Thursday, September 27, 2012

Cycling Across Botswana: The Single Speed Adventure, Part I

“Botswana is largely flat – and that is about the only concession it makes to cyclists.  Unless you are an experienced cyclist and equipped for the extreme conditions, abandon any ideas you have about a Botswana bicycle adventure. Distances are great and horizons are vast; the climate and landscapes are hot and dry, and even along main routes water is scares and villages are widely spaced.  What’s more the sun is intense and prolonged exposure to the burning ultraviolet rays is hazardous.  Also bear in mind that bicycles are not permitted in Botswana’s national parks and reserves and cyclists may encounter potentially dangerous wildlife while traveling along any highway or road.”  (Lonely Planet: Botswana & Namibia, 2007)

If you have been following my adventures for a while (I’ve been in Africa for about 9 months now), you probably know I’m no slave to the guidebooks like some travellers seem to be.  When I read this passage a few months back while in Northern Tanzania, despite knowing essentially nothing else about Botswana, I decided then and there I was going to ride a bicycle across the country.  Not only that, but it was going to be my first ever bike trip, I was going to do it alone, on a single speed bicycle, with no saddle bags or other touring-specific gear and as always I’d be doing it in my $3 flip-flops (because I don’t really are shoes anymore).  Also, I’ve done no training and haven’t spent significant time riding a bike in a few years.  Either the book is correct and it will be as challenging as it says, or the book is full of it and it will be a nice ride.  Either way it sounded like fun.  After spending 3 amazing months in South Africa (see my older posts for all the details) I crossed into Botswana with literally no plan other than “ride single speed bike across country.”  There I began gearing up in the capital of Gaborone, made plenty of friends, had an awesome time in the city, did a brief 3-day trial ride to test my gear out (here is the post) and set out with a foolish but confident smile on my face.

I hate to ruin the suspense for everyone, but I made it.  Not only that, but even with my absurd methods I’d almost go as far as say it was easy (well, easy for me).  I’m not done, far from it actually, but across the span of 19 days I rode a total of 1,345km from Gaborone in the far south near the South African border, northwest along the A2 to Ghanzi, turning northeast to Sehithwa, then north along the Okavango Delta to Shakawe and the Mohembo border crossing with Namibia.  In fact, just yesterday actually I (illegally) crossed into Namibia, had a soda with two border guards, took a photo at the “Welcome to the Republic of Namibia” sign and rode back to Shakawe where I am staying with my friends Bridget and Matt, a married couple from Washington here with Peace Corps. 

So sit back, relax, read all about it.  I’ll be the first to say this is a long post, but I have a lot to say and share, so deal with it, haha.  I’ve been traveling through Africa for about 9 months now using various methods and done more amazing things than I can count, but this ride so far has without a doubt on the top of my list, hope you enjoy it!

A map of my route so far (though Google Maps didn't have the turn off I did into Motokwe so that spur isn't shown).  My original plan was go straight from Ghanzi to Maun, just south of the Okavango Delta.  From there the plan was to go east to Nata, just past the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans, then north to Kasane and into Zambia, reaching Victoria Falls.  People asked me why I didn’t just go the eastern route to the Falls through Francistown, but why take the short route?  Anyways, as I explained already I’m in Shakawe just south of Namiba and the Craprivi Strip, meaning I’ve added a roughly 700km detour to my initial route.  Things were going well and I was enjoying myself, so why not?

Day 1 (of the bike trip):  As usual I intended to get a reasonably early start, but it didn’t happen.  I had to sort my food, do some last minute laundry, run to the drug store for malaria medication and so on.  It was 1:15 by the time I actually left Gaborone, but oh well.  I set out from Pauls house where I’d been staying for the past 5 weeks (thanks so much Paul!) and into the traffic of the city.  I can say without a doubt that the first 20km of my ride were the most unpleasant part.  Riding a heavily loaded bike through African traffic is not huge fun, and the road out of town initially had zero shoulder, but things improved quickly from there. 

I’ll go into more detail about the bike later, but it is a Specialized Globe Live 1.  It’s a single speed bike with a built in front rack for grabbing groceries around town, obviously not for touring through Africa, and I managed to pick it up new for only 950 pula, or $124.  All I’ve done to the bike was add a rear rack, a bike computer, larger tires, remove the fenders.  On the rear rack I strap my tent and large backpack, on the front rack I have twin 10-litre water jugs I found at the hardware store and my smaller backpack that contains items I need easy access to during the day.  Yes, this is the most ridiculous bike touring setup I’ve ever seen as well and that is part of the point.  I never planned on doing a bike ride out here, but by doing it this way I can still ride, spend very little money and when I decide I’m done riding, I can simply untie my backpack from it and walk away. 

Yours truly.  ‘Safari hats’ are pretty dorky, but this is Africa and the sun is no joke.  I can’t imagine doing something like this without a wide-brim hat and of course sun glasses (gears and shoes are of course, optional).  Moving down, I’m wearing a basic synthetic t-shirt, either synthetic zip-off pants or board shorts and finally a pair of flip-flops.  No special padded bike shirts or shorts for me, not even shoes But that’s just how I roll. 

Speaking of the sun, it’s so intense even the corpses want to lay in the shade!  There are a few hills in the background, but they won’t last.  It’s pretty much flat from here on out.

I was feeling pretty good, both physically and mentally, though I could feel a bit of soreness in my legs from my 3-day test ride a few days earlier and still didn’t know what to expect from my body.  Oh well, the only way to figure it out is just do it.  As the sun was starting to go down it was time to call it a day and I began looking for somewhere to camp.  Much of the highway in Botswana (in the southern half) is fenced, essentially to keep cattle off the road but it only works to an extent.  Because of this, I had to either climb a fence or find an unlocked gate.  I opted for a gate, and after pushing my bike through the sand and through the gate (closing it behind me) I pushed farther into the thorn-covered brush and setup my tent. 

