Our cycle through Botswana
By reaching Botswana we had well and truly hit the tourist trail of southern Africa. From now on we would find well stocked supermarkets, fancy campsites and 4X4’s filled with tourists. It was a far cry from the mountain tracks of Ethiopia, or the highlands of Tanzania. Hummus still eluded us though.
However, the adventure was far from over. The distances in Botswana are large. And there are elephants. A lot of them. Which is kind of why we were there. The elephant highway is a stretch of road running approximately from Kasane to Nata and had been something we’d been looking forward to ever since we’d first heard the magical words “elephant highway’. I love elephants. A lot. The idea of seeing many of them filled me with great excitement. Riding the elephant highway does of course come with risks, however it also comes with cell phone towers. These said cell phone towers are fenced and guarded ( I am not exactly sure why they are guarded, but presumably people have tried to steal materials). The men whose job it is to guard these places are used to scruffy, dirty cyclists turning up and sleeping within the safety of the fences (there are also lions).
So we had a plan. Firstly though, we needed to go on a safari. Chobe National Park is one of the cheapest and best places to go on a river safari. We picked the most affordable company, which was awesome as it was us, a german family and locals on holiday. Astrid and I (in river safari style) cracked a beer and prepared to watch animals. It felt so different to the way we usually experience wildlife. It turned out to be as magical as we had hoped though. Elephants, hippos, crocs, many kinds of antelopes, birds.. Our cheap mobile phone photos don’t do it justice, but probably no photo really would.
We had the added adventure of having to cycle back to our campsite just after dusk, when elephants like to walk about. The kind people from the safari company drove behind us slowly to make sure an elephant didn’t walk across our path (we certainly saw them lurking in the shadows by the road!).
The following morning, after stocking up we finally headed out onto the long awaited elephant highway. It did not disappoint; we rode along a lightly trafficked highway, along side the African bush in which we saw many an elephant. Sometimes munching on trees in family groups, other times meandering across the highway liked they owned the place (they do!).
At night we slept safely in cell phone towers (which we occasionally climbed) and watched stunning sunsets. It was warm, dusty and perfect. By the time we reached Nata to restock and head towards Maun, we were very much delighted with our experience.
Since there had been no rest days since we crossed the border and long days thereafter, we looked forward to a rest at Gweta Lodge about 2 days out from Maun where we would meet the others for the festival. Gweta was managed by James who both Ann, Clo, Craig and Tristan had said we must meet.
What can I say I about James? He is a whirlwind of energy, fun and kindness. We were so well looked after, and had such a blast with him. In true Jude and Astrid fashion we had such fun that we stayed an extra two nights. Although rest we did not.
James took us out to build a fire and drink beer in the middle of nowhere on the first night and we stared up at the amazing starlit skies. Followed by 2 am hectic ramen making. Then he took us out to the Makgadikgadi salt pans, which we would never have seen on our bikes. That was epically magical. There was much crazy driving around, drinking beverages of an alcoholic nature and some kind of random sushi making. It was one of those experiences where you just go with the flow, laughing and enjoying each moment.
Afterwards, 100km down the road, back in the quiet bush with only the shifting of the wind and the odd night creature making noise, we kind of looked at each other and wondered what had just happened. It’s these incredibly heartfelt and joyous (with a tinge of madness) encounters with humans that really add to the fabric of a trip like this. I think for years to come we’ll be chuckling and saying ‘remember that time in Botswana with James where we made hectic 2am ramen?”
The quiet was not to last. Soon we rolled into Maun, one of the larger towns in Botswana and the jumping off point for the Okavango Delta, and for us, the Okavango Delta Music Festival. It was also the place where we were reunited with Israa, having last crossed paths in Lalibela, Ethiopia. In the meantime Israa had been on a safari where she had met Richie, and Richie in turn had convinced several other people to come and join us all at the festival. So by the time we rolled into Old Bridge where we were all staying it was a whole crew of us heading out to the festival the next day.
We barely had time to appreciate the hippos lounging right by the camp (unfortunately, due to the drought, there was barely any water in the river and the hippos and crocs were confined to an awkward co-existence in not much more than a pond) before we were back out on the road towards the festival.
Lucky for us, Richie’s friend’s Charis and Dieter offered to give us and the bikes a lift. The festival director had assured us we could cycle out there. She had no idea. It was 20km of deep sand that would have taken us two days of pushing probably.
After not two days, but quite a lot of four wheel driving, we arrived in the dry and dusty Okavango Delta. We should have been surrounded by water. Last years festival goers spoke of the magic of the water. However, this year was a drought, so water there was not.
