Botswana: An elephant safari with new bush-buddies

Last time I wrote that we would probably meet more animals than people in Botswana.That turned out to be correct. With 2,2 million people in a country with an area the size of France you can’t really expect anything else. Still, we bumped into surprisingly many cycle tourers in this remote place. Five in total, which is more than we’ve met during the five previous months altogether. 

In northern Botswana there’s the huge national park Chobe. Coming from the Zambian border and heading south we naturally had to go through the wildlife area next to the park. Although the road was flat like a pancake and the sceneries changed unremarkably – it was all bush, bush and bush – this stretch could suddenly become rather adventurous due to the presence of elephants, giraffes, impalas and lions. Fortunately, we never met the last one.We would have loved to, of course, but preferably in a safari car and not on a bicycle. Neither in the bush while camping or cooking. Since we avoided cycling in the early morning and the dusk (when the lions go out hunting), all we saw of them was their footprints.But we met a number of people who had seen lions in the area recently, and quite a few car drivers who stopped to warn us. Lions was not all there was to fear though. Chobe national park is home to the worlds largest population of African elephants. We must have seen around a hundred during our stay in Botswana, and among those there were a lot of breeding ones. No matter how slow and gentle the elephants look, apparently their top speed is unexpectedly 30 km/h, so if they chose to charge you there’s not much you can do. Anyway, as long as you’ve got some common sense you’ll be fine. Whenever we saw a group of elephants crossing the road we just stayed at a relatively safe distance and waited. Most of the times truck drivers and people in pick-up vans were usually helpful and stopped to drive slowly next to us so that we could pass. 

From the border town Kazangula we had 300 km to go before reaching the town Nata and the end of the wildlife area. The first night we camped outside of a petrol station in a village called Pandamatenga. Then the next day there was nothing at all within 150 km, where there was a lodge/campsite, the Elephant Sands. We didn’t want to wild camp in the area, and tried making it the whole way to the lodge. But with our normal far from efficient way of riding, including in average 3-4 stops for flat-tire fixing every day, we still had about 40 km to go when the sun started to go down. So we simply hitch-hiked with two guys in a pick-up the last bit. I used to be strictly against giving up the cycling under any circumstances, but safety first, right? And now when we had been cycling pretty solidly the last time, I really appreciated the change. 

Later that night at the campsite we got a close encounter with the elephants. They usually come to the area to drink from a big water pond that’s there just for that purpose.This night they were standing just outside of the bathrooms, waving with their trunks and talking to each other. Later on we heard a quite loud and suspiciously lion-like growling. And we might not just have been paranoid, because the next morning the receptionist told us that they had actually seen a lion male walking around the camping area two days earlier. 

The third day we only had half a day to go before reaching the end of the wildlife area.We got some food supplies in the small town Nata and then went out in the bush for another remote 300-km stretch to the next town. But this time there was no time to get bored before we got some unexpected company. We stopped early the first day to have a half day off at a lodge called The Planet Baobab. That morning two car drivers had stopped just to tell us that we absolutely should go to this great place. And they proved to be right; this place had an impressing 2000-4000 year old Baobab tree, an amazing pool and fully equipped camping spots. Besides, we were even happier when we discovered our campsite neigbors were a couple of cycle tourers.We had actually heard about these guys before. Scott and Sarah had been staying with the same hosts as us in both Addis Ababa and Lusaka.We knew them as the couple who’s crazy enough to cycle through Africa on fixed gear bikes. Indeed, their bikes had no gears. And Scott and Sarah seemed to have no problem with that. But then they also admitted (unlike most touring cyclists, Sam and myself included) that they are not especially fond of mountains. 

It was fun hanging out with some other cyclists, so fun that we let them convince us to stay one more day at the lodge so that we could leave together the following day. Rest days are not too bad when you spend them reading next to a pool, playing cards with new-found friends and sipping ice-tea. 

Most cycle tourers have their own specific style. There are those who chase kilometres and those who are happy cycling 40 km in the morning and then chilling out the rest of the day. Some go in zig-zag patterns up and down, east and west just so they can see as much as possible.Others strive to travel in a completely straight course towards their final destination, not willing to take the slightest detour although they’ll miss all the sights.The straight-course cyclists also tend to be pretty fast, and not stopping if they don’t necessarily have to.Do you remember our friend Marcus, who cycled with us from Addis Ababa to northern Kenya? He certainly belong to this latter bunch.From Addis Ababa in Ethiopia and all the way down to Lusaka in Zambia, he didn’t take one single day off. Marcus just peddled. No wonder he reached Cape Town over a month ago. Now he’s already in Argentina, getting ready to cycle through the next continent. 

 The fifth cyclist that we met in Botswana - Jacob, an american on his way north to Kilimanjaro.  
Scott & Sarah, anyway, are rather the zig-zag route type. They started in Paris 2,5 years ago and have probably got another 6 months left before they’ll reach Cape Town.Taking your time like that certainly pays.Listening to their stories you realise that their trip has been full of amazing encounters and spontaneous invites.But just like Scott said.”We cycle hard, and then we stop hard”. I can now tell that when cycling they are much faster than us.We found it quite tough trying to keep up with with Scott & Sarah:s pace.We still managed to do 130 km together one day, and then another more normal distance the following. 

The four of us reached Maun, where we checked in at another campsite. Luckily, Scott and Sarah are vegetarians. And even more luckily, they make delicious food. That night we had a barbecue feast with soy sausages sausages, corn, potatoes, caramelised onions and peach chutney.Do I have to say that Sam and I didn’t miss our baked beans and rice that evening? 

At the campsite in Maun there happened to be two more cyclists, Monica and Rudolf. They started cycling from Switzerland 12 years ago, made it to India and have travelled ever since. They were going north, so we had some useful exchange of information about the route. 

After another lazy rest day it was time to leave Maun and our new friends.We had about five days to the Namibian border. Once again, there was mostly bush, with a few donkeys, horses and cattle. And thorns.Sam’s flat-tire party continued, with around 4-5 punctures a day.It’s a delicate issue, but I’m pretty convinced that he’s worn out tyres are to blame. So were Scott and Sarah. But Sam is not a waster, and would not throw away anything that could still possibly serve him for another 1000 km or so. It would take another week of continuous flat-tires to make him finally surrender. Then, we were already in Windhoek preparing ourselves for the Namib desert. But that’s a future story. Now, we got to go for some braai (Afrikaans for barbecue) with our amazing hosts here in the tiny capital. 

Take care!