My First Times
Botswana, ‘The Land of firsts’. To elaborate slightly, it is in Botswana that for the first time in my life I have knowingly got out of a car and walked towards a pack of feeding lions, the first time I have woken up in the night with an Elephant less than six feet from my bed, and, perhaps more interestingly, it is the first country for which I can say perfectly accurately that I have had a beard for the entire time I was there. Wow, you are thinking, amazing, he’s got a beard! Now the decision to grow the beard didn’t come lightly, nowhere near as frivolously as I have just told you about it, but I thought I’d drop it in casually, mainly because I have had time to come to terms with it. For a while on our trip the beard was a constant topic of conversation between Dan and myself ‘Does it look good?’ I would ask, ‘How ginger is it?’, and probably the most often heard ‘Do you think I should just get rid of it?’ These questions, the big three I liked to think of them as, were always met with very positive reposts ‘Yes’, ‘Not very mate’, and ‘Nah’. The problem with his responses however were that they were always delivered with the same ‘Tell him what he wants to hear and he might eventually shut up about the damn beard’ tone, which my subconscious never fully believed, and would thus leave me not completely satisfied and ultimately on course to ask one of the big three again. I have persevered however, and you’ll be pleased to know that currently the beard looks quite good, not very ginger, and I’m pretty sure I’m going to keep it, for now at least.
Botswana had a few other firsts, it saw the first time we used our new sat-nav, and not un-related, the first time we have driven in the wrong direction for a considerable amount of time. After begrudgingly listening to people who had gawped at us when we told them our plan to do the entire trip from paper maps, we had bought a GPS with the tracks4africa software, and it was upon crossing the border into Botswana that we thought we’d give it a road test, quite literally. We did this despite having a pretty good idea of where we should be heading, ‘but why not get a second opinion’ we thought sensibly. No sooner had we input our destination, the town of Maun, did we arrive at a t-junction. To the right, a long thin arrow straight tarmac road flanked by huts and livestock, to the left fifty meters of dirt road leading to a very wide river, which was being crossed by people, cars and even lorry’s on a small battle worn ferry. ‘I think it’s right’, the voice in my head said, ‘turn left and take ferry’ the woman’s voice said, and not wanting to look like some guy with a beard trying to be cleverer than a satellite, I said nothing. We crossed the river, enjoying the scenery and chatting to some locals, and proceeded to drive for an hour through the most picturesque outback communities and past several schools, the road was constantly lined with children walking home in one direction or the other. We were driving on a dirt road that varied between two states; very smooth, and pot-holes the size of three man-hole covers. Again not un-related, this road was also to be the scene of our first semi-serious car accident, which came after I failed to see what can only be described as a field of these pot holes hitting them around 80kmph. Inside the car it was like I can only imagine it would be if you dropped a three ton 4X4 onto a bouncy castle from a great height, the lasting evidence of this being the head shaped dents in the roof above our heads, and the unholy mess made in the canopy from all our things having an equally fun time on the castle. It was as the dust was settling, and whilst the thirty strong group of local kids were running towards the car to see if the stupid blind tourists were still alive, that I decided to second guess the satellite navigation system, and wasn’t all that thrilled with what I found. Our reason for going to Maun was because it is the jumping off point for trips into the Okavango Delta, a 15,000km2 expanse of wildlife and waterways and one of the biggest inland deltas in the world, and that is why instead of telling us the easy way along one side of it, our shiny new toy had planned us a lovely scenic route around three sides, on roads that were sure to get worse before we got better. Not best pleased we checked for damage, turned around, went back over the field of holes, back along the road lined with kids, back over the ferry, which amused the workers greatly, and got back to the t-junction a nice neat three hours after we were there in the first place.
We arrived in Maun, late. They tell you not to drive after dark in Africa because of the trucks, the drunks, and the livestock, and we just had three hours of driving after sunset where we had almost killed the entire cast of Animal Farm about ten times over, and thanks to one particularly dark and immobile bull in the middle of the road, ourselves. We checked into the hostel, opting to pay for a real bed for the first time since we set off, and sat in the bar. The Old Bridge Backpackers is a beautifully laid out hideaway. The hostel sits on the river hidden amongst huge trees and is all open plan, the bar and outside area which has just a small thatch roof to cover the bar itself is sand floor, with tables and hammocks dotted all around, and there is a pool table, the sensation of lining up and taking a shot bare foot as you sink into the fine white sand is a far cry from the local boozer back home. My favorite part however was the showers, each set in thick vegetation and open to the elements so you can tan as you shower. Much like most places in Africa there is a big fire burning every night, and on the night we arrived it was to be the setting of one of the most amazing chance encounters of my life to date.
