Last legs - Road Trip through southern Africa - part 4/4

(The next post will be all about lodgings, food, Covid tests and other practical tips and tricks)

Baines Baobabs in Botswana
Baines Baobabs

September 24

In the morning, we set off again, and sadly I had no time to shop: I would have liked to leave a few more dollars in Zimbabwe! I also made a valiant effort to take pictures of traditional architecture: that was difficult too, viewing that nobody was going to slow down for me, architecture not being the goal of the road trip.

At the Botswana border, we waited in line behind a perfect-looking young couple; we chatted, and they told us they were from Spain, on their honeymoon, having just got married!

The border was once again crowded with trucks, using bio-diesel, which has a very unpleasant smell.

Another long day driving, as usual dodging cattle, goats, horses, etc. It was dusk when we reached Muchenje Campsite and Cottages. Vicky had rented 3 cottages and 1 tent. The tent was almost as well outfitted as the cottages, except that it had no bathroom. This was arguably the nicest and most well-run place we stayed at, and we remained for four days. Cost: 1065 Pula/night for the cottage, that included a bedroom, a fully equipped kitchen, bathroom with soap, a safe, A/C, and a large veranda to be used as a dining area. Also, a common viewing deck and a small swimming pool. Cottages are cleaned every day, and for a fee, you can have your laundry done. WiFi is available at the reception area.

There was a large vegetable garden; the managers sold their produce to other lodges before the pandemic. With business sharply down, they were investigating selling to local supermarkets.

Close-up of an elephant
An elephant checking us out on the Chobe river

During our stay, we made day trips to the Chobe preserve, and went for a cruise in a rather rickety boat, but oh the marvels we saw! Elephants up so close I thought they’d shower mud on our heads (not at all: they’re very tidy about it). A few young lions from afar. Hippos, crocodiles, and many types of birds.

On our excursions to the preserve, we saw multitudes of almost any African animal you can think of: zebras for kilometers at a time, hippos, elephants, kudu, impala, wildebeest, giraffes (well, one, anyway, but up close!), vervet monkeys, and many birds, some of which I had never heard of: the kori bustard (heaviest flying bird alive), guineafowl, herons , cormorants, stilts, spurfowl, go away birds (they sound like they’re telling you to go away), hornbills, bee eaters, red bishops…. The list goes on.

On the way back from one excursion, we got stuck in the sand. The two vehicles in front of us finally noticed we weren’t behind them any longer. It took 3 hours in 45 degree Celsius heat, the Mapawny flies buzzing around us, to get out. I was a little worried about dusk finding us still stuck but fortunately we succeeded an hour or so before. It did ruin the rest of our plans for the day!

When we exited the park, we met a young Botswanan couple on their way to another town. It was Botswana Independence Day, which started on a Thursday but Friday was also a day off. The young lady had a photo of her and me taken – I wonder where that photo is posted!

We also saw an ostrich crossing the road – another highlight for me.

September 28

Regretfully, we got back on the road, this time towards Planet Baobab in Gweta, Botswana.

Planet Baobab is really surrounded by baobab trees. The design is the most interesting of all the lodgings we stayed at: built in a similar way to traditional homes. Fortunately, I couldn’t smell the creosote this time. Each cottage had a queen-sized bed and 2 twin beds, and a sink/toilet and a shower area, and instant coffee and tea. Our daily rate included a generous breakfast and dinner in the common dining area near a good-sized swimming pool. There is a picturesque bar “hut” with chandeliers made with beer bottles (cash bar). Wifi was available for about 30 minutes a day, in one session. We remained there for 2 nights.

We set off to find the fabled Baines’ Baobabs. Thomas Baines was a 19th Century English artist who was known for his watercolors of southern Africa. We entered the Nxai Pan National Park and drove for what seemed like forever; directions were very unclear (there was a signpost at one point but it was hard to tell in which direction it was pointing). Finally, I noticed the clump of trees in the distance. It was the end of the dry season, and we were on the edge of a dried up lake. There were only about a dozen baobab trees, but that was the tightest grouping I had ever seen, and it was awe-inspiring.

On the way back we saw a couple of ostriches running near the road… as well as a vehicle coming in the other direction, stuck in the sand, like we had been. We stopped to find out if they needed assistance. We also saw, spread out over many meters, the skeleton of an elephant.

