Sunday, 7 July 2013

The Batswana Pin

BOTSWANA (Sunday 03 February - Friday 01 March 2013)

Our pins: Jwaneng, Gaborone, Palapye, Serowe, Rakops, Maun, Moremi, Nata, Kasane


Ngoma Bridge
Tsabong - Ngoma: By heading north towards the centre of the "Black Continent" and crossing Botswana, you will certainly experience some desert and African savannah, various wildlife, rivers and isolated tribes that still exist somewhere. Kalahari Desert located in the centre of the country, accounts for 70% of the country’s total surface area while the Okavango Delta covers another 5% and so we tried to include everything in our space time.  


On Sunday morning (03/02), we crossed the South Africa-Botswana borders through Mcarthy’s Rest BP and we immediately experienced a warm welcome from the Botswana side. Within 15 minutes, we finished with all the required border formalities (Greeks do not need visa) and all the officials were really warm and welcoming. What is more, in Botswana you do not need the Carnet but you can issue a TIP (Temporary Import Permit) with app. 10 euros and so drive legally in the country. We drove straight to Tsabong, the first town after the borders so as to fill up with some diesel, get some local money (Pula) and something to eat. After that brief stop, we headed north east towards Jwaneng so as to find a place to spend the night before reaching Gaborone. It took us some time to find a place to rest but eventually we managed to convince the two ladies of Mokala Lodge that we only need to park the car in their parking lot. The fact that our roof top tent is very convenient always makes our life easier when we are struggling to find a place to sleep and we only need to ask for a place to park. The two ladies were very helpful and they did not charge anything as they found our “practice” really strange and unfamiliar. However, we had our dinner in their restaurant as a sign of gratitude. Jwaneng is one of the seven regions in Botswana that have rich diamond deposits and the mine is on the other side of the town. Hopefully, that does not affect the traveller at all.

Weather in Botswana follows the stereotypes of the region that sits under the Equator. The rainy season is from October to April and the dry season lasts from May to September. Both seasons are pretty similar to our Mediterranean summer and winter but the Kalahari Desert and the Okavango Delta affect the whole region in a different way while the southern regions are drier than the northern.

Beams Campsite, Gaborone
On Monday morning (04/02), we left very early from Jwaneng so as to arrive as early as possible to the capital, Gaborone. Wide avenues, new shopping malls (and a lot under construction), modern buildings, a lot of banks, no traffic and an expanded public transport system with combis operating as taxis (like in Cape Town) is what the visitor first sees in this fast developing African capital. We managed to find very easily a place to camp (Beams Campsite) very close to the city centre. In the next four days, we applied and got our Namibian visa starting the 1st of March, walked around the city centre, visited some new shopping malls and surprised to see Food Lover Market in one of them as well as South African or American restaurants chains like Spur, KFC, Nandos etc. 

Shopping mall, Gaborone
The trend to westernize as much as possible local African people that earn some decent salaries is more than obvious despite the fact that most of them are used to a different lifestyle before the arrival of Pick’N’Pay, Shoprite, Spar, Edgars and so on. And off course is so sad to see local people to try to replicate every single aspect of the whites’ lifestyle and standards of living while at the same time they are losing the ingenuity of their way of living, their traditional culture and ethics.  

Fortunately, street food has not been displaced yet from Gaborone and we took the chance to try it. Brilliant! We have no words to express our satisfaction. Plenty of variety, as clean as possible, well cooked and cheap, cheap, cheap! What struck us was the queues for street food was longer compared to them in restaurants like Hungry Lion, KFC and Nandos and much more locals -even bank executives and well-dressed ladies- preferred street food instead of sitting in an expensive restaurant.



Tropic of Capricorn, Botswana
On Friday morning (08/02), we left from Gaborone, we crossed for the first time the Tropic of Capricorn and arrived late in the afternoon at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, a small park –about 43 acres- near Serowe which started as a rhino sanctuary but now is a well-established community-based game reserve east of Kalahari Desert. That day, one of our dreams came true as we did our first game drive within an African reserve with our own vehicle and we really enjoyed the savannah and the wildlife within it. 

