As is often the case in long-term travel, my plans changed significantly as I went along. I was going to spend a good part of my road trip in Botswana, but ended-up staying much longer in Namibia. Also, the friends I made in Namibia were volunteering in Zambia, and I was heading there anyways, so I bought a ticket 2 days earlier than planned, to make it in time for a birthday dinner. All this meant that my road trip through Botswana became a “drive to get to Johannesburg in time” experience.
The biggest change in scenery came when I crossed the Namibian Redline. This line is designed to control foot-and-mouth disease and has been in place since the 1960’s. Essentially, animals South of the line can be sold on international markets, and animals to the North cannot be sold anywhere outside the Northern zone. This causes a massive change in human demographics as you cross the line. The South is covered in massive, never ending pasture where you occasionally catch sight of a large scale raising or farming complex. People are a rare sight. The North is the opposite, and this changes right at the line. As soon as you cross the Redline – which is very heavily guarded by numerous policemen and soldiers inspecting every vehicle for meat products, the road becomes lined with small villages like this one, full of people living on subsistence agriculture and cattle raising. It is very poor, but is the densest populated area of Namibia. To add to the political complexity, the North is nearly 100% Black, while almost all the commercial farms of the South are owned by White Namibians, who form 13% of the country’s population.
I was surprised to have to exit my car and get my suitcase thoroughly inspected. I assumed that, like at many other control points, I would be the “victim” of profiling and, as an obvious tourist, simply waved through. I jokingly told the policeman going through my things: “You’re not going to find any animals in there”. He seriously answered: “I’m not looking for animals, I’m looking for drugs”. Sadly for him, I had none, having just transferred my crates of opium at the Walvis Bay port.
I have always been interested in discovering new foods and drinks as I travel around the World. However, on a 5000 to 6000 km road trip, what I really wished for was a Starbucks! None of the countries in Southern Africa have a tradition of coffee drinking. Of course, you’ll find a good cafe downtown Cape Town, but elsewhere, you are likely to be told they do not have coffee, or, if you are lucky, they will serve you instant coffee. The only place I found that would give me a filter coffee in a paper cup to go, was the fast food chain Wimpy. It’s like a Burger King and the coffee is not very good, but it’s the least worst I could find.
Since I almost never eat in fast food places at home, it’s quite ironic that I would plan legs in my GPS based on the location of the next Wimpy (they are also never far from gas stations). I would get my coffee fix and some gas. Once, I got a breakfast sandwich, drove off, but then decided to stop to eat it on the side of the road, as it was getting messy. I was struck by the contrast between a village of subsistence farmers and my fast-food outlet bag. Not my first or my last such clash of Worlds…
Before entering Botswana, I drove into the Caprivi Strip, a strange finger-shaped territory, created for some some colonial reason I am sure, which protrudes East of Namibia and shares borders with Angola and Botswana, all the way to Zambia. I then turned South and headed into the Okavango Panhandle. Just before the Botswana border, I stopped at a riverside lodge and camped there. The owners had quite the sense of humour.
The river was full of hippos. I’m quite certain this was the first time I saw them out in the wild. I got to be quite up-close and personal.
In fact, if you look up from the inverted “V” at the back of my tent, just over the bushes, you can see a hippo in the river. I woke up to the sounds of hippos “hippoing”, or whatever it is they do! In case you are my mother – I mean in case you are worried – there was no danger. True, hippos are one of the biggest killers of men in Africa. I heard if you accidentally get between them and the water, they freak-out are trample you to death before heading back to the water. However in this area, they only feed on one side of the river. You can perhaps make-out a sharp drop behind my tent. The riverside is flat on the other side, but there is a “cliff” of about 2-3 m on this side. Hippos can move faster than they look capable of, but they are just as good at climbing as one would guess based on their shape.
Before sunrise, in front of my tent, listening to the sounds of hippos. And that was the end of my brief stopover in the Caprivi Strip before I headed into Botswana.
Driving in Botswana is much less exciting than in Namibia. While the distances are great in Namibia, if you’ve seen my posts from there, you know how incredible the landscapes can be. In much of North and West Botswana, the landscape is flat. To reduce cases of impacts with animals, they cut down the vegetation for 20 m on either side of the road. So you get a bit of grass on both sides, and then trees, for hundreds of kilometres. As interesting as highway 20 between Montreal and Quebec. Although, you do get some sights you wouldn’t get in North America, such as this very unique way of using a tractor-trailer (without the actual trailer!) to carry a car. Once in a while, you also get some cool wildlife along the road.
A few hours later, I got to Maun, known as the “Gateway to the Okavango Delta”. There isn’t much to Maun. For most tourists, it is the place they go through to fly to a luxury lodge or go on a traditional dug-out canoe trip. I won’t beat around the bush, I did neither. A little strange I will admit. Like staying at a Niagara Falls hotel but not actually going to the Falls.
The Okavango experience is not so much about wildlife (certainly nothing like Etosha), but more about the serene experience of gliding along the river in a dug out canoe. I looked at some pictures online. Water, trees, bugs, humid, $200/day because I am doing it alone. No. I spent a couple of days taking care of administrative stuff, which piles-up when traveling full-time, and headed for the kind of serenity I like, salt pans…
Of note in Maun. I walked into an obvious tourist trap; a Western-looking, aeronautical-themed restaurant in front of the airport. I just didn’t care, I wanted food, now. It turned out to be awesome! Lots of local style game meat stews, veggy lasagnas and other surprises. I ate most of my meals there and the barmaid set me up with a local SIM card. She even tested it by calling her own cell. Later, I thought I might have been a little too friendly with her when she called me! It turns out she’d forgotten about the test and thought she had a missed call. If you’re ever in Maun, here are the directions to the restaurant: get out of airport, cross street.
Also of note in Maun. I drove through many crazy roads with the little Kia Picanto. The light weight and narrow wheels were fine on harsh, pointy stone roads and I never got a flat. The one thing I knew it could never do is sand roads. Once, I turned on a side road to go to a place and, seeing the sand, parked and walked a kilometre. Downtown Maun, the last thing I was thinking of was off-road worthiness. Sure enough, I turned in a long driveway and got caught in the sand, 50 m from the main highway! Fortunately, it was my lucky day. A guy in a 4×4 with chains in the back saw me get stuck. The whole ordeal lasted less than 5 minutes.