Wednesday, May 19
Nata - Gaborone, Botswana
Peter, the owner of North Gate Lodge, sorts out a large portable board for us that we place surrealy by the road sign marked simply:
Very little traffic passes here in this vast, sparsely populated country of 1.2 million. Nata is on the edge of the Sowa Pan, part of the world’s largest, the Makgadikgadi Pans. Sadly, we neither have the time to cycle all the way south from here or to bike west to visit the pans and their magnificent bird life.
We find a lift to Francistown, 120 kilometres away, and then pick up a midday ride leaving for Gaborone. Truthfully, the 600 kilometre journey down the A1 is rather monotonous compared to much of what has passed these past weeks. We cross the Lose River and spot the first mountains in Botswana as the Mahalapye River comes into view.
But best of all we cross the Tropic of Capricorn, meaning I have completed one of my personal targets; namely ‘hitchbiking’ from roughly the equator to the tropics.
I wish we could have spent much more time in Botswana. It is certainly the most developed country I have seen in Africa. We have seen no poverty. No-one appears to beg on the streets. I guess the tourist board might Christen it ‘Zimbabwe as it once was’.
The numerous national parks and game reserves deserving of many hours will have to be visited another time, but at least I have educated myself about the beauty of this place.
In Gaborone we cycle through the city centre to our hotel. The capital is decidedly more European than African. We swerve in and out of rush hour traffic, negotiate traffic lights and roundabouts and finally make base for the night at the President Hotel.
The UNHCR, well aware that this is the final night for us of the journey south, have shouted the night at the President for us. It is a gorgeous hotel although bizarrely the adjacent shopping centre is so reminiscent of its counterpart in Coventry city centre that it sends my head-a-spinning as I stroll through it on my way to the local Spar. Outside the local newspaper headline reads:
Botswana foils World Cup terror plot
“I don’t know what to say on my final blogs. I am not sure how I feel,” Bjorn tells me as we crack open the first of the celebratory beer and whisky. Although we still have two or three hours of cycling in the morning, this hotel room represents the finishing line in many ways. Tomorrow we will be in South Africa and the ‘expedition’ will be completed.
“Don’t write anything just yet. Just enjoy the feeling of completion and the relief of making it all the way here safely. I don’t think you will understand how you feel now till you are back in Norway reflecting back on all this.”
After meeting the UNHCR representative for Botswana, the affable and extremely knowledgeable Mister Shana Kaninda, it is time for alcohol and reminiscences. Tales from the road; happy and scary memories merge. A sense of satisfaction and accomplishment builds inside. Dreams of what can be achieved at the World Cup in South Africa are discussed.
Part of me can’t wait to get to South Africa to know I have completed the journey. Another part of me wishes this wasn’t over just yet and that more adventures on the road were around the corner.
Tuesday, May 18
Kasane - Nata, Botswana
Paranoid about another possible scorpion incident my mind was put at rest before bedding down for the night when Bjorn told me the tent was 100 per cent sealed. “Nothing can possibly get it once the inner layer is zipped up. Not even a small snake,”
It does rather come as a surprise therefore to wake up around 4am and discover a big, friendly white cat peering through the tent door meowing at me. Turns out Bjorn has gone to take a leak in the bushes and forgotten to re-zip the canvas.
A Zimbabwean, working a few kilometers down the road at Dunlop, kindly drops us at the main road junction near Leshomo – the best place to try and cadge a hitch hike in the area. We must be in South Africa by Thursday so, dare I say ‘sadly’, we need to revert to hitch hiking rather than cycling to cover most of the remaining kilometers.
After an hour of fruitless thumbing of potential lift attempts a Toyota truck finally stops. Three locals negotiate a spot: one in the passenger compartment, two in the back.
“You people never stop and give us a lift when we need one,” the driver’s companion tells me.
I know what she is referring to but play dumb, “What do you mean – ‘your people’?”
“You white people never stop for us. It is the same where I come from in Zambia. It is the same here.”
“I am sorry. I cannot speak for the locals. We’re from Europe. There’d be no issue about picking you up where I come from.”