It was late, the bar empty apart from a man and a woman sat by the fire. The woman was in her late-twenties, blonde, and attractive. The man was probably in his fifties, not the least round man you have ever seen, hair down to the base of his back and a beard not much shorter, with a strong SA accent and clearly quite a few jars down. It was as we joined them round the fire that my eavesdropper sense immediately started shooting sparks into the air; ‘Youtube me, Mad Mike vs Lion’ he was saying over, ‘Then we’ll swim back across the river to my place’. You could tell he was serious, despite the ‘hippo and croc positive’ status of the river, and he had my interest wholly if not hers. ‘Seriously I swim it all the time, ask anyone here’ he said, pointing in my direction. I was slightly unsure of what to do or say, pretty sure I’d never seen this man before, ‘Well I only just got here so I’ve not seen you do it’ I said honestly, not wanting her led on based on mis-information, ‘but I reckon you’d do it’ I added, thinking the last thing I wanted was to soil the game of a fellow player. ‘You don’t know me?’ he choked, more surprised than anything, ‘Youtube! Mad Mike vs Lion’ he roared demanding it again, though stopping short of offering me the swim back to his place. Scared and intrigued I obliged, and ten tense minutes later after the slow but free wi-fi had done the loading, we watched a video of him on all fours face to face with a wild lioness with only a roll of toilet paper in his hand for defense, which confused me as equally as it impressed. With Mike’s attention turning slightly towards the two easily impressed Brits, and seemingly un-tempted by a midnight swim through crocodile infested waters to the bed of a man thirty years her senior, the lady made her exit, and the three of us were alone. Mike then took a breath, drank about a pint of wine in under a minute, and proceeded to tell us series of stories so unbelievable that at the time we didn’t believe them, and only do so now with the benefit of time and knowing the man slightly better. There were many stories of wildlife, other than having a show on the animal planet channel he told us he was a wildlife guide who had pretty much lived in the bush for many years, and would seemingly walk right up to any animal quite happily. He had stories of African war, and African prison after being the getaway driver when him and a gang of friends decided to rob five KFC’s in one night, of meeting Princess Diana and exchanging contact details in a hospital in Angola when he had Malaria, of subsequently being the go-to man for Safari in Botswana for the Royals, of being invited to Williams 21st Birthday at Buckingham palace but getting drunk and snatching a microphone from the queen, and one other story so improbable I struggle with it to this day. Oh, and he lives with a monkey that sometimes bites his nipples. He then probed us, and quickly understood we were pretty clueless when it came to bush survival, had never been to prison, and I had been in the same room as the queen once but didn’t snatch anything from her. Then Mad Mike made a fatal mistake, ‘I’m going into the bush day after next, you guys should come with me’ he said flippantly, so drunk that if nothing more was said there was a good chance he wouldn’t even know who we were come morning, but it was at that moment it became my mission to ensure his trip into the bush was two clueless Brits heavier when it set off in forty hours time. I had to act fast, his attention was waning again, and it was only as he drunkenly reversed his Land Rover out of the car park, swimming home something Tarzan clearly only wanted to do if he had Jane with him, I managed to secure his mobile number.
It was Thursday, and we had been sitting outside Mike’s house for three hours feeling unwanted. There are people in this world that it can be hard to get a straight answer from and neither of us had experienced anyone who had this trait in as much quantity as Mike, the day before had been a struggle. The purpose of his trip it turned out was that himself and another man were starting a new venture, a company offering top end bespoke Safari’s and they were going in to survey the constantly changing landscape, see where the animals were, and GPS map some new roads he had heard of, and it was clear the thought of dragging two people very green on the safari scene had lost its charm as the booze had worn off. We had phoned him the previous afternoon and arranged to meet in a bar to discuss the trip, and what had started as ‘come with us’, became ‘follow us’, and ultimately ‘show you how to get there’, and this non committal phraseology had started to get the better of Dan who was now leaning in the direction of jacking the whole thing in. ‘But they are right to worry’ I countered, we have little experience of off-road driving or navigating deep rivers, by our own admission still struggle telling in Impala from a Kudu, and the first thing we did in this country was drive an hour in the wrong direction just to have a crash. Ultimately my clichéd protests of ‘take a chance’, ’seize the day ‘, and ‘what’s the worst that could happen?’, had triumphed, but as we entered the third hour of waiting for him to get back from picking his partner up from the airport, my faith in Mad Mike was also wavering. But then it happened, Mike returned with his partner Ryan in the car and in a flash they loaded up their kit and we were on the road, pretty much certain they would try and lose us on route.
