[Note: This post is adapted from my June column in the Montrose Daily Press.]
There are more cows (dikgomo) than people in Botswana, according to the Botswana Meat Commission, which also reports that “[t]he Botswana cattle industry uses free range and natural farming methods, which ensure full-flavoured, lean beef of [the] highest quality.” Alas, my boss, Ausi Stella, and I experienced a downside of Botswana’s “free range” cows when one ran into her car two days ago while we were waiting at a stop sign.
Luckily, a police officer was nearby and took photos of the caved-in rear door and the offending cow. Ausi Stella dropped me at the market and took the officer to the station to file a report. The cow had an eartag, which hopefully she can use to contact the owner and seek damages. She told me that our Paramount Chief has ordered people to keep their livestock out of the village, but donkeys, horses, goats and sheep continue to share the streets with cows, cars, and people. Batswana drivers are good at avoiding collisions with animals and religiously use their hazard lights and horns to warn other drivers. However, no warning could have helped Ausi Stella escape her cow encounter. She joked (not inaccurately) that if the tables were turned and she had hit the cow, the owner would have appeared immediately to seek damages.
Speaking of animals (dipologolo), I saw a bunch this month, including two leopards (dinkwe, which are seldom seen and were the final one I needed for the “Big Five” (a term coined by big-game hunters to refer to Africa’s five most difficult animals to hunt on foot: lions, leopards, rhinos, elephants, and Cape buffalo)). I saw the leopards in northeast Botswana as part of a twelve-day trip that I took with a friend from Australia.
My friend’s Botswana vacation began in Gaborone where I picked him up at the airport. I took him to my village, and we stopped at a local restaurant for a Setswana lunch of koko le pap (chicken and maize porridge), then bought some African fabric (letsala) and took it to my tailor so she could make him a shirt, and then visited both of my non-governmental organizations. No rest for the jetlagged at Amy’s African Tour Company!
I had decided that we weren’t going to rent a car. Not only is it expensive, but one must contend with animals (see the first paragraph), potholes that can swallow a car, speed traps, other drivers, and remembering to drive on the other side of the road (only a problem for me…not for the Australian). So, we used public transportation and hitchhiking, which was cheap, allowed both of us to nap or read, and gave my friend the chance to chat with lots of Batswana.
The second day, we hopped a bus to Palapye and hired a taxi to take us 70 km to Goo-Moremi Gorge, where we enjoyed a guided hike through the Gorge’s beautiful pools and waterfalls. It’s a sacred place for the Batswapong who inhabit the region, and swimming in the pools is prohibited since they are reserved for the badimo (gods). We heard about the “Sir Seretse Khama Alarm Stone,” a huge rock that fell off the wall of the Gorge at the moment that Sir Seretse Khama (Botswana’s first president) passed away in the early morning of July 13, 1980. This sign from the ancestors awakened the villagers, who immediately knew that someone of importance had died. We also saw Cape vultures and Verreaux’s eagles, both of which are threatened in Botswana.
We returned to Palapye the next day, where my District’s Assistant Commissioner met us at the nearby Khama Rhino Sanctuary for a game drive. We were treated to close-up views of Botswana’s largest white rhino population, as well as impala, zebra, and wildebeest.
The next day, we boarded the 6 am bus to the northeast tip of Botswana. I was giddy for the first elephant sighting along the highway. And after the 6th hour, as we passed the tiny village of Nata, there stood a herd of elephants, just as elk stand along Highway 550. Even the Batswana in our bus were craning their necks to look for elephants and giraffes. We got dropped at the bus rank in Kasane and got a taxi to our campground in Kazungula, a village on the border with Zambia.
I had booked a game drive for the next morning with the same wonderful man, T.K., who led our drive when I was in Kasane at Christmas. He fetched us at 5:30 am and took us to nearby Chobe National Park, and just as the sun rose over the baobab trees, TK spied a leopard ahead and that’s where I finally was able to tick the last from the list of the Big Five. The rest of the three-hour drive was filled with the usual amazing fare, including a huge herd of Cape buffalo and a Kori bustard, which is Africa’s largest flying bird. We heard lions roaring but didn’t see any.
That afternoon, we headed out on a boat cruise along the Chobe, and guess what? We saw another leopard! This one was walking along the river bank and was twice as big as the one we saw that morning. We also spent time hanging out with bathing elephants and hippos, saw a bunch of dikwena (crocodiles) sunning themselves on the river’s edge, and scores of water fowl. The Chobe is at its highest point in several years as we come to the end of the rainy season, which portended greatness for the next day’s trip to Victoria Falls.