One of the best things about Botswana is the vast and clear night skies.  You get some idea of this even in Gabs, but once you get out into the villages and away from any sources of light pollution the night sky really comes into its own.  Nearly every night is a feast of stars and a clearly visible Milky Way.  After cooking dinner, I laid in my tent staring out the door at the sky until I could no longer keep my eyes open.  I do this most nights and it certainly is one of the best things about the trip.

Distance covered, 62km.

Day 2:  The price of failure.  Sun-bleached bones are a regular feature in Botswana and while I briefly thought about adding this skull to my bike, I ended up not bothering. 

I awoke just before 7am to a surprisingly cloudy sky, but it cleared within an hour.  I ate breakfast, with is generally granola and powered milk, or scrambled eggs, packed my bags and loaded my bike at a very leisurely pace and set off around 9ish.

About 10km outside the village of Kanye, I encountered what is as far as I can tell, the only real hill in this entire country.  I’d ridden down it on my test ride about a week back and knew I didn’t stand a chance of actually riding up it on my loaded single speed, so I was quickly off the bike and pushing.  As I finally reached the top I thought to myself “Hey, that wasn’t so bad, I can push this up any hill no problem!” 

As I rode on, past countless cows and donkeys, I eventually came across these guys.  Curious what they were doing I pulled off the road to chat.  Cattle ranching makes up the livelihood of a huge portion of the people of Botswana but water is a scarce resource, with nearly all water coming from bore holes (wells) dug into the sandy soil.  There were large pens of cattle and even I could tell they were being more vocal than usual.  When I spoke to the foreman about it, he said the pump had failed two days back and the “cows were crying.”  Naturally they were very curious about just what I was doing and could hardly believe I was cycling across the country.  But then again, not only are bikes fairly uncommon in this country, outdoor recreation is pretty much non-existent and very few can even contemplate the idea that this is somehow fun.  I thanked them for their time, wished they luck with the pump and rode on.

Distance covered, 78km.

Day 3:  Not a bad way to wake up in the morning eh?  A while back I’d messaged Alex, an American Peace Corps volunteer through CouchSurfing and planned to stay with her in her little village along my ride.  She happened to be out of town until the 9th and wasn’t too far away, so I continued to take it slow and easy.  Really that was my plan all along; to never be in a rush, stop whenever I felt like it and just enjoy camping in the bush as much as possible.  Because of my slower than expected (but I should know better by now…) preparations in Gaborone, and my 90-day visa that would be coming to an end in 40-ish days, I no longer had the luxury of unlimited time, but it still wasn’t going to be a rush. 

I’ve talked about this before, but for those who don’t know Botswana is diamond rich (for now).  Shortly after achieving independence, diamonds were discovered in the country and the Jwaneng mine is the richest mine on earth, pulling out 12-15 million carats a year.  It is this money that has allowed the country to grow and develop at the pace it is going and this permeates nearly everything and every issue in the country.  More importantly for me however, was the fact the town of Jwaneng had a good grocery store and places to fill my water jugs.  At the grocery store I had a nice conversation with a young man and he shared his dreams of traveling to America with me (as most people do), and talked about how he still feels there is a real lack of opportunity in the country and that while the government is doing quite a bit, that he didn’t feel they listened to the people. 

From kilometres around the town you have this view, and at first it looks like just another band of cliffs or hills.  If you know what you are looking at however, you realize it is the tailings from the diamond mine.  This both underscores just how flat the country is, as well as how big and how deep the mine is.  I’m still disappointed I was unable to tour the mine, but oh well. 

Because of my schedule meeting Alex in her village of Motokwe, I wasn’t in a hurry, so when I got tired of fighting headwinds I decided to call it an early day.  With time on my hands to kill, I tried to figure out ways to amuse myself and quickly found some old fencing wire lying in the bush where I was camping.  At first I tried my hand at making a wire bicycle, but I’m obviously no artist and the wire was quite difficult to bend.  After that, I decided to make a dinosaur, specifically a t-rex eating a guy.  With more time killed than I’m willing to admit in these pursuits and a few bent pieces of wire to show for my efforts, I was satisfied and ate some chocolate.

That evening a few clouds hung in the air, and as the light faded, I was treated to one of the best sunsets of the trip so far.  As anyone in Africa can tell you, these events only last about 10 minutes, but in that time you often experience beautiful orange or red suns putting on their best show for those paying attention.

Distance covered, 60km.

Day 4:  I’m lazy in the mornings out here, usually spending 2-2 ½ hours between waking and riding.  On this morning I took 3 ½ hours, haha.  My favourite breakfast is scrambled eggs and butter soaked toast and I enjoyed every bite.  My cooking system consists of an MSR Whisperlite International, a one-inside-the-other 2-pot set where the lid is also a pan, a removable handle and then the stove fits inside the pots.  For utensils I have a plastic heat-resistant flipper and big spoon I cut the handles off so they fit in the same bag as the pots, as well as a normal spoon/fork/knife.  I decided on the Whisperlite stove because it can run on unleaded gasoline.  A few types of disposable stove cylinders are around in some African cities if you are lucky, but gasoline is the only sure thing.

This was the cloudiest day I’ve experienced on the whole trip so far and provides a nice little buffer from the direct sunlight, but as you can plainly see, it’s still Botswana and it’s still hot and dry.

Once I was past Jwaneng, I began to see ostrich regularly.  It’s quite funny, because while they have no fear of cars and will stand on the roadside as countless cars and trucks scream past, hitting some on the process, they are terrified of me on my bike.  I can’t get within 200 meters of the big birds before they start running.  The only reason I was able to get as close to this pair as I did was that the fence that paralleled the road kept them from running away.  They ran back and forth, panicking and cashing into the fence over and over again until I was finally able to ride past them.  At which point they probably went back to calmly standing along the road right next to speeding trucks, haha.  Beyond the big dumb birds, I’ve seen very little wildlife.  Some of that has to do with the season, but the sad truth is wild animal populations have been absolutely destroyed in the past 10+ years by development and poaching.  I’ve seen 4 or 5 of what I think were either oribi or steenbok, a handful of warthogs, two gemsbok, and plenty of mongoose.  No lions, no elephants, no giraffes, nothing like that.  Birdlife seems to be doing a bit better and I enjoy watching and listening to them as I ride along. 

