Fallsing for You, Clean Dancing, and Breaking All The Laws

I was finally out of Namibia and into a new country: Botswana! I beamed as I left the Nam side of the border, and was immediately greeted by an unavoidable trough of muddy water I had to ride through (I became used to these, as they were spread at obnoxious intervals all throughout Botswana). I liked imagining what the folks who came up with this were thinking. “How should we welcome people? Mud bath!” Immediately after the mud bath, there was a super creepy tree, partially hollowed out, and festooned with dead animal bones. Damn, Botswana, you know how to make an impression!

Totally what I expect to see at an international border crossing: a creepy tree room surrounded by skulls

Next to the creepy tree was the border hut. Entering Botswana could not have been much easier. I paid a road use tax, got my passport stamped, was invited to take the border guard with me (which has become a recurring theme), and was on my way. I can’t give a solid 5-stars to the Namibia/Botswana border, though, because their oddly-placed condom dispenser (directly next to the customs counter) appeared to be out. 4.5/5 stars guys. So close!

Out of brochures, too?? Slackers.

Once into Botswana, I found myself in the Chobe National Park. The scenery was similar to what I’d been riding through in the Caprivi Strip, but without all the people. In fact, other than short scrubby trees and grass, there weren’t many signs of life in general! I managed to spot a monkey and eagle, both hanging out towards the top of trees, but no other animals crossed my path. Instead, I found myself playing leap-frog with a fancy modern fire truck heading the same direction as me. At one point, it pulled to the side of the road about a mile ahead of me (the road was arrow-straight and nearly completely flat), and just while I was passing it again, a fireman dropped trou (yellow rubber pants and all) with his ass towards the middle line of the road and proceeded to take a shit next to the truck, directly on the shoulder line of the highway. I was laughing all the way to Kasana, the quad-point border town (Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe all nearly share a corner border there).

There was tourist-related signage for days in Kasana, but it still wasn’t much to look at. I hunted around until I found a half-decent guesthouse, the cheapest accommodation I could find. In the process, I learned Botswana is far from cheap to stay in, but at least the crowing roosters were far enough away to allow for blissful slumber.

In the morning, I headed to the Kazungula Border Ferry, a great name for the miserable border between Botswana and Zambia. Just outside of Kasane, Botswana tapers to a point, constrained by the Chobe River, the Zambezi River, and a skinny swatch of Zimbabwe just across a decaying fence. Lined up for what seems like miles outside the border are an endless line of heavy trucks waiting for the two dueling ferries that take turns carrying one truck at a time across the rushing Zambezi.

Don’t let the seeming tranquility here fool you…
Goin’ for a ride.

Exiting Botswana was easy, save for the line of truckers with piles of paperwork. Just beyond the border building, however, you’re greeted by an army of touts offering to help clear Zambian customs, and another obnoxious trough of water waiting to soak my lower half. Before I could navigate too far, the touts insisted I go back and get a temporary export permit (TEP) from Botswana to give to the folks in Zambia. Usually, you get a temporary import permit there at the border, but enough of them said I wouldn’t make it in without it that I doubled back and waited in line once again. The border folks seemed surprised and asked if I’d been turned back, but they also gave me a huge form to fill out in duplicate and sent me back on my way.

What followed was several hours of miserable border shenanigans. There were numerous fees to pay, road taxes, carbon taxes, exit fees, and, of course, the visa. I was shuffled from one cramped,  confusing office to another, with no rhyme, reason, or sensible layout. There was basically no useful signage. At one point, a vehicle inspector was dispatched to look at the bike and double-check the VIN number. I had to chase away more touts trying to get money from me by washing my bike with dirty water poured from old water bottles. When it was clear I wouldn’t pay them, one of them removed some scraps of reflective stickers they’d stuck on my front fender, indignant I didn’t want to pay for them. One of the touts convinced me I’d be turned around if I didn’t buy insurance. I bought it. I never needed it. I left mentally drained from the bureaucratic circus.

