africa – botswana 2012.
‘You will die’ – direct words from a government ranger in reference to the lions.
A country that in regards to our route involved a left turn followed up by a right turn and finally another right turn. The lack of turns resulted in some long (long) straight stretches, which involved days of unchanging flat gradients and aiming straight after leaving your source until reaching your destination. The topography really didn’t change so it offered continual opportunities to reflect on the experiences we’d shared, the actual moment and project towards the road ahead. These long stretches were void of towns therefore needing us to take sufficient food/water to get between each. You would witness loaded 4WD’s flying past knowing they would be somewhere in a matter of hours that would take us days. The downside of limited turning meant being that if you encountered a head wind you were stuck with it for a day.
Our arrival into the new country was via a ferry crossing the swollen Zambezi River a defining divide separating the four southern countries of Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Once off the boat we were meet with a range of local wildlife featuring impalas, warthogs and elephants with each greeting us at the roadside like the tourism board had arranged it for us. Only the very next day with elephants taking over an isolated stretch of road we had to decide whether to wait out their roadside feeding or sprint past them, in the end we went forward much to the displeasure of the main bull elephant who turned and expressed his thoughts through its trumpeting and confronting body language. It’s not every day that you need to make these decisions as a cyclist. I should also add that it was at this point that my one-month-old replacement camera decided to not work. Three down. It was now getting that bit harder to take my everyday group shot at the 100km mark.
Our next wildlife encounter ended up with no wildlife, which was possibly fortunately. We had to cycle a distance of 320kms between two towns with literally nothing in between besides our tarred guiding friend, the adjoining sparsely vegetated plains and an approximate mid point to put up camp. With a halfway point roughly made coupled with the cliché quick setting African sun we individually went in different directions off the road working out way through the scrub trying to find a suitable campsite. Once back to the road comparing our individual findings cars started pulling up asking what were doing. The first was quickly ignored due to the common case of over cautious locals but it was about the fifth which contained government rangers who flatly stated ‘we would die’ if we camped due to the abundance of lions (its only now in reflection that I wonder what each of us would’ve done if we solely encountered one or a pride as we trampled through the bush, I am not sure of any escape tactics when it comes to the king of the jungle.) Fortunately one of the concerned vehicles was a truck laden with copper and driven by Roy, our savior! With his persistent ‘pleas’ to except his lift we obliged. Even when loading the bikes onto the trailer he was looking in each direction for any approaching cats. With bikes tied down and 5 cyclists and panniers tightly packed into the rig we set off for a fenced police camp 90kms forward. Roy whilst knocking back bottles of beers which ended up out the window once done entertained us by pointing out the various nocturnal wildlife on the roadside that could’ve awaited us as we listened to a Congolese soundtrack. Upon reaching the camp we were again reminded about the dangers that potentially were lying in wait for us. First thing in the morning we hailed a truck and loaded our bikes for the journey back 90kms to our proposed camping spot, the spot were we accepted last nights lift. As we again approached the police camp (this time on our bikes) the officers where dumbfounded at seeing us again whilst we stopped for lunch in the very place we camped the night before.
In regards to getting a ride on the truck, during the early stages of the trip I personally wasn’t too fazed about riding the entire way, having the opinion of using other forms of transport if ever required whether for sickness, convenience or safety. It was only after getting this close to our final destination that pride kicked in and ensured we didn’t ‘cheat’ and instead rode the entire way.
Food throughout the country was a mix between 2-minute noodles with tuna and whatever else barren remote stores stoked that we could fit in our expanding panniers. The country didn’t seem to have a defined cuisine so we made up our own which was often required due to the lack of towns or at least towns that had shops. We utilized the opportunity in larger tourist towns for meals that didn’t involve cooking on the trangia, our alcohol burning portable stove. In regards to nutritional food we were introduced to the local ‘wimpys’, fast food option which did pretty ‘inspiring’ thickshakes, a common favourite whenever available. My menu on one of our days off included museli, pancakes, milo shake, chicken burger with sides, boerwars sausage, a rump steak finished off with a strawberry shake.
Our first day off in the country was in Gweta where we stayed at lodge aptly named after the surrounding baobabs. Having an early arrival allowed us to sit poolside-sipping beers whilst the overland tourists admired (or laughed) at our tan lines. The next day it was a tourist excursion to see the famed Makgadikgadi Pan, one of the largest saltpans in the world. Whist the pan was fairly impressive compared with the numerous others saltpans I have seen (none) we couldn’t get to its centre due its wet crumbling surface. We instead utilised the very flat surface and sparse space to use the aerobie before it came to a fateful salty end. Also on the day’s itinerary was the impressive Chapman’s tree a marked baobab used as post office for early day European explorers and finally the meerkats, who in this instance were very friendly.
The second rest day was in Maun, a place known as a starting point for the well-known Okavango Delta, a massive river fed inland delta that ends in a basin offering no water to the ocean but instead evaporating on an annual basis. Each year as it fills it offers life to the surrounding wildlife whether they search it out through instinctive habit or wait below the surface for it’s inevitable return (said with a David Attenborough accent.) With no spare weeks to deservedly properly explore its vast expanse we opted for the quick 30-minute approach of seeing it by air in a helicopter. This preferred option allowed us quickly fly over the towns outskirts to follow the well-worn tracks splintering the surface below as it led the eye to groups of varying wildlife. Utilising the surrounds of the life generating wetlands and associated grasslands were groups of elephants, zebras, giraffes and buffaloes whilst occupying the water was the hippos. It was during this memorable trip that my good camera (SLR) decided to come up with an error. Fourth camera partially down.
Our last few days in the country were spent cycling on the fringes of the Kalahari Desert, an area I have previously learned about thanks to the renowned anthropologist Alby Mangels. At numerous stops we got to engage with the locals, the Kalahari bush people and be enthralled by their well-known clicking language. In the town of Dedak whilst sitting under cover enjoying a fine meal of noodles and tuna washed down with long life milk a local commented we were true Kalahari’s due to our efforts, I was stoked! The infrequent towns that we passed through reminded me of communities in remote Australia due to the centralized gathering of locals, the sole general store and the lack of services. We did utilize the one shop to get our necessary fix of soft drinks, chocolates and where possible ice creams.
With the lack of towns throughout the northeastern border we entered in and the western where we excited we utilized our tents many times over. It was definitely a pleasure setting up the tent, knowing that you were setting up camp in the middle of nowhere, flies off under the stars and actually utilising the equipment that we were all carrying. Examples include arriving early into the isolated town of Matopit which featured nothing but several open bars and its lively patrons to eventually be led to the local school where the principal let us camp in their grounds watched over by the school’s guards. Another night at a foot and mouth control point Shaun and I were awoken in the middle of the night to a stampeded of donkeys, whilst I wasn’t to aware of what was going on Shaun was huddled in the corner of his coffin (but smaller) style tent rocking in a fetal position avoiding a hoof to the head. These are the nights I’ll remember more so then hotels.
Our last day was our longest at 215kms, leaving before the sun had risen and getting to the Namibian border as the sun had already offered its last light to the orange horizon. We were awarded once stamped out and into the new country with a worthy pork schnitzel.