The A2 all the way from Gaborone to Sehithwa where I turned off has been a good road and very pleasant to ride on.  Potholes are minimal, shoulders are usually 2-3 feet on both sides and there isn’t too much debris on the roads.  They are not perfectly smooth, but I have no real complaints and they make cycling pretty easy.

So the bike.  As I said at the beginning, it’s a Specialized Globe Live 1, they are simple, single speed bikes made for riding around towns and cities and running errands, not for solo riding through Africa.  That said, it is preforming wonderfully. 

By a wide margin, my favourite feature of the bike is the front rack.  It is rated for 20kg (though I probably go over this regularly), and somehow is a perfect fit for the twin 10-liter water jugs I am carrying below it.  Using the stock holes in the bottom of the ‘basket’ I have devised a system where the jugs are securely attached to both the rack and the front fork, then my day bag sits on top giving convenient access to the days food, water, gadgets and bike tools.  My second favourite feature is the little bell.  I swear I use that thing hundreds of times a day.  Usually it’s to alert cows, donkeys and horses of my approach and ‘talk’ to the birds, but I also use it to play songs when I’m getting bored, or to motivate myself to keep going if I’m getting frustrated by a headwind or something.  Strange the things you do when you are alone in the (semi) desert. 

The other thing that has astonished me about the bike is the seat.  I don’t know what kind of voodoo they worked on that thing, but despite not having regularly rode a bike in years and the fact I’m usually riding in board-shorts, I haven’t been saddle-sore once I don’t plan on sending the bike home to the USA when I’m done with it, but I might have to take that seat with me…

As I was riding towards the small town of Sekoma, I saw this man walking the opposite direction.  I was curious where the town center actually was, so I stopped to ask him a few questions.  After discussing what I was doing, he made sure to warn me not only about the lions between Kang and Ghanzi (a warning that was repeated to me many time and one I ignored…) but also warned me about the people that murder people and cut up the bodies for witchcraft. 

Water, water, water.  Botswana is dry, very dry, and when you need to fill up you can’t just go to the nearest creek and dip your bottles, there simply isn’t any running water to be found.  That said, water has not been a problem.  In fact, there hasn’t been a single day of riding where I was unable to find it.  There are plenty of towns along the main roads, and just about anywhere there are people there will be a borehole and a tap.  I usually find one at one of the ‘general dealers’ in town, and after saying hello and buying an onion or something they are always happy to let me fill up.  It is hot out, 80-90+ degrees, and I drink around 8 litres a day.  Although I’ve been able to get water daily, I still carry at least two days with me at all times just to be prepared.  The water has been out in a number of villages I’ve been too, but I’ve never gone thirsty.  The other important thing to note about the water here is that it is all safe to drink, no purification is ever necessary. 

Just for kicks, I bought a few cans of beer in town as well, took them into the bush to where I camped, enjoyed them with dinner and watched a movie in my tent. 

Distance covered, 75kn.

Day 5:  I packed up in the morning as usual, and after pushing my loaded bike through the soft sand to the road came across six men trying to load a cow into the back of a small pickup truck.  They had no ramps and it didn’t seem to be going so well.  Unsure how to help, I just took a photo (“Show them how we lift in Africa!”) and rode on.

A little later in the morning, I’d stopped to just enjoy the scenery and an SUV towing two motorcycles slowed and pulled off the road.  In the vehicle were Glen and his son Brett.  They were headed out to do some training rides in preparation for the Dkar Rally next year, you can check out their website here if you are curious We chatted about our respective trips and apparently not wanting to part without helping me in some way, they gave me two delicious pieces of fried chicken.  Thanks guys and good luck with the race!

I like to call this ‘moving your stock portfolio, Botswana style.’

A little later in the afternoon I came upon a large area of burned land.  I’m not sure the cause of this particular fire, but I’ve been told the locals like to burn their land to make it ‘clean’ for the cattle, and that not only does this simply ruin habitat for any wild animals, the intentional fires frequently get out of control and grow larger than intended.  A little farther down the road I came upon a sign that said “Conserve your natural resources! Do not burn the forest and range resources!” with a cartoon style drawing of a man with a massive nose throwing buckets of water on a burning tree. 

Serious tan lines.  The sun here is powerful.  I’m using SPF50 on my knees, arms, face and neck, as well as the big hat, and while that has so far protected me from any sun burns, I do feel like I’m being slow-roasted every day.

Distance covered, 94km.

Day 6:  A while back I connected with Alex through CouchSurfing and now that I was on the road, I headed out to the village of Motokwe to meet her.  For the first time I was getting off the main highway, the A2.  Motokwe is about 24km off the highway and the road was only paved recently so it is in very good condition.  As soon as I was off the country’s main route, the already light traffic plummeted.  Alex was not going to be around until the afternoon so I rode very slowly, took time to play around with the camera, and enjoyed the birdlife around me. 

As I was riding, a small black bird began flying directly in front of me, about two feet off the ground.  I noticed it was chasing a white moth that was fleeing for its life but within seconds the caught it out of the air, turned up and flew away.  It was by far the highlight of my day, and the kind of thing you would never get to experience if you were in a car or bus. 

The old Motokwe general store, now only frequented by donkeys in search of shade.

Despite my intentionally slow ride, I was still a few hours of Alex arriving so I lazily rode down the towns’ one paved road to see what was around and eventually settled on a small stand that sold food and drinks.  Not because it looked better than the others, but because it was the only option.  It was a Sunday and it felt like ghost town.  Despite that fact, this one stand was open for business and I got an unrefrigerated soda and some vegetables while chatting with the two local women who were around.

