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AFRICA

#2 Botswana - Mokolodi to Maun

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& ETOSHA NP

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to Sossusvlei

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Road Report #1

South Africa

Finally, we are on the road in Africa. Over 2.5 months our little “bakkie” (South African for truck) will take us through Botswana, Namibia and South Africa – about 15,000 km.

We land in Johannesburg on May 22nd and pick up the truck with its bulbous camper. It’s small but seems to have everything we need. Over the hills ahead I expect its little 4-banger heart will falter on the steeps but we have faith.

The first few days are spent with friends Rudi and Brenda at their gracious Johannesburg home. Rudi takes us on a Joburg tour. Belying the commonly-held belief that Bobo camperJohannesburg is one of the more dangerous cities of the world, we walk the downtown streets and markets with him.

One of the more intriguing stops was to The Muti Shop which is a shop which basically wholesales all the herbs and roots and animal parts required by traditional witchdoctors to practice their craft. The staff seemed very friendly. I asked Rudi if local whites consulted this traditional medicine at all, recognizing the wisdom often found in the traditions of the ancients. He told me he acknowledges the potential in that wisdom but no, there is no avenue for that kind of interchange. Muti Shop

At the Africa Museum we viewed an exhibit of cartoons which basically delivered the message that politics is the same the world over – with the distinction that in SA the prime minister is much ridiculed for his love life which currently includes 4 wives and 19 children. Polygamy is legal here, as long as the marriages are conducted “according to traditional customs”. Which means, I guess, that people like us would have to convert to something first. Not that Steve is looking to complicate his life further.

As we drove down the street we could see the newspaper headlines, “South Africa has lost its Zuma.” This is a play on the word “Zuma” which is the president’s name and also similar to the word for sense of humour. What has happened is that an artist painted a picture of President Zuma with his dangly bits on display. Then other protestors defaced it . They are now being hauled into court. Thus the headline.
Constitution Courts
This was particularly interesting to me because the last newspaper I read before leaving home had an artist on the front page, gaining publicity for painting a nude of Prime Minister Harper. Why would you do that? I wondered. Well, Steve told me, “Look at the publicity. She is on the front page of every paper in the country.”
The world is a small place indeed.

We spent some time at the Constitutional Courts. This is the court that was set up in 1994 following South Africa’s first democratic, post-apartheid election. It draws on every element of the population for its judges and conducts business in all eleven official languages as necessary. The building itself vibConstituion Artrates with symbolism, built for example, with the bricks from the jail that once housed revolutionary icons like Mandela.

The building also houses amazing artworks. I’ve started re-reading some of my South African history and it’s an amazing country, or perhaps more accurately, an amazing people who have managed their transition from apartheid to genuine democracy with such grace and inter-racial generousity. Which is not say there are not tensions and problems. There are. But compared to the holocaust that could have been unleashed? It is a contemporary history of which each and every South African can be immensely proud.

Joburg Streets That said, the country still has immense problems, probably starting with its insanely high unemployment rate. The locals live with a level of security and caution that forcefully illustrates the axiom that a vast gap between the rich and the poor with no ladder for the poor to climb into the middle class is a very dangerous situation for both ends of the economic spectrum.

The everyday precuations taken by the locals make Canadians like us a bit perplexed. For example, they tell us to keep handbags, cellphones, cameras, etc out of sight in the car. Robbers are known to smash a cars window while someone is at a stop light, just to grab a cell phone. I don’t know if this happened once and has just been retold over and over again or is common. But I keep my stuff on the floor and out of sight. That said, we walked around with cameras on our shoulders and were not bothered. Rudi did take us through an area in the car, not on foot, that he said was a den of iniquity. But most big cities have their dangerous corners. Joburg Streets
So the messages are mixed. Not as bad as some would have you believe – we walked comfortably through Joburg, but then were told to keep everything out of sight in the car while driving.

Back at their home, Brenda was cooking up amazing meals for us. My favourite would be bobotie (pronounced bo-boy-tee). This is a meatloaf sweetened with chutney, apricot jam, sultans, Worcester, turmeric and bay leaves. I fell in lust with bobotie on our first trip to South Africa ten years ago. Brenda could not have known, but there it was, our first meal in South Africa was bobotie and for dessert, another South African favourite, Milk Tart (pronounced teert). This is a kind of custard pie – but more fragrant and delicately flavoured than what we make at home.

