Sunday, October 14, 2012

Tsodilo Hills, the Okavango Delta, Old Friends, New Friends & a New Leg of the Adventure

When you live life on the road, nothing stays the same.  You live by vague plans, rough ideas and wild dreams.  Just the other night, a satellite photo I saw of a certain body of water grabbed hold of me and put my imagination into overdrive, but that part of my adventure is a ways away, so you will just have to wait and see what happens.  In the meantime, as I write this I am sitting in a 1974 VW van my new friend Stefan has driven all the way from Germany, camping in the bush under a baobab tree and thinking about the elephant meat we bought from a local woman this morning.  But I’m getting ahead of myself again, so you will just have to wait for those stories as well.  Let’s just start where I left off, ok?

The day after completing my ride across Botswana on a single-speed bike I decided was going to be a rest day.  I think I deserved it.  I spent the morning at Matt and Brigitte’s house relaxing, writing and having a taste of PlumpyNut, a nutrient paste given to malnourished children.  It didn’t taste so bad actually. 

That evening I had an event scheduled, dinner with some people I’d met on my bike a few days back.  They stopped me on the road and when I said I’d be in Shakawe in a few days (where they happened to be working), they invited me to dinner.  I met Rod, Julius and Peter at the grocery store and we drove to Drotsky's Campsite, a very nice lodge just a few km outside of town.  We took a short boat ride on the river as the sun was going down then enjoyed dinner and drinks and good conversation.  As tends to happen, the focus of conversation shifted towards life on the road, my experiences in Africa, how to live without being tied down town by bills and mortgages and office jobs.  As also happens often, Rod invited me to stay with him in Johannesburg should I be down that way again, and Julius invited me to stay with him in Kansane, a favour I’d cash in a few weeks later. 

I’d intended to give my mind and my body a break from the bicycle after so many days on the road, but that didn’t mean I was going to take it easy.  Part of the reason I made this huge detour to Shakawe and the northwest of Botswana was to see the Tsodilo Hills, rocky cliffs that appear in the middle of nowhere, out of the otherwise flat bush and filled with ancient paintings.  First I had to find a way to get there. 

I left Bridget and Matt’s house around 8am and stood on the dusty roadside, trying to hitch a ride south.  I would have loved to simply ride my bike to Tsodilo, but the access road is 38km of dirt and soft sand and probably not possible on a bike.  I’m not going to say it can’t be done, because people said I couldn’t ride my single speed across Botswana, but I knew I wasn’t going to try it!  I waited for two hours trying to hitch a ride, but eventually the public bus came and for about 7 pula I had transport part of the way.

I was hoping that once I got onto this 38km sand road into the hills I’d be able to hitch a ride nearly all the way, but I was prepared to walk the whole thing and started doing just that.  I quickly got a ride from two guys who said they were doing some mineral prospecting, but that only took me about 3km, so I was quickly walking through hot sand in my flip flops again.  The heat felt worse than I’d experienced so far on my bike, and because I was unsure if the camp actually had water, I was carrying a heavy load.  Within an hour of walking, I could see the hills in the distance and was excited for the prospect of something other than flat bush, but despite my fast pace, it never seemed close enough.  I walked four hours through hot sand before another car actually came going my way, and I gratefully hopped in the back with four other guys who were headed to the village. 

They dropped me at the main entrance and because no one was at the station, I let myself in the gate and enjoyed the view.  Hills!  Cliffs!  Boulders!  Standing up out of the middle of nowhere!  It was all so different compared to the rest of the country it is easy to see why early people would believe this to be a sacred site, so I plodded through the sand to find the campsite.

I was nearing the base of the hills and where I assumed the campsite would be but I struggled to keep moving.  I don’t know if it was just the heat, or that I hadn’t carried a heavy backpack in ages, or that walking on soft sand is very taxing on your ankles, or maybe just the simple fact I’d walked about 30km through the desert at a rapid pace, but I felt like crap.  I decided to hope for the best and assume the campsite would have water, so I gulped down more than I’d originally budgeted for, and finally reached the campsite.

