INTO BOTSWANA

I don’t like cars. They pollute, cost a fortune to fuel and maintain, and, please, don’t even get me started on what a pain in the ass it is to drive them across African borders. The world may need them to function, but to me, traveling in a 4-wheeled-vehicle is the most deceptive way of having a bad time which has been devised. Cars give me claustrophobia. In fact, I blame cars for many bad memories. It was a blue Dacia 1100 which ruined those few precious times in my childhood when we traveled to the mountains together as a family. Piatra Craiului is a beautiful corner of Romania, but too far and remote from my home town to reach by train. We didn’t have a car, so we had to hook up with a friend of my dad’s who would drive us to Zarnesti. The journey used to take an entire day. After all that sitting inside a box rushing through the world, my mind was foggy. My body throbbed with pain. The nausea would debilitate me for days. I felt deceived: Wasn’t the trip supposed to be fun? Later, cars scored some points, as it was a Subaru Impreza STI where I fell in love with Jon. But that car had a soul, which is not what can be said about the black sedan which some years later nearly killed him.

Cars can ruin an African exploration. In Mali and Nigeria I met dozens of travelers captive of such comfortable prisons, insulated from the very people they had come to meet. Travelers who had become… just tourists. In the Democratic Republic of Congo I received my share of the poison: first our bike broke, then the road was too unstable for riding 2-up, so I was convicted for a while to our companions’ 4×4. That car had swag, but it numbed me. It also had little in the way of cotton mud, and you won’t know what that means until you’ve fixed a winch for the 20th time, underwater, while your vehicle is stuck in a swamp. Why then did I say yes to driving for a month across South Africa, Namibia and Botswana? Why would we invite 9 other people to join us for half of the trip? Because this was to be a lot different than our 14-months by motorbike, or than our six weeks of cycling in the Great African Rift. This time we were going into swathes that no bike can reach – the largest national parks of the South, and then beyond. We would track creatures mythically rare. If lucky enough to spot any, we wanted to approach without disturbing them. The very alien-like nature of a car, the fact that it is as un-natural to man as it is to the beast, made it perfect for such a trip. Our car would be our weird cocoon from where we could watch in wonder what the ‘wild things’ did. While we hoped that we were experienced enough to avoid traps like comfort or carrying too much junk around, I knew that a month would not be enough for me to evolve a standard of endurance to motion sickness. Clearly, I needed a plan.

THE ISLAND

Jon put out the fire and covered the ashes with dirt. Then he lounged by my side and we both sat back, gawking. The Milky Way illuminated a world in which all other lights were absent. But in Makgadikgadi it never really gets completely dark. This relic of what was once one of the biggest inland lakes Africa has ever had is part of the Kalahari Basin. Waterless and extremely arid for much of the year and a shallow lake in years of exceptional rains when the Okavango overflows, the Makgadikgadi is basically a desert of white salty clay which under moonlight becomes eerily fluorescent. We had pitched on a rocky outcrop south-east of Sowa pan, under a massive, gnarled baobab tree. We were the only humans for hundreds of miles around, except for the old guard who had welcomed us at the left turn from the main tar.

Our past 48hours had been packed: we had switched from Romanian summer to air-conditioned airports, from a steamy Doha to a chilly Johannesburg. We’d had a braai with our friends Sam, David and Layla and left early to escape the 6 a.m. gridlock (Thank you Jones family! We love you!).

For the next 900kms or so we had pushed north. We remembered too well the featureless stretch from our motorbike trip, and had decided that it would be best to spend on our first night back in a special place. That was Kukonje Island. The guard had said that it would become an official campsite in 2017. I guess we were lucky to come before the inevitable tourism colonization happened.

Winters in Makgadikgadi are harsh. Days burn. But as soon as the sun drops beyond the horizon, it’s freezing cold. I had left Joburg with a headache and a runny nose – the price of jetting over continents as we couldn’t “afford” the slowness of overland travel. Wrapped as I was in merino wool shirts and down jacket I could  feel my extremities tingle. There was only one way to end that romantic night: climb into the roof tent and under our sleeping bag for… a dreamless night in the African bush.