I eventually headed over to the primary school where Alex lives and began looking where to set my things while I waited for her arrival.  I was quickly met by one of the young new teachers (a local guy) and we sat down on the porch to chat.  He had plenty of questions about America, such as “Is it just like in TV?” and “Do you really have something called FBI? Do they knock on doors and yell “FBI!!”?  Somehow the discussion turned to race, and he went off on his theories about how black people are naturally inferior to white people, then that I was crazy for voting for Obama because he is ‘half black.’  Sad that people hold these views and especially sad that this one is a teacher… 

In the middle of this, an SUV showed up and I was told the man inside wanted to say hi to me (this is a small village; it doesn’t get foreign visitors).  The obviously drunk man at the wheel, beer in cup-holder, introduced himself as the headmaster of the school and that it was a pleasure to meet me, however he had to deliver his even more drunk passenger home because he had to work tomorrow. 

I do actually find these kinds of encounters to be generally entertaining and/or enlightening, but then Alex arrived so it was time to meet my host and relax for the rest of the evening.  Alex, like most of the Americans I’ve met in Botswana is here with Peace Corps and she works with the school.  We cooked dinner, watched the episode of Top Gear where they drive 2wd cars across Botswana (season 10, episode 4, a classic) and chatted for hours before setting off to bed.

Distance covered, 41km.

Day 7:  Today was a day off from riding.  I figured some rest would be helpful, Alex was a great host, some time to sit down and patch my tubes in a clean room would be helpful, I could get some laundry and take a bath.  All good things.

Alex gave me a little tour of the primary school where she works at and for the most part I was impressed with what I saw.  It was obvious some supplies were missing, but in general it looked almost like any classroom you would see in the States.

Distance covered, 0km.

Day 8:  After a nice rest (thanks Alex!) I set off north again and was back on the main road.  Part way through the day I came across these guys who were repairing the cattle guard on the highway.  I stopped to chat and as always they were curious about what I was doing.  When I told them I was from America they asked me “How is 50 Cent?” as if I know him personally.  I had to explain that there are 312 million people in America and I don’t know 50 Cent personally, he is just a character on TV to me as well.  Shortly after, they asked me for water, which to be honest annoys me.  Here I am on a bike, carrying my own water for days at a time, and these guys out here in trucks working in the sun but can’t be bothered to bring water with them? Come on… I gave them some and moved on.

I may not move fast on my bike, but I’m faster than this car!

Once I hit the road on my bike and stayed with one Peace Corps volunteer, I was immediately pointed in the direction of another farther up the road.  I had entered “the Peace Corps highway.”  It’s funny because I expected to be spending every night in the bush (and most nights have been) but a few houses to stay in and some cool people to meet along the way are always appreciated.  The ride was uneventful as most days are, and late afternoon I arrived in the town of Kang where I would met up with Tate, my next host.  Here work is focused in the Kang Health Clinic, a new facility that serves people from all over the region.

I got a tour of the facility which is pretty nice and learned a great deal about the health care system in Botswana.  Interestingly, Tate told me many of the people who work in the clinic are not even from Botswana, much of the staff is from Zimbabwe, Zambia or other countries.  Also, health care in Botswana is totally free for all citizens and patients hold on to their own health care records, which seems to have some benefits.  The facilities are pretty good, but there is a major shortage of some basic supplies, including HIV/AIDs test kits which in a country like Botswana with one of the highest instances of the disease in the world is a major problem. 

That evening, Tate and I cooked up a huge dinner of pasta and veggies and as happens often, the kids from the family compound she stays on came over to watch a movie.  Although Tate has a big and actually very nice house, one thing is she doesn’t have is electricity.  The area does, but apparently the power pole is too far away to run power and while it is supposed to be moved, it will probably take months… That night, we watched Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (the original) and then chatted for hours about life, travel and our respective experiences in Africa. 

Distance covered, 87km.

Day 9:  Tate and I cooked up an excellent breakfast (Ok, she did most of the work) of eggs, coffee, her home baked bread, fruit and more.  I had been having a great time with Tate and gave serious thought to staying another night (especially due to the high winds that had begun that morning) but decided I’d better keep moving, I had a long way to go and didn’t want to get lazy.

Another hot day of uneventful but still enjoyable riding lay ahead of me and after passing a roadside camp for government fence builders, I was stopped by this man on a horse.  It turns out he was in the group a few days back I saw trying to load the cow into the pickup and we chatted briefly about how while he works as a mechanic for the government, he likes cattle better because it pays more.  Then he asked me for water because I guess in all his years on a horse in Botswana, he still can’t be bothered to bring his own… I wish I could have given it to the horse instead of him, but I gave him a drink and moved on, struggling against the strongest headwinds I’d had so far. 

I had other cowboys stop me demanding food and water on this day as well, and I’ve now gotten pretty good at judging from a distance who just wants a hand-out from me, speeding up, and just riding past with a wave and smile.  It might sound unkind to some of you back home, but the truth is if you stop and give everyone you come across in Africa what they are asking for, in short order you will be left as poor as they are and none of them will be better off for your efforts.  It generally just perpetuates the idea that white people in Africa are here to simply hand out gifts to the people, and when you hear people shouting and demanding “Sweets!” “Money!” “Water!” “Food!” with their hands out every day, it’s pretty clear what effect decades of foreign aid in Africa (and the images on TV where every white person is rich) have done to these people… Sorry for the little rant there, but I’ve experienced this and had this same conversation in every African country I’ve visited and while aid and foreign development certainly has its place, these kind of hand-outs only contribute to the problem. 

From Kang to Ghanzi nearly 300km away, there is almost nothing, it is by far the emptiest section of road I’d seen so far.  On top of that, I saw absolutely no wildlife, so I didn’t feel uncomfortable at all about sleeping in ‘the area between Kang and Ghanzi with all the lions!’ because as near as I can tell, that all pretty much died 10 years ago and it’s just cows now.  I’m told truckers still see the occasional lion at night on the stretch, but I wasn’t going to worry about it.  I headed into the bush and set up camp.

The sunset lit the sky in deep pinks and purples then disappeared as quickly as it arrived.  After laying in my tent and reading my book a bit, I set about making dinner.  I don’t know why I didn’t start doing it sooner, but I lit a candle about 4 feet from my tent and not only did this provide some gentle and soothing light, it also attracted most of the insects, rather than them coming to my headlamp.  I’ll be buying more candles.

Distance covered, 67km.