Khama Rhino Sanctuary,
Serowe
The park is unfenced and consists of three waterholes and a well maintained road network (dirty road), basic campsite facilities with running water, toilets and showers and a huge variety of mammals, reptiles and some predators (leopards). We drove about 2 hours in the afternoon and three hours the next morning so as to experience as much as possible the wildlife of the park and we feel quite lucky. We managed to spot white and black rhinos, giraffes, warthogs, springboks, impala, oryx, kudu, zebras, wildebeests and jackals within an ecosystem full of acacias trees and lowveld vegetation. Just perfect!

However, the fact that in southern Africa, the wildlife is so protected and, in a way, fragile mainly because of poaching, makes you feel responsible for the nature conservation and also annoyed for the reasons of rhino poaching that ends up in some Asian “non-gifted” people who consider the rhino horn as aphrodisiac and may pay more than 100.000 USD to get one. How miserable!

Camp Itumela
On Saturday morning (09/02), we departed from the sanctuary and moved south towards Palapye, a major town between Gaborone and Francistown (second biggest city). It took us two hours driving to find the Moremi Gorge and Sacred Village near the Zimbabwean borders but the entrance fees and accommodation were ridiculously expensive and so we decided to move back to Palapye and the campsite Itumela. It was a very nice place, large campsite with all the basics, a vibrating bar and friendly staff and we spent three nights there trying to organise the rest of the trip in Botswana within the triangle Nata-Maun-Kasane.

On Tuesday (12/02), we headed west to Orapa seeking access to the south of the Makgadikgadi Pans. The Makgadikgadi Pans is a vast area equal to the size of Switzerland that consists of three pans (Sowa, Ntwetwe & Nxai) covered with salt and is full of baobab trees and ruins from the Iron Age. It is just an excellent spot for self-meditation and relaxation as well as adventure and this is why it is so popular. However, our plan did not work as you have to be fully stocked with fuel and food before entering into the pans and we were planning to do it in Orapa. Unfortunately, in Orapa, there is one of the biggest diamond mines in Botswana and the access is restricted (we did not know this assuming that it will be the same situation as Jwaneng where the mine was in the opposite side of the town). It is only the permanent residents and the people that work in the mine that have access to the town and profoundly we did not belong to any of these categories. Thus, we continued further west to Rakops where we spent the night and so the plan changed again. We decided to head further west to Maun and so try to visit the pans on our way up to Kasane later on our trip in Botswana.

Old Bridge Backpackers, Maun
Maun is the major hub for the entrance to the famous Okavango Delta and the Moremi Game Reserve, one of the most famous national parks in the country (the other is the Chobe National Park). It is full of lodges and plenty of choices regarding accommodation, a lot of safari travel agencies and countless pilots. We decided to camp in the Old Bridge Backpackers and so organise our stay in Maun as well as the activities we would like to do. It was in the Old Bridge BP that we met some great people and so enriched our travel “memory sticks”. Nikolas from Crete (the first Greek traveller we meet so far in our trip), Ophir from Israel (an intelligent guy that loves cooking and traveling), Steward from South Africa (a young boy that was looking for a job as a pilot), Stephan from Switzerland (an intrepid traveller that quit his jobs and decided to start traveling) and Anerike & Zele, the warmest, craziest and most welcoming Afrikaners we met after Struisbaai, that work in another lodge nearby. Great memories, great people and great fun! Our “Ithaca” seems to become richer and richer especially after meeting all those people while our space time gets more and more exciting. 

Nikolas shares his experiences with us
Nikolas was lucky enough to visit some traditional settlements of San/ Busmen people deep in Kalahari Desert and his knowledge and experiences were very interesting. San people have been displaced in settlements since 1950 when the Government decided that they are totally useless and they cannot cope with the modern way of living that intrudes in Batswana lives. He spent four days with them and he was so fortunate to see how these people survive. Bushmen or San people originate from the original population of human ancestor and they are the oldest tribe in Africa having a 50.000 years old history on earth. Anybody that have watched the movie “The gods must be crazy” can have an idea of these people. San people are hunters-gatherers and they used to live in Kalahari Desert keeping their traditions, habits, customs and rituals in harmony with the mother nature. However, because of the tourism expansion and travel companies that they operate within Kalahari Desert and other reserves, the Governemnt decided that it is them that have to be displaced and restricted in settlements and camps where they stay under police supervision and pastor guidance. They also banned hunting and made them depending on government support. Off course the government keeps them addicted to alcohol and so manipulates them easier when it comes to elections. Off course, in Maun you can find several fake traditional villages that offer a great show and typical Bushmen ceremonies which operate under some agreements with lodges and hotels so as to make the tourists believe that this is the typical way that Bushmen live and survive in our days.

