An African Road Trip of a Lifetime

Mark Fletcher

Among the beasts and deep sands of Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Kingsley was waiting across the road from Botswana’s Maun Airport. After traveling for a night and a day to this small outpost on the edge of the Okavango Delta, we were anxious to make her acquaintance. We liked her on sight: a white Land Rover (named after Mary Henrietta Kingsley, the 19th-century explorer) with a tent on the roof and the back neatly packed with everything we were going to need for a two-week drive across northern Botswana into Zimbabwe and back.

“You’ve done this before, right?” asked Anneleis Zonjies, the Safari Drive Botswana representative, who met us at the airport. We all nodded. Four years ago, Mark, my husband, had been filming leopards in Namibia for the BBC, and I had flown out with Alfie and Notty, then eight and six, to join him. Once the leopard footage was in the can—and with a degree of trepidation about taking our young children into the wilds—we’d hired a Safari Drive vehicle for a ten-day trip around the desert south.

“Some of the roads through Botswana and Zimbabwe are deep sand,” Zonjies said. “And with a top-heavy vehicle, you’re going to have to drive carefully.” Not for the first time, I started to doubt our wisdom; before we’d left, friends had been astounded that we were going unchaperoned into a land populated by wild animals and Mugabe’s thugs. But no one had mentioned deep sand.

The next day, with the gunnels packed with food and firewood strapped to the roof, we primed our satellite navigation system and set off toward Savuti in Botswana’s Chobe National Park. An hour out of town, the tarmac gave way to fine red sand, and the straggle of small villages that had lined the route faded into melting horizons. The road was quiet, but each time we saw a distant plume signifying a car heading toward us, someone would shout “Windows!” and we’d frantically wind up the glass in the—vain—hope of keeping out the dust.

At the gate to the reserve, however, dust became the least of our worries. We were barely into the park when Alfie, now 12, pointed to an elephant in the bush to our left. As we turned to look, another walked out into the road, stopped and turned its great head toward us. Mark killed the engine (the correct response) and the elephant soon ambled off.

We made it to Savuti’s main camp unscathed and parked at our pre-booked stand, a private patch on the banks of the river. With Kingsley sheltered from the sun by a tall acacia tree, we set up camp. That first day, it took the best part of an hour, but we soon fell into a routine: I’d climb up and flip open the roof tent, while Mark and the kids wrangled with the ground tent. Within 30 minutes, the steak would be on the fire and cold beers in our hands. We wandered around Savuti and Chobe for a few days, driving for five to six hours daily with frequent stops to watch the animals, then fell asleep to the call of hyenas and the throaty chuckle of a hippo. The drive to Victoria Falls and across the border to Zimbabwe was long and slow, so when we arrived, seven hours after leaving, the pool at Ilala Lodge looked more inviting than any pool had before.

Over the next week, we alternated between camping and lodges; each made us appreciate, and sometimes long for, the other. While it was thrilling to conduct ourselves through the reserves, it was also a relief to rely on guides who could pick out a leopard’s head at 200 yards and who escorted us to and from our quarters with a rifle under their arms. I wouldn’t care to repeat the evening we watched the sun dive behind the mountains in Savuti while our satellite navigation tried to direct us across a river in full flow. But our final night, back in Botswana at Meno a Kwena, was somehow made more special by the knowledge that we had made it there by ourselves.

Two weeks and 1,579 miles later, Kingsley brought us back to Maun Airport, covered in dust but still upright. We’d do it again, with less luggage and probably no more than two consecutive nights of camping between lodges.

The Details: Driving Yourself

The self-drive African safari is certainly not for the first-time visitor to the continent. However, for travelers who are comfortable navigating a vehicle through rough terrain, know how to behave sensibly around wildlife and love going it on their own, it can be a thrilling way to explore the land. The vital thing is to work with an outfit that provides high-level planning and backup on the ground.

One of the best, most-established operations is Safari Drive, founded by Meregan and Charles Norwood. They started their business 20 years ago, offering self-drive trips from Victoria Falls. Now they create bespoke itineraries in Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Zambia, Namibia, Botswana and Oman.

Many people who are interested in driving tours but don’t feel ready to do it on their own begin with one of Safari Drive’s fully guided trips, on which staff do the driving and set up camp. The self-drive safari is a different beast. Combining rough-and-ready camping with luxury lodges, it is similar in sentiment to the great American road trip—except without convenient motels around the corner if things get tight. That’s where Safari Drive’s expertise comes into play. The company creates each itinerary from scratch, calculating daily drive times based on mileage, activities and the drivers’ off-road experience. (First-time self-drive customers are required to take a 4x4 course.) The Land Rover’s satellite navigation system is preloaded with Track for Africa maps and common destinations, and Safari Drive prepays national park entrance fees. Campsites alert the company if a client does not check in as planned.

Safari Drive also packs everything you might need, including food, tents, linens, towels, satellite phone and a detailed trip book that spells out everything from how to deal with animals to where to pitch a tent. Each Land Rover Defender 110 accommodates four and has built-in long-range fuel and water tanks, and fridges. Convoy trips with more than one vehicle are popular with groups.

Trips start at $2,900 a person for 14 days with 8 days in tents, or $6,900 a person for 14 days without camping. To book, call 44-14/887-1140 or go to