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Top Gear Botswana Special: Cocking About the Spine of Africa

Top Gear Botswana Special is a full length Top Gear Special which aired in the year 2007 during the fourth episode of Season 10 of the show. It was the first Top Gear Special which was shot entirely in Africa and placed the presenters in some of the most hostile environments they had ever faced.  The Top Gear Botswana Special was a spectacular adventure and is extremely loved by all fans of Top Gear even today.

The episode’s filming involved a thorough and extensive planning of the route that the Top Gear crew was going to take across the immense Makgadikgadi Pan (the world’s largest salt flats, as wide as the country of Portugal). A significant amount of time was spent trying to ensure that the cars being used for the film did not venture anywhere near areas under conservation. The Top Gear crew worked extensively with a team of environmental experts during the planning process. A support team of bush mechanics followed the Top Gear crew throughout the Top Gear Botswana Special. The support team’s role was critical for the drive through such hostile and unforgiving terrain. Once the crew reached the Okavango Delta, the Top Gear crew was assisted by professional guide Clinton Edwards. Some more filming and logistics support was provided by AfriScreen Films and Letaka Safaris. AfriScreen had already worked extensively with the BBC’s Natural History unit before teaming up with Top Gear. 

Top Gear Botswana Special: The Premise

As 4X4 SUVs were becoming increasingly popular in Britain, the producers of Top Gear felt that there wasn’t really a need for people to buy SUVs so that they can drive up Surrey’s ‘leafy lanes’.  To find out if the ‘arduous’ task of driving up Surrey’s ‘leafy lanes’ could be carried out by something other than a 4×4 SUV, the Top Gear producers challenged Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May to drive across the rugged and dangerous terrain of Botswana in some used cars bought within Africa. Each presenter was given a budget of £1,500 for the challenge. The presenters were also told that the car that they chose had to be a two-wheel drive vehicle and ‘not have been designed in any way for off-road use’. 

Top Gear Botswana Special: The Cars

As most people would imagine, James May decided to sensibly buy a 1985 Mercedes-Benz 230E. It was a car that the entire continent of Africa favoured and loved and in May’s words, could be fixed with ‘a brick and a piece of string’.

Jeremy Clarkson (as expected), went the ‘exotic’ route and chose to buy a 1981 automatic Lancia Beta Coupé. He justified his decision because of Lancia’s successful rallying history (the Beta however, has no rally pedigree).

Richard Hammond meanwhile, made a really odd choice of a 1963 Opel Kadett.

After they arrived at the starting point of the challenge near Botswana’s border with Zimbabwe (which had prohibited the BBC from filming within its borders), Jeremy Clarkson, James May and Richard Hammond learned that their two wheel drive cars would embark on a journey of 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometres), right up to Botswana’s northern border with Namibia. As they set off on their first leg, all three revealed the faults with their cars. Jeremy Clarkson confessed  that the dials and several components of his car’s dashboard were broken. James May also had a minor number of parts that weren’t working properly. His handbrake was so badly damaged that he could pull and apply it while driving and nothing would happen to the car. Richard Hammond had brakes that worked very well on one wheel, but only worked on that particular wheel. There was also a strange smell of petrol in his car. However, Hammond was soon enchanted by his car and even gave it a name, Oliver (he regretted that immediately though). As the trio moved off the tarmac and onto unsurfaced roads, Hammond’s Kadett (Oliver) was the first car to break down. At this moment, the trio learned that if their car breaks down and fails to start, they will have to complete the journey in their least favourite car of all time, the Volkswagen Beetle. Luckily, ‘Oliver’ was fixed and the trio reached the camp site on the edge of the vast Makgadikgadi Pan. 