It was nearly empty.  There were no vehicles, tourist or otherwise and no people that I saw.  The first thing I did however was test the taps and yes, there was water!  Relieved, I greedily drank another litre and a half before standing up again to look around.  I walked into the courtyard area of the new office and museum area and was surprised to see a white girl sitting alone reading an anthropology book.  I introduced myself and we began to chat.  Turns out Jenifer is a Canadian exchange student who is studying at UB and came to the hills alone just to camp out and soak up the history of the area for a few days.  We talked for a few hours as the sun went down on the hills and through dinner, and I agreed to join her on a hike the next morning, as she had already hired a guide.

After the usual breakfast of powdered milk and granola, we set off early (ok, 8am, but earlier than I usually start moving on my bike) to do Cliff Trail.  This is one of the less used trails in the park as it begins 4km from the office but it lead to a cave Jenifer particularly wanted to see.  Oh, and full disclosure, I had to put on shoes for the first time in ages, my feet were killing me from the previous days hike…

I will say the guide was a decent idea, as the ‘trail’ is basically invisible.  If you don’t know where it is, you will have a very hard time following it and seeing all of the ancient paintings along the route.  We first stopped at a ‘well’ of sorts where sprits are said to live (all I heard was the disgusting buzzing of huge flies) then up to the edge of the cliffs.  And these are proper cliffs, made of beautiful and bizarrely eroded stone.  People come to see the rock paintings, but to me the stone is the greatest artwork visible here. 

Here Jenifer is examining the cave closely, and telling both the guide and myself about some of the theories about its usage, thousands of years ago.

The hike lasted about two and a half hours, but because we began early I had time to see a bit more before heading back to Shakawe, so I did the close path that receives the most usage, Rhino Trail.  The artwork on the stones here is pretty amazing stuff when you think about the fact it is up to 24,000 years old, and the fact it is so well preserved defiantly makes it a worthwhile place to visit.

Mother nature’s art, my favourite kind.

After all these thousands of years, colors remain vivid, lines remain sharp and there is plenty to see.  I did a bit of a speed hike through the trail to be honest, but I still needed to hitch all the way to Shakawe today and I had no idea how well that was going to work out.  Despite this, Rhino Trail didn’t disappoint, and works range from the usual rhinos, giraffes and zebras, all the way to a whale, penguin and men with huge penises.  Given the fact this last one was painted on the underside of a rock in a cave-like space, it reminded me of the dirty drawings you often find in public toilet stalls. 

Still very sore from yesterday’s walk into the hills, I decided not to bother starting out on foot, and just sat on the roadside hoping for the best.  I had only just made a pile of rocks to sit on in the shade and gotten out my water to have a drink when a German couple on a pair of dusty BMWs pulled up and offered me a ride.  My bag went on the back of one, I rode on the other.  Let me tell you, going down sand roads on the back of a BMW motorcycle at 100kph is a lot more fun than walking. 

It turns out they have rode all the way from Germany on their current adventure and I was certainly happy to have crossed paths with them.  Thanks for the ride!  Because they were headed the other direction, I hopped off at the sign and they sped off.  This time I figured I’d be waiting a while, so I got out my lunch and began eating.  One car drove past, but seconds later another stopped and invited me to climb in.  I hadn’t even had time for a snack!  However, when hitching you can wait for hours sometimes and I wasn’t about to complain about the fact I hitched two different rides in under a minute!  I returned to Shakawe sore, tired and dirty, but just as before, Bridgette and Matt were there for me with an awesome place to stay for the night and a much needed bath.

The next morning I said goodbye to my lovely hosts, ran into the German motorcyclists at the grocery store, and set off on my bike again.  Because I’d already seen this section or road and I had to be in Maun on the 29th to visit Leo and some of my other Gaborone friends I rode fast.  I had originally hoped to blast all the way to Gumare which would have been a 140km day, but I was hurting from the hike the other day and knew that wasn’t going to happen, so I contacted Aimee in Sepopa and arranged to stay with her again.

