Bumbling through Botswana

Botswana is known for having more donkeys than people. And indeed, there are A LOT of donkeys. It also seems as though all of them, including all the sheep, goats, cows and horses that Botswana has, are constantly standing in the bang middle of the road, preferably staring at you angrily if you try to come through. It is starting to feel more like Africa – potholes and animals dotting the road.

I came in through the Mohobe Border crossing, meeting polite and efficient officials on both sides of the border, and then drove to Shakawe. I met Schalk and Richard, two South African guys traveling in their Land Rover from SA to Ethiopia. We took a day trip together into the Tsodilo Hills, a range of four mounds on which are beautiful bush paintings. I was fascinated to learn that there are drawings of penguins and whales as well as the classic African game. Apparently fish hooks and harps near dried up lakes in the region reveal that the Bushmen knew whales. In the middle of the arid Kalahari desert this is astounding!

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From Shakawe I drove to Maun and was very kindly hosted by Mike, a local artist, and his family. We went for a beer along the river, I tried my luck at fishing (no luck), had a braai with some very interesting residents of the town, and I caught up on “chores” like laundry, bike-chain-cleaning and sewing. We talked with Packer, a Peace Corps volunteer who rents a room there about the challenges of her position and educating about HIV. In Botswana every government office must distribute condoms, I did see quite a lot of them, but traditional practices still pose an obstacle. At Maun I also met Eric, another South African traveling for a month by bike through Namibia and Botswana, and the following day we drove together to Nata. We were hoping to wild camp inside the Makgadigadi Salt Pans but couldn’t find the way in, so we settled for a campsite at Nata.

We ran into two guys on a motorcycle trip from Nairobi down to Cape Town – John from the UK and Hamish from Australia. Hamish’s bike had suddenly stopped running in the middle of the road and it was brought to the lodge on the back pf a pick-up truck. We had a good night laughing and exchanging tips and the next day Eric, John and I drove into the Pans for a day-trip. It was everything you could hope for and more! Deep sand, thick mud, and spectacular views made for a great day of off-roading. But I still wasn’t satisfied. We hadn’t managed to get to the bright white flatness of the famous Makgadigadi Salt Pans. So the following day John and I stocked up on extra fuel, water and food, and ventured into the heart of the pans, to Kubu Island.

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Eric and I doing the “Usian Bolt” by John’s Tenere

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The trail was at times a bit hard to find and we drove through open grass to find it again

The first section of the day was thick sand, afterwards we drove through extremely narrow paths with high grass on both sides and running through the center of the track. On one painful fall I snagged my foot through the tough weeds and went hurdling to the ground. On another occasion, some cows, which had been very impressed by John’s loud exhaust, were completely apathetic to mine and crossed into my path, causing me to swerve and fall again. I must take a second to talk about the advice I’ve been given. People are very keen to give advice, and I appreciate it. But sometimes it feels frustrating. There are a thousand different views. Some people say to ride the tire pressure high. Some say to go low. Some people say to ride through sand slowly and feet down. Some people say to ride through thick sand as fast as possible. That advice is good – if you are riding a small, light bike, which you can pick up if it falls, you are close to home, it won’t be the end of the world if something breaks and there are probably no wild animals running through your path. But my bike is extremely heavy, I can’t pick it up, I am in the middle of Africa and not close to home, and if it falls and breaks that might mean the end of my trip. So sometimes slow and steady wins the race.

It also does not bother me to admit I fall, endlessly. I am not ashamed to say that I am a rider-in-training, I have a lot to learn. This is what this trip is all about. Sometimes I receive riling comments, jives at my falls.I am willing to post every photo of every time my bike is on the ground and I am helpless beside it.  I don’t mind revealing my weaknesses, I believe that that in itself is a strength, to be able to admit your faults and shortcomings. I would rather do that and show my trip as it really is, than paint over all the hardships and frustrations.

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It was a hard ride, but every time we stopped it was impossible not to be amazed by the views around us. Tall grass billowed in the breeze, acacia trees dotting the plain and occasionally some wild ostrich in the distance. We could see white clouds rising from the pans, motivating us to keep riding. But then…

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My bike wouldn’t gain speed. It was as if the clutch was constantly engaged, and no power was coming to the wheels. I bumbled along at barely 10 kilometers an hour for the next 40 kilometers to Kubu Island. On the plus side, it does build technique to ride standing at a slow speed, so I definitely improved my balance.

Kubu Island is a small hill built of large stones and gigantic baobab trees, right on the edge of the salt pans. It is a mystical place, and watching the sun set over this view was worth all the sweat and tears of the day. Vasco, the manager of the campsite, organized a pick-up truck to take me and the bike into the town of Lethlakane the following morning.

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At Lethlakane we drove the bike to an engineering company run by Butch, and with the help of his mechanic, Miles, stripped the bike. Apparently the clutch was worn and would have to be replaced. Again, a setback. Wasting time, wasting money. Ahh, well. In true African fashion, with true African time sense (and, excuse me, but lack of efficiency), the clutch is due to arrive tomorrow from South Africa. In a sense, this is the best place to break down because any further north and the shipping of parts would take much longer and be much costlier. Meanwhile, I’m resting up, preparing for the next step of the journey up to Victoria Falls!

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