Published: January 12th 2008December 24th 2007
I stayed in Johannesburg long enough to realise it was a good place to leave. It was highly recommended not to walk around outside the hostel alone or at night or most other times of the day for that matter.
But the biggest and most pleasing surprise was Soweto, a nearby suburb and South Africa's most notorious township. It was incredible how different the reality of Soweto is from its image - the people are approachable and industrious, small shops (spazzas) spring up from shacks on the roadsides, the community help police their own problems, and I felt more than safe exploring the city. There is even a backpackers hostel in the heart of Soweto, which is among the nicer hostels in the country.
I abandoned the bike in Jo'burg and committed to hiring a car instead. After all everyone kept telling me it was a more efficient and safer way to get around. The Norweigan guy I had met in Cape Town, along with a German guy, bumped into me in Jo'burg and they convinced me it would be a sensible means to get back to Cape Town. I was the only permitted driver, and the others laid down
the ground rules to me - No driving at night; No picking up passengers; Always park in secure parking, and they insisted; Take out the full insurance cover. I argued that insurance was a waste of money in the long run as over the length of your lifetime you're unlikely to damage more than you pay. Plus I assured them there would be no problems before we reached Cape Town. Nonetheless, having made my point, I conceded and we forked out.
Per, the Norweigan, has been travelling on and off for the last 6 years. The first question I asked was how he could finance such a workless lifestyle. It turns out he was involved in a serious SCUBA diving accident some years ago and travels off the subsequent compensation. Lucky git. I have met many people with interesting stories of how they fund their travelling. Other than your typical gap year students, overseas workers and people between jobs, there was the guy in Australia who was living off the royalties of a top 24 hit he wrote for Kenickie and the guy who sold his website for a small (actually, fairly large) fortune.
We drove a full
day from Johannesburg to Botswana through the highveld of South Africa. This provided a spectacular backdrop to an otherwise monotonous drive. These sloping mountains were formed when enormous slabs of rock tilted into the earth's magma and the opposite edges rose upwards like a see-saw that's not see-sawing.
That night we reached Mokolodi Lodge in the outskirts of Gabarone. This is one of the more unusual, and certainly more impressive, budget lodges I've stayed in. It has a sanctuary for injured animals and runs a cheetah programme, including housing two tame cheetahs which you can play with in the same way you can play with dogs (I did initailly write "....which you can play with doggy-style", but deleted when I re-read this paragraph).
Gabarone is the capital of Botswana which had been described to us as nothing more than a sprawling village, but I thought it was a lot more city-like than that. Well, that was until the next morning, when after a heavy nights thunderstorms we were flooded inside the city. It was mid-morning before the waters had subsided enough to safely drive on the roads. Botswana only has 4 roads to really speak of: The A1,
A2, A3, & A4. These connect the only 4 towns to really speak of, in a diamond formation across the country.
Botswana is Africa's most successful democracy with an advanced education system and relative financial stability. It gained its independence from Britain in 1966 (we were probably too pre-occupied celebrating to notice they got away). But despite these advances there still belies mass evidence of poverty and a huge AIDS infliction. You can tell English charity workers have been through this way by the widespread number of mid-1990's Arsenal shirts worn by the street kids. Second hand football shirts from the UK are very popular in third world countries, but I just wish they'd distribute another teams colours.
We left Gaborone along the A2 west towards Kanye. Or Kanye West as the directions commanded. The road then stretches further westwards along the Kalahari Highway. The Kalahari desert, the largest sand mantle in the world, is surely one of Africa's natural wonders. We were driving on this highway for hundreds of kilometres through the Kalahari desert. The road is so flat and straight it is almost hypnotic. There were a couple of skidmarks showing where cars had slid off
the road, most likely due to avoiding (or hitting) wandering wildlife. The gaps between the towns are huge and if we saw 3 cars in an hour, it was a veritable traffic jam. These large empty distances are my excuse for running out of petrol 100 km before our destination. But with a little help from some locals (and a bit of trust they were not selling us vegetable oil), we cyphoned off some petrol from an abondoned vehicle and dragged ourselves to Maun just before the sunset. Maun is the main tourist hub of Botswana and the centre for arranging trips into the Okavango Delta, which we duly did.
The Okavango Delta is a basin of wetland bush. The main form of transport are dug-out canoes called Mokoros. These are not propelled by oars but by poles, similar to the Gondoliers of Venice - only they do not cost 100 dollars per hour to hire. We bumped into two Aussie shielas the night before our tour and clubbed together to hire a guide and a couple of Mokoros for 3 days in the bush. Our guide, Kaluva, drove 2 people in one canoe. I volunteered to take control
of the other, so that we could save a few Pulas* on a second guide. Now I wouldn't say I'm the most experienced Bushman, but I have lived in my fair share of jungles this year. Besides, I had my trusty Swiss Army knife to hand if anything untoward came along. For example, if a lion pounced I could file his nails. If an army of fire ants entered our camp I could pop them one-by-one with my magnifying glass - just so long as they didn't approach by night.
*The Pula is the Bostwanan unit of currency. It means Rain and is comprised of 100 Thebes, which means Raindrops. I thought this was rather poetic, so decided I'd share it with you.