Zambian roads were the worst tarred ones I’d seen, but honestly it’s a pretty high bar — I’ve seen worse in California. It was just under an hour from the border to Livingstone, the Zambian gateway to Victoria Falls. I’d booked into the Jolly Boys Hostel, and they stuck me in a hut that prominently announced its name as “Honeymoon.” That’s right, the Honeymoon shack at the Jolly Boys. They must have seen I was from San Francisco.

I’d unfortunately managed to crush my auxiliary power adapter (a cigarette lighter plug danging from my dash) and since it was too late to visit the falls, I set out searching the area for auto parts stores. Oddly, everywhere in Southern Africa they seem to search and replace “parts” with “spares,” which I honestly don’t get, but there were plenty of options in the area. Sadly, even the giant shiny auto-mega-mart-type places just looked at me crazy when I asked for a cigarette lighter plug. Small bonus? Lots of them referred me — unsuccessfully — to MAD MAX. (Disclaimer: this is somehow not the only ‘Mad Max’ auto parts store I’ve seen.)

I preferred ‘Fury Road’, but I guess ‘Auto Spares’ is cool, too.

After striking out on my outlet, even at Mad Max, I headed to a coffee shop on the main drag called Munali after spotting legitimate coffee accouterments (a rarity for me the last few weeks). Picture this: a full-sized, legitimate espresso machine, beyond which a dapper Zambian man stands at the ready, and beyond that lies a wall covered in Zambian coffee sacks and a photo of said barista accompanied with text declaring him to be the “Zambian Barista of the Year 2016.” Yeah, I’d found the right place for coffee. I ordered a cappuccino and settled into a stool off to the side while I waited.

I was blissfully oblivious, listening to my ceremonial podcast regiment, when I felt a tap at my shoulder, and looked up to a woman, standing with a man, looking at me. I took my headphones off, and she apologetically asked me if I knew how to spell the name “Crystal.” I was extremely confused, but spelled it as I just have in quotes. “You use a ‘y’?” “Yes.” It’s then that I notice there’s a full sized cake being attended to behind the counter by a staff member currently engaged with the couple, and the weight of the question I was being proffered came into focus. I began backpedaling as fast as I could.

“I don’t want that kind of responsibility!” I protested.

“How about C-h-r-i-s-t-a-l?” she asked, making it clear she was referencing her lord and savior.

I said that was totally valid, and tried to explain there are numerous spellings I could come up with, and tried to keep pressing that point, afraid I’d end up responsible for some kid getting a cake with their name misspelled. Then, to my surprise, the woman went on to explain that it was her daughter’s birthday. It appears to be common to have a tribal name, and a western-style name, so I could rationalize why the mom would be less-than-perfectly familiar with both versions of her daughter’s name, generally speaking I’d still expect her to be able to spell it! Instead, she said her and the man with her had been arguing the point, and wanted to settle it by, and I quote, “[asking] the white man.” I was simultaneously flattered and horrified… primarily the latter. This isn’t the “white privilege” I expected, at all!

Back at the hostel, there was a bar, and I managed to do a small bit of socializing, taking mental notes on things to check out while I was around. Mostly, however, the area was dominated by a massive troop of Christian missionaries that hung out in a clique and made me feel deeply uncomfortable about being a foreigner. Either way, I felt compelled to spend another day hanging out around town and relaxing with my relative freedom of being walking-distance to civilization (a huge upgrade from Grootfontein, and really everywhere since).

The next day I mostly took it easy, venturing out into town a bit mostly to try Zam-Mex, a Zambian Mexican restaurant, to continue my longstanding tradition of being disappointed by Mexican food abroad. To my normal ends, it was a great success: Zambian food wrapped in a pita to look like a burrito is still not what I consider a burrito. Oh well…

From this angle, you could believe you were South of the Border…
Wait… Is that… Is that a pita? I take back all comments about this place passing for Mexican.

