Surviving the Hunter’s Road

Paul Donovan travels through wild and remote Botswana surviving animal encounters as he journeys to Victoria Falls

I have a confession to make. Despite living in Botswana for the past 13 years, I have never been to Victoria Falls, located just over the border in Zambia and Zimbabwe. The nearest I got was several years ago when my wife and I camped at Chobe Safari Lodge in Kasane on our honeymoon. The morning we were due to ride to the falls, my wife said: “Don’t forget your passport?” Ah, my passport. I felt bit of a chump really because, for some reason, it didn’t cross my mind that I’d need to bring it. My wife called me more than a few choice names which came to an abrupt halt when I asked: “Where’s yours?” Yes, she’d forgotten her passport as well.

To rectify a wrong, I decided a visit to the falls was in order. This time I’d take my bike, my passport, but not the wife. I find life is so much easier when I ride on my own. I can stop when I want and take photos without the continual nagging about why we keep stopping. If I was to take the easy route, I could travel the 400 miles or so by road from my home in Palapye, Botswana, and honk up the A1 to the second city, Francistown. Then I could go up the main road to Nata and onto Kasane, catch the ferry into Zambia, and hey presto, Victoria Falls. But to me that would be boring, uneventful, and go against the grain of having an adventure bike in the first place, particularly as there was a far more enticing alternative route I could use.

Tourists who travel to the town of Kasane often do so via the A33 from Nata. What many of those equipped with the right vehicle don’t realise is that just outside Nata is a turning that will take you on 154 miles of glorious (most of the time) off-road track called The Hunter’s Road, which will take you into Kasane. It’s not actually a road, more a sandy track that runs parallel to the main road. It was established in 1871 by a gentleman by the name of George Westbeech. Mr Westbeech was an English ivory trader (but enough said about that) who became a confidant of many tribal kings in the region. For helping them with disputes between their neighbours, he was granted licences to hunt elephants for their ivory. In order to trade the ivory between Botswana and Zambia, he established a wagon route which become known as Westbeech’s Road, or The Hunter’s Road.

A natural boundary

Westbeech actually became a very powerful man in the region, establishing himself as an agent assisting other traders to export their wares through his trading post at the village of Pandamatenga. He could also be regarded as one of the pioneers of tourism in the region. As early as 1876 he was actively advertising hunting expeditions and sight-seeing trips to Victoria Falls in English magazines. What better way than to follow in his footsteps but on a bike. The Hunter’s Road now forms a natural boundary between Botswana and Zimbabwe. It is a navigable 10m wide strip of sand bordered on either side by nothing but pristine wilderness. For all intents and purposes, you could be riding through Chobe National Park. The good thing is there are no boundary fences so wildlife can move freely between Zimbabwe and Botswana and you’re spoilt for choice at what you see.

I’d been told by people who’d ridden the track before that occasionally it disappears amongst the grass and, if you’re not careful, it’s easy to stray into Zimbabwe. That was something I definitely didn’t want to do. The thought of spending a night in one of the late Robert Mugabe’s less than sumptuous prisons did not sound very enticing. A few months before my ride, an anti-poaching team from Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks strayed into Zimbabwe and there ensued weeks of diplomatic toing and froing to get them back. Apparently, they had been tracking some poachers, but according to Mugabe’s henchmen, they were spying. If such high-level intervention was involved in getting government workers back, what chance would a foreigner like me have? I was certain I wasn’t going to find out.

On the road

I would like to regale you with words of joyous wonderment about how stunning the roads are in Botswana as I rode the 222 miles to Nata. However, endless boring stretches of tar and thoughtless bus, car, and lorry drivers are the same the world over. I thanked my lucky stars when I eventually reached Nata in one piece. I took the opportunity to fill-up my trusty Kawasaki Versys X-300, buy a few supplies, and give my bum a rest. Biking can be jolly painful sometimes. I also had a fill of meat and dumplings. If this was going to be my last meal before I was munched on by a lion as I lay asleep in my tent, I wanted it to be a hearty one.

