Botswana is a large arid landlocked country in Southern Africa known for its world-renown national parks and wildlife. It is also the wealthiest country per capita in Sub-Saharan Africa with a robust democracy and descent infrastructure.
Botswana wasn’t high on my list. There are a dozen countries in Africa with great wildlife parks. Why choose one that can offer only that? But the stories I heard and photos I saw from the folks I met backpacking Namibia convinced me that Botswana was not to be missed.
A substantial portion of Botswana’s territory is protected as national parkland, but the heavyweights are Mokoro National Park (which encompasses the Okeevango Delta) and Chobe National Park.
What stood out most about Botswana to me was how incredibly friendly locals were even by African standards. Unlike neighboring countries, there is no threat of crime, violence, robbery, or scams in Botswana.
A Perilous Journey into Botswana
I wanted to hitchhike into Botswana from Namibia, so my host in the Namibian capital, Windhoek, dropped me off at a gas station outside the city, where I met Michael (below, right), an outspoken Namibian pseudo-intellectual who was hitchhiking to Johannesburg. There was almost no traffic, so I told him I would flag down a ride, and we could share it.
Eventually I found a trucker who agreed to take us. He would be passing through Botswana and down to Johannesburg. Michael asked if $5 was okay for the ride to Johannesburg. The driver agreed, and we were on our way.
Michael spent the ride in an extended monologue about how foreigners are pillaging Africa’s diamonds and minerals at the invitation of the continent’s corrupt leaders.
I tried to find an ATM after crossing the Botswana border so I could pay the driver, but there was none, so the driver insisted I pay for someone’s gasoline at the petrol station so they could in turn hand me cash. He told them I needed 400 pula ($40). But wait a minute! This ride was supposed to be less than $5!
I began to panic. What the hell had happened? I wasn’t completely sure what 400 pula converted to at the time, but I knew it didn’t sound right. Michael, confirmed that he was only asked to pay 50 pula ($5) to get to Johannesburg, but somehow I am supposed to pay 400 ($40) to ride a tiny fraction of the distance.
I handed the driver just 100 pula ($10). Of course, he objected. I argued with him and accused him of cheating me. Michael, realizing the escalating situation threatened his own cheap ride, took 200 pula ($200) out of my hand and gave it to the driver to defuse the situation. Et tu brutus?
They left me there at the petrol station to find the rest of my way to Maun on my own. Oh, deceitful swine! How I wish for a redo! If I only I had a quicker mind…
I got picked up next by a van full of Namibian football players on their way to a tournament in Kisane, Botswana. I negotiated the price in no uncertain terms.
“Come sit in the front! You’re white. You’re our boss!” they taunted facetiously.
There were around a dozen of them in the car, and I didn’t feel quite safe, so I made up up a complex back story to answer their questions. I said I was hitchhiking all the way home to Egypt because I had just been robbed in Cape Town.
“How do you know we won’t rob you?” the guy sitting behind me asked.
I told them that I was not afraid of being robbed again because I had already lost everything of value during the first robbery. I told them that I deal in black magic and put curses upon those who harm me (a threat not to be overlooked in Africa).
They affectionately named me “Dodoro” (which supposedly means “nice guy” in the Damaran language).
During a pit stop in Ghanzi around sunset, I told them I was done riding for the day and ready to retire to my tent. They didn’t want to let me go, and tried to convince me to continue riding with them all the way to Kisane.
“You can’t sleep in the Bush, man! You’re in Africa. There’s lions, and they will eat you!”
But they were from Windhoek… What do city people know about the Bush? And, in any case, what they were calling “the Bush” was actually just an empty lot within the city of Ghanzi. Lions aren’t just roaming around all over Africa like the popular imagination would assume. They are only found in small pockets of select regions, mostly in reserves. The ballers left for Maun after I had assured them I would be fine there.
At 4:00 AM that night, I awoke to an alarm I did not set: the thundering echo of a lion’s roar. The lions continued roaring until sunrise.
Into the Delta
I finished hiking to Maun the next day and visited Barclays Bank to ask for Helen, my host. The guards knew of no Helen (apparently I should have mentioned her Tswana name), so I went to go set up camp at an eco-lodge outside town.
The lodge is on an island surrounded by crocodiles and hippos. The drought plaguing Southern Africa had shrank the lake into a tiny pond, forcing the animals to come dangerously close to the camp ground.
A local guy named Oscar who I met near the lodge asked me to drive him around Maun because his hand was injured. I didn’t feel comfortable with the request since I don’t know how to drive stick, much less a tall bouncy safari vehicle, but he said I have to learn.
I drove him to get groceries and run other errands, the entire time fearing for my life. Oscar kept pushing the steering wheel causing us to swerve. I was so relieved when it was all over. As a reward, Oscar let me tag along the next day on a business trip to a port village two hours into the delta.