The next day, I planned my trip to Victoria Falls, the formation that put Livingstone on the map. Via advice from fellow hostelers, I’d booked a visit to Devil’s Pool, despite the rather formidable cost (around US$70!!). In the morning, I rode out to the falls, taking a brief stroll through the trails before my appointed Pool visit. The place was rather breathtaking, as hoped for…

Nope. Not so bad.

Then it was time to climb in Devil’s Pool, a section of the falls where the mighty Zambezi river forms a tranquil pool right on the edge of the falls thanks to a naturally occurring rock lip just below the water level (I believe the section used may, in fact, vary with the water level, and hence season). When the water is high, apparently you actually take a boat to the pool, but given it’s the tail end of the dry season, we walked over a craggy, volcanic landscape, at times even swimming through small rivers, ultimately arriving at Livingstone Island, and Devil’s Pool. It was a small group of foreigners, and cool folks at that, but the highlight was definitely perching at the edge of the falls, and gazing down at the roaring tumult.

So sexy it [would] hurt [if I fell]!

Still scrawny after all these miles.
Double rainbow? All the way? Pretty sure it means I’m having a good time.

After Devil’s Pool, I wandered all the trails through Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, which includes one real hike down to the river, following a small rocky tributary full of bathing locals. I soaked my feet, then hiked back up past a huge baboon troop that had taken up position on the trail, sitting on the benches, and battling with each other in a cacophony of screams.

Trash monkeys.
I’m sorry, is this seat taken?

Coming soon to a Frank Chu sign near you!

After spending nearly all day at the park taking in the sights and sounds, and dodging touts, I hopped back on the bike and stopped at an Italian place for some much-needed gelato. I spent the evening doing some research and ultimately decided against bothering to enter Zimbabwe for the day, and being disappointed by the relative lack of enjoyable conversation at the hostel. I met more peace corp folks. The next day, I woke up feeling pretty ill. I re-booked my romantic hut and spent most of the day inside catching up on my sleep, venturing out once to get food only to puke it out when I got back.

Luckily the day of rest worked like a charm, and the next morning, I was back off to Botswana with the goal of visiting Johannesburg and Lesotho. My first painful tour through Zimbabwean customs and immigration had taught me well, and I managed to glide through relatively easily round two. I was on the ferry in just over an hour, and getting back into Botswana was again pretty easy, save the ceremonial mud bath trough they have at all their borders. When I had all my stamps and paperwork, this time they added a Mexican hat dance on a wet pad of disinfectant to the procedure. Whatever.

I followed the line of hundreds of trucks waiting for the border off to the south and into more national forests, parks, and wilderness reserves. This time around, Botswana had added regular police/agricultural checkpoints to the mix, providing a drumbeat of bureaucracy to the scenery. It began to seem through these travels that much of the attraction of Botswana is the animals, as opposed to the scenery, as the alternating brown fields of high dense grass and sparse forests of scraggly trees provided little additional attraction. Around the middle of the day, a watering hole appeared to the right of the road, occupied by a family of elephants bathing. I pulled off to join a lone truck and stood on the side of the road, snapping a few photos, and generally struck by the notion that I was riding my motorcycle through an area I was sharing with elephants.

The trees began to get more colorful, and hence interesting. I had to slow down at one point to avoid one of a group of elephants hanging out in the middle of the road. Africa problems. I had a big day of riding, eventually settling into the small town of Nata. I checked into a (once again overpriced) crummy roadside motel and asked about where to dinner in town. The only place the woman could recommend — at least at the hour I arrived — was Nando’s, the Portuguese rotisserie chicken fast food chain. It’s better than McDonalds… When I returned to my motel, I had a short but interesting conversation with an Indian tech worker based in Gaborone about life in Botswana, and his ultimate goals of emigrating to America.

Ran into this gem of a homemade camper at a petrol station!

