are locatable only through using GPS co-ordinates and designated roads on the official road maps are often simply tyre tracks in the sand.
Botswana's wildlife reserves are relatively undeveloped compared to the more accessible offerings of neighbouring Namibia and South Africa. Those two countries have highly popular game-viewing destinations where fleets of game viewing vehicles, stacked with khaki-outfitted jet-setters, cruise the manicured trails of the massive Estosha and Kruger national parks eyeballing the wildlife on display.
On the rough and remote trails of Botswana's national parks you can see the same wildlife without the traffic congestion. It feels like it is the animals that are eyeballing you instead.
The self-drive option is perfect for those who relish isolation and solitude. On a typical day we would pass no other vehicles and see no other living soul for hours on end.
It gets rough at times. Average speed is around 30kph. Any faster and the ride would turn into a severe battering for man and machine. Any slower and the vehicle might lose momentum and stall in the thick sand.
But the upside is that you can decide for yourself what you want to do, take all the time you want parked up studying the daily struggle for survival of all the giraffe, ostrich, wildebeest, kudu, impala, warthogs, zebra and baboons.
The main driving hazard in the Botswana wilderness is the large number of elephant wandering between waterholes or grazing on the choice apple leaf trees that line the roadsides. Botswana is considered to be the elephant capital of the world. Aerial surveys estimate the nation's elephant population to be around 130,000.
Right behind elephants on the road hazard list are donkeys. It is claimed that donkeys outnumber the two million people in Botswana. They wander around freely in inhabited areas and, especially at night, are the cause of many road accidents.
Then there are the deep sand drifts and river crossings. At a typical ford I engage the vehicle's lowest ratio gear and tip the vehicle gingerly into the murky water. Although it is the dry season, an impressive bow wave develops in front of the Toyota's bonnet. The front left wheel drops suddenly into a big hole in the riverbed, I adjust my line and let out a huge hoot of relief when the vehicle eventually gains traction on the opposite bank.
If I got stuck it could be several hours before another vehicle passes. There is no roadside assistance or helpline to call. Hitching a ride on a donkey and cart might be an option though.
But it's not all driving. Back in Maun, the dusty safari town on the edge of the Okavango Delta, the world's largest inland delta, we indulge in a sight-seeing flight over the massive shiny wetland. The next day we are down among its reeds and myriad channels on the traditional mokoro, the shallow dug-out canoe propelled gondola style by a poler.
But the real highlight of our time in Maun is a half-day horse safari with David Foot of Ride Botswana, who has horses for every level of rider. The dry climate allows us to gallop at high speed alongside the Thamalakane River, unusually high this year, thanks to the seasonal flow of water draining from the vast delta.
In the quiet moments between the mudslinging horseplay of the cantering, David shares his passion for birdwatching and we are enthusiastically introduced to local species like the fish eagle and the cardinal woodpecker. A pod of hippos wallowing lazily in the mud on the opposite bank of the river provides an audio background to David's commentary with a burping noise that resembles the sound of a chainsaw starting up.
Travelling on one's own on a self-drive basis in Africa is not for everyone. Organising permits for the national parks can be a frustrating business and the prospect of driving and camping solo in the wilderness is not everyone's idea of a holiday. Forking out on a guided tour package would be a much simpler option, especially if your sole focus is on seeing wildlife.
But, whatever your preference, just make sure you don't get eaten by a lion.
Best time to go:
Driving conditions in Botswana are easiest and the weather is milder between May and November.
What to pack: Camera, binoculars, a torch, lightweight clothing for mild weather, a jacket for the cool evenings, sunglasses and hat. Leave the suitcase at home and pack everything into a soft duffel bag that can be stowed easily.
Health: Parts of northern Botswana may be malarial. Check with a local travel doctor for medical essentials at least 30 days before leaving New Zealand. See worldwise.co.nz.
Paperwork: Fees and permits for people, vehicle and campsites all need to be organised prior to entering Botswana's national parks and reserves. Kalahari permits are issued by Big Foot Tours in the capital city, Gaborone. Permits for Moremi and Chobe can be obtained from tourist and travel agents in Maun. See maunselfdrive4x4.com.
Hire vehicle: Booking a return hire out of South Africa is usually the cheapest option. We were very happy with Bushtrackers, a boutique family business based in Johannesburg, which has a small fleet of fully equipped 4WD campers at competitive rates.
Driving tips: Buy your Botswana maps at an Exclusive Books store in Johannesburg. Take an international driving permit, along with your New Zealand licence. Give elephants the right of way on the road ... and watch out for donkeys.
Richard Driver drove round Botswana at his own expense.