Day 10:  As I said, the stretch of highway between Kang and Ghanzi is desolate.  I hadn’t even seen a building since Kang and traffic on the road was much lighter, most of it consisting of big trucks shipping goods around the country. 

I suppose this is a good time to talk a little about traffic and cycling on the roads, so here are a few thoughts:  I always ride opposing traffic, in the tire groove closest to the shoulder.  By riding here, not only can I see the vehicles that will come closest to me long before they actually reach me, but by being in the lane instead of the shoulder the ride is smoother, the road cleaner, and I get much fewer punctures.  Traffic is pretty low and because of this and the fact cyclists are a bit of a novelty, people were always very courteous to me.  I’d say 90% of big trucks moved into the other lane to go around me and I always acknowledged their efforts with a friendly wave.  A few times, there would be a vehicle in the other lane, and trucks would always give me a honk to warn me they could not move over, thoughtful of them.  Overall traffic in Botswana has been very easy.  Most of the time you see a vehicle on the road every few minutes, so should you ever have an emergency, it would be easy to hitch a ride to the nearest town. 

Farther down the road, I came across these army guys parked on the side of the road so naturally I stopped to talk.  Just as I’d heard from a number of others, they said they had seen me on the road a day or two back and were very interested in what I was doing.  We had a little chat, took some photos, exchanged contact info (they still haven’t facebooked me…) and went about our different ways.

I had ‘Lone Tree’ on my map and it was listed like any of the numerous small towns I’d rode through in the past, so it was going to be my water fill-up spot.  A hand-painted sign pointed down a dirt road and I quickly realized this wasn’t going to be a developed town.  What it was instead, was a simple wildlife outpost and big diesel generator to power the cell phone tower that resided inside the fence.  I parked my bike, found someone to ask about filling water and was shown to the tap.  As often happens, I quickly attracted a crowd of 5-6 people all asking questions about my ride, how far I go each day, where I sleep, and as usual they were all surprised that I was doing something like this.  With my water filled, I thanked them, and headed back onto the main road to continue my journey.

As I was riding I saw the largest group of ostriches yet, about 10 of them wandering around and crossing.  Knowing how scared they are of me and my bike, I stood well back and simply watched for a minute. 

I’d intended this to be a big day of riding, well ‘big’ by my slow and relaxed standards, but then at 101km I got a flat right next to what looked like a nice spot to camp (a nicely spaced collection of shrubs and sand I could disappear in) so I called it a day.  Another night of enjoying the sunset and watching shooting stars kept the smile on my face and I went to sleep feeling good.

Distance covered, 101km.

Day 11:  I woke early and watched the sunrise because today would be a ‘big’ day, I swear!  Ok, so it was still almost 10am when I set out, but I felt motivated and ready to go.  After a nice little snack break at one of the road side rest stops (a few tables under a group of trees, plenty of broken beer bottles) a South African couple stopped to give me a cold Poweraid drink and chat, much appreciated! 

Later in the day, two young men on a motorcycle passed me, but I later caught up to them as they parked on the side of the road.  It seemed they had a slow leak in their tube and needed a pump.  Luckily for them my little bike pump was able to do the job and they sped away.  About 45 minutes later, I passed them again, haha.  I’m not sure what the problem was this time around, but they said they didn’t need my help and eventually passed me for a second time and I think actually reached their destination. 

Stopping for lunch.

Ok, so I’ve told you Botswana is flat.  To give you an idea of just now flat, I think this is all you need to see: not only is this dip in the terrain dramatic enough to be called a ‘valley’ but it is a valley of such note that it deserves its own sign!  To be fair, I quite enjoyed cruising down to the bottom, and given my heavily loaded single speed bike, had to push much harder than usual to get up the other side, but that right there made up the largest hills I’d seen in about 8 days.

All smiles for me.

A few days back, I asked Nate, a Peace Corps volunteer I met back in Gaborone at a  music festival, if he had any contacts in Ghanzi and he came through with the number of Peter, a man he had hitched a ride from months back.  I sent Peter a text and hoped for the best. 

About 20km outside of Ghanzi, while I still had no plan of what I was going to do in the town or where I’d sleep (as if that is ever a problem for me!) my phone rang and it was Peter.  After introducing myself, a total stranger, he offered to drive out to where I was and pick me up (I declined, that would be cheating!) and then told me to call when I got into town.  I did, and shortly after he arrived and we drove off to his house where I met his wife Lexi, had a shower and shave and put my things down in the room they had offered to me.

Once I was all cleaned up, we headed off to the Kalahari Arms Hotel & Restaurant for a delicious pizza dinner.  Peter is a 5th generation cattle rancher in Botswana and his family has been in the Ghanzi region longer than nearly anyone.  His wife Lexi (left) is another super interesting person, with her hands in all sorts of things in the community, especially conservation efforts, and it was fascinating to talk with the two of them about the cattle business in Botswana, the government, and how much the area has changed in the last decade.  It was only 12 years ago that the road from Gaborone to Ghanzi was even paved, before that it took something like three days to get between the two parts of the country, and with that has come rapid development and all the associated problems.  Peter said back then you used to see lions and leopards and all manner of other wildlife in the region, but as my experience has shown, today you are lucky to see anything beyond an ostrich.  Spent shotgun shells all along the side of the road are but one piece that tell the story of what has happened to the animals in this area. 

Distance covered, 123km.

Day 12:  We had a lazy morning drinking coffee and eating last night’s leftover pizza cold as I went over the map and asked Peter questions about what lay ahead. Lexi drove me to the internet café to take care of some business, then I went on to the Choppies grocery store to stock up for the days ahead.  Only 1km out of town, I pulled under a tree to eat my late lunch (I rode out of town to escape the children who were harassing me) and immediately got a flat tire from the abundant thorns the tree produces.  By the time I was actually leaving Ghanzi it was nearly 4pm!  This was not the plan, but I pushed on until the sun began falling rapidly and found some bush to set up camp.

Distance covered, 36km.