We had been driving in convoy for over an hour, sticking so closely to them on the large dust road that our visibility from what their car kicked up was no more than two meters, when the lead car came to a hault and we pulled up alongside them. It was as the dust settled that we realised the all the dust wasn’t settling. Our reason for stopping; a herd of buffalo five hundred strong was stampeding across the road, the opaque yellow and black mass of dust and horns thundered so hard that the ground shook. Mike promptly gets out the car, grabs his camera, and walks straight for the confluence of Buffalo disappearing in the dust, delivering some more news on his return. ‘See those vultures?’ he asked, pointing to a tree fifty meters back from the road just past the last of the Buffalo crossing. In this tree were over twenty large birds, easily the size of footballs with heads and legs, silhouetted ominously in the tree. He then explained that the presence of vultures meant there was a Lion kill, the fact so many vultures were there meant it was a large kill, and the fact they were still in the trees meant that the Lions were still feeding, which was all very interesting. Then, in a tone of someone saying something totally normal he said ‘Let’s go and take a look’. For me this was the moment, the moment when Mike could gauge the hearts that lay inside these clueless Brits and whether or not they were hearts worthy of one of his adventures, and without conferring Dan and I uttered the same response, ‘Cool’. Cool, strangely enough, is not how I would describe the state of my emotions as we, armed with nothing more than Mike’s sense of invincibility, marched off into the bush in a close single file, because apparently lions are scared of people walking in close single file.
We walked briskly, excited, scared, future BBC headlines flying through the frontal lobes, when we came to a crest. As we topped the crest we saw them, four lions feeding on something indistinct about twenty meters from us, and as soon as they got our scent in the wind they turned and started running. Fortunately for us it seems our close single file was an imposing one as the direction they ran was away, and before we knew it we were standing over a carcass. What lay before us was, or used to be, a giraffe; the former being a majestic giant that prances elegantly through the bush, the latter, a twisted pile of legs and neck with the distinguishable pattern visible through the blood and dirt if you looked hard enough. Most immediately noticeable however was the smell, and as I moved around the beast a new desire to take macabre photos of a rotting corpse washed over me, and to do so I stood on a large pile of dirt, surprised by the give the dirt afforded. As it happens, that particular pile wasn’t all dirt. Mike informed us that after making a kill lions remove all the intestines of the animal and bury them under a pile of earth in an effort to contain the smell and thus the advances of hyena’s, jackals, vultures and the other bush scavengers, and I had just stepped right on the centre of it. ‘We’d better go’ advised Mike, ‘the lions will be watching us from nearby and you never know when they could decide to come back and re-claim their dinner’. ‘Cool’ we agreed, and we started back to the cars.
It was late, buffo and lions had set us behind and aware of how night driving nearly ended last time we needed to find a place to camp. By this point Dan and I were relaxed at the camping lark, we could start fires, cook all number of meats and vegetables on said fires, and putting up and taking down the tent and gear was honed to a fine art. Further to this we were never without plenty of meat and cold beers in the cool box, and had learned that instead of bottles of red wine rolling around in the canopy, five litre boxes are more practical, yield much more, and only soak your bags when someone forgets to close the tap properly. Due to the lateness however, tonight there was to be a new type of camping, wild camping. This simply means pitching up anywhere you bloodywell choose, away from campsites with their cold showers, toilets and fences, and open to the elements and animals. But wild camping is strictly forbidden, only allowed if you breakdown or get lost. Mike had accepted the offer of free accommodation from a luxury lodge nearby, mutual back scratching with a view to him sending prospective clients there, so the wild camping was to be alone, and as we drove his car stopped by a small river. ‘You should camp here’ he said, pointing to a little clearing by the water, ‘nice spot, plenty of firewood around, and if you’re lucky that hippo will come out and feed next to your car’. ‘Cool’ we chimed again. He assured us all would be fine, ‘if some ranger gives you shit tell them you know me, the man who lives with the monkey’, and with that he drove off to his lovely luxury lodge. That night, as the fire cooked our steaks and illuminated the eyes of the hyena’s that surrounded us on three sides, we listened to the Hippo’s in the river grunt and snort and the elephants rip the leaves from the trees just out of sight, and we wondered if our Brit hearts would still be there intact for Mike to find when he returned for them at sunrise.
