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Day 1 – Khutse Gate to Bape Camp (Julie)

“What time did you get here?”

The ranger came over to greet us. His name tag said Pontsho and he was loudly and vigorously chewing a stick of gum. We’d slept outside the gate the night before, arriving just after the rangers locked up for the night.

I told him we missed the gate by about 15 minutes and he gestured towards the employee camp. “You should have gotten us,” he said.

I shrugged and we talked on, but the whole while he was eyeing the truck. “Where are you camping?”

I am geographically challenged, but supremely confident. “Bape,” I replied. “Then up through CKGR and back home through Serowe. We love CKGR! We’ve been here twice before!”

He looked at me as if I’d spoken in another language, neither English nor Setswana. He stopped chewing. I realized I’d said something not only incorrect, but impossible.

“Um. . .Steve,” I called. “What’s our route?”

Steve popped his head around the Pajero and replied with directions that seemed to, if not satisfy Pontsho, at least make sense to him. He gave a backwards nod, and I smiled and nodded enthusiastically along with him. Steve had just informed him that we were doing one of the most remote drives in Botswana.

He shifted his gaze to what is clearly our daily driver. “You’ve driven through CKGR in this before?”

“Well, no. Not, exactly. . . .”

“You have a tent?”

“No – we’re sleeping in the truck. Steve built a platform that. . .”

“Listen,” he said, “you need fuel. And water.”

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Have fuel, will travel.

I told him that we had both, in abundance. His experience with my knowledge of this trip left him skeptical. I assured him of the specifics – we had a full tank and six jerry cans.

“No, it’s ok. You’ll be fine.” [Note: affirmative statements here often start with the word no, which can take a bit of getting used to.]

But, as if trying to convince himself, when Steve came around the truck Pontsho asked about the fuel again. We stood watching as he quickly calculated our liters against the kilometers to the exit gate, touching the tips of each finger with the pad of his thumb, whispering numbers softly to himself.

“No. It’s ok.”

Satisfied at last, at least on this point, he moved on to another topic. “Look, you have to check your water and your oil in the vehicle every day.”

I threw a thumb over my shoulder to Steve. “He knows all about cars.”

Pontsho turned to Steve. “The oil. You have to check it.” He wasn’t impressed when Steve showed him the extra bottles of oil he’d packed, and went on to demonstrate what he meant.

“You know how to check the oil? You have a stick in your car. Take it and put it in the oil. You can test it.” He held out his index finger by way of explanation, indicating each knuckle as a line on the gauge.

Steve reassured him. “In the desert,” Pontsho continued, “you have to check the vehicle’s water.”

“Boy,” I said as we climbed into the car and drove through the gate to the office. “He really thinks we don’t know what we’re doing.”

“Well, this isn’t exactly an overland vehicle,” Steve replied cheerfully. “And I’m sure these guys don’t want to have to rescue anyone.”

Pontsho, now behind the desk to check us in, gave it one more effort, taking the map from Steve and going over our route through the parks with his pen.

As we left he said, “you can stop and use the camp showers, if you want. But the water is cold. The elephants destroyed the geyser last week.”

***

Day 2 – Bape Camp to Xade Camp (Steve)

The young guy in the green collared shirt leaned casually in the shade of a thatched roof building. This was the CKGR entrance gate at Xade. After eight hours of slogging and see-sawing the Pajero through deep sand, and worrying over fuel consumption, the campground and entrance gate at this most western border of the Reserve was a comforting sight.

In fact, entrance gates to wilderness areas are some of my favorite landmarks, no matter where I find them. They are welcoming outposts regardless from which direction you approach them. From the outside, they mean the start of an adventure, and all the possibilities of the road ahead. From within, where we spotted Xade’s radio towers and lightning rods a few kilometers off, they are comforting little patches of civilization and succor.

But we weren’t leaving CKGR just yet. I needed to sort out some confusion at the front office with our overnight reservation so we could spend two nights at our favorite campsite near Xade – CKXAD 02.

I smiled and greeted the guy in the green shirt who looked like he was in charge.

“Dumela, rra,” as I grasped his hand three times in the African fashion. “Howzit?”

“It’s good, it’s good, boss. Where did you come from?”