Top Gear Botswana Special: Crossing the Makgadikgadi

At the Makgadikgadi camp site, the trio learned that they would be driving across it for two days. Because of the nature of the surface, they were advised to strip and lighten their cars as much as possible to avoid them breaking through the thin top crust of the salt pans and getting stuck. As a result, James May and Jeremy Clarkson went on a rampant weight shedding spree. They removed seats, interior trim and panels, along with the windows and other components. The weight shedding continued until the cars were reduced to just their basic shells with engines. Richard Hammond on the other hand, had grown too fond of ‘Oliver’ and only removed the spare tyre. Just as the trio was about to leave, a convoy of quad bikes and microlights arrived. It was an informal visit by Seretse Ian Khama, the Vice President of the country at that time. Khama was highly impressed by the ambitious plan of driving across the Makgadikgadi but he found the cars to be quite rubbish. After receiving the Vice President’s best wishes, the trio set off on their drive across the spine of Africa. They made steady progress at the start until the Lancia and the Mercedes started digging into the Makgadikgadi’s surface. Fearing the worst (driving the beetle), Clarkson and May went on an even more radical weight shedding spree. But prior to that, they needed the help of Richard Hammond and the rest of the Top Gear crew to push them out of the “prehistoric gunk” they were stuck in. Despite further issues with the surface, it eventually firmed up and allowed the entire team to reach one of the Makgadikgadi’s islands (which was also their next camp site). The next day, the trio learned that their challenge during the next stage won’t be mud, it would be dust. This proved to be a cataclysmic problem for Clarkson and May as their stripped down cars provided no protection from the dust. They had to re-design their wardrobe in order to protect themselves from the dust. Much to their chagrin, Hammond faced no such problem as he hadn’t removed anything but the spare wheel from his car. Clarkson broke down twice but managed to get his Lancia going and the trio cleared the Makgadikgadi, making camp on the edge of the Kalahari desert. 

Top Gear Botswana Special: Racing through the Kalahari

After the trio arrived at a small village in the Kalahari, Clarkson, Hammond and May were informed that their cars would participate in a time trial on a specially designed rally course in a dried riverbed. The cars were driven by the  “Stig’s African cousin”, who was dressed in the Stig’s helmet, loincloth and shoes. On the way to the time trial course, the Lancia broke down and had to be repaired once again. During the time trial, Hammond’s ‘Oliver’ set a time of 1:12, while May’s Mercedes beat that time comfortably by clocking in at 1:06. Sadly, Clarkson’s Lancia failed to start after overheating and couldn’t get a time on board. The Stig’s African cousin walked off as a result. While waiting for his Lancia to cool down, Clarkson discovered a major new problem. Both his Lancia and Hammond’s ‘Oliver’ ran on leaded fuel and their reserve supply had been completely used up. As a result of their depleted fuel supply, the trio had to take the straightest possible route to the nearest town of Maun. During the off-road section, May’s Mercedes got stuck in the loose surface but he managed to drive the car out. As the sun went down and the trio was on the road to Maun, Oliver’s alternator stopped working and Hammond had to get a member of the film crew on board to help illuminate the road ahead of him with a torch. Despite the scary issues, all three cars arrived safely at a fuel station in the town for refuelling and they turned in for the night at a local hotel.

Top Gear Botswana Special: On to the Okavango

After spending the night at Maun, the presenters were informed by their producers that their cars would now proceed towards the famous biosphere reserve of the Okavango Delta. The journey would take three days and they would find the finish line near the Namibian border at the end of the delta. As a part of the upcoming journey’s preparation, both Clarkson and May had to animal-proof their cars from whatever material they could find on the streets of Maun. Because of Mercedes’ popularity in Africa, May found a spare boot lid and a rear for his car during the work before it was outfitted with corrugated metal doors. Clarkson on the other hand outfitted his Lancia with a wooden gull-wing door, a loudspeaker and handset system and sealed the other door with all the empty drink cans used on the trip at that point. He also decorated his bonnet with three animal skulls. While modifying the cars, Clarkson and Hammond attached a cow bell to the underside of May’s car. They also put a cow’s severed head inside the boot, and stuffed raw meat in various hiding places within the car. Behind the scenes, after the raw meat was found, the pair were questioned by a local guide for endangering themselves, May and the film crew from an animal attack by attempting this practical joke.

