Far away from her usual human-powered escapades, Anna Blackwell takes the opportunity to have a different kind of adventure, as she travels around Botswana with a friend on a 4,000km road trip. Once there, the pair quickly discover just how difficult the roads can be, but in doing so they are won over by the beauty – and unforgiveness – of the landscape they find themselves in.
Words & Photography by Anna Blackwell | @annablackwell
Photos of Anna by Francesca Trotman | @francescatrotmanphotography
Looking in the wing mirror of our pickup truck, I watched the cloud of pale brown dust that billowed in our wake. I briefly closed my eyes against the intensity of the sun, tilting my head out of the bright light to feel the hot air coursing through the open car window. My moment of reverie ended abruptly as Chess, who was behind the wheel, slammed on the breaks and swerved simultaneously. “Pothole?” I asked without opening my eyes. “Yup,” Chess replied, already accelerating.
These roads were our new reality as my friend Chess and I spent a few weeks road tripping around Botswana: endless hours on long dirt tracks, elephants meandering through the bush either side; chasmal potholes that threatened to envelop us; a Toyota Hilux pickup truck old enough that using the aircon would certainly result in the engine overheating.
This was my first time travelling to Sub-Saharan Africa. Within our first few days of driving through Botswana, I had realised that this trip was absolutely going to live up to all the preconceptions I had of this mighty continent. Though Chess and I were there to do a few photography jobs at luxury lodges, we had done our best to introduce a hefty dose of adventure into the trip, including driving all 4,000km ourselves.
Our adventure began with a somewhat eventful first day. Things had been going well: we had cruised through the border in record time and made it to our first destination ahead of schedule. That’s when our luck took a turn. After a mesmerising afternoon exploring a rhino sanctuary, we were gradually zigzagging our way towards the designated camping area when our engine cut out. Despite our best efforts to restart the vehicle, we had to come to terms with the fact that we were stranded in rhino and hyena territory, miles from anyone who could help, with nightfall rapidly invading the remaining daylight.
Acknowledging that we had come on this trip to test our limits and have an adventure, we resigned ourselves to pitching our tent and settling in for the night. After a very disturbed night of waking at the slightest rustle, we were up early and it didn’t take long to flag down a park ranger who helped us get going again. Soon we had settled back into our routine of dodging potholes and hanging out of the car window in an attempt to cool our sweaty faces.
The next few days blurred into a heat-filled haze of treacherous roads, erratic lorry drivers, and scenery so unlike the leafy abundance of spring at home that it kept me captivated. My eyes flicked incessantly at the passing landscape of dried, sun-bleached bush and terracotta sand. Making our way west, the sand grew increasingly pale until it was as if all saturation had been eked out of the image before me, the occasional tree giving a hint of colour. We had made it to Nxai Pan and Makgadikgadi Pans National Parks.
We now had a week photographing two lodges in the same area of Northern Botswana which gave us an opportunity to get fully immersed in what was on offer. We filled our days with horse riding, helicopter tours and kayaking on the Boteti River, always up at the crack of sparrows to avoid the intense afternoon heat.
It was the game drives that captured my imagination the most. I had never before seen animals of such majesty, let alone ones roaming unhindered in their natural habitat. I immediately fell in love with the gracefully spiralled horns of the kudu, the serene, pensive gaze of a giraffe, the cloud of sand kicked up behind a herd of cantering zebra.
These are the moments that fill my memories of this trip – and memory cards, for that matter. The early mornings and late evenings perched in the back of a safari vehicle, my arms aching from the weight of keeping my camera and lens raised, waiting for the perfect moment to hit the shutter.
On all the long days out, my Fraser proved to be the perfect companion. Tucked safely inside and protected from the dust and sand were my camera lenses, a bottle of water and a loose shirt to throw on when my shoulders began to call out for protection from the sun. Stashed in the zip pocket of the hip belt were the small things I needed to be able to grab quickly, like my lens cloth and air-blower. I stowed my tripod in a side pocket, ready and waiting for the sun to be deemed low enough in the sky for its use.
All too soon it was time to begin our return journey, for which Botswana had one treat left in store for us. We departed from our last lodge on the northern border of the Central Kalahari Game Reserve before daybreak. Heading east, we drove directly towards a truly incredible sunrise that filled the desert flatlands around us with its deep warmth and made our hearts burst with gratitude to be experiencing that moment of nature’s glory.