On Thursday (14/02), we went to the local market with Nikolas in search of some game and watermelon. We managed to find eland for braai and a huge watermelon in the biggest Spar of Maun. Unfortunately in Botswana, the groceries counters along the roads are unusual and everything is concentrated in the South African hyper markets. We also shopped some spinach and tomatoes for making a fresh salad. Despite the fact that the afternoon storm spoiled our plans for braai, we stir fried the meat and made an awesome salad with spinach, tomatoes and Greek olive oil (we carry 5 litres and it’s the second most valuable stuff after our passports in the car) while Ophir had already baked some bread. Fantastic! It was an epic dinner including the frozen watermelon for dessert!

Okavango Delta
On Friday (15/02), we had already booked for an unforgettable flight over Okavango Delta on a 7seat single engine aircraft for 45 minutes (more than enough). The Okavango River has its source in Angola (they call it Cubango), it crosses then Namibia through Caprivi Strip and ends up in north-western Botswana creating an exceptional delta full of wildlife, birds and rich fauna. It’s not the biggest enclosed Delta in the world as the tour operators advertise but its size is worth mentioning. We are talking about an area of 15.000 sq. km that fills with 11 cubic miles of water per year and does not flow into the sea but through several rivers reaches to the dry pans of the mainland including the Kalahari Desert. The “golden” triangle of Maun-Nata-Kasane consists of two National Parks (Moremi GR & Chobe NP) and includes 63 airstrips for the regular supply of the region with the necessary stuff and connection of the communities that live deep in Okavango Delta.  

Mokoro in Okavango river
A mokoro trip (canoe carved from a tree trunk) is a must in the Delta and a lot of local Delta communities have their own community development trusts that operate. It will sound strange but during the rainy season, the water level is lower compared to the dry season. Only during the dry season and after the floods from Angola, the water level rises and the delta gets flooded attracting a significant number of wild animals and tourists.

The day ended at Thamalakane River Lodge, the lodge which Anerike and Zele run (20 km away from Maun) where they invited us to enjoy the sunset. The location of the place and the angle of the sun offered us a spectacular sunset that you can easily find in National Geographic award winning pictures.

On Saturday (16/02), after waving goodbye to Nikolas, we started our own research about Moremi GR accommodation options and access to the park. Unfortunatelly, all camp sites within Moremi and Chobe are private since October 2011 that makes the prices ridiculously high for what you get. What is more, the visitor has to pay in advance for the park’s entrance fees as there are no payment options at the gate. There are only three private safari operators that run campsites and lodges within the parks. After 3 hours, we realized that the cheapest option was to stay overnight in between the two parks in the Kwai village where the local community runs a public campsite which is outside the parks,so you do not need to pay extra entrance fees for staying in the park overnight.

On Sunday morning (17/02), we left very early from Maun and after 150 km in a challenging gravel bumpy road, we passed the Buffalo fence* and arrived in the South Gate. We welcomed the guards, finished our registration and started driving into the park.

Buffalo Fence
*: The "Buffalo Fence" separates domestic animals (cows, sheep, goats, horses and donkeys) from wild animals. Its length is thousands of kilometres and similar vet fences are wide spread within Botswana protecting the domestic animals from food-and-mouth disease that transmits rapidly from buffalo to the cows. In all these fences, the vehicle and the shoes of all passengers are sprayed and disinfected so as to prevent carrying the disease from buffalo beyond the fence (hence the name).

