Languages: English, Setswana
Money: Pula, approximately 6 to $1
Gasoline: On par with South Africa and Namibia
Population: 1.7 million
No visa or carnet needed
It’s all about the animals in Botswana. Not being much of a motorcycle country, you would fare much better traveling by horse, boat, or helicopter. The basic road network will get you close to where the action is, but to get into the middle of it all you will need to get far from any pavement. Problem is, once you are off pavement, you are in deep soft sand. My old nemesis!
Botswana is a landlocked-country, but who needs an ocean when you have a sea of diamonds? So much so that the center of the diamond industry is preparing to relocate from the United Kingdom for its new home in Botswana. Because of this wealth, small population, and better management of its resources than most African governments, Botswana is one of Africa’s most stable countries. All this and a good human rights record! Due to this stability and cash flow the country has been able to protect many of its wilderness areas.
As mentioned in the last post, the Kalahari Desert makes up most of the central and southern part of the country and is largely uninhabited. My focus was to be on the northern areas: the Okavango Delta and the Chobe National Park.
The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland delta. The waters originate from the Angolan highlands and flood into the Kalahari basin. Due to the heat, much of the water is lost to evaporation and there is a drastic change of water level throughout the seasons. When the water levels are high it attracts some of the greatest concentrations of wildlife anywhere. Currently, the water levels are high and many areas that had been dry for decades are now flooded again. It was just recently discovered how the fluctuating water levels follow a natural 40-year cycle.
I was incredibly fortunate, as I would be staying with some locals while in Maun. My good friend and horse lover Steve introduced David and Robyn Foot to me, from Seattle. Through an exchange of emails, David and Robyn invited to stay with them at their house outside Maun on the Thamalakane River. David’s last email with directions to the house closed casually with “we are just outside Maun on a deep sandy road” ARGH!
After a long hot day on flat straight paved roads from Windhoek I arrived at the house in the dark smelling like an unwashed goat. Harry, their 10-year old son peppered me with questions about the trip while David handed me a cold beer. I was feeling at home within 15-minutes. David and Robyn had prepared a tent for me on a small rise in the yard right above the river. It was a proper safari tent with a cot and folding table with a stainless water pitcher and cup. If it is one thing the two know, it is how to make people comfortable in the bush. After building a successful horse safari business in Malawi, the couple relocated the family and business to Botswana (due to the maladjusted government of Malawi). I have since learned how much David Foot Safaris is respected in the horse community.
With their help I scheduled a three-day makoro (dug out canoe) trip into the reeds and water of the delta, but before that I was on hand for the celebrated first rain of the season, November 16th. (Life at the Foot house takes place on the incredibly tranquil patio facing the river. It is furnished with cozy sofas and the dining table where Robyn serves up some very tasty and healthy meals.) The thunder and lightening was spectacular and the rain came down in buckets. I wasn’t as excited as they were, as the beginning of the rains means something different to me, but I appreciated the fresh smell in the air and the cooling effect that it had. I day later I got to speak at Harry and Julie’s primary school (click here for details).
I ended up as a 5th-wheel with two young American couples going into the delta. Everything we needed to set up camp on one of the islands was placed into the narrow makoros. The “polers” were incredibly skillful at navigating the waters and managing the load (I would appreciate this more later when I gave it a try in an empty boat). We passed hippos and saw many different bird species. Once camp was established our days consisted of a morning wildlife hike and later a sunset cruise. During the heat of the day we would swim or wade around in the water. There was talk of Black Mambas, Spitting Cobras and crocodiles, but thankfully none ever appeared. We saw zebra, many more hippos and an elephant skeleton during our outings. All in all it was a nice relaxing trip and a way to get a small taste of what this massive delta is like.
Before leaving Maun, I needed to take care of some “housekeeping” and David pointed me in the direction of a friendly tire shop. I had the Michelin Anakee tires installed that I had been carrying since leaving Jo’burg and changed all the fluids on the bike while also adjusting the valves. In the process of all of this I found a crack in the frame – something I had been expecting. The welder on site said he could do it right away. I mentioned needing to disconnect the battery before he grounded out his welder on the bike. He was adamant that it wouldn’t be necessary, but the one thing I remember from Ewan and Charlie’s trip was that a welder fried out the electronics of the ABS system when they didn’t fully disconnect the battery and the bike was left with no brakes. Without Ewan and Charlie’s budget and support crew, I could’ve been stranded and screwed for quite some time. “I owe you a beer Ewan and Charlie”.
After a somewhat sad good-bye, I headed off to Kasane at the border of Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia – kind of like the “four-corners” area in the Untied States. I saw elephants along the way and some ostriches surprised me by crossing the road in front of me. Once again, I had luck with me and Robyn passed me off to her good friend Cathy who has a large house right on the Chobe River, which conveniently had a vacant spare bedroom available.
Originally from South Africa, Cathy is an established wildlife artist and knows almost everyone in the small “safari based” community. She arranged a day trip into Chobe National Park for me (motorcycles are never allowed in the wildlife parks). Again, I was put into a group of all Americans - this almost never happens. The schedule consisted of a morning boat cruise up the river and then after lunch we would return via land in a modified open-air Land Cruiser. We saw many animals, but no big cats, though they were there somewhere. (Note: There are NO TIGERS IN AFRICA! Embarrassingly this question always seems to come from Americans. Google it before leaving home please).
Chobe Park has one of the highest concentration of wildlife in Africa and probably the largest elephant population on the continent, at over 50,000. Sadly, this poses a problem outside of the park where elephants are also plentiful, and roam around the town. These giants can be very destructive, tearing down moderate size trees and anything else in their path. Cathy has almost a resident family in her yard, though not while I was there. As tourism has grown in the community outside the park, some of the new safari lodges and municipal projects have started putting up stronger electrified fences to keep the elephants away from the precious riverfront properties. Of course, the elephants were there first and they are the whole reason people are drawn to the area in the first place. Residents often use rubber bullets to drive the elephants from there land, and sometimes - not rubber. Interestingly and timely, just this week I read of a new discovery by a South African researcher about how elephants are afraid of bees, simple honeybees, and by building a "fence" of bee hives this will keep elephants away. The bees can sting the inside the elephants’ trunk and just hearing the buzzing scares them off. Click here for the article.
I enjoyed my time with Cathy and ended up staying a third night. We had a few sundowners together and she introduced me to several of her friends. I could have easily stayed two-more weeks, but needed to move north before the rains get too bad.
On November 27th I took the 10-minute ferry ride across the Zambezi River to Zambia.
Here is a map of route through Botswana: Map