I continued south, with another big day ahead, setting my sights on a small town in South Africa. The country became more populated and industrial as I put more miles on my bike. It was a day of numerous wild fires. One huge one, and the only one attended by anyone who seemed the least bit interested in its existence, was in heavy traffic in a semi-urban area. The fire abutted the road, and reached all the way to the doorsteps of adjacent homes. The smoke billowed over the highway forming an impenetrable visual wall that had me praising the glory of the Flying Spaghetti Monster when I emerged coughing on the other side still in one piece.

To add insult to injury, at the next agricultural checkpoint (where I once again got to practice my solo dance steps in muddy disinfectant) as I was getting back up to speed on the highway, I was flagged down by the cops. They’d clocked me at 100kmh, and claimed the speed limit was only 80 (instead of the normal 120). There was no civilization or intersections to speak of in the area, and I’d intentionally spent nearly all my Botswanan currency, to which they were all too happy to produce a credit card machine and charge me nearly $50 for a speeding ticket. For my swipe, I was granted a pair of large receipts, proof to future generations of my hazardous African driving.

I rolled past a power plant, and a large city. I ate at a tasty “soul food” fried chicken spot. Eventually, I turned off the main highway (which continues on to the capitol), and headed for the border. The landscape added smooth and lumpy hills to keep me engaged. There were more agricultural checkpoints (see a theme?). Finally, there was a relatively (if you ignore the piles of semi trucks once again sitting around) tranquil border. Getting out of Botswana was a breeze. I was treated to an incredible view of the lush green waters and banks of the Limpopo river as I rode over Grobler’s Bridge, and after some confusion from the South African customs agent, her supervisor just took one look at me and said “he’s fine,” and I was back to South Africa!

Etosha National Park

I was picked up in a car at my guesthouse at 9am (a half hour late) for my Etosha tour. There was a British woman driving, and another girl who’d been picked up before me. As per usual, I went into chit-chat mode, and within a couple minutes, I’d learned that she’d came to Namibia many years ago and ended up marrying her tour guide. I asked her if they were still together, and she told me he’d subsequently died in a car accident on a later tour. Awkward silence. The trip was off to a great start!

Me and the other girl were brought to the tour company’s office to gather the group. Folks started slowly trickling in, and I once again tried to get the conversations going, and with less awkward silences. Before long, we were 14 folks: 12 Europeans (A handful of Germans, an Austrian, Belgian, Pole, and a Dutch couple), a Thai man, and me representing the western hemisphere. A large overland truck arrived and our bags were loaded in followed by us, our guide, and a helper, both Ovambo. I ended up seated next to a German girl. We were told to buckle our seat belts, but mine was missing the buckle. “Hold on!” I was told. Adventure!

The ride was mostly uneventful, with a couple stops for fuel, an uninspired lunch, and a chance to shop for snacks, water, or alcohol. The girl next to me was a teacher in Munster, a town I knew of due to the cheese (which isn’t named for it) and its bloody history during Protestant Reformation (thanks, Hardcore History!). We had a great chat as our large overland truck cruised down the paved highway, baking sans-aircon in the desolate desert. By the time we arrived at the Etosha gate at 4, I’d firmly cemented my reputation with my travel mates as the ebullient American, just how I like it.

The unofficial Ovahimba greeters at the park entrance weren’t what I’m used to from Wal-Mart. Gotta love that hair and Flintstone print, though!

No sooner did we pass through the first little settlement inside the park when the animals Etosha is famous for started making their appearances. First, a massive bull elephant wandered out of a watering hole, gave itself a nice dirt bath, and wandered into misbehaving tourist traffic, releasing its bladder and bowels as it lumbered at foolish cars.

