Where the wild things are
We parted ways in Livingstone; Ny would ride the Caprivi strip in Namibia whilst I cycled a loop through Botswana. We’d meet again in three weeks’ time. Botswana is a country the size of France with a population of two million, all manner of toothsome fauna and more elephants than you can shake a baobab at (around 150,000 roam around the Botswanan bush). Young men in Zambia on hearing my plan to ride through Botswana alone, uttered a phrase I would hear much too often over the next few weeks, an unsettling question for anyone, especially when it occurs to you that you don’t have a good answer.
“But what will you do about all the lions?”
But I had yet to enter Botswana and the bush is not to the only place you can find wildlife in Africa, the border towns are full of it. I warm to most people I meet at the borders as much as I welcome weeping saddle sores. There are all kinds of shady characters, tricksters, crooks, petty thieves, gangsters and opportunists. Their job is to make some money from the unwary, yours is to remain on the ball and not to get stung. The border crossing was a ferry ride across the river. A sign on board gave a list of things you needed to do once debarked, including directions to customs and immigration, it ended with ‘to complete these formalities a guide, ‘agent’ or third party is not required.’ The word ‘not’ had been scratched out, presumably by a moody middleman not wanting the placard to curtail his business. If you need to change money these guys know all the tricks. They give you phoney rates of exchange and usually work in a cartel so everyone has been briefed to tell you the same wacky rate. They use their own calculator and often ‘forget’ a zero, aiming to cheat you by a factor of ten. They hurry and hassle you into changing notes quickly hoping you’ll make a mistake. They sometimes even take your money, claim it’s not authentic, switch it for an actual fake and hand it back to you, pocketing your genuine dollar bills. Changing money at this border was made harder by the fact that the Zambian Kwatcha is the eighth least valuable currency in the world, there are around eight thousand to the pound, and in Zambian terms I was a millionaire. But I’m getting used to African borders and I have developed a strategy to get me through which involves choosing one guy and shouting ‘Everyone else please piss off. I’m dealing with this guy ONLY!’ The ‘please’ is optional. If they are particularly in my face I add ‘you bloodsucking XXXXXX’ (choose from one or more derogatory terms of abuse). It helps to be calm, assertive and always generous with your expletives.
Most people have an out-dated image of Africa where wild animals terrorise villages and jump out at unsuspecting travellers all the time. In fact most big game and any creature that could pose a risk to the livestock has long since been killed or rounded up and left to roam in the national parks, not so in Botswana, a country teaming with beasts. I soon came across a sign with the caution ‘beware of animals’. Couldn’t they be more specific? Did they mean the cutesy, diminutive, cud chewing kind or the sever your jugular and nibble on your spleen variety? I intermittently glanced fearful and expectant into the bush wondering what was about to leap out of the undergrowth, Bambi or Scar? Crouching lions morphed into ant hills as I nervously edged towards them. I jumped at a rustle in the bushes only for a hornbill to emerge and flutter away. A quick-fire nervy internal monologue began in an effort to reassure myself ‘A hornbill! Just a hornbill! That’s an animal! That must be what the sign meant! No lions here, just birds and OH JESUS WHAT’S THAT!’ Just ahead three elephants were stripping the green from a tree. I crossed to the other side and tried to slip by unnoticed but they startled, fortunately they ran away from me and the road. Presumably I had scared them off with my whimpering demeanour and expression of unsullied terror.
‘I’m surprised you travel in this way’ he muttered, frowning, gesturing towards my bicycle and taking a long stride backward as if it was harbouring a contagious disease.
‘Why?’ was the obvious question.
‘The wild animals here are many. Many, many, many. I never leave home without a gun. Lions live here. I saw some last week’
Why was it only now that I could see the holes in my original plan? Rough camping, alone, in a sparsely populated part of the African bush, in lion country with no weapon aside from the two inch blade on my Leatherman was starting to look like a crap idea. Luckily after one hundred kilometres I came across a campsite. But I knew there were no other campsites or even small villages for the two hundred kilometres after this one so I decided to quiz the owner.
‘What wildlife do you have around here?’
‘Lots. We hear them almost every night. I’ve seen some cyclists pass this way. So far I’ve not heard of any being attacked’
The inflection on the ‘so far’ made it clear she had decided that lion verses cyclist was imminent. Luckily she told me there were some workmen one hundred kilometres south who were helping build the roads. They had a bush camp and, I hoped, something more useful than a Leatherman if a pride of hungry lions came round for dinner. Maybe I should camp with them. As I walked back to my tent a sound rose out of the bush, ‘uuuuuh-huuumph’ repeated again and again, becoming softer and slowly fading into silence. An unmistakable sound. Lions were calling through the night. I’m camping with them.