As always in the wild, we woke up at dawn, perfectly rested. The tent was covered in tiny drops of condensation. It was damn cold! Layers    of clothing and hats back on, we went about fixing breakfast while spitting white wisps of vapor like some kind of dragons. Bush chores were like riding a bicycle. He knew what he had to do, I knew what I had to do. Fights about where to camp, the best way to make fire, or where some tool was, we’d had all those in Morocco back in 2011. Until the tent was folded and porridge done, we barely spoke. Then we sat to eat and gawk again into the gleaming white horizon.

“Have you looked at the boxes?” Our bakkie had come with camping furniture – a table, 4 chairs and some pots, a fridge, a basic maintenance kit and six mysterious plastic containers. Jon shrugged: “What?” “These people gave us two kinds of dinner plates and three kinds of glasses!” Each box had its own “manifesto”: I learned that we had among others a “Parmesan” grater (god forbid we’d use another kind of cheese!), a “milk jug”, and something that was called “egg lifter”. I didn’t even want to know what that was. We opened box after box: they were packed to the rafters with stuff. Where were we supposed to carry the actual food? We decided to keep 2 of each of the following: large plate, bowl, spoon, fork. Jon noted that we could enjoy a bit of luxury, so we set aside a salad bowl, tea pot, frying pan and the braai. Then we chucked the padding for glass items away, jammed the remaining stuff in 2 boxes, and stored those in the back of the trunk. Now we had 4 empty containers ready to be filled with fresh produce to feed ourselves and our future travel buddies. Satisfied with our morning job, we took a last 360 look around our camp, and left.

In the light of day our island revealed new wonders. A narrow path in the grass lead to a hollow baobab. As we approached, a large bird fled. The baobab’s fruits scattered on the ground and I picked about a dozen – one for us, the rest for the guests on our impending tour. For the next few days I kept chewing on chalky tart pulp. I loved it. It reminded of when I was a little girl who secretly ate bits of her bedroom wall.

We walked some more, inebriated with incredible vistas of white pan fading into blue sky. We goofed around, mimicking the cool and ridiculous photos people take in Bolivia’s Salar de Uyuni. I pitched the idea of a longer hike – a couple of days, only supplies, no map, no GPS. “Perhaps another time” Jon said. In August the African bullfrog nests in the sticky clay and he didn’t want to get tadpole blood on his boots.

We never returned the same way we had come, probing each ranger track along the pan until Jon got us out.

In Nata we stopped briefly for supplies. There was no tap water and little to be bought – gas, a local SIM and fried chicken at the fast-food shack where we sat for lunch. The A33 from Nata to Kasane is well known among overlanders, each with their own story from this deceptively boring road. Botswana has a unique wildlife management approach, in the sense that national parks are left unfenced, so animals and people continue to co-exist as they have been doing since the dawn of time. The speed limit on tarred roads that cross such trans-frontier sanctuaries is 100km/h, to keep the disturbance of motorized transit to a minimum. While it can be argued that this model is not perfect, Botswana must be doing something right, as its elephant population is the largest and healthiest in the whole of Africa. Herds crossing from Zimbabwe towards the Chobe and back are common sightings on the A33. Soon enough we started meeting them.
We drove past the solitaire tree where we had camped 4 years ago. We joked about how little rest we had back then with all the jackals howling. Wild camping in the Congo had been a comparative picnic; on the territory of apex predators it became something else!

We drove past the solitaire tree where we had stopped 4 years ago. We joked about how little rest we had back then with all the jackals howling. Wild camping in the Congo had been a comparative picnic; on the territory of apex predators it became something else!

WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE

To visit Chobe everybody must overnight in Kasane, a dusty, busy frontier town where all businesses cater to white people dressed in kakis and driving safari vehicles. You won’t see any motorcyclists here. They are not allowed inside wildlife reserves, and for a good reason, which takes us back to our vision for this new trip. The car was less an overland vehicle, and more like a gate into a previously forbidden world. That did not mean that we were not still struggling with the decision. As Jon made dinner in our designated braai area at the campsite, I went to the bathroom to do some laundry. The place was swarming with other female tourists and I realized what I thought about them: I was jealous of their brand new expensive gear; I scorned their pink toiletry pouches the size of my sleeping bag, their fancy toiletries and their makeup bits spread all over the place. Ashamed, I hid inside the available shower cabin and cried. I missed the motorbike.

I forgot about all that as soon as the next morning I saw a group of lionesses hanging out by the river. The banks of the slow-flowing Chobe are a yearlong paradise for many competing species. It was wonderful to watch carnivores, grazers and birds in  a moment of harmony, side by side.