Fresh from a bath, it was time to freshen up and avoid sunburn! Trust me, elephant, we’re on the same page on that last part.
This guy wasn’t laughing

Etosha National Park is built around the Etosha Pan, a large flat salt lake bed that periodically fills with a thin layer of water, and subsequently (nearly completely) dries. Winter being the dry season, when it was in sight, it resembled the Black Rock Desert in summer, with the exception that the pan extends all the way to the horizon, seemingly endless. At 4,800 km2, the pan’s size is no mere optical illusion.

When water in the pan recedes, it leaves traces of water around the edge that animals use as watering holes even in the dry season. Not to rely too much on nature, interspersed in the human trafficked parts of the park are man-made watering holes with large water pumps standing a suitable distance away from camera lenses. Add in fencing around the entire park, as well as all the settlements that serve as overnight spots for people, and visiting Etosha feels like driving into the world’s largest African animal exhibit at a zoo for giants. We passed springbok, hyenas, warthogs, zebra, ostriches, and wildebeest (I never get tired of that word) within only a handful of kilometers of the gate; each appearance punctuated by the sharp staccato of camera shutters and vehicle traffic. It was super impressive.

Seriously, this springbok can’t believe how impressive this place is!

Before sunset, we rolled into the settlement that would be our home for the evening. Our guides unloaded the bags and tossed heavy canvas 2-man tents down from the roof. Me and the old Thai man were the only solo males traveling, so we were paired up to share an old beat-up South African tent. Once we were set up, the guides set about braai-ing us dinner. In the meantime, at the edge of the settlement was an illuminated watering hole to watch wildlife, and our guide explained it was one of the best places in the park to catch animals. He wasn’t mistaken.

It was a hell of a night. Sitting with new friends, so much animal melodrama played out on the banks of the watering hole that there were time we couldn’t contain our laughter at the sheer ridiculousness of it all. As the sun was setting, giraffes’ long necks appeared on the horizon, silhouetted against the sky’s shifting red and blues. In the dark, elephants by the dozens came, drank, wrestled, and played out complicated social dances I couldn’t entirely follow, but sat rapt with fascination. White rhinos came and went; so, too, howling jackals. Bats and birds flew feasting on the flying insects drawn to the lights. A cornucopia of stars shined in the night sky. Photos were difficulty in the darkness.

I’ll admit a complete and childish amusement to the spread-foreleg drinking position of these giraffes.

Also, delicious dinner of stir fry was served. Beer was consumed and friends were made. We spoke of languages, culture, bad music, animals, religion and politics. I converted a few folks to Pastafarianism. This reverend has now done missionary work in Africa, how cliché. I enjoyed repeatedly mispronouncing “sternschnuppe” — German for shooting star — while witnessing said phenomenon over and over and over again. I tried halfheartedly to snap some photos of the sky, fully aware they’d never do it justice. Then I showered and slept like a baby. 6am was reveille, and tents and things needed to be packed before breakfast.

I woke up refreshed and broke down the tent myself in a few short minutes, gaining me a high-five from my tent mate who’d gone to brush his teeth. Breakfast wasn’t ready yet, but folks were already clamoring about a lion at the watering hole, so I set out once again to be amazed by the unending animal parade. In the calm morning light, a lone female lion stood alternating between gazing at the scenery and lapping at the shore of the water. Another jackal trotted by carefree. I took in the peaceful moment and headed back to camp. Breakfast was a nearly-full English breakfast, and afterwards the guides sent us to a nearby viewpoint tower while they put the finishing touches on the truck.

The group was in high spirits after the night of animals and banter. We’d connected. Even out guide got into the show, occasionally barking commands at or assigning blame to yours truly by name. We had a full day of so-called “game driving,” bouncing in our truck from watering hole to watering hole, taking in more animals: a pack of lions, hartebeest, eland, and impala.


Passing tourist in her natural habitat.

The original zebra crossing.


