Even for the most cartographically impaired, acquiring a sound knowledge of Botswana’s road network presents few challenges. Huge swathes of the country are devoid of mapped roads and, courtesy of the semi-arid Kalahari Desert, sitting astride Botswana and Namibia, most of its population is located in towns and cities out to the east.
Mahalapye sits on the A1 highway, its forty thousand or so inhabitants residing almost equidistant from Gaborone to the south and Francistown, some 240km to the north. Historically, it was home to the Rhodesian Railway Station, where the only electric lights in the town were to be found. The age of passenger rail travel has long passed but Mahalapye remains home to the headquarters of Botswana Railways at the front of which sits a gleaming, racing green and black locomotive, a lasting tribute to the bygone golden age of steam.
As another hot southern hemisphere summer weekend in February beckoned, World Spine Care clinical director, Geoff Outerbridge, and I decided to head north from Mahalapye to Kasane for a brief taste of Africa’s magnificent wildlife and spectacular scenery. With a prize at stake of seeing at close quarters some of the world’s finest creatures both in and on the banks of the legendary Chobe River, the fact that Geoff’s smooth-talking iPhone GPS was cautioning us that our destination was some 730 kilometres (450 miles) distant did not faze us intrepid travellers.
Once again, the WSC Toyota Prado was called into action. Veteran of numerous shuttle trips to Gaborone and showing enough kilometres on the clock to circumnavigate the globe ten times, the Prado fired up on the first turn of the key, a small puff of black smoke signalling its readiness for the journey ahead. Bouncing along the dusty track in the relative coolness of the early morning, sun streaming through the windows, we headed towards the A1, passing on our way the disastrously mis-spelt Look n’Lean Nursery School.
Minutes later, the Prado was heading north. As we negotiated the suburbs of Mahalapye in what can very loosely be called rush hour, donkey carts were hastened along by their impatient drivers, while a succession of white pick-up trucks vied for the fastest getaway at the lights as they conveyed goats, cattle or human cargoes to neighbouring villages. Locals played chicken with the traffic as they scampered across the carriageway, their brightly coloured clothing becoming blurred by the fog of exhaust fumes.
Eventually, we were on the open highway and the disorganised jumble of houses, shops, workshops and industrial units gave way to open countryside. The traffic quickly thinned out and soon the Prado was nipping along at a steady 110 kph. Beyond the dusty roadside verges, vast expanses of tree-covered flatness spread out either side of us as we motored through the Botswana countryside.
For the bulk of the Batswana, travelling any distance means catching public transport. Car ownership is low and taxis are out of reach for most of the population. It is therefore left to an eclectic mix of buses, coaches and combi vans to grace the roads of Botswana, shuttling their overpacked and overheated passengers from one town to the next. Stepping aboard any one of these motorised projectiles is to risk life and limb. Adherence to any form of speed limit is ignored. Regular maintenance is often overlooked. Drivers stay at the wheel for hours on end. Unsurprisingly, accidents are frequent and catastrophic.
It wasn’t long before the first of a series of jet-propelled shuttles hurtled past us. Appearing from nowhere, the Prado was suddenly thrust into the shadow of the early morning service from Gaborone. Patches of rust interrupted the pattern of the grubby white paintwork. A sea of faces peered out, their expressions a mix of fear and passive acceptance. Emblazoned along the side of the bus in bold blue capitals were the words ICONIC EXPRESS. As it rapidly disappeared into the distance, it immediately became obvious why religion is so important to the people of Botswana.
Passing through the outskirts of Palapye, vendors appeared at the roadside. Makeshift stalls, their wooden skeletons of twisted branches crudely bound together and topped with whatever would provide a modicum of protection from the elements, displayed a range of goods. Purveyors of oranges, brooms, airtime cards and bottles of Coca-Cola were dotted along the road, mingling with goats, cattle and small children enthusiastically waving at every passing vehicle. To their delight, we enthusiastically waved back.
After three hours, a sign proclaimed that we were entering Francistown, Botswana’s second largest city. At the bus stop, the ICONIC EXPRESS was disgorging its passengers, no doubt armed with yet another tale of near-death to relate to their grandchildren.
Founded in 1897, Francistown was the centre of southern Africa’s first gold rush. Named after Liverpudlian Daniel Francis, one of its early prospectors, it sprung up as a busy town alongside the railway, transporting optimistic miners and other get-rich-quickers and rapidly becoming a wealthy centre of trade with nearby Zimbabwe, just 90km to the east. It proudly boasts the honour of having the first tarmacked road in Botswana.
As the traffic funnelled into Francistown, we were forced to slow as roadworks diverted us off the A1 and into the residential suburbs. As we bounced over pothole-filled roads and weaved through the rabbit warren of back roads, long strings of brightly coloured, freshly laundered clothes marked the perimeters of yards, proudly swept and containing small but neat single storey houses. Lowering the window of the Prado, the air was filled with a cacophony of sound: car horns hooting, roosters crowing, dogs barking, goats bleating and the magical sound of Setswana, as the locals made themselves heard above the din.
