Among the side benefits of the Tour d’Afrique which we hadn’t focused in on during the planning phase are the incidental “stand alone vacation destinations” that we come across by design (or are offered access to with convenient excursions): the Great Pyramids of Giza, the Valley of the Kings at Luxor, Abu Simbal, the Ngorongoro Crater, Victoria Falls and now Chobe National Park and the Okavango Delta in Botswana. Arriving at these utourist destinations we look out of place in our limited selection of non biking garb, hobnobbing with purposefully dressed (invariably khaki safari suits with multiple pockets – indispensable for viewing wildlife) tourists primed to see world class monuments or the big five. We have spent the dollars and done the same thing ourselves in the past (minus the safari suit), so forgive us when we say that it feels like we are pulling a fast one on everyone around us when we drop in on these sites while just “passing through”. In our opinion, this is an underrated aspect of the tour.
Compared to some of the countries we have come through, Botswana is decidedly tame. It is Africa’s oldest continuous democracy, has the lowest perceived corruption ranking on the continent, a fast growing economy (mining, cattle and tourism) and one of the highest per capital GDPs (18K in 2015). 700 km over the past 5 days have provided ample evidence that this is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world.
The Kalahari Desert covers about 85% of Botswana (and extends into South Africa, Namibia and Angola). The terrain consists of trees, grasslands, scrub and thorny bushes. Exceptionally, the occurrence of the Okavango Delta region in this semi arid environment is what makes it so unique. We miss the villages and schoolyards teeming with children. We miss the challenge of hills and release of the downhills in this flat land. But this section of the tour is labelled The Elephant Highway, and in that respect it has not dissapointed.
We left Zambia behind and entered Botswana at Kazungula, crossing the Zambezi River on a short ferry at a point where those 2 countries meet Zimbabwe and Namibia. A short (80 km) “shake out” ride for 8 newcomers who had joined us in Livingstone took us to Kasane, which is the launching point for tours on the Chobe River.
The Chobe Riverfront has one of the densest concentrations of wildlife in Botswana. The numbers are larger in the dry season later in the year, but over the course of 3 leisurely hours cruising the marshy river floodplain around Sedudu Island on a large pontoon style boat we saw crocodiles, hippos, kudu, water buffalo, elephants, marabou storks, Jacana (also known as “Jesus birds” for their seeming ability to walk on water) and fish eagles with yet another spectacular African sunset as a backdrop.
Over the next days we headed south to Nata through Chobe National Park, forest reserves and vast tracts of sorghum, then west to Maun through Nxai Pan and Makgadkgadi National Parks. The protected areas are not continuous but wildlife roads freely in the Kalahari – another revelation. Even the 12K square kilometers of the wildlife rich Okavango Delta region is not actually a National Park or reserve.
Our nightly briefings gave us all but a guarantee of spotting elephants and other game, along with stern warnings to stay well clear. The promise was partially filled by abundant sightings of baboons, warthogs and impala before we had even cycled out of Kasane. By lunchtime some riders had seen elephants and giraffes, giving the rest of us hope. At the 170 km mark, a kilometer shy of camp, we spotted an elephant crossing the road in the distance past the TDA orange marker tape signalling the turnoff. Peter from Toronto and G. raced ahead for a closer look. It dissapeared into the forest just as 2 others emerged another 500 meters down the road. This time we were able to get much closer and snap some decent photos, including the “money shot” with a bicycle in the foreground. As we stood and watched, a giraffe poked its head above the forest canopy not far beyond the elephants. Magical.
The next day presented an even closer opportunity to admire these hulking creatures at a watering hole just off the road. A pair of them entertained us for a good while until a huge bull elephant entered the frame and hastened them off rather aggressively. He gave us a proper show of showering himself before lumbering on. We didn’t have as much luck the following day over the course of 182 km (with the unique prospect of having to go off route and add on even more km for coke stops along the barren route). Later at camp, as we ate, barely 50 meters away 2 huge elephants towered over our tents against the setting sun. They had our full attention as they picked their way through the campsite and crossed the road. A small herd of cows grazing in their path didn’t so much as look up. For them, and increasingly for us, it was just another day in Africa.
Life on the road has continued to be fun. Days have been a little more social as new couples have joined and we have been riding with them as they work on getting up to speed with the seasoned veterans. We tell them our “war” stories from Sudan and Ethiopia as we hunt for spots to pitch a tent among piles of elephant dung. “In” jokes and pranks have kept things lively. Cold beer is flowing more than before as our confidence builds.
Today will see us rubbing shoulders with more conventional tourists in Maun, the jumping off point for tours of the Okavango. We’ll be the scruffy looking lot.
Thanks for reading.