South Gate, Moremi Game Reserve
Despite the fact that we were visiting the country during the rainy season, the Moremi GR was relatively dry with a few waterholes full of soft mud. While crossing one of this mud holes, something got wet under Zikos chassis and the car stopped accelerating. Once again, we had another car problem in the middle of nowhere. This time, it was even worse as the place was full of wild animals that you couldn’t see. But they could see you! With no options left, we decided to walk back at the entry gate. Some people will say that it was very risky and even stupid to walk in an unfenced national park. The thing is that we did not see any animal on our way back. In any case, we will never know if it was a wrong decision or not. When the guards saw us walking, they started asking where is the car and when we explained them what happened, they got quite upset with our decision. Georgia burst into tears because of stress while Nikos was smilling with anxiety. After this emotional break, the rangers helped us to tow the car back. We were very lucky as a tractor was there to help another car, so they helped us first because we were closer to them. In fifteen minutes, Zikos was back with us in the South Gate of Moremi GR. In a Sunday morning, there was no luck to find a garage open. However, the guys were really helpful and keeping in mind that they wanted also to make some money (as everybody does and thinks in this continent), they managed to find a local mechanic that could tow us back to Maun for 1500 PULA (about 140 euros). We kindly rejected their offer and prepared to wait for as long as possible for any cheaper solution.

In the meantime, we did not try to start again the engine. We thought that something was really wrong in the engine. At 12 o’clock, the guys that experienced some problems with their car (the same tractor that had previously helped them), appeared and we asked them to tow us to Maun. Their guide asked what was wrong and we briefly explained them the situation. The local guy sat in the driver’s seat and started the engine. There was nothing wrong at all! The exhaust was clogged but Zikos was running properly. After two hours, we were back to town and Zikos was as powerful as never before. We dare to guess that something electrical got wet and after two hours was dry enough. That’s all!

Poor Zikos
On our way back, we had our first serious accident  with a cow, after crossing the Bufallo Fence. Unfortunately, while driving on a 60 km/h speed in a dirty road, out of nowhere a cow decided to cross vertically the road and so hit Zikos on the back door of driver’s side. The shock was hurting but both cow and us survived. Only Zikos got another wound (all “wounds” from Spain, Mauritania and South Africa are in the same side!). What a day!!

Driving back to Maun and after the breakdown and the accident with the cow, we felt that we wanted  to meet some friends so as to share our troubles and problems. So, we headed to Thamalakane River Lodge where Anerike and Zele work. We thought that they might know a good mechanic in the town so as to check thoroughly Zikos just in case something was really wrong. Once again they opened their hearts and their place and proved that South Africans (and especially Afrikaners) know about generosity and hospitality. They let us stay free of charge in the lodge’s campsite that was “closed” because it was out of season and they welcomed us to spend with them some time in their apartment.

Delta 4X4 Maun Garage
On Tuesday (19/02), we visited a local workshop in Maun (Delta 4X4) where the guys checked for water presence front and rear diffs as well as the gear box. We also changed the fuel filter that was not that bad after 12.000 km, we tighten the hand break and checked all the mountings. Once again, they said that nothing was wrong. If only, we could understand how Zikos "feel" into the water..

Anerike, Zele, Ophir & Georgia
Till Wednesday, we spent three lovely nights with Ophir (he had also moved to the same lodge), Anerike and Zele. Ophir and Georgia were cooking the whole day (handmade ravioli, bread etc) and when our hosts were coming back from work we had some nice dinners and discussions with wine and beer. When we share food and drinks with local people, we tend to call this type of dinners as “international multicultural dinners”. We die for this sort of dinners and this is how we built our experiences and our connections with people we meet on our trip. And it’s great from all aspects!

Mud holes in Moremi GR
On Wednesday morning (20/02), we woke up early so as to try one more time to have a proper safari game drive in Moremi. This time, everything worked. We drove 50 km within the Okavango Delta savannah but we only saw some elephants, zebras and off course impala (they are literally everywhere!). The road network within the park was really bad and after all we got really tired. We were very cautious with the car but we could not enjoy at the same time the drive.