Leaving Francistown behind, we continued northwards, just inside the border with Zimbabwe. It was time to fuel up and as we pulled in to a roadside gas station and stepped out of the Prado, the excruciating stretch of tight limbs was accompanied by an intense blast of burning hot air.
There’s no such thing as self service refuelling in Botswana. Approaching the pumps, the team of uniformed attendants get ready for action. Within nanoseconds of engaging Park, the filler cap is open, the nozzle is inserted, the bonnet is up, levels are checked and the windscreen is getting a makeover. It’s the best of African service with a smile and this was one slick operation.
Not everyone was treated quite as royally, however. As I observed from a distance, two young men were filling the tank of a freight lorry. There were not uniformed attendants here. Having fashioned a funnel from a plastic bottle they were decanting fuel into its huge tank. I think they are probably still there filling it up.
Pit-stop completed, we were soon back on the road. By this time, the Prado’s windscreen had sustained yet more trauma, courtesy of a bullet-like stone chip flying from a passing truck. With a hairline crack alarmingly emanating from the point of impact, the windscreen was now beginning to look remarkably similar to the road map of Botswana, with vertical and horizontal fracture lines criss-crossing the glass.
Now heading north west, we made for the village of Nata, named after the river that flows through it centre serving the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans. By now the landscape was changing and signs had begun to appear by the roadside, warning anyone unwise enough the stray into the bush to relieve themselves that they may get more than they bargained for.
Triangular, red-bordered signs cautioned travellers of elephants and before long, the traditional Mahalapye sight of roadside grazing goats and cattle was replaced by our first sighting of the biggest of the Big Five. Standing by the side of the road, about to cross, was an impressive bull elephant. As we slowed to pass, it gave a show of strength, fanning its enormous ears and pointing its broad head and magnificent ivory tusks in our direction, before turning and heading back into the dense vegetation of the bush. Soon, there was another, and another. We were deep in elephant country. Being accustomed to foxes, badgers and the occasional deer on the roads of rural Gloucestershire, encountering these African behemoths crossing our path was an outlandish experience.
The outside temperature was now hitting the late thirties and as we stopped for a driver swap, the heat of the midday Botswana sun was stifling. Our Prado’s air conditioning was manfully trying to keep us cool, but intermittently was succumbing to the challenge. With less than 200 kilometres to go, we were on the final leg of our colossal journey. Staying within a few kilometres of the Zimbabwean border, the arid bushland had given way to lush green fields of maize. Hectare upon hectare, as far as the eye could see, this staple of the Batswana diet was being grown in vast quantities.
The garrison town of Pandamatenga is the last major centre before Kasane. Here commercial farmers mingle with the Botswana Defence Force. Ubiquitous Toyota pick up trucks and combi vans are outnumbered by matt green painted army trucks. Razor-wired fences enclose the military installations and row upon row of flat-roofed buildings hint at the hive of activity going on within.
With less than an hour to our destination, we realised that we were tantalisingly close to the spectacular Victoria Falls. However, we would have to leave that adventure for another day. As we made our way towards the northeasternmost tip of Botswana, where it meets with Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe, the town of Kasane came into view. Ambling pedestrians, all manner of goods being carried on heads and in arms, made their way about their business. Barefooted children played happily by the roadside. Tourists sporting large-lensed cameras, binoculars and wide-brimmed hats clung to off road safari trucks as they headed off for their evening game drives. International freight lorries from neighbouring nations rumbled through the town. Goats and chickens competed with warthogs and vervet monkeys for a piece of vegetation and scraps of whatever food had been discarded by passers-by.
As we drove through the gates of the Chobe Game Lodge to broad smiles and enthusiastic waves we found ourselves in a unique pocket of Africa. Sitting on the banks of the Chobe River, the calm waters gently rocked the range of craft moored at its banks. Looking out from the wooden decking, birds darted over the glassy surface of the river, while fish eagles sat high atop vantage points as they scanned the water in search of a pescetarian dinner. Later, as we drifted down the Chobe, we were treated to a feast of wildlife. Grazing buffalos, basking crocodiles, wallowing hippopotami and families of elephants taking refreshing afternoon dips in the cool water provided a captivating scene.
As the cotton wool clouds became tinged with fiery red and the blazing sun quickly dipped into the horizon and disappeared from view, the night was filled with the sound of crickets. An occasional monkey screeched in the distance. Wafting hickory smoke, gentle chinking of crockery and the low hum of Setswana voices signalled the preparation of an exotic African supper.
Eight hours of near-continuous driving and we had made it to Kasane. For me, the journey had been an unforgettable experience, where every sense had been stimulated. The magic of Africa – its landscape, its people and its wildlife – had been poured over me and like a sponge I had soaked it up.
The long road to Kasane had further cemented my love for Africa. Two days later, as the homeward trip back to Mahalapye beckoned, I resolved to one day repeat the journey, return to this Chobe River paradise and immerse myself again in this jewel within a jewel.