With the modifications complete, the trio set off for the Delta and immediately hit a sandy, dirt trail upon entering the Delta’s game reserve. Clarkson’s Lancia suffered further problems when its throttle jammed open and the car was unable to brake properly. Despite the trouble, the trio ended their day by taking a moment to observe a number of animals at a watering hole, with each presenter trying their best David Attenborough impersonation. This segment of the film also mocked the Top Gear film crew’s inability to film wild animals. They camped for the night as May serviced his Mercedes and a bush mechanic helped Clarkson clear out sand from one of the Lancia’s carburettors.

On the next day, the generally reliable Oliver suffered a crash and damaged its steering by hitting a tree stump. After Hammond had fixed it, the trio encountered a river that they had to cross. Worried about Oliver, Hammond opted to find a crossing point further along the bank of the river. Clarkson and May however, chose to wade across where they were. A crazy idea that the trio had for getting across was not shown in the TV broadcast. It involved wrapping the cars in some tarpaulin, inflating it with air, and then floating them across the river. After wasting three and a half hours on this goofy idea, the Top Gear team abandoned it. Clarkson and May helped each other cross the river successfully. The guide shot a hole through the cars’ floor panels to let the water out. Hammond’s attempt to ford the river at a proper crossing point yielded disastrous results as Oliver promptly sank in the river and had to be towed out. Oliver suffered extensive water damage and Hammond had to spend the entire night fixing its engine and electrics along with the bush mechanics. The rest of the team went ahead to make camp. Next morning, much to everyone’s  surprise, Oliver was back to working condition. Even the horn which wasn’t working early on, had been fixed. As the trio made it across the Delta, new problems started emerging. Oliver wasn’t braking properly unless Hammond de-clutched and used the handbrake, while the Lancia was constantly veering off to the right and beyond repair.

Top Gear Botswana Special: To the Finish Line

After finally driving out of the Okavango Delta, Clarkson and May removed their animal protection modifications from their cars. Unsurprisingly, the Lancia suffered another problem at that point. The starter solenoid had stopped working and needed repair for the car to start up again. Although Clarkson managed to get the Lancia going again, he was unable to drive it in any gear but the second. Inevitably, the Lancia broke down once again on the side of the road. However, most of the support and film crew had become fed up with the Lancia’s constant breakdowns (a lot of which weren’t even shown on TV). They all left the broken down Lancia as only Clarkson and two bush mechanics tried to get it going. Somehow, the Lancia was able to get going again, and it limped to the border with Namibia, behind Hammond and May.

Unsurprisingly, the Lancia was declared as the worst car of the journey due to its constant breakdowns. However, despite Hammond’s Oliver needing only minor repairs (most of it because Hammond drowned it in a river), and May’s Mercedes having almost no problems at all (not much of it was left though), Clarkson declared the backup Beetle as the winner as it had no modifications or mishaps along the journey. Needless to say, Hammond wasn’t pleased with that.

Top Gear Botswana Special: Trivia

  • As a homage to 1984’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the end credits of the episode replaced each crew member’s first name with “Archbishop Desmond” (e.g. “Archbishop Desmond Clarkson, Archbishop Desmond Hammond, and Archbishop Desmond May”).
  • Once the filming had concluded, Richard Hammond, who had madly fallen in love with Oliver, decided to get the car back home with him to England. The news was announced to the public during season 10. Oliver arrived in Britain on time to be displayed for the public during the last episode of season 10. 
  • Oliver appeared once again in the lorry driving challenge at the Alpine Proving Grounds during season 12 of Top Gear.
  • Oliver also appeared on Richard Hammond’s CBBC show, Richard Hammond’s Blast Lab. 
  • James May’s Mercedes was donated to a filming advisor while the Beetle was donated to one of the bush mechanics. The Lancia was sent to be scrapped. 
  • Following the broadcast of the episode, the Environmental Investigation Agency heavily criticised the BBC for allowing Top Gear to film in the sensitive Makgadikgadi pans. The agency claimed that Top Gear “had damaged the environmentally sensitive salt pans, leaving scars across the Makgadikgadi salt pans by driving vehicles across them”. The BBC dismissed the claims by stating that the cars had not gone anywhere near the conservation areas, and that they had followed the advice of environment experts. Even the government of Botswana rose to the show’s defence and stated that their was no damage done to the wilderness as the Top Gear producers had spent many weeks planning a safe and suitable route.

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