“OK. Where you travelling to?”
“We want to get as far as Nata today. We also have bicycles.” (I don’t bother to mention the dozen bags and cycle trailer)
“OK. 60 each, OK?”
“Yes, sure. Thanks for picking us up.”
With our bikes, trailer, bags and two other locals already perched in the back of the open-air truck the two of us manage to squeeze our masses into the last few centimeters of available space at the very rear of the Toyota.
From here it is 300 kilometres of almost entirely deserted tarmac.
Perched in the back we feel every bump, vibration and pot hole; every air current. My nostrils are occasionally filled by diesel fumes and the odd collision with unfortunate high speed flies. With a can of cold Castle in hand we pass two elephants by the road side munching from some tree or bush. Lush greenery is replaced by arid semi-desert. The drive is extremely uncomfortable at times; the first signs of cramp surge through my left leg. But this is an amazing way to travel. I feel alive, so very alive.
As the truck passes through its second animal disease contamination check point of the day and the Makgadikgadi Pans draw closer, we pull up in Nata.
The town resembles a posh North African desert town, something, of course, that does not exist.
Adjacent to where we are dropped is North Gate Lodge, the most luxurious night’s accommodation I have had since my journey began more than six weeks ago: Air con, bar next to swimming pool, satellite TV and friendly owners.
It is the perfect end to one of those days when you really can say ‘I feel alive’.
Monday, May 17
Chobe National Park, Botswana
No sign of the dinosaur we join the early morning safari into the Chobe National Park.
In Africa the word 'safari' simply means journey and during the past few weeks we have met many locals in Kenya, Tanzania and Malawi who have asked us about our 'bicycle safari'.
So now, with our own personal safaris drawing to an end we decide it is time to partake of the tourist's version of said word.
When you see a fully grown male lion in the wilderness for the first time you can’t help but feel rather emotional; when you see the king of the jungle with his Lioness and four small cubs you can’t help but get choked up with tears.
The lions wander past less than twenty metres away from our safari jeep.
Twenty minutes later the Lioness emerges from the bush, her face bloodied from a fresh kill. The cubs excitedly jump around her, yelping and licking her face. It is an implausible sight.
Chobe is a truly amazing place. During the next couple of hours we set eyes upon hundreds of Impalas, countless lovebirds and hunting fish eagles, six more lions and a handful of pyschopathic warthogs.
In the old spaghetti western movies you would see three or four vultures circling above in the azure sky, a sure sign of a kill somewhere in the neighbourhood. On this morning there are so many vultures present that they have given up flying around and are competing for branch space in the trees. One particularly sinister looking leafless tree has about a dozen of the evil looking birds, perched restlessly, ready to clean up after the lions.
The Thebe River Safaris camp is one of those unusual places where you can enjoy the budget and luxury experience in the very same location. If you want a beautiful lodge room than this is the place for you. If you want to camp out in nature, listening to the sounds of the jungle, this is also for you.
The same applies to the safaris:
There are the luxury safari options, and there are the budget safari options. Truthfully, I had all but ruled out the possibility of taking a safari because of limited budgets, but here it was so affordable that Bjorn and I were able to take a second safari -the river cruise- later the same day.
If we thought the morning experience was unforgettable then we certainly weren't prepared for the spectacular nature of the day ahead of us.
Our boat sped off down river around 3pm. In the hours that followed we saw crocodiles, a spectacular array of weird and wonderful birds and countless impalas nervously trotting along the banks of the river.
Then came the elephants - some in the bush, some cooling off in the water - and then the hippos and the giraffes.
It all comes together around dusk to form several moments of perfection when, with the sun slipping below the western shore of the river, we divert away from a gang of aggressive hippos, observe a troupe of monkeys negotiating their way past three elephants (ears flapping furiously), and cut off the boat's engine to watch the hairs-on-the-back-of-the-neck sight of four giraffes trying their best not to overbalance into the river so that they can each take a sip or two of water.
We also enjoy the Miami Vice style speed boat journey home, zipping through the water, as the light fades and Venus appears in the evening sky.