Day 13:  Shortly after Ghanzi is the town of D’kar, which is basically the hub of all tourist things related to San culture.  I had heard about being able to camp in the bush with the San and learn about their traditional nomadic lifestyle, but was told by Peter that he wasn’t aware of any such opportunities, rather that it mostly consists of some little tourist ‘song and dance’ activities and I don’t have any interest in that kind of thing.  I rode into the town to at least see the museum or something, but realized it was Sunday (days don’t mean much to me out here…) and literally everything was closed.  I wandered onto the grounds of a primary school and found a tap to fill my water and kept searching.  I followed the sign for “Reformed Church/Training Center/Library/Cultural Center/Hostel/Art Workshop/Museum” but all I found was a just finished church service and told everything was closed.  Oh well, I tried.

Back in Ghanzi, Peter had told me about a quarry and told me how to find it (“about 500 meters before the second sign for the camp site, climb over the fence and it’s a ways back in the bush.”) so I wanted to make sure I did what I could.  At the specified spot, I covered my bike in brush to hide it and tromped off to find this spot.  It was easy enough to find, right where Peter said it would be, and immediately I spotted two different aquatic birds I hadn’t seen in Botswana yet as well as schools of fish in the water!  It was defiantly a nice spot, quite literally an oasis in the (semi) desert and I really wanted to camp there for the night.  I’m sure I would have had all sorts of interesting animal sightings if I had, but I was only 32km into the day and with so little covered the day before as well as my recent decision to make a HUGE detour (heading all the way up to Shakawe, adding 6-700km to my original route) I didn’t feel I had time to stop.  Oh the curses of expiring visas! 

Looks thrilling eh?  So yah, there isn’t much to see in a bike ride across Botswana.  If you are looking for beautiful and diverse scenery, go elsewhere, but there is something I really appreciate about the open and fairly empty spaces, as well as the many great people I’ve met along the way.

In the evening I realized my spare fuel bottle had leaked gasoline inside my bag, so I had to take everything out and hang it in the brush to air it all out, ugh.  I then spent ages working on my tubes and tires  That night around my stove and candle, I saw all kinds of interesting insects, including some huge beetles, cockroaches, and one that looks like a scorpion without a tail (I was told the name of this one, but forget it…)  All things considered, an interesting night of insect watching!

Distance covered, 73km.

Day 14:  A typical village on the way north.

As I was riding down the road, I noticed out of the corner of my eye this crazy structure in the dirt.  These are basically elevated tunnels created by ants and this was by far the tallest and most complex one I’d seen yet.  I just had to stop and take a closer look as well as a photo.   These are just the kinds of interesting little things you will only see on a bike.  Well, they are interesting to me at least. 

Just beyond the ants was the Kuke quarantine fence and checkpoint.  These are setup to try and stop the spread of food and mouth disease, something that has plagued Botswana and its cattle industry in the past.  The people running the check point were very friendly as usual, and once I’d had my standard conversation (“riding from Gabs, up to Shakawe, then on to Ksane, no I’m not scared of sleeping in the bush, no being alone doesn’t bother me,” etc) I was on my way.

As I was riding I saw some traffic cones and a government truck filled with workers.  What were they doing? Well, there were 11 of them (plus three in the cab) and all they had done was take some sand from the side of the road and fill a pothole with it…

In the two weeks since I’d left Gabs, I’d hardly seen what can be called a real tree.  So imagine my surprise when I came upon this awesome baobab tree.  I’ve seen plenty of them in Africa so far, but other than some planted in the garden around the parliament building, this is the first I’ve seen in Botswana and one with a pretty unique branch structure.  I must be moving north towards water!

Stopping on the roadside for lunch.  There were even a few ‘hills’ today! (ok, slight inclines).

One interesting thing I’ve noticed in this area is that the termite mounds are much taller than any others I’ve previously seen.  I guess these are used to regulate exhaust gasses from their underground homes, so maybe the soil composition or something has changed farther north?  Or maybe they just saw some photos of Dubai, I’m not sure.

Donkeys, the second most common animal in Botswana after cows.  These are tied together at the neck, presumably to keep them from wandering too far.  It’s kind of sad to see, but other people simply tie their front legs together, making them hobble around that way, so I guess this is preferable. 

I eventually made it to the town of Sehithwa, where I pulled into the gas station to buy some cold drinks, other bits of food and to fill my water jugs.

Sehithwa is only about 80km from Maun where I was initially planning on heading towards, but instead of following the main road  this is where I turned onto the A35 which goes along the western edge of the Okavango Delta all the way to the town of Shakawe and the Mohembo border crossing into Namibia.  Right away the road quality deteriorated and while it was still fine for cycling, there were no longer any shoulders, it was less smooth, there were somewhat frequent pot holes and in some places the sides of the road are so eroded it is practically one lane.  Oh well, there is almost no traffic out here, so none of this is actually a problem.

Flat tires, story of my life… I told myself I was going to do another 100km day, and at 99.47km, my rear tire went flat.  I wasn’t about to change a tube to ride half a KM, so I called it a night and headed into the bush. 

Some thoughts on tubes in Botswana:  Being a dry part of the world, plants have developed countless types of devious thorns to protect themselves.  The result of this for cyclists seems to be frequent tube punctures and I’ve had more than my share.  That said, there seem to be more thorns in the south than in the north for what it’s worth.  Part way through the ride I put in some puncture resistant tire-liner strips in my tires between the tire and tube and the results have been excellent I’m getting a fraction of the punctures I was at the start of the trip and most of my flats now seem to be a result of the glue on my patches failing rather than fresh punctures.  Highly recommended.

A night time camp fire along with dinner.

Distance covered, 99km.

Day 15:  I spent the morning patching tubes again and came to a horrible conclusion: I might be screwed. 

