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!
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!
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.
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.)
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…
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!