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Botswana – Between Heaven And Earth

Crossing the border into the country where we would go back to our free camping routine was a bit of a hassle. No sign of the infamously laid-back Batswana. First, the VAT office in SAR had been shut down, so to claim the beefy 60 euros we were directed back to Pretoria. Then I had to drive back and forth between the two borders to be repeatedly refused exit or entry stamp in our new temp passports. Then we learnt that Botswana – for which we luckily didn’t need a visa – demanded 240 Pula to allow us driving through (1 year road tax, driving permit and insurance). Tried to talk our way out of this, in vain. Only after we were way out of the customs premises I realized that the border bureau de change had paid our fees by mistake, giving us double the amount due for the dollars I wanted to exchange. Serendipity or poetic justice, anyway it was too late and we moved on. Gas is 8,9 Pula/l. BTW, even if in the local lingo (setswana) it means ‘life giving rain’ (key survival parameter for this land 80% covered by the Kalahari), the name of the Botswana currency will make any Romanian giggle.

Riding Botswana is like that say: flat, horizonless, boring, straight but decent tar cutting through sketchy villages lost in a largely dusty, deserted mass of land.

Except for curious meerkats standing by the road and for the surreal natural salt pans – world’s largest – that stretch for 12,000 sq km. The life auspicious conditions will prevail on Earth for less than ten percent of the planet’s overall lifespan. Our habitat is narrow, excluded by the deep ocean from two thirds, yet imagine that million years ago water was even more prevalent. These pans were once part of a massive inland lake that the San people (the original inhabitants of Botswana) have seen in their time. You could wander for weeks in the Makgadikgadi without encountering another human being, let alone the swarms of safari vehicles that make some of Africa’s game parks seem like vehicular feeding frenzies. In rain season herds of wildebeests, springboks and one of Africa’s last great zebra migrations turn the Makgadikgadi into a movable feast for predators such as lions, cheetahs, jackals and the rare brown hyena. This harsh wasteland becomes a lush green carpet of savanna grass. Shallow lakes also form then, providing nesting grounds for Africa’s second-largest gathering of pink flamingoes. The pans remain – like many other natural wonders in Africa – largely off limits for motorcyclists. In the Mopipi pan, just a fraction of the Makgadikgadi system, we could hear ourselves self think.

Clouds of gray clay dust in this epic emptiness. Read more here.

Since the 1966 independence Botswana has been enjoying a peaceful democracy, a happy accident in sub-saharan Africa. Barely 2 million people inhabit over 580,000 sq km, you bet it feels lonely. That also meant you could stop and camp at will and nobody would be appalled that we are shopping for groceries at the street side stalls and take water from pumps. This had been our last snack in South Africa:

We hit the 50K on the clock as well

After starting the day at 10 degrees Celsius… and barely able to venture outside our tent around 7.30 a.m. …

… we ended it one sweating copiously in the tourist hub and entry gate to the Okavango Delta, Maun. The town was too civilized for us to sleep like bums on its outskirts, so we would camp for the night at the Old Bridge Backpackers. The ‘backpackers’ attribute – we had learnt since Namibia – has nothing to do with actual backpacking, not in the southern-african subcontinent. It may well be the case for the entire East coast as well. It just means that camping in allowed on the premises and that sometimes accommodation in dorms is also offered, besides other sleeping arrangements. This place was laid back and friendly, but slightly run down and poorly maintained. Built a while back with less money than the very similar Ngepi in Caprivi, but just as expensive, clearly not targeting the budget travelers. As always when we slept in tourist hubs, we had a hard time falling asleep with all the partying and drinking going on at the campsite’s bar. In the afternoon we had toured the airline offices at the airport to inquire about scenic flights over the delta, as the alternative to visit the Okavango by mokoro would take too long. Luckily by late evening we had met two travelers from Munich, who would made an old dream possible – so in the next morning our party of four (us two, plus Dominic and Stefan) was reporting for a ridiculously scrupulous security search in the diminutive Maun airport.

Airplanes being given a hand wash

Some fun data about our aircraft: also known as the ‘StationAir’, the sport-utility Cessna 206 is capable of taking up to five passengers. Fuel consumption 1l kerosene/ minute; range 5 hours. During our 45’ flight we traveled for 228,82 km, covering 109,707 ha with a maximum speed of 300 km/h.

Andras, our US born pilot (www.majorblueair.com), heard that that was our maiden flight with a light aircraft and offered to entertain us with the ‘adventurous’ version. A frisky take off and a couple of funky maneuvers and we were hooked. The whole gang was trepidating with adrenaline. Eventually all the Gs made my head turn, so Andras suggested piloting the 4 seater would make me feel better!