The tour company in Kasane wanted 900 pula ($90) to transport us to Victoria Falls, but Amy’s African Tour Company provided a cheaper and more exciting option that started with a 5 pula taxi ride to the border, then a quick and free ride on the Kazungula Ferry across the Zambezi River, where we stopped at Immigration to buy a “Kaza Univisa” that entitled us to visit both Zimbabwe and Zambia, and hitched a free ride to Livingstone from a lion researcher from Germany. There, I led my friend to a little restaurant that I’d found during my last trip to Livingstone for a delicious meal of grilled chicken and nshima (Zambia’s version of maize porridge). From there, we caught a taxi to the Falls (100 kwacha….Zambia’s currency or $10) and spent the rest of the day marveling at all that water. The Zambezi was 10 times higher than it was in December when I was there, and as we walked along the “Knife’s Edge” which is the closest viewing point to the Falls, the water that was falling on us was as wet as you can get without being underwater. Luckily, it was a hot day even though winter is just around the corner, so we didn’t mind getting wet.
Next, we went to Zimbabwe to stand on the Victoria Falls Bridge and view the Falls from a drier distance (and get more stamps in our passports). We got a taxi driver to take us all the way back to the Botswana border for 250 pula ($25), and as we were strolling down to the ferry, people were shouting at us that it was pulling away and it was the day’s last ferry. We started running, and then splashing through knee-deep water to reach the ferry, which already had its ramp up. We managed to hoist ourselves onto it (I must say that my mount was quite elegant and attracted applause from the observers on the shore). We quickly passed through Immigration (more passport stamps!) and got a 5 pula taxi ride back to our campsite. And for nearly a third of the price, Amy’s African Tour Company came through!
Day Six of our Botswana Trip was filled with uncertainty. I wanted to get from Kasane to Shakawe, in northwestern Botswana. This involved either a 1,000 km trip that retraced our steps to Nata and then across Botswana and up to Shakawe, or a 480 km trip across Namibia and the Caprivi Strip. Naturally, we opted for the latter, but the problem was that I had no idea how to do it, despite asking lots of people for advice. All I knew was that we needed to take a bus to Ngoma on the Namibian border. We got to the Kasane bus rank around 8 am and after 2 hours, enough people finally joined us on the Ngoma bus and we headed out. After an hour or so, they dropped us at the most desolate border post I’ve seen, and we made our way through Immigration into Namibia where we wondered what in the heck we were going to do next. But thankfully, a very nice Namibian couple drove up five minutes later and gave us a ride away from the border. They informed us that they would drop us at Katima Mulilo where we would catch a ride to Divundu on the west side of the Strip, and then take a taxi to the Botswana border. Not only did they drop us in Katima Mulilo and find another ride to Divundu, they refused our offer of payment. The young man sitting between us in our next ride informed us that the man who dropped us was the Advisor to the Governor of Namibia’s Zambezi Region (one of the country’s fourteen administrative areas). At Divundu, we had to find an ATM so I could get some Namibian Dollars to pay our driver, and we quickly found a taxi for the very rough ride to the border, along which we stopped to pick up and deposit some young women way out in the bush where they were going to make traditional beer.
Shakawe is a recreation-based town on the Okavango Delta, and we stayed in a luxury tent on the river’s edge owned by a crusty guy from South Africa who has been in Botswana for decades and speaks great Setswana. We met a couple of Peace Corps Volunteers who stay in Shakawe and heard how one of them had encountered a black mamba in his bathroom the previous day.
The next day, we went to Tsodilo Hills, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2001. It is home to more than 4,000 rock art images at 400 sites and is one of the world’s highest concentrations of rock art. The images were painted between 1,000 and 3,000 years ago by ancestors of the San and Bantu people. Archeological research suggests that the area has been inhabited for 100,000 years, making it one of the world’s oldest historical sites.
We also tried our hand at fishing for tigerfish during a boat trip on the Okavango, but as in Kasane, the river was very high and we had no luck. Tigerfish are fierce predators with really sharp teeth. But the trip on the river was beautiful and we spied dozens of African darters (birds that dive into the water after fish and are good swimmers…. they’re sometimes called snakebirds because they swim with just their heads and long necks sticking out of the water) and the biggest kwena I’ve ever seen.
Then we headed to Maun, which is the hub of a lot of safari trips in Botswana. We stayed at a “backpacker” (a hostel, typically attracting foreign travelers) outside of town. It was very nice, and we had our own luxury tent on the edge of a lovely pond. My friend went on a flight over the Delta, but I stayed behind and worked on a grant proposal and hung out with some Batswana motorcycle group members who were in Maun to attend a fellow biker’s funeral. And then finally we headed back to my village. My friend picked up his Setswana shirt from moruki wa me, we went to the museum on top of the hill so he could get a bird’s eye view of my village and buy some souvenirs, and then we caught one last hitch to Gaborone. We met a member of the Gaborone Rotary Club for lunch and he took us to airport, and thus ended my first experience as a tour guide.