Eight dead snakes, one shy crocodile, a pair of inquisitive impalas, three hornbills and a bike crash
Sunday, May 16
Livingstone, Zambia - Kasane, Botswana
We set off early Sunday morning and say our goodbyes to Tore, who has been a brilliant host. While we set the bikes up (after wheels and parts were removed after travelling south from Lusaka), you can hear psalm readings and Christian hymns competing with birdsong.
The M10 between Livingstone and Kazungula passes through the Zambezi National Park. We have the road and parts of the park almost entirely to ourselves.
After swirving to avoid a decapitated snake, stretched out across the asphalt, I suddenly spot a tremendously beautiful impala stood transfixed next to some bushes at the side of the road. He is staring back at me on my Chinese bike like he's never seen anything like me before. As I turn my head back to the road in front, the next thing I notice is Bjorn's right arm raised in the air and his trailer less than a metre away from my front tyre. I am only doing about 10 kph but I have got no chance of breaking in time.
Tyres-a-screeching I go head first over the handle bars, bouncing into the side of Bjorn's trailer, before hitting the road. I am lucky it is only cuts and bruises to both legs and a long, deep cut near my right shoulder.
A kind passer-by drops his bicycle and runs over to check that I am OK. Where the impala has gone I do not know, but if he was staring at me before I smashed into the back of Bjorn's bike then he must really think I am silly now.
Bruised and bloodied we get back on our way. Parrots, hornbills, lovebirds and fish eagles swoop overhead, treating us to a collection of beautiful and rather weird birdsongs. It is incredible to be cycling through a place like this.
Having passed our fifth dead snake of the day Bjorn does another of his sudden abrupt stops in front, although now I have learned my lesson and allow a stopping distance behind him more like 50 metres instead of five. There, in the creek below the main road, a shy crocodile eyes us then retreats to a hidden spot below some driftwood. It is fair to say it makes your head spin when you see a crocodile when you are out on a sunday morning bike ride.
After a series of tough hills, each rewarded with spectacular views of the national park, we reach the outskirts of Kazungula. The phone rings and it is Aussie Tim texting us to tell us his bus has just overtaken us on its way to Namibia.
Kazungula is where Zambia ends, the Zambezi River roars by, and a pontoon bridge transports lorries, cars and foot passengers across to Botswana.
A local lad, Adam, points us in the direction of customs and immigration and after saying goodbye to him and Zambia we are on our way to Botswana for 30 pence each.
The Zambezi River current is viscious and unpredictable with what look like tiny maelstroms appearing and disappearing thoughout the short crossing. In 2003, 18 people drowned when the pontoon sank. The pontoon bridge ferry can only accommodate two lorries at a time, meaning that the vehicle queue to get on board stretches back a couple of kilometres. The joy of travelling by cycle means we do not have to queue to get across, and do not add much weight to its 70 tonne capacity.
On the Botswana side of the Zambezi, the pontoon ferry completes its 400 metre journey, we climb onto the back of one of the flat-bed lorries to avoid having to trapse through the knee-deep water, and visit customs to pick up our free Botswanan visas.
As way of a change it is Bjorn's bike that is causing us problems today, his trailer needing repairs before we can set off in search of a bed for the night.
Immediately, Botswana feels and looks far more affluent and developed than anywhere else we have been in Africa. As well as this every third person has magically become white rather than black.
On Zambian Adam's advice we cycle on to Kasane and, with nearly 100 kilometres on the clock, make our base for the night at Thebe River Safaris. Several Africa overland companies are present at the camp - these are basically huge trucks cum armoured personal carriers used to transport gap year students across Africa on the cheap and with safety in mind.
In the space of 30 minutes we see more white people than we have seen in the past 5 weeks combined and, sat at the camp's bar, we watch England beat Australia in the cricket Twenty20 final.
Home for the night is Bjorn's two-man tent. As we zip up its protective inner sanctum a noise resembling a Jurrasic Park dinosaur breaks the silence from somewhere out there in the Bush.