My first trip to Africa I decided to rent a car with a friend and drive from Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, to the Okavango Delta in Botswana. It seemed simple enough – paved roads the entire way, two really big tourist destinations, and the weather being not too hot and not too cold. I couldn’t have been more wrong. So, saddle up, have I got a story for you.
The start of our journey
We land in Victoria Falls, have booked a car and are ready for a 5-day trip. One day from Victoria Falls to the Delta, three days there, and one day back. Google says the drive should take about 7 hours there and back, all on good roads. Simple enough? I was wrong. The chaos all starts when we get to the airport in Victoria Falls. First of all, the car we rented isn’t there. It was supposed to be a smaller automatic. But they only have a smaller manual car that looks like it had driven through about 30 hail storms. It was rough, so rough in fact that they didn’t even take a deposit because the car was so beat up. On top of that, I have a total of 3 hours of driving experience in a manual and my buddy - none. I guess it was pass/fail, which I always thought was easiest.
At the police station
But this chaos doesn’t stop there – we get the car only to find out it doesn’t have proper paperwork to go into Botswana, and the chances of getting that paperwork, we are told, is slim to none. It looked as if our trip to Botswana was done before it started… until, that is, the car rental guy decided to take us to the local police station himself to get the proper paperwork. We are hopeful, but also are preparing a back-up trip in case. Starting your road trip in the police station is also never a really great omen. And it wasn’t. You’ll see why.
"Starting your road trip in the police station is never a really great omen."
Well, two hours later, with the help of a really nice car rental attendant and policeman, we have the paperwork. Our first afternoon is shot, however, and we just head to the hotel as we plan on waking up early to see the Falls and then head off to the Delta the next morning.
I almost forgot something important – from the airport to Victoria Falls we passed a paved road where our car rental friend told us to go in order to get to Botswana. This would be important as the rest of the story is about Google taking us past this road to a different one, and me actually listening to Google.
Let’s get lost
Anyways, so we wake up the next morning and check out the Falls. There has been apparently record level rain for this part of the year, and the Falls are running heavy. Most of it is mist, but it is still really beautiful. The morning goes well, and we get on our way, with Google leading us.
Always trust the locals
We are driving along, I am managing the stick shift ok and getting more comfortable with it, and about 10 minutes in we pass the paved road. I look at it, think to myself, “our local friend told us to go there, but Google is telling us to go here. At the risk of being lost, let’s trust Google.” Huge mistake. Always trust the locals. So, we drive past it by about 40 minutes, turn west onto a paved road, and in about 5 minutes find ourselves on a gravel road that is in pretty rough shape. Lesson 2 for the trip – it is better to lose 40 minutes rather than a whole day of driving. But, we decided to go down the dirt road, thinking it was only a part of the road and we would hit a paved road as we got closer to the border crossing with Botswana.
"At the risk of being lost, let's trust Google. Huge mistake."
Could the road get worse?
That was mistake number three, assuming that, just because there is a border crossing, the road must get better. In fact, it would get worse. About 1.5 hours into this gravel road – going 30 km/h the entire way, we see a caravan of 4x4s covered in mud. Not good for the little rear wheel drive we are in. We stop, chat with them for a second, and find out that there are two pretty muddy parts ahead of us. But only two, or so they tell us. So, we figure we should at least see how muddy it is. We hit the first one about 30 minutes later. It is bad, but off the road where the grass and brush is the ground is fairly hard and we think with 2 wheels on it we can make it past. We were right. About 30 minutes later we hit the second one, and this one is worse. But, we figured we would follow the same logic as the last one and we could make it through. We almost don’t make it but get lucky and push through it. We made it! Rest of the way would be smooth sailing. Wrong again.
"We thought: just because there is a border crossing, the road must get better. But in fact, it would get worse."
Testing our luck
This is where the story gets good. About 11 km from the border we hit a spot where the rain has completely washed out the road. All we see is water over the road, elephant tracks on the right side, and a small pond to the left. The whole area is about 7m or so that we have to get through. But, how deep is the water? Can we make it through it? If not, could we make it through the elephant tracks? So I, being the scientist I am, grab a fairly large rock, and toss it into the water. It completely submerges, so we know the water is at least 15cm or so. We now have driven for 3+hours (only covering about 90 km) and are way behind schedule to make it to the Delta. We talk it over, figure it could be more dangerous to test our luck at the two mud pools we already passed, and if anything happened, we would prefer to be 11km away from civilization rather than 30km at best. So, we pack the elephant tracks with rocks, break down some trees to cover up the mud and give us some traction, and prepare to drive around the washed-out road. And all with me driving stick…
Muddy, muddier, muddiest
And, we get stuck almost immediately. Here we go, I thought. I get out, we dig, use some branches, and a good push, and after about 30 minutes we make it out. Our plan is working, I am almost through it, but to protect the car I take the exit a little too short (if I was over about 1/3 meter to the right we would have made it). But I miss it by that much, and we slide into the bank – the muddiest part. By now it is about 1 or so, we have only seen the muddy caravan the entire day, and the sun will start going down about 4. So, we start digging, pushing, digging, sliding, pushing, sticking, staying. We don’t go anywhere. After 1.5 hours, covered in mud and who knows what else, sweating, having drank all of our water but 1 liter and eaten all of our food but 6 rolls, have a decision to make. Do we risk not seeing anyone, wait in the car, and potentially spend the night in the car, in a nature reserve, with our car stuck in elephant tracks? Or, do we risk the walk, not knowing what will be out there, but knowing that there will be people at the end of the line? What would you do?
A long walk to go
We decided to walk. Our water would last the night, and maybe the morning, the food wouldn’t, and we could potentially still have to make the walk the next day, this time with no food and no water. We still had just enough time to make the 11km before the sun set, but we had to leave then and now. So we did. I am not going to lie, I was terrified. The first 3 km or so I was pretty sure that I was going to meet my maker somehow that day. About 4 km in we found big cat tracks – and given the heavy rain the day and a half before meant that they were fresh. We passed more elephant tracks. A vulture scared the pee out of me once when it took off from a tree by the road. But, the more we walked, the more I became ok with my situation and decision. It was the first time in my life that I really, truly felt grateful for what I had been able to do in my life, my family, and my friends. I had always been grateful, but when you’re terrified that it may be your last day, you have 2 choices – find a way to be grateful and content with everything, or let the fear consume you. I got to the prior, eventually. Maybe this is a bit dramatic, but it was how I felt.
We made it
Well, as you can guess, we made it. Passed some monkey and impala along the way, but otherwise nothing else. We got to the border and this border crossing is so remote that people actually live there.
We rock up on foot, and they look at us, sweating, covered in mud, and ask us, “where is your car?”. We look at each other, laugh, and say about 11 km down the road. They think we are joking. When they realize that we aren’t, they are in shock. “You know there are lions out there right??!” They ask. “Yep, we do.” We answer. “You are lucky that we are not pulling your bones out of some lion” they respond. “Yep, we know.”
"You are lucky that we are not pulling your bones out of some lion!"
This would be the conversation the next 2 hours as we round up a team to go get the car, and then pass through the border. By the time we get through it is pitch black, almost 7, we are beyond exhausted, and have nowhere to stay. Luckily, there was a hotel not too far over the border. We clean up, eat, and call it a night. Little did we know that the next day was set to be an adventure as well. But that’s a story for another time.