Aimee opening a care package from home (it was mostly food) while her cat looks on with the usual feline curiosity. 

I felt a little antisocial doing it, but I used nearly all my time at Aimees place sitting and writing my previous blog post.  However, sometimes you just have to get some work done, and this was my opportunity to do it as I had electricity and more importantly, would be able to get an unlimited internet connection the next day to get it posted. 

Distance covered, 59km.

When there is only one route through an area it is easy to run into the same people again and again.  Early into the days ride I heard the honk of a horn and looked to see Rod, Peter and Julius again.  I stopped to say hello, then went on my way again. 

To be honest, I was bored out of my mind riding on this day.  I’m not sure what it was, maybe just the fact I’d ridden the section already, but I had another day of fast peddling into Gumare where I stayed with Jeff again.  Like last time, we went to Chicken House for dinner, but unlike last time I had two dinners instead of only one.  After numerous problems with the internet and frequent power cuts, I eventually got my blog posted between watching Fargo (which is even better than I remembered it being) and chatting with my brother Brian.  As I was working, the first drops of rain I’ve seen in Botswana and the first of the upcoming rainy season fell from the sky.  This caused a great deal of excitement among the children who live on Jeff’s family compound and they took the opportunity to dance in the brief rain shower.  Their energy was infectious, but my first thought when I saw the rain was that I hoped it would stop, I wasn’t interested in riding in it the next day. 

Distance covered, 80km.

Once again my plans of getting an early start and having a long day of riding were foiled by numerous holdups.  I didn’t start moving until 10am and once I did begin, my inner tubes decided today was the day to pretty much quit on me.  I only had a few left that held any air, but as soon as I started riding it seemed they all thought it was time to die.  I fought with them for a while, limped along hoping for the best and eventually had to admit defeat after 32km as once again I was left with a single tube holding air, my ’26 inch miracle.’  I didn’t feel good about it, but I took my gear off the bike and waited to hitch a ride south. 

I pulled out my copy of The Hobbit, and splitting my attention between the epic tale and the light traffic on the road I waited.  And waited.  And waited.  Because of my bike, I’d have to hitch a ride from a truck, and most of them were already jammed full of 10+ people in the back when they passed me.  It was nearly 5pm when I finally got a ride and while the truck was pretty full, I was able to tie my bike onto the rack and squeeze in.  The driver told me the area was dangerous because of elephants (same old warnings, the warnings I tend to ignore…) and he wanted to make sure I was safe in the next town before dark. 

The helpful man dropped me in the town of Nokaneng, but all I wanted to do was get out of town as quickly as possible.  As often happens, I attracted a crowd of gawking children and two young women telling me to give them food.  I said no.  Because I’d managed to re-patch my tubes while waiting for a hitch, the glue had some time to dry.  I put my ‘best’ bad tube on and as the last minutes of light were fading, I rode away as fast as possible in order to find a nice spot in the bush outside of the town to spend the night.  I made myself a huge dinner under a nearly full moon and contemplated my next move. 

Distance covered (by bike), 38km.

While tubes that actually held air were a pretty important concern to me, I was also behind schedule in getting to Maun so I decided to hitch to Sehitwa (as I’d already rode this section) and ride to Maun from there (as that would be new road to me).  I rode about 2km to a prime hitching spot (wide open space, the ability to see cars coming from a long ways off, etc) and waited.  This time the hitchhiking gods were on my side and in about half an hour I was sitting in the back of a truck speeding south at 100kph. 

In Sehithwa I strapped my gear back onto my bike and began riding the 100 or so KM to Maun. 

About 30k outside Sehithwa I came to this river crossing and once again could sense the Delta coming closer.  I felt good, I was moving quickly and while I still had a good distance ahead of me was fairly confident I’d ride into Maun to meet my friends early in the evening.

