Botswana: in the company of lions
Behind every trip there is a crestfallen dog made to stay at home. For a few days Jock was convinced that climbing into the Syncro guaranteed a passage to Botswana.
On the whole, roads in Africa are bad. Rumour has it that the progressive president of Botswana made a stand when his Minister for Transport needed to travel from Maun to Gabarone: he was forced to make the journey by car and experience driving along roads with potholes so deep they make decent hiding places for giraffes, and where donkeys and cattle that have dropped dead from exhaustion create a somewhat gory obstacle course.
“…roads with potholes so deep they make decent hiding places for giraffes…”
The Khama Rhino Sanctuary is home to one of the few remaining populations of black rhino. There is something quite disconcerting about emerging from an algae-flecked pool to find one of the larger members of an endangered species nonchalantly chewing on a bush while eyeing you passively.
Yellow-billed hornbills hide out in trees with their young, and a pair gave me the perfect excuse to have a lazy morning in bed: it just so happened it was the day for her to peck her way out of the tree and to kick the fledglings from the nest.
Botswana’s riches lie in her diamond mines and the tourist lure of the vast Okavango Delta. With the world’s third highest HIV rate and a drought that has caused even goats to die by the wayside – and goats will live off plastic bags and barbed wire if they have to – the stark poverty of Botswana’s inland villages is stultifying.
“It took a few days to realise that dressing the Syncro in tinsel was possibly largely responsible for game being unduly alarmed and scarpering sharpish.”
It took a few days to realise that dressing the Syncro in tinsel was possibly largely responsible for game being unduly alarmed and scarpering sharpish. Since it was Christmas, we donned Santa Hats instead. Sometimes. In towns. To amuse the kids.
Armed with a Bible and a tenuous grasp of the principles of navigating by the stars, early Afrikaners were a hardy bunch. Now, few overlanders will set off without recourse to fridges, freezers and satnavs; you can even settle down with a sundowner to watch the football if you have a satellite TV and a skewed set of priorities. The significant reality, though, is that places such as the Makgadikgadi national park have a startling lack of petrol stations. Poor pre-planning meant we couldn’t stay long.
Once little more than a crossroads with a pub, Maun is now an important base for tourists heading off into luxury wilderness camps. Prop planes wheel overhead, and a weekly supply truck appears from Johannesburg bearing such essentials as pickled gherkins and frozen profiteroles. Note: if going in December, mince pies are available but you’ll need to take your own Christmas crackers.
“…you can even settle down with a sundowner to watch the football if you have a satellite TV and a skewed set of priorities…”
With no supplies available within the Central Kalahari National Park – and for a long way outside it, too, in a sort of no-man’s-land populated by a few scrawny donkeys and the occasional cow with skin stretched tight over protruding hip bones – it’s necessary to bring with you all fuel, food and water required for a trip.
It is during early morning game drives that Botswana really shows off: a palette of colours found nowhere else in the world is used to daub the skies and trees and plains.
Sanity prevents most people from visiting the Central Kalahari during the hot summer months. One Swiss couple stayed two days in the van they affectionately called The Tortoise, travelling at speeds akin to a Leopard Tortoise, and then departed for an unknown place where ice wouldn’t melt in the glass before the gin had been poured.
“It is during early morning game drives that Botswana really shows off.”
Black-backed jackals are the cute curses of game viewing: if a moving shadow is spotted and its identity not immediately obvious, chances are it’s a jackal and not a longed-for cheetah.
There are few moments as visceral as looking into a big cat’s eyes, when the rest of the world becomes a distant irrelevance. We accidentally interrupted this cheetah’s hunting: a group of terrified springbok took the chance to bounce hurriedly into the distance as he became momentarily distracted by our presence.
Given the intense heat, most animals had hidden far from any of the Kalahari’s tracks. The changing landscape became the thing to watch: it’s a sure sign that Africa is under your skin when it doesn’t matter that entire days can pass with no game seen.
“There are few moments as visceral as looking into a big cat’s eyes, when the rest of the world becomes a distant irrelevance.”
A few determined individuals were hanging on in the northern reaches of the reserve but we had only encountered one (moderately delirious) couple as we’d headed south – and they were escaping boiling Botswana for the cooling seas off Namibia’s Skeleton Coast. Visitors to the park were so scarce, in fact, that at night we regularly had over 20,000 square kilometres of world all to ourselves; such a vast wilderness is more liberating than terrifying.
Photos conjure up memories: passive reminders of happy holidays and absent friends and beautiful places flick across screens on idle evenings. This is one of the few images that slows my world when I see it. The scene was mine and mine alone, the absence of needing to somehow quantify or qualify the magic for anyone else its defining quality.
Small clearings are generously termed Camping Pitches in the Central Kalahari. At dusk we drove to a nearby watering hole, the presence of two lions reminding us why we’d chosen to spend weeks inflicting this endurance exercise on ourselves. That night, sleeping on the roof of the Syncro, we felt the roars as much as heard them. The vast African skies stretched above offered the only hint that the outside world hadn’t come to a standstill, with bright satellites whipping their way across the blackness.
“The scene was mine and mine alone, the absence of needing to somehow quantify or qualify the magic for anyone else its defining quality.”
Every morning the bush’s self-appointed busybody, the Black Bellied Koran, woke us with his screeches. The lions had walked the road overnight, paw prints pressed into yesterday’s tyre tracks.
Bat-eared foxes are adorable intruders on all Central Kalahari scenes, skulking across pans or appearing as just a pair of pointed ears perkily visible on the scrubland.
We found ourselves drinking more and showering less as the days went on, resenting any space we’d given over to wine and the rather random bottle of chocolate liqueur that had found its way on board, a moment of regrettable exuberance when stocking up in Johannesburg a few weeks before.
We set off for another morning inching through the sand; another day of shifting landscapes and raw, wild beauty; another night lit by fireflies and shooting stars.