The first section of the park is a forest reserve, now blackened by sun, almost dystopian in look. No drop had fell there for over 6 months. Soil had turned to dust, then to a fine sand. Driving across takes practice: you need momentum and balls of steel, as wild creatures cut in at moment’s notice. We got stuck only once, on a connecting road. Luckily another safari vehicle showed up and the guide asked his guests to help us push out.

A tree owl, spotted from 300m by Jon

The next section was Chobe National Park proper. The deeper we went, the denser the vegetation became. We lingered long, taking photos and having a great time, so we arrived at the exit gates in the nick of time as the sun was setting.

Sunset and sunrise are considered the best times for wildlife viewing, but also it’s also when it’s the most dangerous to navigate. Migratory mammals like elephants for instance have certain routes they take, and certain habits. Unfenced parks means animals can travel outside the park limits, and telling animal from shadow at crepuscule is hard. Headlights can do more harm than good. If you cannot see where you’re going it’s certainly harder to keep a safe distance! With our eyes focused on watching herds move from one side to the other we missed the massive bull who suddenly stepped out of the bushes and into the track. Jon yanked the wheel right and pressed hard on the throttle. I didn’t even have time to make a sound. Phew! That was too close! Our hearts were still racing manically. “Look Jon!” I cried. To our left there was another large female on the move. Her tiny calf followed a few meters behind. There were about 2 car lengths between us, certainly not enough to break – we’d just got stuck in deep sand. We had no choice but to keep going. She too took one step forward and trumpeted hard. We passed. It was too dark to see her in the rearview mirror but I’m quite sure that she was not not at all happy about what we did!

Finally we crossed the metal bridge and saw the faint lights of what had to be the Kwai village. We could start looking for a place to camp. Now there were no more elephants, because wild animals don’t walk on bridges, but there were people everywhere, as always in the African bush. We considered asking for the village chief, then someone said there was some campsite very close by. “Drive to the river and turn left” they said. Only after we did so we realized that we were going back into raw elephant corridor in pitch black darkness. Some fires flickered in the forest. We treaded gingerly in that direction and arrived at a makeshift water tower where two jeeps were parked. A man showed up with a torch in his hand: “Are you guys lost?” We asked where the “campsite” was. “Well, we’re full booked, but I’ll help you” he said. “Follow me.” He walked us to a small clearing, perhaps 6 or 7 meters in diameter. “How many nights you’re staying’?” “One”. “OK. You’ll use my ablutions.” “How much?” asked Jon. “200 Pula each.” Ouch! More than 40 bucks for a wild camp with access to a toilet made of 4 poles wrapped in fabric? That was not very cheap. I told Jon we should’ve stayed in the village. He replied that I felt that only because I was too cheap to appreciate that we had a safe place to stay. He couldn’t be bothered with my tantrum. Poured himself a glass of Amarula and lit the fire. I was furious. I went upstairs, planning to go to bed hungry, but the damn smoke was shooting right inside the tent. “Hey!” I shouted. “We need to move the car!” “Why?” “I cannot breath!” He got behind the wheel, I grabbed the stairs and so, without another word, we inched the bakkie and the roof tent away from the pit.

The forest roared and cracked and squeaked throughout the night. I got up before five with an impending intestinal emergency. I grabbed the shovel, went behind a tree and dropped my pants. I looked around while squatting deep in thought. The emotions from last night had left me. All I could see now was that Dijara camp was wonderful. The trees were tall and wide, and scarred by hungry elephants who tend to eat a lot of bark. The soft sand was covered in bird droppings. The footprints of a hyena circled the table, ending in a splash of fresh pee. I was feeling in such a great mood I almost start whistling. Kettle on the stove, I took the food box out and prepared two bowls of cereal worthy of the cover of a gourmet photoshoot.

Jon never mentioned our little quarrel again. This is what he’s like: he lets things simmer until something else eventually makes him pop. I am quite the opposite. My big flaw is that I make mountains out of molehills. I have a penchant for splitting hairs and I loooove to hear myself talking. I guess Dijara’s magic had helped me decompress and move on.

The day’s plan was to comb the Moremi Game Reserve which provided another fantastic action-packed safari experience, from the Khwai floodplains where we saw crocodiles basking next to herds of wildebeest, to vast bais where impalas grazed knee-deep into murky waters teeming with hippos.