Refreshed and raring to go, I headed on up the A33 for 38 miles before reaching the turn-off to The Hunter’s Road. As is so often the case, the best things in life need a bit of work to achieve and the entrance was a job to find, but eventually I came upon it. The track begins amid typical Botswana bush of Lowveld arid savanna, with open expanses interspersed by thick spreads of acacia trees and rocky outcrops. However, as you push further north, the bareness gradually gives way to vast grassy pans whose names are known only by a few. The riding surface, although sandy, wouldn’t challenge even the most inexperienced of riders. The track started off quite wide but then narrowed to little more than the width of a pavement before petering out again into a wide track. A good pair of gloves were called for as I scraped my way through the overhanging bushes which, like every plant here, seems to be covered in vicious thorns.

Wild encounters

My first taste of wildlife came after a couple of miles when I spotted two giraffes nonchalantly munching on the greenery of an acacia tree. It always amazes me how these majestic animals can eat such thorny vegetation. Why do their tongues not resemble pincushions when they poke them out? Unlike many species of animals, giraffes are attention seekers and they just stood there chewing away as I snapped a few pics. About 18 miles further on, the sand became so thick it resembled riding the Dakar Rally and it was taking all my focus to navigate when I spotted a cobra emerge from the bush about 10m in front of me. Thank goodness I wasn’t going fast or I would have run it over. Hopping off the bike, I managed to catch it and take a photo or two.

At 2pm, I decided to stop, have a drink, and answer the call of nature which gave me a second snake encounter. As I was about to water the bush, I happened to glance down to see two puff adders lying in the grass at my feet. Now, I’m sure they would have taken great exception to being awoken by a giant weeing on them, as I would have if I were asleep, so I aimed the other way. I walked back to the bike, got the camera, and took a few photos. Even though the vegetation was quite dry, there was plenty more wildlife to be seen. I spotted several vultures circling in the distance, presumably homing in on the leftovers of a hungry lion’s dinner. Hopefully, if it were to stumble across me snoozing in my tent tonight, it would be so full up it wouldn’t think to give me a second sniff.

As I rounded a bend in the track, a baby elephant suddenly came charging out of the bush in a cloud of dust with its ears flapping and trunk waving. It gave me quite a start I can tell you, but as it was small, I decided to stop and take a photo. It wasn’t until I put the camera away did it dawn on me that the baby elephant likely had a mum and dad nearby that wouldn’t think twice about charging a Kawasaki X-300. Time to hightail it.

Making camp

Thoughts of an empty stomach and a good night’s sleep began to grow in my mind, so I decided to pitch camp at the next scenic spot. After another hour of riding, I found said spot. When I’m out adventure biking, I bush camp as much as possible and carry minimal kit. As the trip would only take a couple of days, I decided to only take a tent, lightweight sleeping bag, cook set, food, and plenty of mozzie cream of course. As I’d be sleeping on the ground like all the other four-legged and non-legged creatures around me, I decided to give myself a degree of protection. I pitched camp amongst a thicket of bushes and a large mound of boulders. That way, I surmised, should an animal come wandering by, it would smack its head on either a tree, the bike, or a boulder and leave me well alone to sleep peacefully.

Although I spend a great deal of time camping on my own, and the darkness doesn’t worry me, your mind can play tricks on you. The noise of a millipede or beetle scurrying across the parched ground is magnified many hundreds of times by one’s own vivid imagination. It is surprising how something so small can sound like an elephant, or worse, a hungry predator honing in on you. However, one of the benefits of being in such a remote area is that the sunsets are almost invariably spectacular, and when the sun has eventually gone to bed, the billions of twinkling stars, not to mention bloody mosquitoes, become your companion. Count the shooting stars and make a wish.

After what seemed like an eternity of drifting in and out of sleep, I eventually fell into the deep land of nod. I awoke the next morning which was a good thing as it showed I was still alive and hadn’t been eaten by a large-toothed carnivore. After a cup of hot chocolate, I was on my way again.