*Pssssshhhhhhhhhhhh*, flat tire.  As I was changing it just on the other side of the bridge and using what was seriously my only tube left, this couple came up to me and asked if I was OK.  I told them it was just a flat, asked to see their fish, got a photo and went on my way.

Annnnnnd nope.  Within 100 meters it died on me and I knew my ride was over for the moment.  Once again I was left with only one tube holding air (still the 26” that never should have worked in the first place) and the others, after 5 or 6 patches each simply refused to hold air any longer.  I was disappointed but out of options, my only way to Maun would be to hitch.

Just as in the morning, the hitching gods were in my favour and within about 2 minutes this big truck stopped.  The driver came out and told me he had seen me outside of Kong (this was more than two weeks ago!) and he was headed straight to Maun.  I lifted my bike and bags into the back and took a seat on a folded up tarp.  Sitting in the back of the truck right over the roaring diesel engine was painfully loud, but being well prepared I had ear plugs close at hand and felt rather proud of myself for that fact.  The remaining 70k ride to Maun flew by as I bounced around the back of that huge truck, then something happened that really bothered me, I saw another bicycle traveller!  The one time across the entire country I see another rider and I can’t stop to talk because I’m sitting in the back of a truck racing past him at 110kph! 

By 2pm I was in Maun and when I told the truck I was headed to The Old Bridge Backpackers he excitedly told me he knew just where it was and drove me right to the front gate.  I handed him a few pula for his services and prepared myself to totally shift gears, going from a bush-camping cyclist (although my bike has no gears to shift!) to a beer-drinking tourist joining in the same activities everyone does when they come to Maun.  Not that it’s necessarily a bad thing.

I gave Leo a call to say I had arrived and sat down at the bar.  After a few minutes, Leo and Danny arrived, friends I’d made back in Gaborone almost two months prior and two of Leo’s cousins.  In the entire time I’d been in Botswana at this point I’d yet to spend time at any traveller hubs and while I tend to enjoy simply doing my own thing instead of following the backpacker routes, hanging around other travellers from time to time can be very useful as well as a lot of fun.  I knew this was going to be a party weekend and I was ready for it.

The evening was spent hanging around Old Bridge, but none of us had been impressed with the food so far so we went elsewhere for dinner.  Audi Camp had some excellent dishes (I ordered two dinners again) and we ate and talked late into the night.  Back at Old Bridge we sat under the fig tree on the river edge and while in the daytime it is being raided by birds, at night the tree belongs to the bats.  At any one moment, you could see 4-5 bats careening around the trees branches, only to grab hold of a soft fig, pause for a brief moment to eat, and then fly off again just as quickly. I watched this for hours during my stay and it never became boring. 

The next day was one mostly for relaxing.  I did some laundry, read my book, some guys went fishing, and then we all piled into Leo’s truck for a run to the beer store, a brief visit to the museum and an ultimately fruitless search for some game park outside of town.  It felt like old times with old friends and I was happy to be along for the ride.  The thing about life on the road when you are solo is that you are responsible for everything you do and every second of the day, for months or years at a time.  All this responsibility gets tiring and sometimes it’s nice to let go of the steering wheel so to speak, climb in the back and simply enjoy the ride.  That is what I was in Maun to do.

As I was laying in the hammock reading, I heard a familiar voice and when I got out to investigate I found it was Alex who I’d stayed with a few weeks back at the start of my bike trip!  I had no idea she’d be around, but it’s a small country and it wouldn’t be the last friend I’d run into at The Old Bridge. 

In the evening we made sure our cooler was full of beer and hopped aboard a boat for one of the sunset delta cruises, after all, seeing the delta is what I’d come to Maun for so it was time to accept the role of typical-tourist, sit back and just have fun. 

The cruise was only an hour long, but split between six of us was reasonably priced and quite enjoyable.  Just spending time on the water was such a change from the scorching sand and asphalt I’d spent the last few weeks surrounded by that it was worth every pula and then some.

Enjoying the cool evenings, riverside and by lamplight.

This is where I feel most at home these days. 