“We’re up from Bape, and Khutse the night before.”

“Really?” He cocked his head and smiled, throwing a skeptical look at our dusty blue Mitsu.

“Yes, it was a long drive, but beautiful, and the weather was wonderful.”

We talked for a little while about the elephant herds making their home near Xade’s waterhole, and about the condition of the road north to Piper Pans. We chatted about Ghanzi, his home town some 200kms from the gate.

“Hey,” I said, as I cut to the chase, “Hey, can you help us with our campsite reservation?”

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Checking the Pajero for brush, grass, and sticks.

“No, sir. I don’t work here!” And indeed, the guard house in the thatch-roof building was locked. “But those guys stay over there,” he nodded to the west indicating the Reserve staff. “They have, like, a sixth sense about these things. They’ll be here any minute. You really thought I worked here?”

“Yeah, man. I’ll tell them they should hire you.” He laughed heartily at this.

The second guy who showed up wore ragged board shorts and a red 2XL t-shirt emblazoned with a “Havana” silkscreen across the front. We couldn’t have been further from the Malacon if we tried.

This gentleman, repping Cuba, indeed turned out to be part of the actual gate staff, but he was a man of few words and not much help, as he didn’t know how to cross-check our reservation. “Shapo, shapo,” he smiled, “my boss will be along, just now.” So we stood in silence, while the radio, in bad need of a squelch adjustment, buzzed, chattered, and squealed in the background.

The boss arrived – also out of uniform – but as friendly as the first two. A cursory glance at my paperwork, and he waived us on to CKXAD 02. The folks who booked it previously decided it wasn’t to their liking, and had left.

I signed the big register, with hundreds of pages, and thousands of names dating back years (I love this part of Botswana’s National Parks bureaucracy).

“Eish!” He muttered under his breath as he looked at our paperwork a second time, “you booked in Gabs? At headquarters?”

“Eh, rra – we live not far from there.”

“You’re far from there now!” he exclaimed with a laugh and a shake of his head. “You are welcome here in CKGR.”

***

Day 3 – Xade Camp (Julie)

“An American told me once that you shouldn’t say ‘Oh my God.’ Because it’s an insult to God. I don’t get it. I mean, even if I meant it, which I don’t, why couldn’t I say ‘Oh my God’ as a good thing? You know? Like honoring God? You two aren’t those kinds of Americans, are you? Who don’t like foul language? Americans can be funny like that. I should have asked, maybe?”

This from a German overlander, immediately after he’d just said “fuck it” as we were talking about ways to work less and travel more, “fuck it” being the general feeling among many of the people we’ve talked with while on the road, the balance definitely tipping away from work.

Clearly, from his campsite, he hadn’t heard Steve viciously swatting at flies shouting “Fuck off, you fucking fuckers!” No, we’re not those kinds of Americans.

They were driving out of camp in the late morning, after scaring the hell out of us the night before.

My number one worst fear when camping is strange headlights in camp after dark. All the bells go off in my head. It is some escapee? Someone hepped up on meth? (I’m looking at you, Montana). Drunk hunters out with their guns? (Double finger point, again, Montana). It is my least favorite thing, anywhere, and was particularly jarring in the CKGR. We’d seen no one not associated with the reserve in two days.

This particular truck pulled in after 10pm. They turned off the lights when they came face-to-face with the Pajero, where we were already well settled. Then they began a complicated series of maneuvers that we assumed would result in them taking the road back out. But they didn’t.

They parked.

“Well, I guess I’ll go see what’s going on,” Steve said, pulling on his pants. It is a testament to how safe I feel here, in general, that I wasn’t as worried as I would have been if we were in the US.

He came back after a short conversation that ended in the revving of their truck. “That was Mark and James. From Germany, I think. They did the same drive as we did but didn’t have a campsite. The guys at Khutse told them to camp here. They expected it to be empty. I told them about the abandoned campsite down the road, but let them know they could come back if they can’t find it.”

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We didn’t see them again until the “oh my God” conversation. They apologized profusely for waking us and we talked about work, travel, and our love affairs with this continent. James stores his truck – an absolutely gorgeous Land Rover that was clearly his pride and joy, despite his kindly self-effacing claims that it is “uncomfortable” compared to our decidedly less-sexy Pajero – all over Africa and takes vacations to wherever he left it last, driving on to the next place.