When Mike came for us just as the sun had broken he found us alive, and elated. At around five in the morning I had awoken to a heavy breathing that was noticeably different from Dan’s snoring, and found when looking out the window of our tent that an extremely large male elephant was grazing right next to the car. I woke Dan, and we lay in silence, barely breathing, and watched at perfect eye level as he munched away in the twilight, until he strolled back into the bush. We told our story to Mike excitedly, who you could tell was happy for us and pleased with himself at a good camping spot suggestion, and he assured us that we were only at the tip of the iceberg.
The two days that followed were a whirlwind of wildlife. The setup; Mike drives, we follow, they stop, we stop, they get out, we get out, they walk into the bush, we follow in a close single file. It wasn’t always easy, the ‘roads’ a lot of the time were barely that. We drove for hours through the deepest sand, over the biggest rocks, through bushes and paths that didn’t look wide enough for a person never mind cars, and despite all this only got stuck once. There were many highlights, giraffes fighting springs to mind as a memorable sight. We were in the cars when we saw the two behaving strangely, standing very close together facing different directions but not moving, perfectly still. Then from nowhere they started, lowering their heads to human head height and swinging them round with a huge force onto the rump of the other, continuing for a good few minutes until the one retreated, and duly the winner resumed being adorable. Most of our highlights however were elephant related, which is understandable, Ryan informed us there were over a hundred thousand in the surrounding national park. On one instance we had been driving along a particularly sandy road that loosely followed the banks of a river when the car in front stopped, we saw immediately why. Thirty meters away were a group of around forty elephants playing and drinking in the shallows of the river, and before we knew it we were on foot, headed straight for them. As we moved slowly from tree stump to tree stump, edging ever closer, their enormous size became more and more apparent, and we stopped no more than six meters from the closest male. It was at this moment that the wind changed and the elephants picked up our scent. The male turned to us, out in the open and fully exposed other than for one dried up old stump, and he started to trumpet and flap his ears, which is to be intimidating apparently, though I couldn’t really see why. The first and biggest rule of wildlife is never ever run unless you are certain you can reach the car or safe place you have near, and as the elephant mock charged us taking three huge thunderous steps in our direction before stopping, that counter intuitive rule was proving hard to stand by. Mike, not fazed, was communicating with the beast through little purrs and hand gestures across his face ‘watch him take it out on that tree’ Mike whispered, and duly it stamped to the nearest tree and ripped out a huge chunk of its foliage. Once Mike was satisfied we had seen enough, we slowly retreated back to the cars with adrenaline pumping and grinning ear to ear.
It was the final evening of our time with Mike and sunset was approaching. He aimed the lead car for dense bush and accelerated hard, on what seemed like a suicide mission, the high pitch screech of the dried branches scraping the paintwork like giant nails on a blackboard flowed through the car and our skulls, and isn’t something my ears or the remaining scratches would let me forget for a long time. Around fifteen minutes later the bushes disappeared and we found ourselves in a large clearing, a river running through the middle, nothing but a huge tree in the centre about five meters back from the river’s edge, and we parked side by side next to the tree. It was eerily quiet, and Mike, not one to miss an opportunity to tell a tale, did exactly that, ‘See this tree. Once I lived in it for three days straight, and every day I’d take a bath in that river with the hippo’s’. Not wanting to let the side down I told a story about how I had once drunkenly got onto the back of a van waiting at traffic lights in South London and rode the bumper for four miles, which seemed to impress him enough to leave me satisfied. It was still quiet, in fact of all the parts of the park we had been in the two days this was the quietest, not even a Waterbuck or Zebra in sight. ‘Don’t worry, they’ll come’, Mike said with an ominous knowing. As if on cue he was proved right. At almost exactly the same moment the clearing was invaded by two huge herds of Elephants, one from the north and one from the south, and both herds, each two hundred strong, walked behind their matriarch towards our tree. ‘Watch for the greeting’, Mike said, and directly in front of us the two matriarchs’s walked up and greeted each other softly with their trunks, and once this was done, both herds drank and socialised together. Mike explained to us that unlike previously when we had walked up to the elephants, these were happy with our quiet presence as we had been in the space before them rather than invading an area they were already in, which seemed to make sense, and we watched them quietly for an hour, beers in hand. With the light fading, we said our emotional goodbyes to Mike, where he actually called us ‘his boys’, and retreated back through the scratching bushes to find a place to camp.