You see only real drawback of this bike (in Africa at least) is that it uses 700 wheels and I have 700x47 tires (29”) instead of the typical 26”.  700 tires and tubes are NOT easy to find in Africa.  I knew this ahead of time of course but could only find two proper size spare tubes in all of Gaborone while I was there.  I could have waited in Gabs longer to hope for more to come in, but I needed to get moving and did.  It all seemed manageable if slightly precarious but all was OK so far.  Until this morning.  I realized the valve on one tube had failed, rendering it basically useless, and another tube had a nearly 1” gash that didn’t seem to want to hold air no matter how I patched it.  I do my best to Be Prepared (I am an Eagle Scout after all!) so I had two Super-Extra-Major-Emergency-Spare-Tubes, a 700x23, which I’d successfully put into action once already despite knowing it was stretched to its limits filling a x47 tire, and…. a 26” tube.  Don’t laugh.  I had to decide if I should turn back and head the 95km to Maun where I knew I could get more tubes, or to continue all the way to Shakawe and back, which was 6-700km on what I had.  I decided to gamble.  I struggled to pull the 26” tube onto the wheel then massaged it into place, hoping to avoid getting a pinch flat right away.  With how much I was stretching this tube just to get it on, I knew if it got a hole I wouldn’t be able to repair it, no glue or patch would hold up to that kind of stretching again.  I worked it a bit more, pumped it up and hoped for the best.  I hate to ruin the surprise, but at the time of writing, this tube has lasted me about 450km, reaching all the way into Namibia and I’m on the return trip now, without a single puncture or a single problem.  I’m calling it my little 26” miracle.  (I’ve since arranged a bunch of new tubes, set of tires and more patch supplies to meet me in Maun when I arrive.)

Enough about tubes.  Shortly after I set out, I was passed by 5 or 6 4x4s.  I see overland travellers in their 4x4s all the time (and I was one, half way up Africa at one point!) so I didn’t think twice when they passed me.  A while later I saw them pulled off beneath some trees and they called me over.  For a few seconds I just waved and kept riding, but then figured “What am I thinking, pull over and chat with these people!” so I turned back and joined them under the trees.  It was a group of South Africans (Noticing a trend here? Every time someone stops me on the road and offers me food or drinks, they are South African!) who had won a 10-day safari trip through northern Botswana, the Craprivi Strip of Namibia, into Zambia and Victoria Falls and back to Botswana.  Right away I was handed a cold drink and told to join them for lunch.  As always, they asked plenty of questions about my trip, my plans, and about life on the road in general and as always I was happy to oblige. 

My bike and I as the sun is going down.

This is how the entrances to property are marked in this part of the country: some sticks in the ground with whatever pieces of trash are found on the road.  This usually consists of shreds of tire, broken plastic lawn chairs, ruined water jugs and skulls.  I’d love to hear someone give directions out here: “Yah, go past the sticks with two tires and the yellow jug and the cow skull with the short horns, my place is the next one with one thin shred of tire, two yellow water jugs and a skull with long horns.”  At least that’s how I like to imagine it.

I was still feeling strong but decided not to set up the tent in the dark, so I pulled into the bush to make camp.  I was feeling great all day and in a real groove riding, which is a nice feeling.  Not only that, I was nearly across the entire country!  I was always confident I’d be able to do it, but now I was getting tantalizingly close and could feel it.  I made a nice one-pot stew type of thing for dinner as usual, watched the stars and drifted off to sleep satisfied. (I also passed the 1,000km mark today)

Distance covered, 80km.

Day 16:  After breakfast and packing up, I hit the road and shortly after was stopped by (surprise!) a group of three South Africans.  Turned out one of them was doing missionary work in the village of Sepopa (where I’d be staying later on) with his friends traveling with him.  We chatted a bit, they gave me a cold can of orange juice and when we parted I was given a ‘Little Bible’ (with a beagle on the cover???) and pointed in particular to the passage John 3:17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.”  He told me about how he moved away from religion at one point because it seemed to be so focused on what was wrong in the world, but then this passage opened his eyes to the good in the world.  Now I’m not a religious person, but I can appreciate the sentiment behind it and thanked them for stopping to chat. 

Oh, road kill.  I see a fair bit of it and I like it.  Not because I like death or anything like that, but because it’s the only time I get an up close look at animals I’d never see otherwise.  I’ve seen all kinds of beautiful (though dead) birds, snakes and mammals this way and while I’d prefer to see them with blood pumping through their veins, I’ll take what I can get.

Later that day I arrived in Gumare and met with my next Peace Corps host, Jeff.  It was funny to stay with Jeff in a way because it was the first guy I’d stayed with in Botswana (after meeting and staying with 4 women) and compared to the photo-decorated homes of the others, Jeff truly had a bachelor-style pad.  The things that were important to me were all there, such as running water and the ultimate luxury, unlimited internet!  (most internet connections out here are pay-as-you-go and not cheap).  Jeff had some things to do so I spent the afternoon washing up (myself and laundry), using the internet and catching up on a few other things that are more easily done indoors than out. 

That evening after Jeff finished playing soccer, I met him in the center of town and we went to Chicken House for what seems to be the classic African meal, fried chicken and fries.  Healthy!  From dinner, we went to one of the bars in town and were met by Dave, who in his 60s after decades in the insurance industry decided to get out and join Peace Corps (“Every bad thing you have ever heard about the insurance industry is true.”). 

Distance covered, 59km.

Day 17:  Jeff, like many Peace Corps volunteers lives in part of a ‘family compound’ in his village; these are two of the young boys outside as I was leaving that morning.  Just as everyone else has been, Jeff was an awesome host and I’ll be joining him for another night when I turn south again.  Thanks Jeff!

On this day I really started to notice the changes in the trees and brush.  I particularly enjoyed these plants.

Coming from Sehithwa, riding towards Shakawe.  At this point I started seeing signs for Okavango Delta tourist activities, so while there isn’t much going on up here beyond your typical African villages, I’m not the only foreigner who makes it out this direction.

I’d experienced headwinds many times on my journey so far, but none as strong as on this day.  At one point it was blowing so hard I was struggling to achieve 9kph.  Needless to say, this was frustrating.  However I was still on ‘The Peace Corps Highway’ and had another host to stay with in the next village of Sepopa, Aimee.  She is from Arizona, and lives and works primarily with the health clinic in her town.  Sepopa is about as small as you can imagine.  The ‘downtown’ consists of about three shops, a general dealer that has some groceries, a butcher and a bar.  The most entertaining thing in the village is Aimee’s cat Moose.  I’m animal deprived traveling in Africa (you can’t exactly play with a cow) so I enjoyed having a hyper active cat to play with. 

