Traveling in Botswana between Nata and Kasane one frequently encounters Elephants crossing the road. It is quite something to witness this magnificent gentle giant casually ambling across the road. I guess one should feel a bit intimidated and threatened by their size but that is not the case at all. Sadly, one cannot say the same about the numerous police stops, where one most definitely does feel intimidated and threatened and bribery is the order of the day!
With the 4×4 loaded to the hilt, mostly with chocolate and wine, we set of from Stanford in the Western Cape en route to Gaborone in Botswana, some 1 500 km’s away. We overnighted in Beaufort West, which lays claim to be the birthplace of Dr. Christian Barnard (1). Other than the odd blooming Jacaranda tree, there really is not much in this arid Karoo Town and we gladly set off early in the morning for Kimberly.
Kimberly was the first town in Africa and indeed the Southern Hemisphere, to have electric street lights (2 September 1882). It is also home to The Big Hole (2), which is an open and underground mine and is the deepest hole excavated by hand. It is a strange feeling as one stands gazing down into what is now a lifeless gaping testament to lives lost in the ruthless pursuit of a shiny bit of stone (diamonds). It is an interesting part of this countries heritage that has many versions of fact and fable. One really does get transported back in time while having a drink at the Kimberley Club under the watchful gaze of Cecil John Rhodes, Ernest Oppenheimer and Barney Barnato, the diamond profiteers and exploiters. No time to linger though, next stop was Botswana.
You know that you have crossed the border when it is the norm to have livestock such as cows, goats and donkeys grazing on the side of the road. The roads are littered with carcasses turning to dust in the dry heat. All victims of road accidents. The donkeys are often tethered together to prevent them from wandering too far. They cannot get out of the way quick enough to avoid a speeding 18-wheeler. I will never understand the logic behind allowing your livestock on the road, especially as many of the famers are eking out a paltry existence which is reliant on selling and eating their animals. But this is Africa and sometimes one can but shrug your shoulders and turn a blind eye.
Gaborone is the fast-developing capital city of Botswana. New road infrastructure, high rise buildings and Japanese import cars are the order of the day. Cattle grids thankfully keep the animals out of the city centre but they still congregate on street corners in the suburbs for a rest in the shade. Beautifully coifed women and men in posh suits frequent the coffee shops, incongruous with the street traders selling fruit and veg and making furniture around the corner. It is the age of huge new shopping centres and if popular food chain restaurants are your thing, then you will be spoilt for choice. Shopaholics will delight in the reasonably priced designer labels.
Fine dining seems to be reserved to the 5-star hotels and they did not disappoint. It is a meat eaters paradise and the choices for the adventurous are endless – zebra, warthog, crocodile and kudu to mention a few. Botswana has a total population of about 2.5 million people and probably about 8 million or more head of cattle. The cattle all range and graze on the vast grass plains and I have to say that the meat is exceptional and sells at good prices.
Fifteen minutes outside of Gabs we sat enjoying sundowners under a fiery red sky, watching Impala, warthog and Kudu at a waterhole nearby to where we were staying. Gaborone is an interesting mix of city slicking, rural farming and wild bushveld, big smiles, friendly people and greetings of ‘Dumela Ma’ (Hello Madame).
The blight was getting pulled over by traffic officers for various minor transgressions and having to pay hefty fines in the form of bribes. Topping it all was having our car broken into at a shopping centre. We believe that the suspects followed us, copied the remote and at their leisure helped themselves to cameras, binoculars, iPod, a drone and articles of clothing. They even locked the car again before making off with their loot. Driving a nice vehicle with a foreign number plate makes you a soft target. The debacle that followed at the police station and the bumbling officials left us feeling somewhat deflated. From crime ridden South Africa to another corrupt country is to say the least disappointing. Perhaps again, this is the way of Africa!
We headed off in a north-easterly direction early in the morning on the road towards the Tuli Block (3). One now had to become mindful of not only livestock on the road but wildlife as well. There are not many places to stop along the way so plenty of fuel, water and snacks are a prerequisite. It was a long day of driving but oh my word, what bliss on reaching our destination. The Limpopo river meanders in either direction of our bungalow and the sun was about to go down casting hues of brilliant colour that danced on the water. Pied Kingfishers swooped into the river for their final catch of the day. Bushbuck grazed nearby, a troop of monkeys were taking up residence in a nearby tree and a lazy crocodile watched us with his beady eyes. A fire had been lit for us and the donkey boiler was steaming away. The staff left us with warnings of ensuring that the hyenas and porcupines would need to be kept away from thieving in the open kitchen. We went to bed serenaded by the laugh of hyenas.
Enchanted days followed of herd upon herd of zebra, towering Baobab trees, elephants, kudu and many species of buck. I shared the pool with a great big monitor lizard who was just as startled as I was to the others presence. Always under the ever-watchful eye of our neighbouring croc, whose eyes shone up at us in the deep of night as we sat around the fire. I could have stayed here forever in this little corner of God’s country and hope to return here one day soon!