The fact that we met other overlanders that they also complained about the absence of wild animals in the park makes us at least not to regret for our choice. Besides that, all the guidebooks advise that the rainy season is not the most appropriate for game drives and the wild animals sighting and movement is very limited since there is no shortage of water. Late in the afternoon, we went back to Thamalakane so as to spend the last night with our friends. Ophir that was looking for a lift to Kasane, agreed to come with us up to Nata where we were planning to give a try for entering to the Makgadikgadi Pans.

On our way to Nata with
Ophir
On Thursday morning (21/02), before departure, our South African hosts and “extended family” offered us a huge breakfast in their magnificent garden that overlooks Thamalakane River. We waved goodbye, we thanked them again for the super warm treatment and we hit the road to Nata. Even though, Zikos is two seated, Ophir managed to fit next to Georgia. Not the most comfortable for both of them, but at least it was our first time in our trip that we had a “guest” in our car that he could break the silence (we hardly speak while driving as we have nothing important to say). Crossing the Makgadikgadi / Nxai Pans National Park, we encountered some elephants and giraffes that were strolling around the vast pans. Late in the  afternoon, we arrived at Nata. Ophir was lucky enough to find a lift for Kasane and managed to skip the public transport. We waved goodbye to our friend and we started seeking for update information about the access in the pans.

Unfortunately, neither this time we got lucky since the roads providing access to the Sowa & Ntwetwe Pans were still flooded and the approach to Kubu Island, our final destination, was impossible. We knew that the only way to explore the pans was during the dry season from April to September but we thought that it was worth to try as we were around. However, we promised to ourselves to try again as we would be in Southern Africa for a long time. So, we spent the night in Nata and the day after, we headed north to Kasane.

Camp site in Chobe Safari Lodge
From Friday (22/02) to Thursday (28/02), we stayed at the campsite of Chobe Safari Lodge waiting for our Namibia visa to start. It was a very nice place to stay next to the Chobe National Park full of wild animals (almost all national parks and reserves in Africa are unfenced). Almost every day we were coming across baboons, monkeys, warthogs, once a crocodile and a hippo. The area of Kasane & Kazungula is the place where Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe border and all neighbours are separated by Zambezi and Chobe rivers. The famous Victoria Falls is the absolute attraction of the area and the place gets very busy during South African public and school holidays.   

On Friday morning (01/03), we headed west to the Ngoma bridge and the borders with Namibia. Once again, the border crossing was fast and smooth confirming why Botswana is one of the most welcome and hospitable countries in the region of southern Africa.


Beware of elephants!
We liked: The safety throughout the country (especially in the capital), the landscapes, the wildlife and the game drives for the first time on our trip and the kindness of the locals in all our dealings and interaction with them.

We did not like: The overpriced accommodation options within the national parks and game reserves due to the recent privatization that targets mainly the Europeans and Americans. The fact that there are no counters across the streets selling veggies and fruits like in West Africa. They only sell caddies and chips ;-(

We saw: Cows, sheeps and goats to graze literally freely giving full meaning to the phrase "free range" and setting Botswana as a country with really good meat. We encountered enough game and especially elephants, impala, springbok, and giraffes. Finally, in Botswana (and Namibia, NA, etc.) you can find charcoal and firewood in liquer stores. We have already underlined the correlation between drinking and braai!

Average price for diesel: 0,95 euro / lt

Local currency: PULA (= rain) – Exchange rate: 1 euro ≈ 10,5 PULA

Driving in Botswana: Driving in Botswana follows the South African standards. The main roads, signing and drivers are above average and the traffic police was polite and pleasant. The obligatory stop at vet fences is quite annoying but still nothing you can do. One more country were bakkies (4x4,SUV and pick-up vehicles) dominate the car market. Also in Maun, we saw a lot of Suzuki Escudo in different variations (different name for Botswana market but still a genuine Vitara).

Zikos in its first game drive,
Khama Rhino Sanctuary
Car: Despite the fact that Zikos stopped in the middle of nowhere, we did not encounter any serious problems. We changed the fuel filter after 12.155 km and it looked fairly clean. We also noticed that the different oil viscosity that we used in the last engine oil change in South Africa (15W40 instead of 5W30), probably contributed to a better fuel consumption ;-)