Thursday, May 24
We had planned to set off first thing this morning but there were a series of mishaps. First, a flat tire. So Rudi pumped it up and they set off to get it repaired. Once repaired, Steve tried to fill up the truck with petrol (not “gas” that only comes out of one’s body, we are told). Neither Steve nor Rudi nor 5 station attendants or the mechanic can get the cap off. This won’t work. So we drive the 45 minutes back to Bobo Campers to get it fixed. They had to break the lock and replace the cap. Then there is the cupboard door that swings open because it will not catch. That requires moving the hinges. Grrrrrrrr.

We are really missing our van with its higher quality finishings and built in conveniences. The camper on this is fairly clever but it has been built with a focus on the bottom line. That said, it has a sink and two-burner stove, a toilet, a dinette that makes into a bed, a large fridge, a safe and more storage than we need.

The bed is a bit of a challenge. You collapse the table and stick an extra piece of plywood in to make it a double bed. Then you arrange the cushions over it and add in an extra lengthwise cushion to make it a double bed. The only problem is that extra cushion has nothing to anchor it so during the night it slides down and out. I was waking up with my butt on the hard plywood and the cushion a foot away. We now have it bungee strapped into place. Thank goodness my handy husband packed a bag of bungees and a roll of Red ‘n Green tape. Never leave home without ‘em.

Finally we are on the road – first stop the South Africa Parks office in Pretoria. We had purchased the WILD card which is a national parks pass online before we left home. It had not arrived. So we plug in the address on the GPS and go directly to their office to get it in person. I downloaded the South African maps onto our GPS and it has proved invaluable. Cannot recommend that highly enough. So we find the WILD office with no problem, pick up our WILD card and are on our way north by early afternoon.

First destination is Pilanesberg National Park, several hours northwest of Johannesburg. This closeManyane Camp to the equator the sun sets at 5:30 pm and it was setting as we pulled closer to the park. Since we did not really know where we were going we were a bit concerned but we made it to Manyane Gate with the last light. Our second night in the park we camped at Bakgatla Gate.

What amazing campgrounds. For about $13 Cdn we had our pick of lovely wide open campsites, electrical hookups and a spotlessly clean and well equipped ablution block. There was even a pool and playground for the kids. A little too cold for the pool these days though as it is winter here.

That said, it is lovely and warm – t-shirt weather during the day, but need our fleece at night. Pilanesberg Road

Now, to the animals – absolute magic. Pilanesberg National Park has a paved road straight through it with km after km of dirt roads leading off and into the countryside. They are all well marked, there is no danger of getting lost but you MUST stay in your vehicle except at designated, fenced areas that protect you. WE are the ones in the cage here.

The first night we arrived, we were greeted by Steve’s favourites, warthogs, rooting around in the dirt at the side of the road. At the reception office there was a large kudu, one of the largest of the antelope-type animals. It must stand 6-7 feet high at the shoulders and has long corkscrewed horns topping its impressive head. What a greeting!

It is rutting season which is kind of cool because it makes the males very active. So right in the warthogcampsite we were surrounded by impala males (a mid-sized deer-like animal) who were facing off with each other. They make the most horrifying growling sounds. If I’d not seen them at it I would have thought we had lions in the campground. Just amazing.

The next morning we headed out to see what was in the park.

Friday, May-25-12

Just 5 minutes onto our first dirt road we came on a small lake. There was a pretty white egret standing on shore so we stopped to photograph it and immediately noticed a hippo surfacing nearby. Then another and another.

We watched and photographed these for a while then moved a little way down the road where we came to another good viewing area and realized that our hippos had moved. What’s more, the biggest hippo was trying to push a smaller hippo up on to the bank – or so it appeared. He grunted Humping Hipposand groaned and pushed and pushed. We thought maybe something was wrong with the smaller one – that he or she needed help getting up on land and the big guy was in the water behind her pushing her out of the goodness of his heart. Some heart. With an explosion and humongous roar he jumped off her, doing a full breech like a bloody whale How I wish I'd captured that Halelujah! moment. What a start to our wildlife tour through Africa!

It was hard to top that but we also saw white rhinos, millions of zebras and wildebeest, dozens of giraffes gracefully nibbling the tops of trees, kudus, klipspringers, a whole mudhole full of cape buffalo, waterbuck, hartebeest, tsessebe, springbok, tons of warthogs, impala and elands. By the end of the day I decided that not seeing a lion was okay, but I REALLY wanted to see an elephant. And so I did. In the last hour before we had to leave the park (mandatory at dark), we came on a herd of 16 elephants including quite a few small babies. They were just walking down the road in front of us. THAT close!

Just a stellar day.