Further North was calling and we ventured off. Kasane, was our next destination which sits in a fork close to Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe and borders Chobe on the great Zambezi River. It is on this road where you will have to yield for elephants as they cross over on their way to the river. It is a majestic sight indeed. As you approach Kasane the road becomes gridlocked with trucks waiting to cross the borders into the neighbouring countries. The queue stretches for miles and the trucks can sometimes be held up for days. I don’t really know how the truckers deal with this but I think that it is fairly common for most of them who travel long-haul through Africa. Kasane is a tourist hotspot and a very busy little town. There are road and river safaris into Chobe and you can cross over into Zimbabwe and go to Vic Falls for the day. Warthogs with their babies wandered through the streets rummaging through garbage and driving at night can be hazardous especially with the elephants crossing the road.
We settled into our spot on the outskirts of the town and with a gin and tonic in hand we watched families of elephants coming to drink and play at the waterhole. Troops of baboons joined them and just before dusk a large tower of giraffes shyly came to join in. Night after night as we climbed into bed we nodded off to sleep while listening to a lion roaring as he roamed the plains from dusk till dawn. We were rudely awakened one morning by an elephant who had chosen to snack on a tree about 10 metres away from us. The frequent raiding baboons managed to get hold of a bag of dry pasta from the kitchen. They did not look that enamoured with their find and soon left. It was a beautiful spot for not only animals but birds and bizarre insects as well. It was here that I managed to get my favourite shot for the trip of the baby owl. I was suitably inspired to write again after a long break and spilled some ink writing, Freckles and Dusty Toes.
I have never been to Zimbabwe and I guess that I had bit of a preconceived idea as to what it was going to be like. At the border we were approached by a brightly clad guy with dreads who said that he could help us get through the border into Zimbabwe with little hassle. Considering the queues, we decided to go with the ‘fixer’ and true to word we went through without a problem and a small fee. We were cautioned though to ensure that we had enough fuel on board as there was no petrol in the country. We were only going to be in the country for 5 days but were told to add on another 3 days, “in case of any problems”. An ominous start.
Vic Falls (4) was a hive of activity and at 38 degrees centigrade we soon found a cool spot to enjoy some Zambezi Draught. The bill for the drinks was our first shock. It came in US dollars and we quickly realised that things were more expensive in USD than in America itself. As the Zimbabwe dollar is pretty worthless the restaurants gave you 50 % discounts for paying in USD. However, in the shops they work on one Zim dollar to 1 US dollar. Makes no sense at all. We were stopped on the street and asked if we could please exchange our shoes for a small soapstone carving. The queue at the petrol station went on for a good few kilometres and I asked one lady waiting how long she had been there, “two days” she said. We were also cautioned about power outages and water cuts at the lodge where we stayed
The grandeur of the town persists with places such as the Victoria Falls Hotel which seems to be from a bygone era. It was befitting to enjoy a Pimms on the hotel verandah overlooking the famous bridge that joins Zimbabwe with Zambia. The warthogs and baboons that roam the gardens seemed out of place in the manicured perfection.
We watched yet another magnificent sunset from the Victoria Falls Safari Lodge while enjoying freshly caught bream and listening to the mesmerising voices of a group of men singing to us in chishona (5). A hyena wandered by seemingly unperturbed by our presence. As we left, an elephant wandered into the road, pushed a tree down in front of us and proceeded to tear off the bark. All pretty normal for a night in Africa but for me an absolute thrill!
I can only imagine how the Scottish explorer David Livingstone (6) must have felt when discovering the falls. He named them after the monarch of the time, Queen Victoria but the locals have their own name of Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders. And boy does it thunder and you get soaking wet from the many viewpoints. Did you know that the Victoria falls are the largest falls in the world? There is a rather grand statue of Livingstone at the entrance to the falls and it was encouraging to see a tour of school children all wanting a photograph of themselves with the great man. They clearly embrace and acknowledge their history and the importance of past contributions. Unlike my native South Africa who delight in destroying and defacing anything to do with the history of the country, even if it has served them well.
I was interested to see some more of the country as I did not believe that the apparent prosperity of Vic Falls was illustrative of the rest of the country. We set off towards Bulawayo. The roads were quiet because of the fuel shortages. You drive through deserted villages, closed shops and schools, fallow fields and ruins of homes. You see the odd bit of subsistence farming but certainly not enough to feed a community. I wonder how the people manage as there is very little to buy in the shops and it is very expensive in any currency. There are goats and cattle and some sheep and the odd pig, people must be primarily living off meat. There are reported cases of slaughtered elephant for food and of course the bushveld is littered with snares for hunting. The future implications of all of this as far as health and sustainability is concerned, must be grave.
We had encountered many police stops both in Botswana and Zimbabwe but none as threatening as on the way to Bulawayo. We were stopped by a bunch of men, none in uniform and no marked vehicles to let us know who they were. They told us they were detectives and thrust an ID card in my face. I thought it strange that a detective would be at a police block but you keep your mouth shut. They were a scruffy bunch and looked like despots. They told us they were looking for firearms and dangerous chemicals. We were told to step out the car so that they could search it. They started haphazardly pulling stuff out of the car as they glared at us threateningly. We stood our ground, showed no fear and they soon backed off and let us go. It was an awful experience and very frightening. I still don’t really know whether it was an official stop or not, or perhaps they were looking for firearms to confiscate with which to fight their cause.