Later that night, ensconced inside my tent and sleeping bag, I thought about what she’d said. I was excited about tomorrow. This was a real adventure. I hadn’t felt like this since the struggle through the remote badlands of northern Kenya. Now I was alone, experiences more intense, the world a more intimidating place to roam. This wild region was how I imagined Africa to be. It was the Africa of dense scrub and limitless grassy savannah. It was the Africa untouched by cultivation and human hand. It was the Africa of wild beasts. It was the lonely, exhilarating, terrifying side of the Dark Continent. I was frightened. I was enthralled.
|A Puff Adder|
|A large Snouted Cobra|
|A bush baby, caught by a guy in the campsite. It was delicious, especially when we added a couple of kittens and a puppy to the shish kebab.|
|A dead Honey Badger|
I reached the tourist haven of Maun but couldn’t afford to go out on the Okavango Delta, Botswana offered little I could afford. Most of its revenue comes from diamonds and tourists and in the case of tourism it opts for a policy of ‘low volume, high cost’. Luxury lodges on the salt pans cost 1400 US dollars a night or in simple speak ‘crazy money’. Botswana is not really a backpacker destination unless you happen to be wearing a bandanna, a sarong or crazy pantaloons and have a mummy and daddy that throw ludicrous amounts of money your way to help fund your gap year all because what they really want is you out of the house for a while. Couples and bands of overlanders set out on boats from various lodges for a ‘booze cruise’. If you were going to name a boat for the purpose of taking pissheads out at sunset, what would you call it? I want to hug the person who came up with this…
‘Cirrhosis of the River’
After leaving Maun I saw a number of Herero women, a group of people originally from Namibia. They were adorned in huge dresses derived from the style of Victorian era German missionaries. Enormous crinoline is worn over a series of petticoats as well as a horn shaped hat. But after these colourful characters faded away Botswana got boring. It might be a succinct description but it was 400km of straight roads, flat terrain, no wildlife, nobody to talk to and nothing to inspire interest. Generally it went something like this…
Bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat… bush… cow… bush… goat…ice cream parlour… cow…naked lady… goat… human-sized bottle of cold beer
Stop cycling, slap in the face, and resume… Bush… cow… bush… goat…
In fact the only thing to break the monotony was the odd dog chase. Since the menacing mutts of Eastern Europe I’ve had it easy, dogs in Africa are underfed, scrawny and timid, less intent on attacking strangers than on finding their next scrap of food. But Botswanan farms were home to territorial hounds and once again it’s game on.
On my last night in Botswana I saw a sign for a Crocodile Farm and decided to investigate. They warned me of hippos outside the perimeter and so offered to let me stay in their research facility. I was a bit more concerned about meeting a stray crocodile ‘Oh that’s just snappy, don’t mind him, he’s like one of the family. Snappy no! What have I told you about chewing on the guests’ To keep the hippos at bay the farm was surrounded by a tall electric fence. I’ve fallen asleep to a variety of sounds in the bush, some obscure and many terrifying, but none quite as comical as hippos intermittently being electrocuted.
The next day I had made it to the Namibian border and I was relieved, especially since not one of the immigration officials bore even the slightest resemblance to a bush, a cow or a goat. I filled in the usual forms and wrote ‘professional daydreamer’ under occupation. I don’t write doctor anymore. It feels a bit fraudulent, I probably won’t practice medicine for several years and besides you always risk an American tourist in the queue behind you reading the form and then suddenly recalling that curious blue spot on their ass and ‘would you mind having a quick look at it for me?’. A cyclist? No. That implies I’m some sort of athlete. An adventurer maybe? Too pretentious. What do I do most of the time besides cycling? I’m a professional daydreamer. My old maths teacher was right after all.
Strangely at this border there were no touts or middlemen to be found and I soon learnt why. My route into Namibia passed immediately through a national park and once again there was that disconcerting query, first from immigration officials and then from customs “But what will you do about all the lions?” Despite my half-hearted pleas to ride unaccompanied it was unanimously decided that it was too dangerous, they made a good case. The lions had to cross the road to get to the Okavango River on the other side. They were frequently sighted chilling on the road. On top of that there were no cars whatsoever. I waited and eventually a truck arrived. There was space in the back for my bike but the guy could see I wanted to ride. For twenty kilometres he trailed me as I cycled through the national park. Once again plenty elephant, no lion. I had made it through lion country unmauled and lets face it, it’s a good brag.
‘We’re going to rent some bikes and go on a little ride. You want to come with?’
‘Errrrrm… no thanks. Knock yourselves out.’
