Monday, September 3, 2012

Gaborone has been great to me, but it’s time to move on.

Wow, I can hardly believe it is already September and I’ve already been in Botswana for more than a month and a half. Time sure flies, but in this case a little too fast.  I’m already feeling the pressure of my visa expiring in mid-October and this means I’ll be a bit rushed on my cycle trip across Botswana.  That was exactly what I was hoping to avoid, as I’d initially planned and pictured it as a leisurely cruise, but oh well.  Let’s get up to speed on what’s going on out here.

I’ve said it before but I’ll say it again, long term travel like this often has dull or uneventful days.  At this point I was having a few of them and starting to get a little restless, however I wasn’t able to move on just yet so patience was an order.  One very important item I’d been waiting on was this tent.  I bought a large two person tent in South Africa when I first came out here, but not only was it a bit of an issue due to its size and weight, two of the poles got broken in transport, so I had my mother mail me my backpacking tent from home.  It’s a substantial upgrade given what I’ll be using it for, and while I tried to find a quality tent here in Gaborone, there were no good options.  Having this piece of equipment finally, I was nearing completion of my necessary gear.

The next evening, after yet another day running around town in search a few items such a bike computer, I joined Michael on the University of Botswana campus.  My previous time on campus was just hanging out with the international students around the dorms, but on this night I was happy to experience ‘411’, the student bar on campus with the locals.  It’s a pretty run down looking place to be honest, but it is truly local, and the beers are only 9.5 pula, by far the cheapest I’d seen anywhere to date.  In recent years, the president has been pushing to change Botswana alcohol culture, including a near doubling of prices, reduced hours for bars and reduced hours on bottle stores.  I’m not sure if it is a result of that campaign or not, but at the entrance to the student bar, there is a sign that reads “Alcohol is like love, the first kiss is like magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine.  Control your drinking, Too much alcohol can put you at risk of life threatening situations.”  I’m not sure of the efficacy of these efforts, to my eyes people here seem to drink pretty hard, when they can afford it that is. 

When Paul and I had gone to Mokolodi Game Reserve for the (rather useless) animal snare search a while back, we saw a sign for a star gazing night and decided to go.  We arrived at the park in the evening after the sun had gone down and piled into the safari trucks for the drive out to the site.  I was unsure of what to expect, but I was hoping for a telescope, a handful of people and a clearly visible Milky Way.  As we arrived and climbed out of the trucks it seemed none of this was true.  There were maybe 100+ people, no telescope and the skies were a bit hazy.  After chatting for a while and eating a buffet dinner (which was pretty good by the way) everyone sat down to a lecture of sorts about the skies above us.  While I don’t intend to demean their efforts, the older expat couple speaking were amateur at best and I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by the whole event…

In the morning, there was another farmers market and Paul, Stewart, Philipp and I all set out to enjoy the afternoon.  This event was at a different location than the last, on a small farm 20 minutes or so out of Gaborone.  Being a rather small community, I saw a number of familiar faces from the other event, but it was well organized and enjoyable.  The family who owned the farm were not initially farmers, but after their home burned down a few years back a new path in life emerged and the idea was born.  We stuck around for a few hours looking at the crops, eating food off the braii and even a bit of cotton candy from a stand.  In the afternoon we headed to the Grand Palm Hotel and Casino for a drink, and then called it a day. 

I had time on my hands, so I decided to explore the city a big on my bicycle a bit.  One stop on my wanderings was the ‘Three Dikgosi Monument.’  These statues, depicting the founding fathers of Botswana are in the CBD opposite the new High Court building and situated in a nice, clean, quiet park.  Had I not wanted to keep exploring, it would have been a nice place to sit with a book.  As I was leaving, the security guard stopped me and asked me to sign the register book, then asked me if I wanted to pay or see the park for free.  I was slightly confused by the question, but as a fee was not required nor really justified, I opted not to hand over any pula, and rode on through the city. 

Another day running around town.  I dropped by the post office on Main Mall to send a few post cards home to my family, met Michael at UB, bought some gasoline for my MSR Whisperlite stove and fully loaded my bike for the first time to test it out.  I knew it was going to be interesting, but to be honest I was surprised how much weight it all added up to and how it made the bike feel.  I’d never ridden a loaded bike before and the fact I was not using panniers meant my center of gravity is pretty high.  Oh well, it seemed like it was going to work well enough for my purposes, haha.  That evening, I went wandering again, and stopped to watch some students playing soccer in the last minutes of daylight.

Wanting to spend a fair amount of time on my bike and because Michael and I had a good time on our ride to the South African border the other week, this time we set out for the Gaborone Dam.  We intended on visiting the Yacht Club, however due to three men dying in mysterious circumstances, it was closed.  We were not deterred in our goal of getting lakeside, so we found a road that seems to be used for testing out line-painting trucks and set off. 