The village is a gateway to to the islands deeper into the delta. There I met a friendly Tswana bushman named Phillip who agreed to show me the wildlife of the deep delta. He took me to rent a canoe from his neighbor and buy rations of food and water. Then we set sail.
The canoes, Phillip explained, are a form of real estate for the villagers. Whenever someone manages to save some money, they invest it in canoes which can then be rented out to others. Phillip hopes to one day save enough to buy some canoes of his own, but they aren’t cheap!
We disembarked on one of the bigger islands to try spotting wildlife. Finding big game used to be easier when the animals would gather around watering holes. In recent years, many of the ancient watering holes across the delta have dried up thanks to global warming.
We were roaming the plains of one of the bigger islands when suddenly a stampede of giraffes, zebras, wildebeests, and gazelles burst across the horizon line, plumes of dust whirling above their thrashing silhouettes. We speed walked toward the commotion to get a closer look. Eventually each specie fractured off into smaller groups, so we followed the giraffes.
There were thirteen giraffes in total. Giraffes are rarely ever seen in such a large groups. Flighty timid creatures, they didn’t allow us to get too close.
The giraffes had led us far out into the bush, so we had to backtrack quickly because the sun was setting.
We passed some zebras along the way. Incredibly, there was a baby warthog chasing one frantic adult zebra in circles. Apparently zebras get easily spooked when something surprises them from behind. Usually when there is a real threat, the strongest zebra will stay behind to face it alone while the others get away.
Phillip started to panic as the sun melted away behind the brush leaving us alone on the dark savannah. He said it was time for the hippos to wake up. Hippos are extremely territorial and can easily knock people out of their canoes. We sailed back to camp through the moonlit waters and luckily didn’t clash with any hippos. We did get held up by elephants crossing in front of us, however.
Elephants, water buffalo, and hippos drifted through our camp that night, each announcing its presence with distinct foraging noises. Our defensive camp fire had already gone out leaving us vulnerable to their whims. Following Phillip’s advice, I stayed put and avoided attracting attention through noise or motion.
The next morning we went out for a sunrise stroll and came across a pair of water buffalos. I began moving toward them while Philip was backing away.
“What’s wrong? I want to see the buffalos,” I protested obliviously.
Phillip said the buffalos had smelled us down wind and were angered by our presence.
“They’re tracking us. Move back, move back, faster, faster!” he urged as the buffalos came sauntering in our direction. “Climb that tree!”
We were stuck in tree for quite some time before the buffalos lost interest. Phillip explained that battling lions had hardened the buffalo into vengeful spiteful animals.
On our last evening together, I asked Phillip what his favorite animal is. He said a zebra – because zebras are black and white – like us. The zebra is also the national symbol of Botswana found on its coat of arms because the former king and founder of modern Botswana married a white lady from England. The biracial royal couple was therefore represented as a zebra.
When we go back to the mainland, I took a taxi back to the city, but we got stranded when the driver spotted a police checkpoint. He said he could go no further because he didn’t have a valid license. I got out and wandered the nearby village of thatched-roof huts where I met a resident airplane mechanic named Edward who showed me around. He maintains his hut and herd out of respect for tradition, though his income allows for greater means.
The Northeast Corner
Next I took a clunky crowded night van to Kasane, a village in the northeast corner of the country that serves as a gateway to the famed Chobe National Park. The woman next to me sang gospel music throughout the night as if nobody was trying to sleep, so I had to overdose on gabapentin to fall asleep.
There are pumbas roaming everywhere in Kisane. I was following this one around when a Tswana man named Abdullah approached me and decided we would spend the rest of the day together. He works the night shift as a guard at eco-lodge and was just trying to kill time before a meeting with his boss. He said that leopards, lions, jackals,, and hyenas frequently visit the lodge at night, so most of his coworkers get spooked and quit within a few weeks.
My campsite in Kisane was infested with little critters, namely mongooses, bushback deer, warthogs, and monkeys. Needless to say, I tried to pet them all.
Just across the river from Kisane are the grasslands of Chobe National Park where iconic megafauna graze.
When male African buffalo grow old, they break off and join a herd of other old males and spend the rest of their days wallowing in the mud together.
We had a standoff with a herd of wild elephants. The matriarch approached our vehicle threateningly and made like she would charge.
I was sitting in the back of the jeep, and she came close enough to reach me with her trunk. Instead, she stood guard while the rest of the herd crossed the road to safety.
One of the things that made Botswana special to me is that it’s a place where I could interact with strangers and seek a connection without fearing I will be taken advantage of. This is not something to be taken for granted in Africa.
Overall my short time in Botswana was very positive, and I hope to return one day to explore the human side of the country more thoroughly. Botswana is purportedly one of the richest and most modern countries in Africa, but that was not apparent at all from the towns and villages I passed through and visited. Next time I would like to experience contemporary life in Gaborone and Francistown.