The mopane trees, tinged with winter’s crimson, seemed to come each with its own private elephant. The only desolated places were the large waterholes towards the North Gate, now all dried up – earlier in the season they must had looked like a real paradise.

Can’t brag enough about how epic the night’s camp was. By now we felt in tune with the trip and after three barbecue dinners it was time for a simpler meal of veg. I opened a second plastic container, stuffed back in Kasane with sweet potatoes, carrots, spinach and whatnot. Jon made a big fire under the watchful eye of a pair of warthogs. I’d nicknamed them “the Friends”, because their look like very jovial creatures, especially when they kneel to eat, or when they run with their little tail up and the mane fluttering in the wind. I chopped some garlic, ginger, and the vegetables. Jon fixed the sundowners and opened a can of lentils, two beers, and a bottle of South Africa red. I hope you know how good the wine is in this part of the world so you won’t hold it against us that we were acting so bourgeois. A good jug of olive oil in, then Jon started sautéing everything on the open fire, adding the legumes last, and the ribbons of fresh spinach only as he plated our rustic bush stew into the plates.

Out of all the memorable moments from our 14 months around Africa by motorcycle, the Okavango has always been extra special. Seeing that vast Delta from above one is confronted with our human smallness. The immensity of we cannot normally grasp is on the contrary quite stark. I had therefore made a pledge to myself to try to experience the Delta at ground level as well. A day by mokoro in the company of a local poler was necessary. I had read on the internet about a small association of fishermen who could arrange something like that from their homebase in Etsha 13. On the way we stopped in Maun for some supplies, which we devoured under the few patches of shade that the thirsty season allowed.

Etsha 13 was a collection of thatched-roof prisms with narrow alleys snaking in between. The blogs suggested that as network coverage was sketchy, it was best to text the fishermen in charge with mokoro trips a few days beforehand. We had done that. Confident that we were expected, we rolled on to the GPS coordinates pointing to the house of a man named Alan. The track narrowed further, then got lost in the sand. The village was now a mile behind, but some kids played out in the field with more houses scattered at the fringes, so we pushed there to ask for directions. The word “Alan” stirred enthusiasm.  They were of different ages, the older boy momentarily in charge with the naked rim of a bicycle. When Jon repeated his question they clapped. Clearly it didn’t matter what he had said, their joy was simply caused by an adult showing interest. Kids are the same everywhere. “Let me see if there’s any parent at home” I offered. An irregular line of posts defined each homestead. To enter I just used one of the wider intervals, then walked from one yard to another. There was no sign of life anywhere. Finally I saw a shadow moving – I went around the wall and suddenly found myself face to face with an ageless women. She was so worn out, that she was longer vertical. Her skin was burnt and crumpled, and her eyes were cloudy. She’s blind, I thought, but when she throbbed at the sound of my “hello” I hoped that she was not deaf as well. An ugly wound covered her left shin. The other ankle was twisted back, leaving an even more disturbing trace in the dust as she dragged it around. “Alan?!” I said as loud as I could. She drew closer. “Alan? Do you know Alan?” I asked again. She snuffled. I was torn for a moment about what to do next. Then I squeezed her hand a little, petted her shoulder, and left. Whatever that woman’s story was, I was not strong enough, or selfless enough to listen and try to help.

 

We retraced our way back to the village centre. The other GPS coordinates were for a shop where we could ask about Alan. Like in many poor rural areas of Africa, all merchandise was sold in what we would call sample-size, because this is what people can afford to buy. To my relief, the owner of the shop spoke some English. “Wait” she said, and waved to a man who was just passing by. “She wants to know Alan” she said to the man. He was extremely tall and scraggy. He also smelled of booze which made me take a step back as he replied: “Yes I know him. He’s my brother!” I was quite doubtful. In Africa “brother” and “sister” is just what people call each other for many reasons other than blood. After a few minutes of back and forth I knew that this guy had no idea what I was talking about.”We’re wasting our time here” I told Jon. “Let’s call Alan, we have nothing to lose.” Alan picked up. He was away in Maun, and all his mokoros were out. He could not help us. We felt like fools. We should have called from the start; we were so used to just ask around that we kind of enjoyed such quests, even if we knew that people would sometime provide confusing information. Bummer! Perhaps the Delta didn’t want us. There was one more thing to try though: 30kms of sand drifting later we crossed a shallow lagoon and arrived at an official camp marked on our GPS. The place was gorgeous: half of it was divided into 5 campsites, each with open showers and kitchen; the other half was a well manicured garden with wooden bridges connecting bungalows on stilts. This sloped towards the water, now glowing in the sunset. We arranged for a mokoro trip for the next day, then pitched and washed in a shower cabin so romantic that we completely forgot that someone could have popped in. At dinner we were happy and relaxed, and later slept like rocks with hippos grunting only meters from our tent.

