The animal stared blankly back at me from the middle of the road, not moving a muscle as I inched closer and closer. He patently wasn’t going anywhere.
‘Just keep driving towards him slowly, he’ll move,’ urged my guide Onx from the passenger seat.
The battle of wills didn’t last long. I caved, parked up a good distance away and waited. Eventually, the road block gave a derisory snort and ambled off.
In my defence, our path was not barred by some little bunny caught in the headlights, but by a large brick outhouse of a beast called an African elephant. And he could have as much road as he liked as far as I was concerned.
It’s no surprise that driving across the wilds of Africa is challenging – to say the least.
However, Orient-Express is now offering clients staying at its three luxury camps in Botswana the chance to drive their own safari vehicle through the bush – with all the dangers and potential disasters that entails – but with an expert guide along, just in case.
So my friend and I decided to have a go at the ultimate road trip, a kind of Thelma and Louise of the bushveld.
I had never driven a 4WD before so was relieved when Onx, the company’s chief environmentalist as well as a seasoned safari ranger, took the wheel of our Toyota Land Cruiser for the first short stint of our journey.
It would take four or five hours from Maun, gateway to the country’s many marvellous wildlife areas, to Khwai River Lodge, our first stop. And as soon as we were in the private Khwai concession, we swapped seats…
Over roughly gritted roads, I shook and shimmied. In dry sand, I slipped and slid, losing the back end. And finally, on game trails in the bush proper, I hunched over the wheel in high concentration to avoid as many massive potholes as I could.
A ‘yee-hah’ yelled from the back seat whenever I failed and ‘Thelma’ was launched momentarily skyward. Then we reached a river. Quite a deep one. I braked.
Ignoring my bleats of fear, Onx reminded me what to do – and what NOT to do under any circumstances. I must not, not, not stall or the engine would be murdered by the resultant influx of water up the exhaust pipe, or something.
I bit my lip, revved up and slowly slipped in … and out again a few minutes later. ‘Piece of cake,’ I announced, and we arrived at camp late but undaunted.
The Lodge sits on the north bank of the Khwai river, adjacent to the Moremi Wildlife Reserve. Each luxurious tent is on a wooden platform from which you can watch game, and comes equipped with every comfort, from proper loo and shower to four-poster and mini-fridge. You can even have a massage or facial, and the food and drink are really good, too.
But next morning, we were up and out early for a full day’s game drive. Oh yes, game. I realised what little wildlife we – correction, I – had seen so far. I’d been gripping the wheel so tightly that I’d barely raised my gaze from the road ahead.
No, Thelma, I’m sure it wasn’t that the animals, forewarned of my arrival, had fled in fear. After all, I did not run over the large leopard tortoise stumbling along the track, nor over any of the myriad baby impala that hurled themselves into our path.
I even managed not to splat the carmine bee-eaters that played at kamikaze pilots around the juicy smorgasbord of insects we disturbed as we drove across the plain.
The jewel-coloured birds flew inches from my open window, then swooped, looped around the grille, risking life and wing, and emerged by the windscreen, beaks bulging with breakfast.
It was absolutely enchanting, our own mini Red Arrows display of exemplary aerobatics.
In the distance, a mother impala seemed to be trying to mimic their moves, entirely ignored by the rest of her enormous herd, which must have thought she was having a funny turn. She kept springing around on the spot, then staring at a hedge of bushes.
Suddenly, we saw why – a big scary male lion got up, yawned and, as we drove up, sloped off, realising the hunt was over.
Onx took the wheel for a while so we could spot more wildlife – warthogs, kudu, jackals and an enormous crocodile in the deep river we were about to cross.
And then it happened. As we sploshed into the water, there was a bit of a thump and grind, and that was it: we were stuck. It took Onx two-and-a-half hours to dig us out, jacking up the wheels, packing in logs, lowering us back down, trying to reverse, slipping off the logs, doing it all over again…
Of course we girlies offered to help. He declined, so instead we sat and talked about who we’d rather be, Thelma (Geena Davis) or Louise (Susan Sarandon), about hair and make-up and Brad Pitt, and encouraged Onx to take his shirt off since it was so jolly hot.
On day three, we tackled the six-hour drive from Khwai Lodge to our next accommodation, Savute Elephant Camp. There were some truly evil bits of road – narrow, wobbly bridges, rocky slopes coated in mud, a vertical climb which, it turned out, was just Onx having a joke, and more, deeper, wider rivers.
But it was in Savute, renowned for its hundreds of elephants, that I lost my nerve. I know Africa’s ferocious beasties don’t live purely to terrorise tourists, and our obstinate pachyderm would most likely have moved if I’d persevered. But what can I say? They are just that big.
So naughty Thelma took a turn, scattering elephants in her wake, and transformed the last bit of the journey into a rollercoaster as she sped and bumped through puddles, shrieking hysterically as muddy water drenched us.
Savute Elephant Camp is safari-ing at its most comfortable, but not chi-chi. The experience is still authentic, not least because of the unspoilt surroundings.
Animals are free to roam around camp and a guide escorts you back to your platform tent in the chirruping dark.
It was our last peaceful morning in the bush and, according to Onx, the quietly grazing animals were just happy to wake up and find themselves still alive.
I threaded the 4WD through a thicket of prickly trees without removing any bark, then parked us up in a quiet spot for a cuppa and a mid-morning snack.
And that was when I was attacked.
I had bobbed behind a big tree for a speedy wee, it not being a good idea to leave bare flesh exposed in the bush, then returned to the Toyota for my tea.
Something started to bite me soon after, vicious stings that had me scratching madly at my buttock. I retreated to the tree, dropped my drawers and discovered I had an ant in my pants. Just the one, but it was a matabele, an insect renowned for his nasty nip, and he’d wrought havoc.
Worse than that, just as I stood bare-bottomed trying to flick him out, the other game vehicle arrived and thanked me for the free floor show. I could hardly look them in the eye over lunch back at the camp.
I had a hot backside for the rest of my stay, but sadly not in a Susan Sarandon kind of way.
Date: 4 August 2013