When you’re pedaling for your second day in a Namibian national park, and you know that you’re fifty kilometers from the next human habitation and that there are elephants, leopards, and lions somewhere around, the sight of the sun nearing the western horizon is not uplifting: you just want to get the hell out of there.
And so it is on our second day in the Bwabwata National Park in the Caprivi Strip, though we actually haven’t seen any of those animals. We have been assured they’re around by every person we meet, and there have been plenty of signs along the road to warn us of their presence, but actual animals have been limited to a group of kudu a hundred kilometers behind us. We begin to doubt the existence of any elephants – and lions? pure myth!
“Let’s just camp here,” Anna says as the sun disappears over the horizon. “There aren’t any animals.”
“There aren’t any animals” – the African equivalent of “It could be worse – it could be raining!” – in the next two kilometers we startle two groups of elephants eating calmly in the bush by the road – sending them running off into the trees, quickly lost from view in the dusk light.
We decide not to camp here.
We bike on under moonlight to the edge of the park where a group of workers repairing the fence make room for our tent at their campsite. Dinner is pasta with beans, the more luxurious of the two meals which will sustain us for most of the way to Windhoek (the other being rice and beans). There is not enough water to wash, but we have enough to make tea, and along with our neighbors we are asleep by ten o’clock, glad that the animal noises around us come from the other side of a huge electrified fence.
It was a longer day than expected obviously, but waking up the next morning we are glad – this means we will arrive in Botswana on July 1st, Seretse Khama Day. We’re big fans of Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana, who was a natural leader and yet who almost never got a chance to lead, enduring seven years of exile in the UK because the British government, ignoring the popular wishes of the Bamangwata people, did not want to offend the South Africans and Rhodesians by allowing an African leader to be married to a white woman. And then we say Africans don’t know about democracy…
In the end, I don’t know what we expected to find on Seretse Khama Day exactly, but I’ll admit it was a disappointment. The only sign of the holiday was that the banks were closed, and we had to spend an extra night at the border to change money.
Our route was to take us along the west bank of the Okavango river and then across the Kalahari into Windhoek. There were three things we knew about Botswana when we arrived: Seretse Khama was a good president, the San (the “bushmen”) still lived there, and the Okavango river delta is one of the natural wonders of the world.
With Seretse Khama Day a bit of a bust, we went on then to Tsodilo Hills, one of the major sites for San rock paintings and for traditional San religion. We had changed our whole route to pass by here, inspired like most visitors by the stories of Laurens Van der Post, a South African who wrote about Tsodilo in the 1950′s when he set out to contact San communities still living autonomously in the Kalahari. The book about the expedition, The Lost World of the Kalahari, is a great bit of writing, though it epitomizes the problems of modern traveling and travel writing: Van der Post has an authentic experience of an increasingly rare culture, he writes about it to protect it, and then hordes of tourists, anthropologists, and cycling hobos like ourselves read his book and set out to find that same experience. The rest is obvious: tourists want authentic culture but they don’t want to walk (build roads!), or sleep out of doors (luxury hotels!), or even think of a dirty bathroom (flush toilets! showers! swimming pools in the desert!).
Writing in the fifties, Van der Post describes Tsodilo in a pristine state, almost unknown to the outside world, still an important religious site; writing in the eighties, in The Voice of the Thunder, he laments what the site ultimately became and the role he inadvertently played in the process, with an airstrip recently built to allow overweight western tourists to come spend a few hours looking at the thousands of paintings and the San reduced to selling cheaply made bows and arrows to earn enough money to eat. While we were there, Tsetsana, our San guide, told us there are plans to start a game park in the area. No matter that there is no permanent animal population or permanent water, the idea is to drill a new bore hole, build fences, and bring in the menagerie.
“Tourists like to see animals,” she told us.
