Thursday, May 20
Gaborone, Botswana - Joburg, South Africa
“Excuse me, which way is it to South Africa please?”
“Just cycle to the end of this road, turn right, go straight for about a kilometre, and turn left at the second set of lights. It’s straight all the way then for about two hours.”
And so Bjorn and I set off on our final day on the cycles together. We are in more of a rush than we would wish as we have promised to cross the border at noon for the benefit of press and TV coverage awaiting our arrival in South Africa.
“Did you really travel all the way here from Norway?” the hotel concierge asks.
“Only from Kenya,” I have to confess.
Despite today’s border crossing being the final of his long, epic journey Bjorn is not in the best frame of mind. Yesterday he received some very bad news from home. I would liken what he discovered to a severe mugging down a dark alleyway. And now, today, with 11 months under his belt he has just received the second bad message in 24 hours; this one like a kick in the balls.
I guess some women who struggle to come to terms with the sudden change in their lives after giving birth will relate to the anti-climax that Bjorn is feeling today. After 335 days away from home you sort of expect, hope, that the final journey will be more momentous, eventful…exciting.
For me it is all about finishing this last 30 kilometre stretch to the Botswana border without serious incident. For, although South Africa holds plenty of dangers, I just want to get through this and know I have succeeded in completing my six-week trek down through southern Africa.
Just to add a little bit of extra tension the local authorities are widening the main road from Gaborone to Kopfontein. This means that instead of 30 kilometres of easy, straight riding on immaculate asphalt we have 30,000 metres of articulated lorries, diversions and sand blown from the two new lanes that are beginning to take shape on the South Africa bound side of the road.
Bjorn wants to chat; I, being the one forever paranoid about consequences, wish to keep my attention 100 per cent focused on the job in hand. After all, most accidents either happen in the home or on the final leg of a journey to your destination.
It seems like every second passing lorry driver understands that we have been journeying towards South Africa for some considerable length of time: their allowances for overtaking (and not overtaking when there is oncoming traffic) are polite to the point of reminding one of learner drivers taking their final driving tests. A good percentage of them also wave, beep their horns, flash their lights and give us the thumbs up as they overtake or pass in the opposite direction. Many of the hundreds of workmen we pass at the sides of the dusty road are also bigging us up with friendly shouts of encouragement, waves and even claps.
And just like that I start to get goose bumps on my skin. It feels like all these people are extras in our private road trip movies, congratulating us at the very end. I start to smile; Bjorn begins to sing.
We feel alive. We feel a sense of accomplishment.
The border post looms up in the distance as advertising boards advocate the merits of mobile roaming with their companies in South Africa. Another board reads:
YOU HAVE A DESTINATION TO REACH - BE ALERT
Prior to passing through Botswanan customs it is time for those last travelogue photographs; those badly filmed handicam interviews that might one day help retell the tale of this adventure to voyeurs who would prefer to watch rather than participate.
As our first South African of the day congratulates us both in person for the completion our individual journeys we stand with our two bikes and pose for photos by the sign Welcome to the Republic of South Africa.
A firm shake of hands; a slightly emotional man hug. We have done it. We have reached South Africa.
Tina, the UNHCR PR and Media chief for South Africa, and her driver, Godfrey, greet us at South African customs. We are only a few minutes over our promised noon arrival.
We greatly appreciate Tina and Godfrey’s efforts for driving this far to pick us up. It has been a very long day for them. Bjorn and I are, though, both rather flabbergasted to discover that the UNHCR (who have been whittling us for several days to set an exact border crossing time and place for media purposes) have failed to bring a single television company or newspaper journalist to the border to document or film the completion of the journey. Sadly, I think the UNHCR just don’t get it. They don’t see what has been done. They do not appreciate quite how much media might take interest in this story in the coming weeks.
The road south immediately passes through the magnificent Madikwe Game Reserve. The roads are almost deserted. At the first place we stop to buy cold drinks the vibe reminds me of road trip movies through America’s Midwest. There is an immediate edginess to proceedings in South Africa. Aside from all the ‘armed response’ and ‘this premises is protected by armed weapons’ signs, the barbed wire fences, much of this undesirable negativity is intangible; something just feels menacing.
The predominantly black towns put one in mind of Canada and the USA; the white settlements are an eighteenth century Dutch pastiche, with their ageing United Dutch Reform Church spires and perfectly trimmed townhouse gardens.
The first town of any great size we pass is Rustenburg. England will play the United States here on June 12. It is out in the middle of nowhere in a place where altitude could make a difference to some players. It is around two kilometres above sea level here.
My other observation is that I wouldn’t wish to be driving these deserted roads in a car in the middle of the night on my way back from a World Cup match. The England v USA match will finish around 22:30. My advice for anybody driving home that night is: keep to the N4 all the way back to Joburg.
Home for the night is a posh suburb of Johannesburg. We are staying with Bjorn’s mate Kjetil Siem and his family. Kjetil is the President of the South African Premier League and has kindly offered to put the two of us for a few days.
After Tina and Godfrey drop us off we enjoy Norwegian chocolate, takeaway pizza, several glasses of very good South African Sauvignon Blanc and chat into the early hours with Kjetil and his lovely wife, Irene.
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.