As I was sitting under the fig tree, another familiar voice said hello and as I turned was surprised to see Paul, Philipp and Ally!  Paul of course is my lovely Couchsurfing host who I stayed with for five whole weeks back in Gaborone, and while none of it was planned this weekend was starting to become a sort of reunion with all the friends I’d made during my time in Botswana!

Maun is the gateway to the Okavango Delta and the classic activity out here to do a multi-day mokoro trip where you are taken through the delta on dugout canoes (thought for environmental reasons most are fiberglass now) and do game walks.  I’d thought about how to fit in one of these trips and still ride my bike out of the country before my visa expired, but I ended up coming to the conclusion there is plenty of time to ride in Zambia and beyond.  Here I was in the Okavango Delta and I was going to enjoy it, so I signed up for a two night mokoro trip knowing I’d have to end up hitching part way out of the country and decided to forget about my bike for a few days.

At around 8am I climbed aboard a motorboat and from there we sped through the delta to where we would load our things into the mokoro.  The way the system works is there is a community trust setup in the village (the sign says “Welcome to NG32”, I’m not sure of the actual villages name) and the locals take turns poling the boats, ensuring the work and the profits are spread among the community rather than between just a few people. 

There were about 50 different mokoros lying in the sand when we arrived but we were pointed to ‘ours’, loaded the bags and pushed off. 

The group consisted of me and three Italians, one who has been working in Africa for a few years and two friends who were out to visit.  I have to admit that while we got along well and they were all friendly, I felt like the odd-man-out most of the time.  That’s just how it goes when you join group trips sometimes and either way I just joined this to see the Delta and let someone else make the decisions for a few days, so it wasn’t a problem for me.

After a lunch (this was a totally self-catered trip, I provided all my own gear and cooked for myself to do it on the cheap) and some playing around in the mokoro ourselves (they are surprisingly easy to use and very stable) we were shown the swimming hole.  The sun was very strong in the early afternoon so a dip in the cool waters of the delta was just what I needed.  Hippos and crocs live in these waters but this area has somehow been determined to be safe, although I probably would have gone swimming anyways.

Where we camped was a well-used and well trampled area.  To be totally honest it wasn’t a very nice campsite and was clearly just the close easy one they shuttle huge amounts of tourists through on a daily basis.  Much of the wear and tear of the area is the result of elephants rather than people and we spent a few minutes watching this one breaking trees to eat the leaves and soft bark. 

In the early evening all four of us hopped into one boat and our guide took us through the reeds and channels of the delta to an area where we began our first walking safari, a wide open grassland 15 minutes away by boat.

I was mostly on this trip to enjoy the water and sleep in the delta, but you also get what can be some great game walks.  We saw countless zebra and wildebeest, as well as elephants, numerous types of antelope, large birds and more.  I haven’t done a walking safari in quite a while and I was instantly reminded how much I enjoy them.  Being in a vehicle allows you to get farther, move faster and also get closer to many animals but simply walking through fields of zebra is a totally different experience all together. 

An elephant taking a drink under the setting sun.

As the sun dipped below the horizon we walked back to the boat, glided gently through the water lilies and returned to camp where we cooked dinner. 

By 6:15am the next morning we were on the boat again for a morning walk.  While we didn’t manage to see any of the big cats, we did see a leopard print in the sand and just knowing they are out there is nice.  The way things are going out here with wild animal numbers however, it probably won’t be long until they are gone all together…

A typical scene.

Zebras like open spaces where they can see a good distance in every direction in order to watch for predators.  We came across this group in a dry waterhole and as we approached they decided it was too close for comfort and took off.  Although it wasn’t a huge herd of zebra, the sight, the sounds and the vibration of that many animals running at once through the Okavango Delta is probably my favourite memory of the trip. 

Finding a good view is rarely a problem for giraffes. 

On the way out, we stopped to watch this elephant swimming in one of the large pools.  They use the water both to swim in and to eat from, with the roots of the water lilies providing a good snack. 

Our guide standing in the back of the boat and providing the muscle. 