I took several hundred photos. Our group joked and bounced and clamored over one another for the best views. We shared another middling lunch. Armies of zebra, roving bands of wildebeest, and playful gangs of elephants seemed around every corner and behind every thicket of trees. A lone black rhino chomped on shrubs in the distance. Eventually, we came to another settlement at the other end of the park, a former German military settlement complete with early-20th century fort, and it was time to once again pitch our tents for the evening.

I took in the sunset on the top of the fort per our guide’s recommendation. I befriended a cosmopolitan French family who passed along their contact info should I make it to Lyon. We were adjacent to another watering hole, but repeated visits granted a view of not much more than throngs of tourists and seething, boisterously loud flocks of birds. Instead I took my new German teacher friend aside to teach her how to take photos of the sky. I managed to get one half-decent shot.

Goodnight, Etosha…
Hello starry night!

Our final dinner was a hearty braai of sausage, mutton chops, garlic bread, baked potatoes, and salad. I ate myself stupid. I learned that my new Austrian friend (and future veterinarian) has access to baby capybaras I can feed, thereby adding Vienna to my list of destinations. Finishing the night was more beer, bonding, and bed.

Morning, breakdown, breakfast, and loading. I did my best to make myself useful. We swung by a final pair of watering holes on the way to the gate, but this side of the park was uncharacteristically quiet. Then we were rumbling down the road in relative quiet, the gang worn out from the excitement of the weekend.

This fabulous specimen stopped by to see us off on our way to the gate

We had a long drive back to Windhoek, and given my rapidly-approaching solitary status, I couldn’t abide the quiet. I kicked off a game of “two truths and a lie” and got most of the group in on it, each in turn revealing ridiculous stories about their past to talk about. We stopped in a small town along the way known for their wood carvings so folks with more space than me for such things could be aggressively harassed to buy things (aka shopping) by locals in small huts overflowing with nicknacks, then it was on to Windhoek for bittersweet goodbyes.

In my diary under Etosha, I wrote “success.”

Windhoek Reboot

Before my accident, I had intentions of visiting Etosha National Park in northern Namibia. As I learned in Sossusvlei, motorcycles can’t enter National Parks in Namibia, so I either needed to join an organized group or rent a car and camp on my own. I figured it’d be nice to have the company (and guide) afforded by an organized tour, but in the din of San Francisco, I didn’t get around to organizing one before hitting the ground in Africa. Unfortunately, it was now the middle of the high tourist season, and things were remarkably booked up. Cars were readily available, but sadly, camping sites (what I wanted) were also fully booked up. I ended up booking a tour nearly two weeks out. Luckily, I’d made great friends with my guesthouse owner as I’d be here for awhile.

The time passed slowly, with ample relaxing, playing cards, making some easy adjustments and repairs to my bike (chain, mirrors, blinkers, etc.), hanging out with people and animals, and living the local Windhoek life. I learned a new card game. I taught the locals Euchre. We even played a couple games of Settlers of Catan. I made new friends, I talked about life, politics, race, and America. I learned some Afrikaans, and a lot about Namibian history and life.

I discovered that before my accident, a reporter I’d met at the Cardboard Box and corresponded with had written an article about my travels in the most popular newspaper in Namibia (The Namibian), and that it had been put in the newspaper! I managed to snag a couple copies from their office and send them back home. There was even a teaser about the article on the front page!

Full page coverage!

Before heading to Etosha, I also went to the Düsternbrook Guest Farm with my new guesthouse friends for a couple nights of camping and animal viewing. The place is a few hours from Windhoek, past a giant chicken farm, through a number of farm gates down a dirt road. They’ve got camping spots, chalets, tons of birds, kudu, springbok, hippos, and a few large enclosures with cheetahs and leopards. We camped by a dry riverbed, cooking and drinking the nights away, and drove/walked around looking at hippos and animals during the day. We also rode along for a cheetah and leopard feeding, which afforded close-ups with the impressive cats and tons of amazing photos.

After the camping trip, we headed back to Windhoek, and then it was time to head off on my tour to Etosha.