Cycle Across Africa
Cycling Botswana – No Fairytale But It Gets Better
A Journey still but no fairytale
“Good Christmas?”……”Yeah, great thanks and you?”
It is always great….at least that’s what I tell everyone. Honestly, I do love Christmas but it has rarely been “great” right through, there have always been a painfully quiet few days or some touched with sadness. I seem to spend a lot of the period missing certain people or evaluating my “happiness”. Am I alone on this?
I also give a similar response when asked how this trip is going “great”. It almost feels expected to be positive but to be completely honest I found the past 10 days quite…..boring and it brought me down! As a result I had a dilemma this week of whether to write a fun, sugar coated, safari version of the cycle tour in Africa for Christmas cheer (easily done) -OR- just tell it like it is.
Windhoek to the Border (Last few days in Namibia)
It took a while to leave Windhoek, the rest did a lot of good, the people and the hostel bed were a nice change but really, fear of the unknown kept me there for a whole week instead of the few days initially planned. When I did get going, crossing the mountains was quite easy (did I just say that?)
I plodded along for a few days with little concern other than where to sleep but wild camping in Africa is a relatively easy process: find a bush just before dark, wait till nobody’s looking and pitch the tent behind it. On another night, I could have been camping underneath a big African sky full of stars but the weather didn’t allow for it and instead I sat in the mud, eating noodles out of a plastic bowl.
Another Amusing Border Crossing
As usual the border police had a good laugh at my bicycle through the window (two female officers literally whooped with laughter this time), while a group of tourists and their fully kitted Landrover’s crowded around it. Interestingly, westerners usually seem amazed and inspired by the idea of riding a bicycle across Africa while the locals just think it’s dumb.
It’s notorious for long, flat, stretches – it’s tiring to drive so you can probably imagine how it feels cycling Botwana. Longer distances were now possible but the extremely repetitive scenery and what seemed like one long endless road made it difficult to stay motivated. Silly thoughts swirled around and on one particular day of headwinds I remember shouting every swear word under the sun, into the wind. It was a lot of pressure to be fair, being one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world, the distances between towns are usually more than 100km apart and I had no choice but to reach them – camping wild was too risky.
Deeper into Africa
However reaching the interior, small farms started cropping up and little children came running out of the bushes with both hands waving. I had yet to see something like this in Africa from the bicycle so it was exciting to see the slow changing way of life. Small mud huts, makeshift fences, wandering donkeys and the smell of cooking were all the first signs of a different type of civilization to what I had become used to in South Africa and Namibia.
Dog days are not over
Of all the exotic animals crowding my thoughts prior to arriving in Africa, dogs were probably the last but now it seems impossible to pass a village without a group of them giving chase. The first was terrifying – around a hundred metres away, four disease riddled, crazed dogs started barking and running wildly through the bush. They were soon giving chase on the road behind and looking over my shoulder was great encouragement for reaching a new personal best speed that day. There would be many more, they seem so excited each time I wonder if they’re looking for a lift – I don’t hang around to find out.
Listen to the locals
So…Lions. Botswana is known for a healthy free roaming lion population, this is mostly in, but not confined to, certain areas such as the Okavango Delta and Chobe NP. Despite worrying about their presence prior to getting here, I genuinely just cycle along during the day without stress, I guess “out of sight, out of mind”. However, speaking with locals can change this very quickly and quite often they ask am I afraid of lions to which I just answer “yes”.
I met a trucker, Dan many times as he went back and forth between Namibia and Botswana with deliveries. This guy was so big, happy and smiley all the time – it was a big lift when he stopped to chat. However a couple of days into cycling Botswana he stopped to ask where I was staying overnight, when I told him the name of the junction (enroute to Ghanzi) his expression turned serious for the first time in all our meetings.
“Yes but do not go further than that junction, there are sometimes lions around there at night”.
I’m not sure how true this is, I had heard that locals often exaggerate about lion sightings but facts are, they still know better than we do and taking chances in this situation would be a dumb move.
Do we worry too much?
