Sunday, May 31, 2009


From Johannesburg to Botswana via the bottle store

There’s a certain pull the desert has that infects some people like a virus, the remoteness, the huge sky peppered with stars, the gentle people, the endless undulating rhythms of the land, the stark dryness of it. We were not to encounter any stark dryness because we drove from Gauteng to Gabarone in a steady drizzle en route to Khutse Game Reserve, four hours northwest of Gabarone. We were all nervous, especially the instructors. Shepherding a convoy of twenty 4x4’s is not an easy task, even with five backup vehicles equipped with two-way radios and years of experience in all kinds of terrain. Someone was always sloping off for meat, or beer, or trailing behind and missing a turnoff. Beer cannot be brought over the border from South Africa, so we decided by popular vote, to make a bottle store stop a priority. We found ourselves in the middle of a lively market in Gabarone on a Friday night, where we encountered a lot of friendly notice, but lost another member of the party, this time an instructor.

We had all been warned to be self contained in terms of water and food and some of the travellers had taken this quite literally, we looked like the Visigoths after a particularly lucrative plundering expedition at Gauteng’s camping stores.

Our first overnight stop was the Gabarone Lion Park, and it did have real lions, a few sad looking creatures behind a wire mesh fence, who yawned and turned over like overweight tabbies. They did roar, especially when the lightning started forking down. Tent opening and peg hammering took on a new urgency as the raindrops splattered down and as soon as the great roaring communal campfire was perfectly braai-ready, the serious storm began. The lucky souls who had side awnings pulled them out quickly, and the rest went to bed with tin opener and baked beans.

In the morning after a quick foray into Gabarone to collect another wayward member of the party, and a few sorties to round up the rest of the tardy brood who had gone to replenish their stocks once more via the bottle store, we set out on the Molepolele Road towards Khutse. The road from Letlhakeng to Salajwe is called the “chicken run” and for good reason, being a one-lane strip of tar road stretching out into the distance. It’s a heady feeling, driving in the middle of the road, until a another car appears on the horizon, and you find yourself mentally measuring the width of the road, the width of the car, and breaking out in a cold sweat at 120km/hour until at the last minute the oncoming car swerves with a cheery wave and misses your wing mirror by the skin of your teeth.

As we drove westwards, the hills began to recede, the roadside was speckled with yellow duwweltjie flowers, and the neat concrete and brick houses gave way to thatch roofed mud villages, filled with running little boys and girls. The sky seemed to sweep the ground, taking on a surreal look accentuated by the flatness of the landscape all around. It was driving through a bustling little village that we encountered the phenomenon that has made Botswana one of the most easily traveled countries in the continent. We came to a road-block.

Who hasn’t experienced a roadblock in an African country, where the best fun for bored soldiers is to consume enormous amounts of beer and menace the tourists? This, however, wasn’t that kind of roadblock, it was a speedtrap, and we were guilty of doing 73 in a 60km zone. The traffic officer lifted one finger, looked very stern and said. “Don’t you ever, ever, ever do that again. Now GO”

The drivers were becoming restless. This was a 4x4 trail, and they were longing to test the capacity of their brand new Super Wide radials. They didn’t have long to wait, because it had rained through the night from Lobatse to Maun. At first, the crossings were done by the book, exiting the vehicles, discussing the approach, consulting the beer situation, measuring the depth of the water with a stick. When the sun started curving over the yardarm, it became a case of take a deep breath and engage the obstacles. The radios went deathly quiet. Those who had ignored the instructions not to drink and drive were finding that adrenalin and alcohol do not make an easy mix. What was once goodnatured banter turned into a collective intake of breath until the GPS told us we had another 57 more kilometers.

At last we entered the drier bits, which were no less perilous, consisting as they did of committing your wheels to the track and trying not to meander into the soft mound in the middle, all the while trying not to scratch the bodywork of the vehicle too badly.

We arrived parched and dusty at the Reserve Office and climbed wearily out of our vehicles. We studied the Guidelines for Visitors, and hoped that the bat-eared foxes that made up the duvet offered for sale at R600 had died of natural causes. Our campsite was next to one of the many saltpans scattered across the region. During the rainy seasons, these depressions fill up with water, which drain away like a sink during dry patches. The soil is translucent clay, which gives the illusion of water even when the pan is bone dry, an effect which frequently spooks the traveller, even one who has kept himself properly sober while he drives. Animals love these giant margarita glasses, and their hooves pound the clay into powder, which deepens the depression.

One of the pieces of literature given out at the entrance to the park was a Bird and Mammal List, and a quick perusal showed that there would be something for everyone. Of the famous Big Five, we were promised lion, cheetah, and leopard, and those creatures that don’t trip so easily off the tongue like the Pangolin and Buffy’s Pipit. The list promised lots new including the Blackwinged Prantincole, Rufouscheeked Lark, and something called a Cape Penduline Tit. It was after we were trying to conjure up a mental image of a Spikeheeled Lark then that we discovered the Hairy-Footed Gerbil.

One of the more characteristic of camping sounds is the snap of a brand new bird book or animal guide as soon as someone sights a moving object. Our guide to the mammals of South Africa informed us that the hairy-footed gerbil was a small mouse-like creature with hair under the soles of its feet, like built-in fluffy slippers. The hair brushes away the gerbil’s footprints, concealing its whereabouts from eagles, (Tawny, Steppe, Martial, or Wahlberg), and falcons (Lanner, Peregrine or Hobby), Kestrels and Kites and everything else that threatens gerbils. Ingenious, we were impressed.

The brochure further requested us to please refrain from harassing the animals, and advised that rustic bush latrines were available at some of the sites for our comfort.

In the morning, we set off in two cars, with the bulk of the party on the back of the bakkie with their binoculars poised aloft. The futility of the exercise soon became apparent. The grass was shoulder high (to me at least) and although one was sure the savannah was packed with prowling lions, snarling leopards and all creatures great and small, the dessicated tree in the distance proved not to be a giraffe, and the most we saw was the bouncing rump of what may or may not have been a retreating gemsbok.

There were mutterings about someone forgetting the Weedeater, but after a while it really didn’t matter, we discovered a newfound interest in birds. The snapping open of the Bird Book became quite deafening and in quick succession we ticked off Francolins, Rednobbed coots, any number of Hornbills, Starlings, and Finches and kamikaze little Flycatchers that dart in front of your bull bar and swoop under your wheels.

We found ourselves admiring the shapes of the Camelthorn and Umbrella thorn trees against the dramatic greys and whites of the clouds, the pink dead-looking driedoring, the hundred colours of the grasses. We stopped and looked at a swarm of minute butterflies flickering in unison on the ground and watched a colony of ants devour something that used to be a grasshopper. The blue bowl of the sky was all around us, and we had nothing but time to meander and marvel, everything was perfectly alright with the world. Days went by without sight of anything more exciting than a warthog and it’s tottering babies, who bared their teeth photogenically at us, and no sight of the ever-elusive hairy-footed gerbil. We didn’t care, life took on a gentle undulating rhythm like the landscape itself and the insects were endlessly fascinating.

It was while we were consulting the map to find another side road to explore that they came past, a grim pair of brand new, gleaming 4x4’s crashing through the bush as though late for a dinner party, clutching a beer in each fist, sunglasses clamped over pinched eyes frantically searching the horizon for IMPORTANT game.

Not too far along the road lay their little victim, a squashed piece of sandy fur tattooed with Super Wide tyre tracks, it’s hairy little feet turned up to the sky.

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