After a short while on the road, we ducked off into the bush and walked towards the water, eventually settling on a tall group of round boulders to chat and enjoy the peaceful scenery. 

We saw one or two locals heading farther around the bend, so we hopped back on our bikes to do some off roading.  Now mostly slick, semi-narrow tires are far from ideal when negotiating sand and bushes, but I’m already going to be testing this bike to its limits, so I might as well start now.  After a bit more riding and a lot more fun, Michael had to return to UB for class and we headed back through the mud, sand, grass and thorns back into town. 

Once again, I had time to kill and realized I still hadn’t visited the National Museum.  It is just at Main Mall and entrance is free, so I locked up my bike to a lamp post and headed in.  Now it’s certainly not the greatest museum around, but it does teach a lot about the history of the country and has some fairly nice exhibits of stuffed lions, vultures and bucks.  One thing I found particularly interesting however was the section on the San people (often known as the ‘bushmen’).  The display was talking about how they find water in the Kalahari desert, and explained how some of the roots shown here can hold as much as three liters of water!  (that is if you know how to find them)

The next evening, it was back to UB with the international students.  Instead of the student bar however, we went off campus to a place called the Officers Mess.  Like the student bar, it is a very local affair, drinks are cheap, and the patrons are almost entirely young males.

For a few days now, Paul and I had been trying to find information on the ‘Afri-can International Music and Cultural Festival’ to no avail.  It was intended to be a large three-day festival near the Gaborone Dam, but due to all sorts of organizational problems, it had turned into a single day event, far out of town, with a whole lot less to do than initially promised.  It was supposed to begin around 10am, but when we showed up around 2pm, all we saw was a huge empty field and about 30 people sitting in the shade, made up entirely of the UB international students!  That said, there was a large and truly professional stage, sound and light system, probably the best stage setup ever to be built in Botswana (not kidding about that) and it showed the lofty aspirations of the organizer.  Unfortunately, there was almost no advertising, and few people even knew the event was happening.

There were supposed to be events and activities all day and to be fair, there was a children’s bouncy-castle(!), but the music didn’t start until about 6pm.  Despite the 5 hours of waiting, I was having a great time hanging out, eating food and making new friends.  The event might have been an obvious disaster in terms of attendance, but it had a lot of potential, a good vibe and a faraway but good location. 

From the first band going on until I left at about midnight, there was an excellent mix of music; reggae, hip hop, jazzy stuff and more.  The Metrophones and The Chicken Bus were two standouts of the evening, putting on top notch performance’s that stand up against just about any other festival show I’ve been too. 

Despite the small numbers, those of us who were actually there all had a great night of music and dance.  The audience comprised of about half locals and about half international students were all in the highest of sprits and the dancing, while dusty, was energetic and loose.  Around midnight, I decided to call it a night, and because Paul, Ally and Philipp had returned home earlier in the evening, I took the provided shuttle bus back into town which was a nice (and necessary) feature of the event.

Part of the reason to leave the festival before the music was over, was that the next morning I was joining Michael and his friend Kao to a church in the town of Kanye.  Kao’s mother is the pastor of this small congregation, so she invited us to join her for the Sunday service.  Now I’m not exactly a church-going person, but it sounded like an interesting experience and one I wanted to take part in.  We met at the bus rank, and at 7:30am, caught a bus to Kanye.  As it didn’t take us all the way into town, we hitch hiked the rest of the way, a common, safe and easy way to get around Botswana. 

The church itself is a non-descript white shoebox of a building, simple and utilitarian from the outside, but inside richly decorated with colourful cloth on the ceiling and walls and filled with about 35 plastic lawn chairs.  The beginning of the service was mostly singing, led by the five women at the front (Kao on the right) and then joined by the whole congregation.  The singing itself seemed to be Christian standards with a bit of a Botswana touch, and the sound was every bit as beautiful as that of the concerts the night before.  Once the singing was over there were readings from the bible, much talk of the ‘thirst for Jesus’, members coming to the front for individual blessings (often resulting in them collapsing on the floor) and finally the Sunday school kids giving some birthday presents to the pastor.  I was impressed and pleased I woke up early to join. 

After the service, we joined Kao to visit some of her family in Kanye, and then hitched the 95km back to Gaborone.  I didn’t arrive home until about 5pm, but maybe due to divine intervention, I arrived home to Paul cooking up a huge feast on the braii, haha! 