Still, we were in high spirits. It was a festival after all. In Botswana. We made camp with Charis, her dad and his friend Dave. There was also Richie, Israa, as well a few Belgium’s, Brits and Israeli’s. Did I mention Richie is a bit of a social epicentre?!
Those of us who had signed up to volunteer headed to find the organiser to find out what we needed to do. What followed were 2 rather chaotic days. There was a lot to do. Astrid and I mainly helped the wonderful Tumie, who was in charge of decorations. We climbed trees, balanced on ladders and untangled endless flags. We helped wherever we could and it was exhausting but satisfying. I think I speak for both of us when I say we both felt like we got so much out of volunteering and that it felt a lot richer than just turning up with a ticket.
Unfortunately the festival was plagued by issues. Firstly, the generator stopped working on the first night which obviously meant no music or lights. Another one had to be organised to come from Gaborone, and that one also struggled by the end. Then there was the festival organiser. She was a big employer in town and thus wielded a lot of power and we observed some pretty severe double standards in how she treated us, and how she treated her local staff. Not to mention, how the community on whose land we were on, were potentially exploited. We all observed it and we all felt it, and by the end of the festival we were all pretty devastated. Racism and division were rife, barely disguised under a thin veneer of ‘nice’.
Before these double standards and colonial attitudes became so blatant we did manage to have fun. The music (when the generator worked) was grand, we danced, laughed and made friends with the guys who ran Drifter brewery. At one point a giant creature followed Astrid back from the toilet. We had a good crew and made our own fun and there were definitely moments of pure hedonistic merriment.
On the last day, the festival really began to unravel. The generator had some serious issues and many of the artists left, before playing their set. It was left up to a bunch of south African DJ’s to try and save the night, and they did for a time. The festival organiser tellingly was no where to be seen. It made me sad and angry that when things got difficult, she just pissed off to her chateau. Astrid and I had really wanted to love this festival. Sadly, we were pretty out of love with the whole thing by the time we left.
However, what does one do when the festival falls apart around you? Go grab a huge keg of beer and make your own party around a huge fire with a bunch of randoms, including a rather eccentric south African drug dealer, a Namibian who lives in an eco fort, and some brewers from Cape Town. I think I crawled into my tent as dawn began to creep over the delta.
Because this was the festival the keeps on giving (in the worst way) the following morning, after helping Tumie clean up as much as we could, a bunch of us all found ourselves stranded in the delta. The transport guys were doing the best they could, but it’s a long, hard road out, and there simply wasn’t enough room on the few pick ups and mini vans that did turn up. Sitting around with the other volunteers and local staff hoping that someone would turn up to give us a lift out, we really got to hear the stories about how they had been treated by the festival organiser and it left us feeling even more upset and angry. We all felt a bit helpless. It’s hard to know what the right thing to do is, when it isn’t your community and you don’t really know what ramifications your actions will have. In the end I did write a scathing review, but tellingly, it got deleted.
After hours of waiting, we all finally managed to hitch a ride out. Of course the ute ran out of oil and overheated, but with 5km to the tarmac, Astrid and I took our chances, bade our fellow volunteers farewell and went it alone. It was a slightly exhausting ride/push to the main road and then a further 10km out to Old Bridge. We just missed Richie and the isreali’s who had come to look for us.
It was the usual end of festival vibe at old bridge; a lot of clothes washing, body washing and taking stock over a few quiet beers. I was exhausted and crawled into bed to the sound of hippos (who were still uneasily living with the crocodiles) and laughter from my fellow festival goers.
Astrid and I took a day off the next day, while our friends slowly left one-by-one; towards Zambia, Namibia and South Africa. It’s always a little sobering, we had certainly cemented our friendship with Israa and Richie, and had no idea when we would see them again.
So now we only had a few hundred km to go reach Namibia, with our next destination being Windhoek (a few hundred kms after that), where Charis had invited us to stay.
It was smooth flat riding through the African savannah with the wind at our backs. After the joy of so much socialising, it did also feel so lovely to go back to our more simple life; pedal, eat, pedal, eat, pedal, find a camp spot, build a fire, cook, eat, stare at the stars, sleep. I had missed the simplicity.
We did run into a peacecorp volunteer (one always eventually does!) who invited us to stay, so we spent a lovely evening eating pasta and playing scrabble. Aside from that it was a quiet ride to the border and before too long we were saying goodbye to Botswana and heading into our second last country in Africa.