After the morning game walk we had a few hours of downtime and having finished my book the night before there was plenty of time to kill.  As always, the water was very inviting and I spent plenty of time swimming, floating and lounging about.  I took my waterproof camera with me and spent quite a while trying to get some decent photos of the tiny fish that live in the waters.  The roots of the aquatic plants proved to be more interesting photo subjects, providing an almost coral-like scene in places.

I decided to climb a tree and just observe the world in silence for a while.  I might have been silent but the insects around me certainly weren’t.  Dragonflies were everywhere and their busy wings filled the whole area with a low hum.

In the evening we piled into the boats again, this time to see the hippo pool.  It was a nice little outing, but after seeing pools of 100 hippos in the Serengeti, seeing the ears of two was a little underwhelming.  Still, it’s always nice to be floating around on a boat in the sunset, so I certainly had nothing to complain about.

Another day, another game walk.  I'm not complaining!

More of our stripped friends.

Not a bad place to spend a few days is it?

By mid-afternoon it was time to head back to civilization, so camp was packed up, the boats were loaded and we meandered south again to where we could meet the motorboat that would take us back to Maun. 

While we waited for the motorboat, we walked into the village to buy some cold drinks.  We had originally wanted to try ‘shake-shake,’ the local alcohol made from fermented sorghum, but they were all out of it at the store and our guide recommended against buying it out of the barrel the locals were drinking from. 

Once the motor boat arrived we were quickly back at The Old Bridge Backpackers and as I sorted through my photos I sat and reflected on the trip.  Our guide was friendly and fairly knowledgeable; we saw plenty of animals, the delta region is beautiful and the mokoro is the perfect way to relax and take it all in.  Totally worth it (and pretty affordable as well). 

I had seen this VW parked in one of the campsites before leaving on the boat trip and immediately I knew I wanted to meet its owner.  We crossed paths on the mokoro trip and had a short conversation, but back in Maun we sat down to chat again.  About five minutes later I was throwing my bike in the back and we’d agreed to off-road from Maun through Chobe and into Zambia.  It’s just that easy sometimes!

Total distance by bike in Botswana, 1,552 km.

Stefan (left) is the owner of the VW, a 1974 camper and has driven it all the way from Germany through the Sahara desert and West Africa alone.  He originally began with his girlfriend but when they were unable to get visas for Algeria she refused to go on and risk arrest and imprisonment in a North African jail.  Stefan however was not deterred, they broke up and he kept on driving.  His original plan was to drive to Cape Town then return home, but when he had almost finished his original route called his boss, quit his job and decided to keep traveling Africa. 

Paul (right) happens to be another German and he has been driving a Toyota Hilux with a camper through Africa solo for something like two years now.  They met in the parking lot of a grocery store just days before, did the mokoro trip together and I imagine enjoyed speaking German with each other and telling stories about their respective solo drives through West Africa. 

These are my kind of people.

I’ve mentioned how at the backpackers I’d run into seemingly everyone I’d met in my time across Botswana and tonight it kept happening.  More than a month ago in Gaborone I’d asked a few German guys who were in Botswana on a yearlong volunteer program (it’s amazing how many Germans I’ve met in Africa) to look after my bike while I ran into a shop, we had a quick chat and that was that.  Turns out they were here as well and excited to see I’d made it all the way across the country on my bike.  That night I had I had people cooking me dinner, buying my drinks and one person even decided she would mend a pair of shorts for me!  That night I felt a bit like a travel rock star and went to bed with a big smile on my face.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m joining Stefan in the VW, we are headed for some tough and maybe even impossible roads, and then will cross the border into Zambia.  My time on the bicycle has been amazing, and the ride across Botswana is without a doubt the highlight of my time in Africa thus far but when you find a travel partner like Stefan, you take it.  There is always more time to ride at a later date.  Chobe National Park ought to be interesting in a nearly 40 year old VW van and crossing into Zambia will be a huge change from my time in Botswana.  As always there is plenty to look forward to, so check back soon to see what happens next!