Because I came to Botswana specifically to ride across it on a bike, it was time for a few day test ride before the real deal.  I finally had all the necessary gear, and while I didn’t know where I was even going to go, I loaded up my bike and set off for the first time.  On the front of the bike, below the factory rack is dual 10 litre water jugs, on the rack is my day backpack, and on the rear rack is my tent and my large backpack.  Between my choice of bike, not buying cycling pannier bags and riding in flip flops, I have to be one of the most foolish looking cycle tour riders ever, but hey, that’s kind of the point! 

I headed south out of Gaborone, past Mokolodi and towards the town of Otse.  Although riding through town was a bit dodgy, once I was out on the open road it was smooth sailing.  The roads in Botswana are quite good, some places the shoulder is a full 4 feet wide and traffic is light.  I was certainly feeling the weight of my gear, but also feeling strong and confident.  About 25km into the ride, I encountered my first hill, a challenge for the heavily loaded single speed bike and the out of shape rider sitting on it.  I pushed on; realizing the only effective way to climb was keeping my speed up as much as possible and refusing to stop.  It wasn’t exactly easy, but it wasn’t too bad either.  At the apex, I stopped to catch my breath, had some water, and let gravity take me down the other side. 

The reason I was headed to Otse was to see the Manyelanong Game Reserve, a spot where engendered Cape Vultures nest on the cliffs.  There is essentially nothing in Otse, but with directions from the locals I found the Otse Wildlife Station and spoke with the staff.  I told the women I would be camping somewhere, and without even asking, she said I could set up my tent in the station compound in a carport. 

Hoping to see the vultures, I dropped my gear and rode to the base of the hill and the cliff.  The area is surrounded by a high fence to protect the birds from interference.  After passing two women carrying bundles of sticks for firewood and a man herding cattle, I arrived at the viewing point but the birds were nowhere in sight.  The only evidence of their presence being the white poop stains on the rocks where they stay.  I’d ridden 65km on this first day out, and feeling a mixture of tiredness and excitement for my little journey, I returned to my camp, cooked dinner, read in my book and went to sleep.

The next morning I awoke early to check the birds again, but this time again it was a bust, not a single vulture in sight.  I was told this was because they were in their nesting period and less active, but a week or two back Michael had seen them when he visited, so I wasn’t sure why I was having such poor luck.  After breakfast, I packed up my things and hit the road again.

Another example of the roads I was riding.  Once again big shoulders, light traffic and well signed routes made for easy travel.  On this day, I was passing through the larger town of Lobatse and on to Kanye, then town I had just been for church on Sunday. 

Stopping under a tree for some shade and a lunch break.

I was feeling my legs from the day before, and this time I filled my water jugs almost full to see how riding with the increased weight would affect everything.  On top of that, I had headwinds that seemed to show up every time I was going up even the slightest hill, making my work twice as hard.  I’m usually pretty tolerant of bad weather and though conditions, but wind just irritates me like nothing else and from time to time found myself shouting at it to leave me alone.  The wind didn’t seem to listen. 

While Botswana is usually a very dry country, as you ride you see evidence of what must be a huge flood of water when the rains come and while I was very curious what that might look like, I was also happy to be staying dry. 

I pushed on and up what seemed to be a 3-4km uphill into Kanye, bringing me into town around 5pm.  The sun was starting to go down, traffic was at its peak and the riding was a bit challenging.  Getting plenty of funny looks and cars honking at me, I arrived at the grocery store on the other side of town, bought some cold drinks, veggies, and pushed my way out of town as fast as possible, trying to beat the rapidly falling sun.

Having just been on this same route a few days prior, I knew the bush outside of town would be a good place to camp and ducked off the main road down a dirt track to look for a spot.  As I arrived, I saw I’d ridden 95km and was more than happy to get off the bike for the day.  I set up camp between some thorn bushes, cooked a delicious dinner under a thin layer of clouds and after more time with my book went to sleep.  I was awoken at midnight not by people, but by two cows and the loudly clanging bells around their necks.  Unable to sleep with the racket around me, I climbed out of my tent to scare them away but quickly realized how futile these efforts would be.  Luckily I always carry ear plugs with me when I travel for noisy buses or dorm rooms in backpackers, but I never thought I’d need them for bush camping! 

I decided that this was only going to be a three day trip, as I knew what I needed to know (that I had everything I needed, that the bike performed well, what the roads were going to be like, etc) and wanted to get back to Gabs and prepare to set off for good.  This photo is by far the largest hill I experienced on my ride.  Luckily I was going down it, but I’ll be headed in the opposite direction on the real ride and I now for a fact I’ll be pushing the bike up this one…

Road construction on the way to Gabs.  I’m pretty sure they just took every road sign and empty barrel they had and threw them in the middle of the road, haha.