We stopped off at the Painted Dog (Wild dog) sanctuary at Hwange National Park and that was an absolute highlight. We viewed a family of dogs who were soon to be released back into the wild and we learnt about the amazing work that these people do with very little resources.
Bulawayo was bustling but broken. Crumbling infrastructure and homes, desperate people and little hope. Buying groceries and having a snack at a coffee shop was plagued with problems. There is little local currency available so you are forced to pay in USD but you have to pay at an insane exchange rate. You cannot go to a pub to have just a drink, you have to order food as well and you seem to get exploited at every turn. I guess it is desperate times for these people and they try and score something at every turn. Thankfully we were staying in a beautiful spot outside of Bulawayo and had it not been for the peace and quiet, we would surely have not stopped but carried on with our trip. We listened to the gentle sound of the bells on the cows that grazed nearby and this calmed us and we soon relaxed under a brilliant night sky.
The border post crossing back over into Botswana was a nightmare. Masses of Zimbabweans were wanting to go to Francistown in Botswana to buy food, fuel and gas. They go for the day and buy what they can and return to Zimbabwe in the evening hopefully with enough supplies to last them for a while. The queues were endless but we were eventually on our way back to Gaborone, dodging the cows along the way. We overnighted at a delightful spot outside of Gaborone. It was time to catch up on some yoga and enjoy the brilliant African sunsets while watching the passing parade of wildlife.
And then before we knew it, we were on our way back to South Africa. Not however without one final frustration. Yet another police stop with an imaginary infringement that required yet another bride. It was so very tiresome. By now we had had enough of it and when we requested a receipt for our ‘payment’. Things got pretty nasty. We invited the officials to arrest us as we were sick to death, to put it bluntly, of the bullshit! After heated arguments and raised voices, they allowed us to leave, with a receipt, which means the so-called payment would not at least have ended up in their pockets. Travelling by road through Africa is not for the faint hearted but it is well worth it to take in the empyrean wonders!
We breathed a sigh of relief to be back in South Africa which considering the current political situation was quite surprising. There was something bizarrely refreshing about the familiarity of a system on the brink of a disconcerting future. Travelling back to Stanford through Upington, Keimos and Clanwilliam we looked at our country with fresh eyes, realizing that there is nowhere in the world that does not have problems and that this is where we wanted to be. All of this amidst the turmoil of a country which faces an uncertain future. We decided to grab the positive and run with it.
Read more about our decision in my next blog called – The Secret Garden!
Photographs are all my own.
- (1) On 3 December 1967, South African doctor, Dr Christiaan (Chris) Barnard, performed the world’s first human to human heart transplant at Groote Schuur Hospital, Cape Town. This extraordinary event which pushed the boundaries of science into the dawn of a new medical epoch took place inside Charles Saint Theatre at Groote Schuur Hospital. After a decade of heart surgery, Barnard and his gifted cardiothoracic team of thirty (which included his brother Marius), were well equipped to perform the nine hour long operation.
- (2) 150 years ago, the site of the Big Hole was a featureless, flat-topped hill. When word spread that diamonds had been discovered, thousands of prospectors, armed with nothing more than picks, shovels and hope, descended on Kimberley and created the largest hand-dug excavation in the world.
Kimberly is one of the most unique and authentic historical destinations in South Africa, because of the Kimberley diamond mine, which occupies a surface of 17 hectares, 463 meters wide, for a depth of 240 meters, and it used to be active since 1871 to 1914. The Big Hole in Kimberley is considered for one of the deepest cavities excavated by man with a depth of 200 m2. Next to the Big Hole is the Kimberley Mine Museum, the first ever discovery of diamond reserves in the country. One of the most interesting facts about the Big Hole in Kimberley is that after the mining operations were finally over, the Big Hole become the most visited tourist attraction in Kimberley.
- (3)The Tuli Blockis a narrow fringe of land at Botswana‘s eastern border wedged between Zimbabwe in the north and east and South Africa in the south. It consists mainly of privately owned game farms offering safari tourism. The eastern section up to and including Redshield has been declared a game reserve, known as the Northern Tuli Game Reserve.
- (4) Victoria Falls is a town in western Zimbabwe and a gateway to the massive waterfall of the same name. Here, the Zambezi River plummets over a cliff and into the Boiling Pot before flowing through a series of gorges. The Devil’s Pool, a natural infinity pool, is on the edge of a sheer drop. Spanning the river is 1905 Victoria Falls Bridge. The surrounding Zambezi National Park is home to white rhinos and elephants.
- (5) Shona /ˈʃoʊnə/ (chiShona) is the most widely spoken language as a first language and is native to the Shona people of Zimbabwe.
- (6) David Livingstone was a Scottish physician, Congregationalist, and pioneer Christian missionary with the London Missionary Society, an explorer in Africa, and one of the most popular British heroes of the late 19th-century Victorian era.