The nice thing about Sepopa though is that it is right on the edge of the delta and I was able to see my first bit of water (other than the quarry) since the dam in Gaborone.  The dividing line is pretty striking, on one side you have the dry, sandy ground and thorny scrub brush that makes up the majority of Botswana, then on the other side you have the delta that is lush green reeds, muddy soil, aquatic birds and year-round greenery.  That night, we cooked up a big stir-fry and watched the movie ‘Beer Wars’ about small breweries in America while lamenting the fact we can’t get craft micro brews in Africa.  First world problems, I know.

Distance covered, 80km.

Day 18:  In the morning, we were discussing breakfast ideas when I mentioned the other day on my bike I’d been craving pancakes.  Amazingly Aimee said “No problem” and as simple as that, a breakfast of big apple cinnamon pancakes, eggs and toast was had.  Great stuff, thanks Aimee!

For a few days now I’ve been witnessing the gradual increase in greenery and the change to actual trees rather than just brush, but today it was especially obvious.  I was continuing to ride along the western edge of the Okavango Delta and between the villages that don’t seem to have changed much in the past hundred years, I got my first true views of the Delta.  I’ve enjoyed the dry and barren areas I’ve ridden through so far, but I have to be honest and say it felt great to see so much green again.

In the early afternoon I arrived in the town of Shakawe.  It’s far bigger and more developed than Sepupa but other than the people who live there, it is mostly just used as a final stop in Botswana before crossing into Namibia by overlanders.  As I was nearing the town I was passed by these strange 6 wheel trucks so when I came upon them outside the grocery store I had to ask about them.  Turns out they are old Austrian military vehicles that were shipped to southern Africa and I had a nice little chat with an older Austrian couple who was driving one of them.

And yes, I had another Peace Corps host in Shakawe as well!  This time it was Bridget and Matt, a married couple who are actually from the Puget Sound area (my home region) which was cool. 

They have what I think is nicest setup of anyone I’ve stayed with so far, and they certainly know it.  They joke they were expecting to stay in mud huts or something but get a place like this instead and as such have dubbed it “Posh Corps.”  Their place did come with the TV (gets 4 channels), entertainment center, couches and whatnot, but still doesn’t have a fridge or even a stove.  They are supposed to be on their way, but again it’s impossible to say when.  Another major plus for their place is that they can pick up wifi from the neighbour, which is pretty sweet too.

Along with the nice house in general, it is also just about 100 feet from the flood plains of the delta, which makes for excellent bird watching.

That night, we had beers around the campfire and made a nice steak dinner, talk about hospitality!

Distance covered, 59km.

Day 19:  So I was in Shakawe, but I was still not quite across the country.  A little while before I set off on this bike trip, I rode from Gaborone to the Tlokweng border of South Africa with Michael (maybe 20km?), where we had coffee with a lonely office worker, so it was my duty to reach the Namibian border of Mohembo to make this single-speed solo crossing of Botswana official. 

Near the border, I turned off briefly to check out the ferry boat that takes vehicles over the river.  It seemed to be out of commission at the moment, which I’m told happens with some frequency and given that it is one of the only access points to that part of the country, makes it a fairly remote region indeed.

I continued riding towards the border crossing, and when I reached there was certainly no security or anyone outside to tell me what to do, so I simply rode my bike past Botswana Immigration and up to the ‘Welcome to Namibia’ sign.  I started by trying to get a picture with my mini-tripod, but they weren’t working very well so when I saw a guy a little farther down the road who was a border guard, I walked over to ask if he could take a photo for me.  He was happy to, and while he might not have been the most brilliant photographer, he was a nice guy. 

For some reason, that little shack behind the Namibia sign and under the tree sold cans of pop, so I sat down for a victory drink and a chat with the border guard and the other woman inside.  As I was doing this, a border guard from the Namibia side came in and asked to see my passport.  Oops!  I was never planning on leaving Botswana or truly entering Namibia, but by going to the shack and having a can of pop I’d done just that, I’d crossed into another country without my passport or anything, haha!  I told him I’d leave (as in walk about 30 feet back where I came from) but he didn’t seem to mind, and became very interested when I told him I’d just crossed the entire country of Botswana on this bike, and that I’d moved out of my house, sold my car and bought a one-way ticket to travel Africa for a year and a half. 

So now I’ve truly crossed Botswana on my first ever bike trip.  1,345km, solo, on a $124 single speed bike, not using saddle bags, in flip flops and against the ‘advice’ of plenty of people.  I was watching TV just before I left actually, and caught the end of an interview with Riaan Manser, a South African adventurer/traveller.  He was talking about his 2-year journey riding around Africa and said when a person tells you something is impossible and that you shouldn’t try it, it is usually just them projecting their own fear of failure onto you.  I think there is a great deal of truth to that and while I’m certainly not going to compare my little bike ride to any serious adventure trip (as I said, so far it’s been pretty easy actually), it’s a step in the direction of bigger and better adventures.  Plus, it’s far from over, I still have 1,000+km to ride just to get out of Botswana, then I’ll probably end up wandering through Zambia…

I returned to Sepopa and Bridget gave me a little tour of town.  Key word ‘little’.  That said, it’s a nice enough town, has a few decent shops and even a restaurant, something rare to find in small villages in Africa.

Despite warnings of hippos and crocodiles (“never swim where you can’t see the bottom”), it was hot out, I’ve been water deprived for too long and needed to go for a swim in the source of the great Okavango.  I guess you could say it was my victory dance and man it was refreshing! 

So I accomplished one goal; crossing the country.  But as I said, my original plan was to ride to Victoria Falls in Zambia.  Because of this, I have at least 1,000km of riding ahead of me, hopefully including actually doing some activities in the Okavango delta as well as the Makgadikgadi salt pans.  Right now I have no idea how I’m going to fit it all in, but stay tuned for Part 2: my ride from Shakawe around the Delta, into Zambia and to Victoria Falls!