Have I mentioned that all this awesomeness was happening a few hundred meters above the Okavango Delta, one of the Earth’s most magical places?

The 16,000 sq km Okavango Delta is one of the world’s few deltas that do not end into a river or the sea. First the Gumare rift changes the incline of the Okavango riverbed, thus the Delta is born. The river splits into three main channels, which later further split into dozens of others. The Thamalakane rift is where the inner delta ends, so the Okavango never reaches the ocean, partly evaporated, partly absorbed into the Kalahari. The Delta is a complex mosaic. Innumerable lagoons and water channels are cut perpendicularly by a radial network of trails (made by animals). Around them there are circular escarpments populated by water lilies and papyruses, the ‘islands’ of the Delta. Finally, there are the peripheral dry patches that never get fully flooded and that are mainly covered in grasses.

We had already had a glimpse of the delta’s fringes back in February, when it was in full flood. Now we were Yann Artus Bertrand wannabes, attempting to gain perspective of the ensemble. During the 45 minutes we witnessed many intimate scenes of this unique biome: elephants and giraffes making their way across marshes, some lonely bull hanging out by a stream, hippos grazing or chilling while fully submerged in the many pools, zebras scattering, a rhino family, a huge crocodile basking in the sun, herds of antelopes and flocks of birds enjoying an unspoiled paradise.

The colors of water, sky and earth, the many shades and textures of grasses, the dry patches bearing the scabs of later summer’s burnt trees – simply stunning.

The Delta was not at the peak of the flood, but the changing of the season was revealing new aspects of life in this vast, complex ecosystem. As we are short for words, please enjoy some humble photos of an only a corner of the amazing place we call home.

“High Flight” by John Gillespie Mage Jr.

Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of Earth

And danced the skies on laughter-silvered winds;

Sunward I’ve climbed and joined the tumbling mirth

Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things

You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung

High in the sunlit silence. Hovering there

I’ve chased the shouting wing along, and flung

My eager craft through footless halls of air.

Up, up the long, delirious, burning blue,

I’ve topped the wind-swept heights with easy grace

Where never lark, or even eagle flew –

And while with silent, lifting mind I’ve trod

The high untrespassed sanctity of space

Put out my hand and touched the face of God.

After such an exhilarating morning, we needed a moment to clear our heads. Our German buddies bought us a couple of iced lattes in a swanky cafe across the airport, a nice place to chat a bit with our cool pilot. As it turned out, the job is good for hours, but it doesn’t pay well enough for his ambitions that should see him landing a commercial airline job somewhere in Europe. What followed was a quite appropriate monotonous drive across Botswana. We were all adrenalined out, and anyway motorbikes are probated to enter inside the arguably wonderlands of Nxai or Makgadikgadi Pans or on the Kubu island. This in turn offered the space to digest the memories of the Delta as seen from the sky.

We knew the road to Zambia would cross Chobe National park and incidentally the migration corridor of many wild animals. So we pitched camp within reasonable distance from the known cut-off, and warn the critters of our presence with a safety fire. One of those perfect spots it was.

Charged by another mesmerizing sunrise, we rolled – impatient to see lots of wildlife – into a large operation to enlarge the road, which has disrupted the migration path of the animals crossing from Zim to Chobe. But we did spot some big game though, many many miles further north, besides duikas, warthogs, elands and many species of birds.

It’s mind boggling how these giants have adapted to man’s presence and ever increasing appetite for territories.

At the border we met with a large group of super equipped South African holiday makers.

Together we hoped on the 15 minutes ride across the Zambezi by a 30 Pula ferry.

A group of mokoros zoomed before our eyes across the channel, the fishermen looking as smooth and athletic as their Durban kaiak rowers counterparts. Just that these people are not exactly doing it for fun.

Back in Zambia we were jolted back to the realization that we were back in the Black Africa as well: chaotic border control and hoards of middle men trying to extort newcomers. As the police had the South-Africans by the balls, we managed to slide under their radar and make our way out of the mess without paying a dime. But faith was awaiting in Livingstone: while negotiating the exchange rate of our last 160 Pula for the local Kwachas, an opportunistic money changer seized the moment and simply grabbed my moneys. Before I could step off the bike or alert anyone he was gone. The Spar supermarket that had been under construction in February was now open for business, so we wiped off the bitterness with chicken and rice, then loaded with fresh veggies from the market we were off to Rapid 14.