There’s plenty of roadkill too, one day I counted 2 donkeys, a cow and a dog – all half eaten. I wonder what eats them? the paranoid side of my brain shouts excitedly “HYENA, DEFINITELY HYENA” while I peer into the bushes on either side of the road. I’m silly like that, It only takes something slight to have my mind racing. The height of this paranoia was confirmed one night when I convinced myself that something big and nasty was creeping around the tent. It went on for over an hour and I can confirm that finding out it was two little frogs definitely made me feel less of a man.
I’m not naive to the risks re wildlife in these parts but often question the point in worrying so much about what might happen? These scenarios are unlikely and I have exactly zero control over the chances of it happening. I figure we worry too much in life, usually about “possibilities” that never even come to happen and the longer this trip goes on, the more I realise how important it is to instead just live in the moment and not let anxiety control how we feel.
A Moment of Happiness
It had been an awful morning, 10kmh into the wind, the same scenery, boiling hot and a grind to keep the wheels turning. I was headed for Ghanzi 110km away and with wild camping out of the question, there was no alternative – I either do the 110km or turn back. Believe me, my mind had been so numb with boredom during this day that I considered the latter.
It took over 6 hours of relentless cycling to a turn off which would signal the end of the headwind. I had already stopped too many times to remember, not for rest but rather to get my head back together, put simply, the thoughts of the task at hand seemed almost impossible. Arriving at the turn off, I was now changing into wet gear, unbelievably just when I thought progress had been made, a major thunder and lightening storm was overhead – I expected the worst.
Turning the corner, I fully expected to get thrown from the bike and literally winced at the thought of what was about to happen. Lightening lit up the road in front with rain now crashing down on it. To my shock the rain was now on my back pushing, then huge claps of thunder directly overhead had me ducking – without even pedalling, the storm moved the bike along at great speed. The first minute was hairy, the heavy bicycle load acted like a sail and all I could do was steer as we got swept along. More brilliant flashes of light followed by thunder, wind swirled around in the bushes, trees were rocking, I was so afraid it wouldn’t last but it did, soon I was delirious, soaking wet but laughing like a witch on a broomstick as the bike clicked into the lowest gear – it was unthinkable, this storm had come exactly at the right moment – to save me and it lasted all the way to Ghanzi. How simple it all seemed, one of the most amazing experiences of my life was taking place riding a bicycle alone in the rain. Cars came toward with lights flashing, horns beeping at what must of been an insanse sight – one of the worst days on trip had suddenly been transformed into a scene worthy of any movie depicting happiness.
A warning from above
Cycling through the storm was incredible and in particular I just love the coolness brought by the rains but a storm later that week served as a future warning. It’s wet season in Botswana at the moment so thunderstorms are a daily occurrence, however one night while rain hammered the tent I woke to the biggest bout of thunder and lightening imaginable. It sounded as though it had hit something very close to the tent and for the sake of avoiding this sounding like an exaggeration – just know, I woke up trembling to how loud it was. The next morning I thought to myself that cycling through the previous thunderstorm is probably not the brightest thing I have ever done.
Make the most of the time you have
The journey has definitely had it’s moments but to describe it as being “happy” on this travel blog wouldn’t be accurate. Really, it’s been more about rising to the challenge and lessons of appreciation rather than finding happiness.
But I’m still learning at least: I thought this trip was hard and often felt sorry for myself with the crappy living conditions. That was until I started passing through poor villages, littered with smiling kids dressed in rags, until I looked at pictures of more kids battling cancer on Aoibheann’s Pink Tie website and until I find out my two good friends had just lost their father suddenly.
This trip is not hard and neither is cycling here in Botswana – it’s not hard at all – it’s a great challenge that I can rise above. Just like complications at work, a family feud or the petty argument you had with a friend – it may not seem like a picture of happiness right now but really, most of us are very fortunate not to be facing the most heartbreaking of all losses this Christmas.
No matter how bad things are, it gets better
So maybe my answer to the question wasn’t so bad after all, without having to go into detail it also saves us time “Yeah, great thanks and you?” and we all know time is short. So regardless of what you’re going through, make the most of the next couple of weeks and time spent with those closest to you. This Christmas will hopefully be a happy time for you but if not and if you spend Christmas alone, remember – it gets better.