What is perhaps the final act for the San though came at the end of July, when we were already in Namibia and the Botswana supreme court ruled that the last San communities still living in the Kalahari Game Reserve, while having a legal right to their land had no right to the water which would allow them to stay on that land or to dig new water holes. What the eventual result will be is unclear, but the prospects that any San will be able to remain in the Kalahari, 450km from permanent water, are unlikely. Meanwhile, a luxury tourist lodge (with swimming pool!) has opened in the reserve, using the very water the San are not allowed to touch. I can just picture the San artwork which they must be using to decorate their walls, the quotes from Van der Post in their publicity materials…
Though at the same time, it is not just tourism that is behind all this – the Kalahari also represents one of the world’s major sources of diamonds, and with the diamond trade 45% of Botswana’s GDP, the last bit of land the San claimed as their own after 2000 years of being squeezed out of the region first by the Bantu expansion and then by European settlers, is at last far too valuable to be left to “uncivilized” people such as themselves…
It is the present day equivalent of the genocide of the American Indians, and we could see it all playing out along the route, whether it was the village of D’kar, built by a San community to give themselves a place to live outside the government reserves, where the familiar scars of fourth world poverty were written on the faces of everyone we saw, or at Tsodilo where we were lucky to be in town for the local dance competition, with both San and Batswana adolescents together dancing traditional Bantu dances and performing dramas on drugs and AIDS in Setswana…
From Tsodilo, we pedaled out to the main road and continued south along the western shore of the Okavango. We had some worries about being able to see the Okavango, since one other thing that Botswana is famous for how insanely expensive it is for tourists. And yet, after a few days of searching in Etsha 6, we found ourselves there, in a flat-bottomed boat, gliding through the Okavango Delta. There are more details about how we worked out an affordable trip in the section for cyclists, but suffice it to say it is possible, don’t listen to the Lonely Planet.
The delta itself is overwhelming. The floods this year were exceptional, and we pushed off from the shore six kilometers away from the normal debarking point, gliding through submerged fields for the first hour before reaching the main channel and the endless stretches of reeds and papyrus that make up most of the delta. A narrow channel no wider than the boat was the only sign of any human presence; the occasional island peeking out now and then though sitting at water level it was always a surprise when it did. Our guide, John, born in a village in the delta, never hesitated during the two day trip though, not when the narrow channel seemed to vanish, not when there were elephants passing by our campground, not even when we were charged by a hippo. Well, a little when we were charged by a hippo…
Getting back to the mainland, we floated along in the bubble that an experience of pure wilderness gives, where suddenly the world of humans seems impossibly loud and face-paced and just generally bothersome.
It was only later that we learned how rare this experience may one day be – the Okavango river is fed mainly from the rains in Angola, and both of Botswana’s upstream neighbors, Angola and Namibia, have been exploring plans to dam the river for irrigation and hydroelectricity. The result would be catastrophic for the delta, which relies on the unique characteristics of the Okavango river to avoid drying out in the dry season, making it the major source of permanent water in the Kalahari and a tremendous economic and environmental resource for the people who fish and herd and guide tourists there. You would like to think it would never happen, that human beings are too smart to destroy something so complex – and yet it’s just what we have done to the Hadejia-Nguru wetland, the Logone river, the Hamoun wetland, the Aral Sea, the Rio Grande, the Yellow River… The list goes on and on..
Coming back from the delta, we were basically in Windhoek, just a little question of a thousand kilometers of Kalahari desert to cross. Once again, we found ourselves pedaling along, fighting the wind and the mental battles that make up a ten day stretch with almost no change in scenery: flat gray sand scattered with clumps of dry brown grass, squat trees and shrubs with menacing thorns stretching off into the distance. The Kalahari is actually classified as a semi-arid region, and there are huge stores of underground water which help feed the vegetation; there are also more classical desert sections of sand dunes, but not anywhere you would choose to bike.
The days began to take a familiar rhythm, waking up with the sun to break the ice on our water bottles before cooking breakfast (it’s winter here), then fighting the wind and boredom for five hours with occasional breaks for snacks, all the while trying to make sure we reach the next decent-sized town so that we can fill up on water. The first bit of uphill we reached was just on the Namibian side of the border and at its top that we met Charlie – cycling around the world for nine years now. He is the sixth cyclist we have met this trip, and by far the most experienced, so we managed to corner him for tips on all the various routes to come, on all the countries we would like to visit. Charlie had just returned to Africa after a stint in Asia – “It’s too fucking easy there,” he told us. “I missed Africa.”
After a few rest days couch surfing in Gobabis, we then made the final two day push into Windhoek, with our bikes giving out on the last hills in town, our chains gliding along the gears without any purchase, and my chain snapping in two. There is a great bike shop in Windhoek though, and after they diagnosed stretched chains and pledged to nurse our babies back into shape, we slept easy. And yeah, we also slept easy since we had a decent bed for once – Anna’s family were in town to visit…
We’ll have another update in a few weeks, as always, feel free to sign up for the Google Group if you want an e-mail notification when we post. And thanks as always for all your support and encouragment!
[And for more information about Seretse Khama, try the book Color Bar by Ruth Williams; for more information on the state of the world's rivers, try When the Rivers Run Dry by Fred Pearce]