It was one of last century’s great forbidden love affairs – between a black African prince leading his people to independence from its British colonial masters, and a young white Englishwoman.
The passionate story of the making of modern Botswana is about to hit the big screen, and likely to trigger, in the 50th year of the nation’s independence, a surge of interest in visiting the country.
In Australia, A United Kingdom will be released on Boxing Day, telling the tale of Botswana’s first president Seretse Khama, who married London office worker Ruth Williams. The pair fought for their relationship against the staunch opposition of both their families, their communities, Britain and apartheid South Africa which threatened to withhold vital resources from Britain, and possibly invade Botswana, if the government failed to foil the match.
Film-goers could be attracted in ever greater numbers now to Botswana by both the stunning scenery, and the stirring revelations of how Khama steered one of the poorest countries in the world to independence and then helped turn it into a modern-day miracle of development, democracy and desirability. South African leader Nelson Mandela acclaimed it an “inspiration”.
Actor Rosamund Pike, who plays Williams, alongside David Oyelowo’s Khama, wasn’t aware of its charm before going there to film. “Arriving there, it was so flat: an open sky, no elevation, vast plains, red earth,” she says. “It’s a shock when you first see it. But by the time I left, I saw a beauty in the place I hadn’t seen when I arrived.”
Most Australians visit Botswana today because of the abundant wildlife, particularly while boating around the picturesque Okavango Delta, but the film will highlight how much more there is to see.
“It could bring so much more awareness of Botswana, in the same way that the film Hotel Rwanda showed us about Rwanda, and The Last King of Scotland educated us about Uganda,” says Julie McIntosh, the founder and co-director of The Classic Safari Company which runs regular safaris to Botswana. “This film, however, is a very positive story about a progressive democracy and a very safe and secure, beautiful country, with wonderful people.”
Martin Edwards, general manager of Africa specialists Bench Africa feels the same. “Obviously the wildlife and being so close to Victoria Falls are major highlights but there is a lot else to see too,” he says. “The people are very friendly and welcoming, with big smiles, and everyone wants to help. There’s plenty to visit.”
In the capital Gaborone, for instance, there’s a bronze statue of the movie’s main character, the late Sir Seretse Khama – whose son with Williams, Ian Khama, is now the current president – and Botswana’s most famous monument, The Three Dikgosi, in honour of the tribal chiefs who fought to stop the country in the early days from being subsumed into South Africa and the then Rhodesia.
These days the city is perhaps better known among outsiders as the setting for Alexander McCall Smith’s The No.1 Ladies’ Detective Agency with its sturdy private eye Mma Precious Ramotswe driving around in her tiny white van. Today, there’s a special tour based on the book, operated by Africa Insight, beginning outside her house, going through the village Mochudi where she grew up, and dropping in at her school – now a museum – and all her favourite haunts.
But it’s well beyond Gaborone where most of the tourist action is. The Okavango and its wildlife remains the biggest attraction. Sanctuary Retreats has just refurbished its flagship property there, Sanctuary Chief’s Camp, and is seeing a sizeable rise in bookings.
“In Botswana, we’ve experienced a 28 per cent year on year increase in bookings, prompted by a surge in interest for the country this year as it commemorates the 50th anniversary of its independence, as well as the unveiling of our refurbished flagship property,” says director of sales Michael McCall.
The Classic Safari Company runs mobile safaris through the delta, changing locations every couple of days to follow the wildlife, horseback safaris and trips together with the delta, the Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and then another Botswana attraction, the Makgadikgadi Salt Pans.
These are 12,000 square kilometres of terrain so stark and so flat, it’s possible to see the curvature of the earth. Sometimes, it’s arid with little sign of life, perfect for quad biking or, memorably, an episode of TV’s Top Gear, but when the rains come, it can turn into an aqua-marine lake, with flamingos in their hundreds of thousands along with zebra and wildebeest.
The pans are in the Kalahari basin, where the Kalahari Desert also sits, a semi-arid savanna of sand with dunes, flowers and some fauna. That too has a startling beauty all of its own.
Indigenous to the entire area, the San bushmen are a remarkable race of people who welcome visitors, taking them walking to experience their way of life, showing them how they use nature around them as medicine, and guiding them to cultural sites. “It’s phenomenal to experience their culture,” says Edwards. “Then there are the landscapes, the stars, the heat and so many amazing places to explore, the locations where all the traditional explorers went.”
Indeed, when actor Oyelowo arrived in Botswana for filming, he was startled to find that it’s the tales of those early European explorers that are still taught in schools rather than the real history of the country, including Khama’s role. “Many Batswana didn’t know the story, shockingly, even though Seretse’s son is the current president,” he says. “In school, it’s still all about 19th-century British explorer and missionary David Livingstone!”
There are smaller animals that draw the attention too, like the meerkats that like to stand on the highest point for sentry duty – which can easily be a visitor’s head.
Apart from the wildlife, there are also great herds of cattle, with Botswana a major supplier of beef to Europe. Diamonds are another draw, with the Orapa diamond mine operated by a partnership of De Beers and the Botswana government the world’s largest by area. Indeed, the discovery of diamonds shortly after independence has helped finance the country’s infrastructure, education and health systems.
Botswana is wonderful to visit, see and tour as a showcase for what a success an African country can become, with people like the movie’s hero, Sir Seretse Khama, helping put in place a resilient political system.
“It’s so well managed, and there’s a great atmosphere there,” says McIntosh. “Everyone’s very proud of what’s been achieved in just 50 years of independence.
A United Kingdom is released in Australia on December 26.
South African Airways flies to Johannesburg via Perth with connecting flights to Maun, Botswana. Flysaa.com/au
There are many tours and types of accommodation offered by The Classic Safari Company, classicsafaricompany.com.au, ph (02) 9327 0666; Bench Africa, benchafrica.com, ph 1300 237 422; and Sanctuary Retreats, sanctuaryretreats.com, ph 0431 976 125
Sue Williams travelled around Botswana at her own expense