Ok, I concede. We’ve got a reputation for driving hood first into deep water. It’s a reputation derived from our first Africa overland trip. A trip where we encountered road-swallowing rains in West and Central Africa. Rains that transformed dirt tracks into impassable quagmires of mud and water. In Gabon, we met a Swiss guy traveling in a battered Land Rover who warned of the road ahead. His warning describes things perfectly:
“Recently, I came upon a man standing in the middle of the road. Knee deep in muddy water, the man wouldn’t move to let me pass, so I stopped to see what was the matter. Agitated the man turned to me and said ‘Don’t you see the problem here? I’m standing on the roof of my truck!'”
By the end of our journey, Africa’s water logged roads took a toll on Betty. Her once flawless body rusted and her electrical components corroded beyond repair. She looked as if she’d lived a thousand lives – a weathered shell of her former self.
I offer this as background so you can appreciate why Paul Marsh, the specialist we hired to lead Maggie’s build, asked that we pledge to keep Maggie on dry ground. It’s a pledge we gladly accepted, and it’s a pledge we managed to keep…for exactly 38 days.
Now some might wonder how on earth we managed to break our pledge so quickly. Particularly given that we started our trip at the peak of Southern Africa’s dry season. A period where the earth is so parched – rivers dry up, animals migrate to water, and dust is omnipresent. It’s a fair question. But before I explain, let me simply say this: We didn’t go looking for water. In fact, we never do. It’s just that we don’t shy away from it either. In our view, Maggie (and Betty before her) is a tool built to enable exploration, not inhibit it. And if you’re going to explore, particularly beyond the beaten path, you’re going to encounter bad roads - and some of those roads are going to be wet.
So then, how did Maggie manage a swim in Botswana’s dry season? We like to think she shares Betty’s nose for water. She’s like our friend Mike’s golden retriever, which he can’t seem to keep out of the pool. To us, this seems the most likely explanation, although one could argue an alternative hypothesis. It’s a hypothesis that goes something like this…
We were on our morning game drive in Moremi Game Reserve. Moremi is home to the Okavango Delta – a place that’s wet even when the rest of Botswana is bone dry. It was a memorable morning. Late in the dry season, a section of the Okavango was drying up. Bad luck for the resident fish, but a windfall for Moremi’s maribou storks and fish eagles, which arrived in droves for the fresh sushi flailing about in the dwindling pools.
Following our game drive, we needed to get to Third Bridge – our camp for the night. Accompanying us to Third Bridge were new friends Rob and Vicky. South African’s from East London, we’d only just met them at Xakanaxa but immediately hit it off. Wonderful people who share our love for wildlife and photography, we had much to chat about and were eager to continue our conversation around the campfire that night.
Driving to Third Bridge should have been easy. We’ve made the trip numerous times on previous visits. But the thing is, the Okavango’s waters are ever changing. Areas that are dry one year are sometimes wet the next. And so it was that morning, as the sandy track we were following snaked through mopane woodland and across grassy plains before abruptly disappearing into the Okavango’s murky abyss.
When we reached the end of the track, Rob and Vicky were already there - staring into the water as they discussed what to do. It was an ugly sight. Ahead, where the road should have been, there was nothing but inky black. Unable to see the bottom, Rob offered a prudent approach - walk across first to check depth and make sure nothing’s lurking under the surface. Ordinarily, I’d agree. It’s a page straight out of off-road driving 101. But I wasn’t keen to go wading in Moremi’s inky black waters for fear I would find something lurking under the surface. And by something I mean a croc, rock python or anything else that might fancy me for lunch.
As we debated what to do, I remembered some advice Sheri and I received from a German guy the previous day. “Before you arrive at Third Bridge you’ll come to a water crossing. It looks pretty bad, but it’s not so deep. Don’t worry how it looks, you won’t have any problems.” We shared this insight with Rob and Vicky, without any of us knowing whether this was the same crossing or not. None-the-less we all agreed to give it a go – provided we stick together should one of us need help.
Rob & Vicky went first and as soon as their Land Cruiser splashed into the water Sheri and I knew we’d made a mistake. This wasn’t the shallow crossing the German told us about. This water was deep – like go in but don’t come out deep. The type of deep that we hadn’t seen since crossing a 36-kilometer flood plain on our way to Petit Loango several years ago. Fully committed we watched as Rob and Vicky’s Land Cruiser disappeared up to the windows and then lurched to one side as their tires struggled for grip.
As ugly as it looked, they made it through, and once they were safely on the other side, we found ourselves in a catch 22. 38 days earlier we’d promised to keep Maggie dry, and less than 38 minutes earlier we’d pledged to stay with Rob and Vicky – whatever the cost. And that’s how Maggie found herself standing at the deep end of an uninviting pool – ready to take one for the team.
So with a long sigh, we dove hood first into the Okavango’s murky waters. It wasn’t a pretty sight. Entering with a splash, water rushed up the windscreen and poured through my open window as I coaxed Maggie forward, praying she’d find her sea legs.
Here’s some video footage we shot that day, which captures our crossing from both inside and outside our truck. Thanks to Vicky for capturing the outside view. We left the audio unedited as it conveys our nervous excitement.
I’d love for the story to end there - to say we reached the other side and soon after Third Bridge. Truth is, that’s not how things played out. On the other side, we picked up the sandy track and followed it through deep sand that disappeared into another inky abyss. And on the other side of that abyss, more deep sand which led straight into yet another pool. In total, Maggie took three dips in the Okavango before we finally reached Third Bridge.
Interestingly, about a month later we were in Mana Pools when we met two Brits - Neil and his wife Andy - who shared some memorable time with us photographing wild dogs. Neil and Andy are endlessly fascinating travelers who’d lived in Africa for many years and knew the bush. One afternoon, Neil, who was driving a white 80 series that looked much like our beloved Betty, told us an extraordinary story. As it turns out, only weeks earlier, they too were in Moremi and found themselves standing on the edge of the Okavango's abyss. And like us, they took the plunge. Only, their Land Cruiser never reached the other side. Rather, something went wrong, and they became marooned on an island of their own making. Stranded in the bush they were eventually forced to swim out through their windows in search of help.
To be certain, driving a vehicle, no matter how capable, through deep water is a bad idea. The type of bad where, at best, you get to the other side (worse for wear) and at worst, you don’t. But alas, as much as we understand the risks and hate water's damaging effects, we can’t help but love it too. You see, many of our fondest memories were born from overland adventures that included water crossings. Our battles with water soaked roads in Cameroon and Gabon are still some of the best travel memories we have, and interestingly, deep water has given birth to some of our most cherished friendships. After all, it’s how we came to know Rob and Vicky. Two dear friends we feel fortunate to have met.