Thursday, 6 October 2011

Botswana, Part 1

Leaving Cape Town well before dawn

Flying out of Joburg, the pilot announced that we were leaving South African airspace and below us now lay Zimbabwe, but you couldn't see a thing owing to the haze from the veld fires at this time of year. The past few days had been the usual blur of intense concentration and organisation that precedes any significant trip, so I always find getting on a plane and setting off to be a most relaxing point of no return, because if you forgot something, there's really nothing to be done about it now. For me, air travel from Joburg has always been on to more distant ports of call like Europe, so heading a bit deeper into my home continent was pretty exciting and something I'm very keen to do more of.  

All aboard

Not our arrivals hall. JHB

I hate being shuttled around big airports or walking through hermetically sealed air bridges like cattle, so stepping down onto the tarmac and walking over to the terminal building at Livingstone in Zambia gave me a sense of grounding, which I love. I had left Cape Town in the cool of early spring and it now felt, six hours later, as though we had flown ahead four months into the dead of the Cape summer, hot and dry. We did the passport dance of queues and stamps and momentary confusion before figuring out where we had to go next.

Zoned out and taking it in. The author is elsewhere
In an attempt to procure some currency, we used an ATM with no idea of conversion rates for the Kwacha, Zambia's currency. So we played it safe and withdrew the lowest possible amount, K10,000, after which lady at the bureau de change politely informed us that it had the value equivalent to R13(about two US Dollars). The confusion lasted until we got to Botswana, where the math got easier.

So about ten minutes in country we caught a cab to our hotel and for a few hours behaved like the worst kind of tourist. Passed out poolside, drank mojitos at the pool bar and walking around in a daze due to the heat, general fatigue and malaria meds. When the worst of the day's heat began to subside, we walked down the road to the Zambezi Waterfront to meet the rest of our tour party, consisting of our Botswanan guide, Shaba, and the three Swedes Thomas, Marianne and Christine.

Already trouble was afoot as Shaba explained to us the importance of sticking to our schedule which was immediately followed by Marianne informing us that only one of their three pieces of main luggage had arrived from Stockholm and we had to leave at 08:00 the next morning to cross the border into Botswana. Fun times ahead! So with that bit of logistical stress we headed off back to our hotel with an arrangement to proceed as planned the following morning. Shaba would make some calls.


Vehicle wrangling at Kazangula, Zambian side.
Up bright and early, we had breakfast and figured out that taking malaria meds on an empty stomach was not a good idea. At 08:00, as planned, we loaded our gear aboard the Land Rover Defender 130 that would serve as our home for the next two weeks. I was thrilled at the prospect of being in an open vehicle for the duration, there's much less disconnection between you and your surroundings that way, I feel. I suspect some members of our party did not share this enthusiasm, but I relish spartan discomfort.
Dog tired. Kazangula border post, Zambia

Load Master getting his ferry squared away
Off we trundled out of Livingstone and down the road heading west for some time. The road surface eventually faded into dust with dozens of forty-foot trucks lining the road. We had arrived at the apparent shambles that is the Kazangula border post. Ahead of us was a gate wide enough to allow a single vehicle through in the middle of which stood a lone traffic cone controlling movement. People queued, hustled and loitered around the cluster of low administrative buildings where we had to go through the usual passport ritual. All this went surprisingly smooth considering the complete lack of signage and direction, so the next challenge was to get through waiting for our ferry without having any wood sculptures sold to us. The hawkers come thick and fast on this side of the border, but they tended to leave me alone upon discovering that I was from South Africa and not Europe, then it was all Bafana Bafana chat.
Botswanan side of Kazangula crossing.

Our ferry arrived and we snuck our relatively small vehicle aboard ahead of the truck. The ferries can only accommodate a single forty foot truck at a time, so those guys may have to wait in the queue for days to get across. Luckily a smaller vehicle can squeeze in without upsetting the order of things.

Our ferry's bridge flying the Botswanan colours.
Less chaos south of the border.
Crossing to the Botswanan side of the Zambezi was a whole different ballgame. There was space and a sense of order. Firstly the slipway was a large paved surface with a second in the process of being constructed alongside. On the Zambian side there was no slip, just a sandy riverbank. Going through passport control was a similarly easy affair, with in and outgoing channels being clearly indicated. After this we had to step over a pesticide-soaked welcome mat in the interest of disease control and we were in Botswana. Of course a hundred metres down the road I felt like I was back in South Africa as we pulled into an Engen petrol station, but so be it! South African franchises are becoming a very common site throughout Africa.