The biggest test

Today would determine whether or not I reached Kasane. This was the stretch of The Hunter’s Road that was liable to resemble a mud pie. However, the going remained firm and things were looking promising. As I was riding along, I had one of those stupid moments. Standing beneath a tree was a female lion. The stupidness came when I stopped right in front of her and got the camera out to take a photo. What the hell was I doing? She could so easily have had me for breakfast in the blink of an eye. Sometimes common sense eludes the best of us in our quest for adventure.

WANT TO RIDE THE HUNTER’S ROAD?

There are no bike hire companies in Botswana, so if you want to ride The Hunter’s Road, you will have to ship your own bike over. Fuel is readily available in Nata at the start of the track, and in Kasane, which is the final destination before Victoria Falls. Just about everywhere accepts Visa. Cash machines are everywhere.

You are not supposed to camp along The Hunter’s Road, but as been as it isn’t patrolled by anyone, providing you respect the bush, no one will ever know you have been there. Phone reception can be a bit hit and miss so I would recommend a satellite phone or a personal safety device such as a satellite tracker, just in case of an accident.

Be aware, you will be entering an area where there are dangerous animals, which is part of the excitement of the ride. If you are not comfortable with invisible eyes watching you, or camping where animals are around, this is definitely not the ride for you. Unlike many African countries, Botswana is a politically stable country with a low crime rate against foreigners.

As I moved further north, the scenery changed quite dramatically. It was now much lusher, there was green grass and different kinds of trees. In some areas the ground was slightly muddy but the going was still stress free. It was here I spotted a small herd of buffalo, an awful lot of zebra, a lonesome hyena loafing its way through the grass, and my favourite four-legged animal, wildebeest. To me, wildebeest sum up Africa. It may have only been a small herd, but had I been in the Serengeti, these animals could so easily have been the stragglers of the many hundreds of thousands who undertake their yearly migration to more fruitful feeding grounds.

What also changed was the track. It was now full of deep ruts where 4×4 vehicles had ventured during the winter, churned it all up as they became stuck and left gaping chasms that proved a nightmare to negotiate. However, I managed to navigate the worst of it and all too soon I found myself nearing the end of The Hunter’s Road. It was at this point I saw my first full-size elephant of the trip. You can’t help but feel vulnerable on a bike when these majestic animals are around, but there’s something so special about them. I certainly gave the elephant respect as I had two friends in the UK who were killed in separate incidences while working with them in zoos.

Journey’s end

THE BIKE

Why did I choose a small adventure bike and not something more substantial? The reason I chose my Kawasaki Versys X-300 was to see if the small adventure bike was up to the task. While the motorcycle is more than capable of covering long distances, after a couple of hours, my backside does begin to suffer a bit. On long tarred stretches of road, it takes a while to get up to speed and I need to work the gears, but once it’s up there, it will comfortably sit at 70mph all day in comfort.

The other reason I chose to ride the Versys X-300 is fuel economy. I easily get 250 miles from a tank which meant I didn’t have to lug extra fuel around with me. I can’t sing the bike’s praises enough. It performed faultlessly and took everything in its stride. Obviously, you ride it to its limitations. Its ground clearance means it is not a trials bike. If you do take it off-road, a sump guard would be a good accessory to fit.

On reaching Kasane, I had a short nine-mile ride to Kazangula to catch the pontoon ferry from Botswana to Zambia, and then on to Victoria Falls. They are one of the most spectacular borders in the world, as the Zambezi River plummets 108m downwards between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Even before you reach them, they advertise their presence. From several miles away mist fills the air like smoke and colourful rainbows draw themselves across the pale blue sky. As I gazed out across this magnificent embodiment of nature that is Victoria Falls, I wondered if the thoughts going through my mind were the same as those going through Dr David Livingstone’s as he stumbled across them in 1855, making him the first European to do so? The end of my trip signified the culmination of an injustice I had been doing myself for a long time by not visiting this magnificent place, after having failed to do so on my honeymoon. I am glad that I did it on a motorcycle and I am even gladder that I travelled here along the The Hunter’s Road.