(Almost) Final destination of the road trip September 30

Off we drove away, again, for a many-hour trip, through the Kalahari – very flat, and at this time of year, very dry. It was a long trip and we needed gas at one point. We finally turned into a town called Rakops, that boasted a tiny old-fashioned gas station, and an outdoor toilet called a longdrop. I think I saw a lady who looked like she was a Herrera from Namibia, due to her long dress and special hat. (Another highlight for me, as I had seen videos of these beautifully dressed ladies, whose people was downtrodden during colonial days. They weren’t the only downtrodden people.)

Everywhere we drove through, there are fun names for businesses: in Rakops: “By the Way Bar,” “Her Majesty’s Car Wash,” and on the way out: “Finale Bar.”

And oh surprise, a Jaguar on the road.

By the time we arrived at Khama Rhino Sanctuary, it was almost 4 pm and near closing time. There is a multi-ethnic mix of children visiting. After checking in, we went on a drive through the sanctuary, and were starting to despair we’d see any rhinos… and happen upon a group of white rhinos (these are known to be gentle; the black rhinos are more aggressive), including what appears to be a family, mom, dad and child.

Our cottage was composed of a main room with 2 twin beds, another room with two more twin beds, all with mosquito nets, and a shower room that includes toiletries (soap and shower caps) and towels. (Cost: 1558 Pula per night, although the website states a lower price).

We had dinner at the Sanctuary restaurant. The menu includes steaks, chicken cutlets, pizza, and more, plus South African wine and local beer. Everything was very plentiful. Cost for 2 people: 382 Pula.

And finally… or so we thought…

The next morning, our friends left early, and it was just two vehicles left. Vicky told us we could get a rapid Covid test at the border. In the middle of the night, I woke up worrying about this, but there wasn’t much we could do as there was no Internet access.

We reached the border and… we were told that American citizens needed to have a PCR test, and that we couldn’t leave Botswana without it. We pleaded our case, but the immigration agent told us that her hands were tied.

So: Vicky and Michael took a few items from the food stash in our vehicle (not nearly enough, as it turned out) and we set off back to Palapye, about an hour away, in the hope of getting a test very quickly and returning before nightfall to follow Vicky to the family “farm” along the Limpopo River.

It wasn’t to be that simple. When we reached Palapye, we didn’t know how to find the lab. We had no internet and no cell service. So we decided to stop at a rather fancy-looking hotel called Majestic Five, to ask if we could use their WiFi. Not only did we get WiFi, but also the assistance of a wonderful customer care representative (I heard her called Doudou, but her name tag said Djou). She called the lab (speaking in the Tswana language) and found out we would not receive a result before Monday. She offered us a special price to stay at the hotel, and we were very tempted, as the hotel seemed really nice. But… 3 more days? So she called a lab in Gaborone, the capital, and they told her we could come in on Saturday morning and get results by the afternoon.

We thanked her and off we drove backwards again, and on towards Gaborone… another 270 km. We arrived before nightfall (it’s always easier to be in an unfamiliar place when it’s daylight, even if it’s a city), booked a room in a hotel that was recommended, Aquarian Tide Hotel, in the airport area. It was the nicest lodging we had had in a long time: WiFi in our room - what a luxury not to have to traipse off in the night to find the hotspot. And it wasn’t even the most expensive. We had dinner at Saffron, in a nearby shopping mall, full of restaurants and stores, many of which are South African-owned. We regretted not going to a very lively restaurant, but maybe that would not have been the best anti-Covid option, even if we ate outside.

In the morning, we set off for Diagnofirm, a clean and well-organized clinic. The opening time was not as indicated on the website, so we waited in line for about 30 minutes. It was expensive to get an expedited test result, but we wanted to follow Vicky and Michael to the farm rather than stay another night at the hotel.

We had a large breakfast in the hotel, served by a person who had just started this job; he was very enthusiastic! Packed once more, and set off for a mini-tour of Gaborone, a quiet town but not sleepy anymore, as it used to be a couple of decades ago. We got our results (both nose and throat swabs) and set off towards Groblersburg, the border town, once again. We found the same lady at the Botswana border post; she was surprised to hear what distances we had to cover to get the test.

We drove with slightly unclear directions to the farm, and after a few wrong turns, we arrived. This is a private property, but there are several game preserves in the region, right across the Limpopo River from Botswana. The river was dry: you could cross over of you wanted to take the risk. We saw a few giraffes, and again, many impala, and a variety of birds, plus the usual elephant dung (it thrilled me enormously at the beginning of the trip, before I had seen any elephants).

Elephants at Chobe River
Elephants at Chobe

After a few days, we returned to the Johannesburg area. The last stretch was less eventful, and after some dirt roads, we were on regular roads and then highways.

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