The Delta read like a Lewis Carroll story: layered, deceiving, and beautiful. At times I expected fantastical creatures to start floating above the water. Our poler’s name was Isaac. He was a small man, so gentle that I swear his voice could heal open wounds. He explained that all fishermen had recently switched to fiberglass mokoro because “the special tree for traditional ones is hard to find now”. Strange how even a place seemingly so bountiful as the Okavango Delta could become depleted of resources. For Isaac the narrow walls of papyrus are like the palm of his wide hands. He’s built a mental map of them since he was 12 years old, when he started treading the canals together with his father. Now he plans to teach his elder son to pole.

Poling may have looked deceptively easy, but at each turn we could feel Isaac’s strain across the entire canoe. After listening to his stories about birds and plants and trying to remember as much as possible, we left the water for an hour or so on dry land. We followed hippo tracks, rubbed ourselves in wild sage to mask our human odour, learned about hippo & elephant dung, about the elusive aardvark and many different kind of trees and plants. By daytime most big mammals are either submerged or grazing, retuning by sunset to sleep. Isaac told us to keep quiet and follow him. A half a dozen hippos – the usuals from around there, our guide said – were gathered at the western tip of the islet, about 50 or 60 meters from the shore. They seemed just as curious about us as we were about them.  We spend a long time observing each other, then the humans returned to their world the same way they had come.

THE SIMPLE THINGS

Something changed the moment we drove into Namibia. Those lines of gravel undulating across a vast emptiness instantly transported us back to our motorbike trip Energized by a friendly chat on both sides of teh border, we kept going until the veld lit with golden hour colors.

At 7sh in the morning of the next day we were already at the fringes of the first Bushman village of Nye Nye Conservancy. While negotiating a fee for taking part in mock traditional hunt, we casually mentioned that we had spent the previous night in the bush. John, our guide, was appalled. He said that the lions had been unusually active during the past few days, causing the schools to close and delivery of supplies to stall. He also said that lack of water and rising temperatures had been stressing the elephants,and that we would have to be very careful when we left. It was true that the border guards had mentioned lions and elephants and such, but people do that a lot, and that never meant that it was so easy to encounter them. Well, as soon as we formed an indian line and started walking through the bushes, the presence of megafauna became quite evident.

The Bushman tribes are still little understood. They are among the only two surviving hunter-gatherers, along with the Hadza from Tanzania. The women are the ‘gatherers’, collecting berries, roots and plants of either nutritional, medicinal or magical value. To us, the initial walk looked random. All the twigs and prickles were seemingly the same. I was in complete awe when someone would suddenly stop and point to another nondescript shrub, which would prove time and time again to conceal a new texture, a different flavor and clearly another use. The women made us chew a Viagra-type root and another which should make one more desirable for the opposite sex. Another thing was like a toothbrush, with antiseptic qualities. Other plants were a potent source of water. It went on and on.

If women are gatherers, the San men are the hunters. The first thing they do before tracking prey is fire. Two types of wood are rubbed vigorously on top of a particular kind of grass. N!ani and !oman must spit in their palms to quench the burning sensation and cheer each other while the rest of us watch.

Hunting in Nyae-Nyae is only permitted in the rainy season, for conservation purposes. N!ani and !oman would only simulate the techniques for us.

After a long day with the San people we said our goodbyes and drove off into the Nyae Nyae pan. It didn’t take too long to understand what the Bushmen were talking about earlier: the only waterhole still wet was teeming with pachyderms. They pushed and shoved for the best spot in the mud. It was amazing what an enormous energy radiated from that mass of bodies, yet we could hear almost no sound.

It took another couple of uneventful days to drive to the capital of Windhoek where our guests were scheduled to arrive. At the last bivouac we simply pitched next to the empty road. While searching for scraps of wood to burn, I found an Oryx horn. Jon taped in on the crashbars of the vehicle. Now we even had an amulet. Everything was going to be just fine.