For both countries before Botswana I had been able to impart some kind of life lesson learned in my time there, and this wasn’t about to stop. The latest lesson comes from a mixture of a few facts. A day of safari makes you tired, when Dan goes to bed I sometimes like to sit round the fire and read a book, reading a book when tired can make you fall asleep, Hyena’s don’t come into a camp when there is a fire because they are scared of it, when you fall asleep you can’t tend the fire any more, when the fire goes out the hyena’s won’t be scared any more. The lesson, if you fall asleep reading a book outside your tent when on safari you can wake up to the sound of dog like sniffing with a hyena’s nose pressing on the back of your skull. The final part of the lesson is that when you slowly come round to this sound your body develops the ability to jump out of a seat faster and higher than it ever has before, which can scare a hyena a little too.
Dan and I stayed in Botswana for another week, briefly returning to the Old Bridge Backpackers. Here we played an awful lot of barefoot pool. It turned out the house rule of the table was that it was a ‘wet’ table, meaning the loser has to buy the winner a drink, good for the bars takings, and good if you spent a large proportion of your teenage years playing pool in Frome conservative club, and a few days passed in a blur of spots, stripes, and Carling black Label. It was also in this time that we were propositioned a group of four German men. Their proposition was plane based, they wanted to do a scenic flight over the delta, one of the best and most popular ways to take in the huge expanse, and needed two more to fill the plane. We jumped at the chance and at the crack of dawn the following day we spent an hour in the skies above the delta taking in its endless waterways, a highlight being a herd of hippo easily a thousand strong. Another highlight was when Manuel, one of the Germans, getting a touch airsick towards the end, which the Brit’s didn’t find at all funny.
Botswana was soon to become Zambia, not in name, but as our country of temporary residence. To get to the border we had to travel across a large portion of the country, a portion made up of the Moremi game reserve and Chobe national park. This is a drive with notoriously difficult roads, passable only in dry season and only with a 4X4, but drunk on our recent success on the tail of Mad Mike, we were confident. What god gave us for our confidence was sand, lots and lots of sand, and we struggled slowly through the hundreds of kilometers with plenty of wheel spinning and regular spade digging. At one point we turned a particularly sandy corner and were greeted by the sight of three cars sitting at the bottom of a steep hill, just as one set off at high speed up the deep sand. We discovered that these three groups, all in very flash 4X4’s, had been struggling with this hill for quite some time, intermittently towing each other out, and they told us there wasn’t a hope in hell we would make it unless we took the hill at speed, but not before we dropped the pressure in all of our tires to the minimum. We thanked them for their advice, and stood there and watched as they finally got all their cars up the slope. As soon as that last one disappeared over the top we turned to each other and discovered we had been thinking the same thing about the nice people’s advice, we wouldn’t be taking it. The process of going round and letting air out of each of the tyres with our little compressor only to have to put it back in when we got to the top was too much of a ball ache to make it viable, and anyway, what the hell did they know about anything, they were the ones getting stuck all the time, we were Mad Mike’s boys. So, to give ourselves a fighting chance, we decided to not use the same tracks as the other cars, instead driving on a high sandy verge that was covered in sticks, stones, and even a good chunk of a dead tree, which we moved as best we could. We lined up and hit the gas, climbed unsteadily onto the verge which was barely wide enough for the car and at a huge angle, and, on our fifth attempt after much digging, cursing and reversing back down, we conquered Everest, and most importantly, without letting anybody tell us what to do with the pressure in our tyres.
We had made it through to Chobe national park just before the border, but little did we know we were about to have one of our best wildlife encounters yet. As we slowed down to let a car pass on a narrow road the passing car rolled down its window, ‘probably more South Africans telling us what to do with our bloody tires’ we thought, but no, ‘just down the road there’s a small bush’ the couple probably in their sixties began, ‘in the bush is a leopard, but it’s been there for hours and is lying down not moving’. We thanked them, decided to actually take this advice, and sure enough came to the bush a few hundred meters down the road. The first thing that struck us was how surely we would not have spotted this leopard without the pointer, its pattern concealing it perfectly between the bush and the earth, wondering how on earth the oldies had seen it. We sat there and watched it immobile, when after five minutes it got up, stretched itself off, walked out of the bush and past us within centimeters of the driver’s door, and proceeded to stroll calmly along a ridge as we followed slowly in the car, finally disappearing into a bush. It can be easy to feel hard done by on safari, there is always someone smug, normally Australian, with a better sighting, a kill, or some animal interaction that you’ve only heard about. But we were happy, content with how far the boys had come and what they had seen, and they were ready, for Zambia and the mighty Victoria falls.