Saturday, May-26-12
We got up at 6 am today and were on the road from 7 am. We left Bakgatla gate and continued through the park, looking for more wildlife. We assumed that early in the morning like that we would see a lot more but honestly, except for a fleeting look at a leopard before it disappeared into the brush, we saw a lot more yesterday from 10 till 2, not a time when you are supposed to see game.

We need to keep moving today as we are heading for Gabarone in Botswana and there are no campground except, we hope, at a place called Mokolodi Nature Preserve about 10 km south of Gabs (as they call Gabarone here).

At first the terrain was quite flat and what they call here bushveld – scrubby bush. But as we neared Zeerust the terrain began to roll, the trees grew bigger and the grasses were tall and lush. They are now golden yellow and dried out but you can see how green it must be in the summer season. Enroute we also saw some really beautiful churches.

The road north was quite attractive – not exactly “scenic” but not boring either. At one point we saw the hugest nests up in the power poles. We pulled over to take a photo. As I was doing that a fellow and his lady walked by. I asked him what the name of the bird making the nests was. He did not know, did not even seem to understand the question so I am guessing he could not speak English. He and his lady walked away. A few minutes later, after I was back in the truck and doing up my seatbelt I see an altercation between him and the woman. He comes running back to me, gesturing with his hands and saying, “You no give me nothing!”

I was not impressed and told him that our interchange had been friendly, nothing that required Duikercompensation. He walked away, we drove away, bad taste in our mouths.
The requests for money or to purchase something are quite constant. If we stop the truck to get something out of the camper they are on top of us in minutes, asking us to buy oranges or give money. We always say no although I do hand out food when the stated reason for asking is hunger. One young lad in the grocery store parking lot made the funniest faces when I gave him a Canadian Kashi bar.

Eventually we get to the South Africa / Botswana border. This became an exercise in bureaucracy run amok. This was the process:

1. At security gate we answer questions to a security guard, sign a logbook and get a slip of paper.

2. We go into a building and fill out another logbook with our name, vehicle reg, passport no, cellphone no, etc. They look at our passports but do not stamp them. This apparently is customs. We ask if this is it. No, we are to go now to immigration.

3. We give the customs lady our passports. She fiddles and faddles and signs them. We leave, happy to have finished.

4. We drive to a gate. The guard asks if we have laptops or cameras. We say yes. He asks for our stamped declaration. We say, “What?”

5. We have to go back to the first building and get in line again with our cameras and laptop. We fill out a whole pile of paperwork that includes recording serial numbers and assigning values. Finally our paperwork is stamped. Are we done?

6. We drive through that gate and continue towards what we think is the road to Gabarone. But hold on, that was just South Africa border customs.

7. We are stopped. Where is our Botswana stamp? We thought it was in the passports. Nope. We have not even begun the Botswana process. That is another building.

8. So in we go and repeat the process except they have no interest in our cameras and laptop. But they ARE interested in the vehicle and we have to buy a road permit for 40 pula and contribute to the “road fund” for 20 Pula and buy insurance for something for 50 Pula.


White Rhino Which brings up the subject of Pula – the Botswana currency which is the ONLY accepted currency. So much so there is a Bureau de Change right between the two border buildings. By the way, 7-8 Pula = 1 Canadian dollar more or less.

There are also very big signs warning that taking more than $10,000 in Pula value – no matter what kind of currency it might be, must be declared. That would only be about $1400 which had me sweating because we have more than that between all the different currencies we are carrying. Then I realized that would be per person. Something to keep in mind, however.

Also, as our time in Botswana continues, you cannot exchange Pula outside Botswana – it has no value. So we must not exchange too much. Nor too little, as no other currency can be used. Ugghhhhh.

All of this would have been mildly amusing except that the sun was slowly setting. It was already 4:45 and we did not know where we were going. There was some question about the campground still existing and we were anxious to find it before dark.

So we set out finally, somewhat anxious. We will never do that again – spend the first half of the day lollygagging looking for wildlife when we have a long drive ahead of us. This business of the sun setting at 5:30 has to be respected.

So we got out on the highway and did find the place just before dark – Mokolodi Nature Preserve. This is a private game reserve and the only campground nearabouts. Very expensive - $300 P ($45 Cdn) for the two of us to camp including park entrance. You cannot come into these parks/preserves without paying the park or vehicle charge, even if you do not want to drive around the reserve or use any of the facilities. That buys us a very long drive down an “almost-4WD” dirt road to a campsite with no electricity or water or hot water or anything!

We would not recommend this place. On the other hand, there is nowhere else on this road – A1 – near Gabarone. So it is safe and we are surrounded by wildlife and we have arrived in Botswana. It's all good and there is much more to come tomorrow!


Carolyn Usher