I set up my stove to cook lunch, pulled out my lighter, sparked it and watched with horror as the whole stove and fuel bottle went up in flames. The bottle was full of petrol. I threw water over it but the blaze continued. Panicking and convinced that the outcome would involve a huge fireball and a surgeon removing metal shards from my face, I took a short run up and punted the entire burning mess into the crocodile infested waters of the Okavango River. No more stove. Luckily in Northern Namibia stoves weren’t really necessary, the surrounding countryside was full of deadwood. I stopped early to collect it and cooked my dinner African style over open fires, sometimes I needed some solitude and I’d camp in the bush, sometimes I needed company and I’d ask to camp in the villages. Maybe I’d stay with the locals more if it wasn’t for the guilt that inevitably follows. It’s a guilt that every Westerner feels when they spend time with anyone eking out a subsistence way of life. My tent looks out of place standing next to mud huts with thatched roofs. We sit around a fire, a fire they lit to keep me warm using wood they collected and chopped up in my honour. I prepare to cook. As I unload each ingredient from my pannier I’m uncomfortably aware that nobody in my company could afford any of them. So I cook more than I need and offer it round. But the adults won’t take it; surplus grub goes to the children. I eat pasta with a sauce of fresh vegetables and beef stock, they munch away at a maize-based porridge. The young men talk about their dreams and their hopes for the future, of leaving Namibia, of getting a job, of finding a life somewhere else, maybe Europe, maybe America. I think about how improbable their dreams sound. I say nothing. I feel guilty. I zip myself into a four season sleeping bag and wonder how they keep warm through the night. The next day I thank everyone. I’m grateful for permission to camp, for water, for the fire, but most of all for the guilt, it reminds me that I’m lucky to have a life of almost limitless options, choices and possibilities. I sometimes run into smug travellers who like to brag about how they can live on less than ten dollars a day. It’s not so impressive when you find out that over one billion people live on less than a dollar a day and over half the world’s population live on less than two dollars fifty. Ten dollars is lavish.
‘Where are you from?’
‘Do you come from Hollywood?’
‘No. That’s in America.’
‘Is there green grass in England?’
‘What about maize?’
‘What about game parks?’
‘Erm, not many’
‘What about wild elephants?’
‘NO WILD ELEPHANTS!’ WHEYY! (They took a while to get over the shock).’ Why do you travel by bicycle?’
‘For an adventure’
‘Will the government in your country pay you money when you return?’
‘Do you write for a newspaper?’
‘No. I write on the internet’
‘Can you take our photo and put it on this internet?’
Ladies and Gentlemen, because Tracy gave me five dollars off my bill, I give you Tracy and Louise…
It has to be said, I wasn’t coping well without Nyomi. I was cooking the same amount of food each evening and scoffing it all to myself. I had upped my Dairy Milk chocolate intake to three bars a day. I was showering less than I probably should. I was worried that very soon I would be found slumped by the roadside, clad only in a pair of grubby, torn Lycra shorts, slurring profanities at strangers, surrounded by pizza crusts, fruit and nut bars and empty bottles of cheap Namibian cider. I needed Nyomi back in my life. I finally found her with two couch-surfers, Anthony and Jules, British physiotherapists working in Namibia with VSO. They put us up and even let us borrow their car so we could explore Etosha National Park. Namibia seemed to have more than its fair share of enticing attractions… ancient dinosaur footprints, three hundred and fifty metre high sand dunes, the infamous skeleton coast and the world’s largest meteorite. I decided to give the last one a miss. Apparently it was just a rock and wasn’t going to live up to my expectations. No ethereal green glow, no extra-terrestrial runes carved onto its surface.
|A Painted Agama Lizard|
|A large Skink|
|A recently deceased lizard, killed by a puff adder which did a runner|
|A bird of prey in Etosha. Not sure what it is… any ideas please leave in the comments section below. It could do a 360 head twist so maybe some sort of owl???|
|A Secretary Bird, Etosha|
‘Stop eating so many aubergines! Stop eating so many aubergines! Stop eating so many aubergines!’
I’ll drift into a blissful slumber.
We were aiming for Spitzkoppe, a mountain that rises out of the desert, a mountain that is surrounded by tired clichés by tired Lonely Planet travel writers ‘The Matterhorn of Africa’, ‘the Ayres Rock of Africa’. We watched the peak gradually rise up out of the jade desert scrub, hour by hour it became more imposing, more of it filled my field of vision every time I glanced up from the sandy track. We lost the race, the sun made it to the horizon before we hit the mountain. The next morning, as we approached from the east, the sun behind us dyed the western sky a pale blue and Spitzkoppe a rosy hue. By lunch the image and the colours were sharper, sanguine swords of granite reached up to pierce the sapphire sky. After we’d strolled around the mountain it was a straight run to Swakopmund, a town on the Atlantic coast where we planned to have a deserved break. We were steaming in. It was the perfect storm – a strong tailwind, a descent of about a thousand vertical metres, old skool jungle on my IPOD and by ten o’clock AM I had consumed over eight times the Recommended Daily Allowance of glucose in the form of Cadbury’s Daily Milk chocolate. We covered one hundred and ten kilometres in three and a half hours.
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