08-May-2014 -- Whilst taking our anti-malarial medication we got to discussing the spirit of exploration, and I remembered the Degree Confluence Project. A cursory check identified a couple of nearby confluences as yet unvisited. 20S 23E is well into the Okavango Delta so a bit tricky, but we had passed within a few kilometres of 20S 22E just a few months before while on the way to Gcwihaba Caves.
Google Earth revealed that since the previous visit, the Botswana Government has created a veterinary cordon fence and cut-line that passes within a few kilometres of the Confluence.
Fast forward to the weekend and by the time Sunday lunchtime came around, I'd finished all my urgent work, so I loaded my bike into the back of the car, left my "send help if I haven't checked in by 18:00" instructions, and set off from Toteng.
The tar road is unremarkable, although it is getting old and full of potholes, with too many cattle, and overgrown... absolutely avoid driving on this road at night. There is a petrol station in Sehitwa, sometimes they have petrol on the same day that the card-swipe machine is working. Use the opportunity to top-up, but make sure you leave town with enough fuel to get you through/back to Maun or Gumare.
The turn-off is a few kilometres north of Tsau, signposted "Gcwihaba" by the Department of National Museum and Monuments. If you have time then take the opportunity to go through and explore the caves (it's another hour's drive with softer sand and long grass in summer - radiator seed-nets essential). Book in advance to make sure there is a guide to take you into the more complicated parts.
Most of the track is hard-pack but there are patches of soft sand year round, easier to pass if it has rained recently, but then you will be fighting with some short flooded sections. Exercise caution as they can be deceptively deep and muddy.
Tracks4Africa shows a track swinging off to the north-west after about 30 km off-road, but as the previous attempt on the Confluence found, it is impassable due to fallen trees (elephant are rife) and now overgrown from disuse. Rather proceed to the 40-km mark and turn due north up the cut-line (almost, but not quite, on the alignment of 22E).
The cordon fence has taken a beating from elephant, so it is very porous: watch out for wild animals and cattle coming out of the bush from the East. There are also a variety of ground-nesting/resting birds so drive slowly to give them a chance to get out of the way. I also saw ostrich and Kori Bustard.
9 km up the fence it turns to head west, I followed for a couple of kilometres beyond to see if there were any new tracks heading north (I didn't see the old track skimming the corner: too many cattle tracks), nothing to see so I made an about turn. Watching the "distance to destination" on the GPS to get as close as possible to the Confluence on the cut-line, at 2.3 km I parked the car and switched to two wheels.
I beat a path straight (kind of) through the tussocky grass and thorny bushes, finding the old track after a few hundred metres: quite well defined here but no obvious signs of recent use by anything other than cattle. The bush-bashing continued for a couple more kilometres until I reached a piece of open high-ground.
It looks like the area may at some stage have been inhabited: one overgrown thorn bush kraal and grass-free areas that may once have been homesteads. Satellite imagery shows a lot of fossil river channels, so it is possible that this area may once have been under the seasonal waters of the Okavango with the high ground forming an island home used by residents of the area in the past. Maps show a settlement called Malatshi nearby, I didn't have time to explore but it looks like there may be some active cattle kraals to the Southeast, given the number of cattle along the cordon fence there must be people operating boreholes in the area.
For future visitors I suggest (guardedly...) leaving your vehicles at the fence corner and proceeding on foot along the fossil river channel visible on the satellite imagery: it would be a shame to spoil the wilderness by making a vehicle track to the Confluence.
Note that this area is home to wild animals including elephant and big cats: be alert at all times. You could also break an ankle in the meerkat burrows.
On arriving within a few metres of The Spot, I started The Confluence Dance to get the fabled 10 Zeroes, luckily The Spot was not in either of the bushes and I was able to set up my tripod right on the Confluence and start ticking off the to-do list.
Job done I packed up and started heading back towards the car, at which point my recently repaired freewheel mechanism stripped itself (again) so I was forced to walk/scoot the 2.5 km back. Not a big deal in the scheme of things but it was putting me dangerously close to not being back in cellular network until after my "come help me" cut-off time, and the grass seeds were making it physically painful to walk as they penetrated my shoes and socks. Suffice to say it was a welcome relief to get barefoot and load the car.
At this point I had my second human contact since leaving the tar road (the first being a man on a donkey cart about 10 km in) as a Land Rover Defender with game lodge logos on the doors appeared and asked if I was okay. I think he was also about to warn me about wild animals or something ("Just be careful of... right, yeah..."), but probably realised the futility of it all.
I followed them for a few kilometres down the fence, then they swung off on a trail going south-east and I didn't see them again - maybe they stay in the vicinity of the cattle-posts visible on the satellite imagery.
Cellphone service reappeared about 10 km from the tar road and I stopped the search before it started (15 minutes after my cut-off time), and proceeded to cruise home in the dark - taking it very easy due to black cows, lack of reflective road studs, every second oncoming vehicle having defective/misaligned headlamps and countless potholes.
A slightly longer and more heavily illustrated version of this post is available at my blog.