I arrived back home at about 3:30, having pushed fairly hard for another 95km day; for a total of 255km over the three days.  Not bad all things considered!  Everything went well, I was sore but confident in my setup and in myself, and happy to know that this thing was finally happening. 

I spent the next day simply resting and recovering.  But after that, I had work to do again.  I’ll be crossing from Botswana into Zambia next and it was not entirely clear the rules for entering Zambia as I’d read conflicting reports.  Luckily, the Zambian embassy is right on Main Mall and I was told that yes, I can get a tourist visa on arrival for $50, good for three months.  This was my understanding originally, but it was nice to hear it from Zambia itself.

Locals playing the ‘shell game’ outside Game City Mall.’  Every time I walk past they try to get me to make a bet, however I know I’d just be throwing my money away on their tricks and never take the bait. 

Lying in bed the next morning, I finally finished the book Dark Star Safari, by Paul Theroux.  I’d originally picked this book up in Seattle before I started my trip, but it ended up getting forgotten at home.  Luckily I came across it again while staying with Britt in her village a while back and took it with me.  It is a wonderful story of an adventurous and intelligent traveller in Africa, with fantastic observations on the current status of the continent.  I especially enjoyed it because in Tanzania, Malawi, Mozambique, and South Africa he was writing about areas I’d been and things I’d seen as well and could compare his observations to my own.  It's probably as close to traveling in Africa as you can get without a plane ticket.  Yes, I know that is an absurdly chicle description, but it's honestly true.  Highly, highly recommended. 

That evening it was back to UB campus to join Michael and Michelle for a dinner and dancing that was being put on by UB Grad Student Association.  The evening consisted of a few dull speeches and a dinner of cafeteria food that didn’t start until 9:30 or 10, but once the music and dancing started, it turned out to be a very fun night.  Not quite sure how it happened, but the three of us ended up hanging around this small grad student party dancing until 3am!

Sundays are usually for lazing around with Paul and the crew and after a bit of that Paul, Philipp, Stewart, Stephan and I headed off to the dam and the Gaborone Yacht Club for lunch.  It used to be an island apparently when water levels were higher, but today is a dirt road to what is now just a rocky hill with a nice view of the dam and water.  There is a large collection of kayaks, canoes and small sail boats there in various states of functionality, and I didn’t see anyone on the water the whole time I’ve been in Gabs, but the club is a pretty nice place to relax and eat a meal. 

From there we decided to go back into town and the CBD for coffee.  This is the Masa Center, one of the countless new high end commercial developments in the city, and like the rest of them one with questionable financial and business sense behind it… then it was back home to complete the lazy Sunday with a movie.  Might as well enjoy my last days in the city, huh?

My last full day before my departure has been filled once again with running around town picking up last minute supplies and taking care of other errands.  Moving into warmer weather and closer to the equator as well, I did yet another short of my gear and sent home some of my warm clothes.  While it is a good feeling to reduce what I am carrying on my bike and later on my back, it seems that that as I get rid of one thing I add another.  That said, the things I've been adding is camping gear which will give me a lot more flexibility in more rural Africa, so I guess I can't complain.

This evening Michael came over to say goodbye and I gave him my copy of Dark Star Safari, then I went to dinner with Paul and Philipp.  We went out for Indian food and I ate like a fat kid, I figure it's my last proper meal before a long ride, so once again I might as well enjoy myself, haha.

Paul, thank you so much for your hospitality the whole time I've stayed with you.  When I connected with you through CouchSurfing, I figured it would be for maybe a few days, instead I managed to become practically a full fledged housemate, staying for more than a month!  I always felt at home at your place and staying with you has allowed me to both see and enjoy Gaborone properly as well as effectively prepare for my upcoming cycle trip.  Thanks for being such a friendly guy and I hope I can return the favor some day. 

So tomorrow morning I should be setting out if everything goes to plan:  it is that from Gaborone I will ride 5-6 days to a small town where I will be meeting with Alex, another CouchSurfing host and Peace Corps volunteer, then on to Ghanzi.  There, I am hoping to spend a few days in the bush with the San people but not sure if that will work out.  Next, I will head north to Maun and the Okavango Delta, where I will hopefully do some animal watching, then east towards the Makgadikgadi salt pans and finally turn north at Nata towards the border with Zambia where I will reach Victoria falls.  Sounds easy right? As I said above, I'm starting to run up against my 90-day visa expiring.  My original idea was that I'd only spend two or three weeks in Gaborone at most, then would have a leisurely ride across the country.  That's not going to happen anymore, so there will defiantly be days when I have to push depending on the days off riding I end up taking for other activities.  Right now I'm just looking forward to setting out, testing myself and sleeping under the clear Botswana skies.  

Stay tuned, this ought to be interesting!