After our Okavango Delta tour, we left Botswana and looped into Namibia through the Caprivi strip - FYI, the eastern part of the Caprivi strip is the only point on earth where 4 countries meet - Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe & Zambia.
Namibia, known mainly for deserts, canyons and Frankie Fredericks (and even he is probably not that well known - an Olympic sprinter, just in case). The population is a mere 1.7 million in
a country 6 times the size of England - or that'd be 165 million football pitches, as I'm sure you had already calculated - ie. 1 person every 97 pitches. Imagine that. It is one of the world's most sparsely populated countries - I would not recommend travelling through Namibia if you're agoraphobic. The country is a former German colony, which is a rarity in itself, what with a couple of world misunderstandings in 1914 and 1939. The German influence is still apparent - the town names, the architecture, the sense of humour. Namibia stretches from the Etosha pan in the north (including the world's largest game reserve - Etosha National Park) down to Fish River Canyon in the south with the aptly named Skeleton Coast and the desolate Namib Desert sandwiched in between. As time was short we skipped past Etosha and reached Windhoek, the capital, that night. The street names of Windhoek read like a Who's Who of the good and the great of world history. From Nelson Mandella Way I hooked a left into Beethoven Street, sprung a right onto Louis Pasteur Road, and then zoomed down the .... er..... good and great Robert Mugabe Avenue.
From Windhoek it was a short 4 hour drive, chasing the sunset, to Swakopmund on the west coast. The town is most famous for being the place where Brad and Ange came shopping for a orphan kid. But it is also a well-established point to explore the massive sand-dunes on the Skeleton coast. After some quad-biking, sand-boarding, etc, we drove through the Namib desert to Sossusvlei, set amongst 200m high crimson red sand-dunes. This is exactly how I imagine Mars to look. And where Sissusvlei has the odd battered, abondoned vehicle stranded in the unforgiving desert, Mars has the Beagle Space probe.
The next day we set out towards Fish River Canyon. But this would turn out to be the day that the road trip came to an untimely and abrupt end. Whilst driving along a straight gravelled road, a dog ran out in front of us. I simultaneuosly swerved and braked (in hindsight not a good combination on gravel) and lost control of the back-end of the car, then trying to re-adjust skidded sideways off the road and rolled down the shallow bank (Again, in hindsight I should've flattened the dumb mut). There were a few minor injuries,
but the main worry was that we were upside down in the Namibian desert with a South African rental car. We clambered out the broken windows, pushed the car over onto its mangled wheels, and waited in the sweltering dry heat for some help to arrive. To cut a long story short, I was towed with the car to the nearest town, the other two went off to the nearest hospital, and I spent the rest of the day negotiating with the rental company, the towing company and the police. The Police Station was a shambles. I was at the front desk speaking to a guy I presumed was the desk-officer for about 5 minutes before someone else came in, escorted this guy back to a cell, and then returned to assist me. Once I had collected the Road-Accident report, I then had the Rental Company threaten to make me liable for the full cost of the vehicle as it was a one-vehicle accident (Thank goodness I convinced the others to take out full insurance!!). As well as this I was liable to return the damaged (read "written-off") vehicle to Cape Town. I then had to speak to the towing
company, who were a bunch of cowboys, and try to negotiate the price of a tow to Cape Town from 800 quid down to 500 quid. About 8 hours after the crash I finally had time to sit down and start picking the shards of glass out of my head. Once the situation had calmed down and the other 2 had returned from the hospital, the Norweigan tried to convince me to bury the car and pay the police a bribe to amend the report. I thought better of it. Que sera, sera.
A day later than schedule, we arrived in Cape Town on a tow-truck. Not how it was supposed to be. The irony of it all being that I had been told non-stop for the past 2 months that I was taking a risk cycling around Africa and should take the sensible option of a car instead. Who's laughing now, eh?
It was now a couple of days before Christmas and so I decided there was nothing more I could do to resolve the car chaos and stopped worrying about the consequences. For now, at least.
Christmas was spent in rather luxurious style. A friend
of a friend had heard about this Englishman poncing about Africa aboard a bike and had generously offered to let me join their family festivities. Then another friend of a friend lent me her car for a week - which given the circumstances was a remarkable leap of faith. So, driving more cautiously than I had done since my driving test, I trundled along to Fancourt at a tractor's pace. Athol and Sande are residents of Fancourt, South Africa's premier Golf and Country Club. Their daughter, Angie, is approximately my age and was given the thankless task of looking after me for a few days. What a Christmas present that was - I think she was expecting a PS3.
It was the first Christmas I had spent outside of Winchester - let alone outside of the UK or the Northern Hemisphere. It was very strange being in summer heat on Christmas Day - but I thought of it as conditioning myself for Global Warming. Traditionally I play a game of football on Christmas Day - like the Brits v Germans in the WWI trenches. This year I cycled down a mountain pass to earn my over-indulgence of the next
few days instead.
I drove back to Cape Town through the mountains. The first stop was Prince Albert. I have travelled a fair bit in my time, but unless I'm mistaken, this is the first time I have been to a town named after a genital piercing. I then carried on along the beautifully rugged R62 back to Cape Town, flew up to Jo'burg, collected my bicycle, a new passport and was ready for more African adventure.