Our party had a good chuckle at a billboard proclaiming that the elephant had right of way on the roads. We would soon find out that this was not exactly something cute just intended to shine the tourists on.
One of many elephants on Sedudu Island, Chobe park.
Them's good eating, Chobe.

Our next stop, just inside Botswana, was Kasane. We booked into our bed and breakfast and after a quick lunch we had about an hour to organise ourselves before heading off to see some game.

Little big family.
We boarded a barge on the Chobe river for a leisurely cruise around Sedudu island. On casting off we nearly destroyed a ski-boat who's skipper had been dumb enough to use the barge as one of two moorings, the other mooring being the jetty! That aside we got going. The island we were visiting lies at the far eastern end of the Caprivi strip and was the subject of a territorial dispute over a century ago between what is today Namibia and Botswana. The matter was taken to the Hague and eventually it was deemed to belong to Botswana, as the deepest channel lay to the Namibian side of the island and that is what demarcates international territories. This interesting little nugget was shared by our guide as we set off around the island.

Small pod of people-killers.
It was a good break being confined to a slow-moving vessel, as we had nothing to do but look at the wealth of game around. Herds of buffalo, impala, elephant and countless other animals were going about their business and soon any gripes about heat or discomfort were forgotten. We were generally quite a distance from the game, but for the time being it served to whet our appetite for the days ahead.

Returning around dusk to our lodge, the Swedes were informed that their luggage had arrived and all was well on that front. Returning from dinner, we noticed that the lights in our room were on and assumed that housekeeping had been there, but the next morning coming back from our run, Shanna's mother informed us that all her currency had been taken while we had been at dinner. Immediately we checked around to see what was missing, but could not find anything wrong, but the damage in the other room stacked up a bit with two cameras (including a brand new Canon SLR) and two iPhones, which belonged to us, going missing. So a quiet morning became the usual post-theft rage that South Africans often have to deal with. So much for sticking to the schedule! We made breakfast and minded the luggage while one half of our party went to the police station and the other half hid from the sun in their rooms.

Eventually the reports had been filed and we could get back on the road, two setbacks later. Leaving town, not two hundred metres from the 'elephants have right of way' billboard, we saw a herd of pretty bloody big elephants just shuffling along through the roadside bush.

Chobe sunset.

No germs allowed.

Barred and padlocked shower at roadside stop.

We were running late and had a lot of bad road to cover, heading due south. The road was monotonously straight, the scenery dry and dusty with a fierce furnace of an easterly wind whipping us in the open Land Rover. There was little to be done but wrap up and disappear into your thoughts. We later hit a long stretch of temporary road parallel to a new highway that was being built. The surface was torn up pretty badly (much worse than the roads we had taken in Zambia), which had the indirect bonus of slowing us down and allowing us a respite from the wind somewhat. On we went as the sun sank and we finally pulled into Nata, the end of our southerly leg. Here we filled up and headed west into the setting sun. It was getting pretty dark when we left the road and ventured onto alien surface of the Makgadigadi pans. We drove across the bleached expanse of the flats to where we would make camp, a small grass island to our backs.

Kak road, next 135km.
Shanna and her dad, Nata.
Shaba, driving us off into the sunset.

Boesman TV, Makgadigadi
Moonlit, Makgadigadi
The ground underfoot, hard and brittle
The first order of business was setting up camp. In the dark. We would later learn that for the most part, the Swedes had never once in their life dealt with tents, so in my opinion they did brilliantly, given the circumstances. I have been pitching tents all my life, but the steel-poles dome tents were a bit foreign, even for me, but we got the job done in the end. The fire was lit and by now the full moon was lighting the pans around us to the extent that the scene looked like those early Bond films shot day for night. A wonderfully bizarre scene. After introducing the foreigners to some tasty braaivleis, everyone hit the hay and I headed off onto the pans to take some photos, the salt beds crunching underfoot. That night as the temperature dropped, I found the fine salt dust blowing off the flats right through our tent's flysheet, which added to the discomfort of being merely dirty, but we would get used to that feeling in the days to come.
Sunup, Makgadigadi.
Thomas ans Marianne, re all trace.
Leaving the pans, Makgadigadi


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