“Maybe we’ll see you in Deception,” he said, the camps there being the same destination for all of us. We shook hands and they drove off.

“I thought you said their names were Mark and James,” I said to Steve. “They called themselves Frank and Michael.”

Steve shrugged and scratched his head. “Well,” he replied. “They did drive into camp pretty late.”

***

Day 4 – Xade Camp to Deception Camp (Steve)

Julie: “Oh. You’re so beautiful. You’re so, so beautiful.”

Elephant: *trumpets*, storms off.

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Flattery will get you nowhere.

***

Day 5 – Deception Camp (Julie)

“What the hell is that?!”

Both of us jolted awake at 6:30 to persistent pounding on the truck. We feel pretty secure sleeping in the Pajero, but this was something new. Someone was definitely trying to get in.

We thought it might be Steve’s friend James and his friends, stopping by before their foray into Sunday Pan. We’d connected with them in Deception Valley the night before and agreed we’d meet again the next day. But James is one of the nicest guys out there – it seemed crazy that he would wake us up by pounding on the window.

Turns out, it wasn’t James. We looked up to find two hornbills perched on the spare tire staring intently in at us. It took us a minute to figure out what we were looking at. Then they started hammering on the window with their great beaks.

“Haha – that’s pretty funny!”

“Let me get a photo – can you reach my camera?”

“Heh, heh. Good morning guys. Think we should get up, huh?”

Photos snapped. Videos taken. More chuckles. And then it stopped being funny.

Those birds wanted in. They didn’t flinch when Steve pounded on the window and told them to go away. I mean they didn’t move a muscle. They didn’t blink. They looked straight us and resumed pounding.

“I have to go to the bathroom,” I said.

“Don’t get up! You’ll just be rewarding them!”

I did get up. And then I walked around the back of the truck, put my hands on my hips, and said, “Ok you two. That’s enough. We’re going back to bed. No more. That’s enough.”

They looked at me and made low gurgling sounds. I climbed back into the Pajero. They perched again on the spare and resumed knocking away at the window.

The rest of the day went like this:

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Kalahari Wakeup Committee

“Go away!!”

Low gurgling.

“Get out of here. GO!”

Scornful looks.

“Goddamn it – stop!!”

Attempts to pull the windshield wipers off.

“No, no, no, no, no!”

More banging on windows

Thrown sticks.

Scornful looks.

***

Day 6 – Deception Camp to Khama Rhino Sanctuary (Steve)

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Bliss.

There are over 10,200 kms of highway in Botswana – only 5,600 kms of which are paved.

Along the main highways hungry or weary travelers find frequent rest stops – usually a concrete picnic table crumbling under a thorn tree, and maybe a trash bin. They see frequent use, as distances between towns and cities in this Texas-sized country are immense and lonely.

But that doesn’t mean there’s nobody out there.

Batswana herders and farmers make their homesteads in geographies that are unknown to us – their rondavels and kraals sprinkled seemingly at random throughout Botswana’s deserts and pans.

We found one of these homesteads neighboring a roadside picnic area where we stopped on the long drive home to Gaborone. As we unpacked our lunch, three small children and a dozen chickens rushed to greet us. The nine-year old girl, all smiles and full of giggles in a green dress, gave Julie a huge hug.

“How old are you?”

“I’m nine!”

“Are you on school holiday?”

“I don’t go to school.”

Her younger brothers, maybe 5 and 6 years old, the smaller one decked out in grubby pink flannel PJ’s, grinned, but stayed silent.

We shared our sweets with them, and their mother, hands propped wrists-forward on her hips, joined the crowd from their tin-roofed hut.

“Do you have shoes?”, she asked. We did not – not to share, at least – but she was happy with the surplus food from our bins and coolers: cracked corn, scones, a sleeve of crackers, a box of pasta, and, the biggest hit – a jar of Nutella.

“This is excellent chocolate!” A sentiment we all share, I believe.

Some of us crowded around the cement table with the children to eat scones and biltong, the chickens clucking in the dust at our feet.

***

Day 7 – Khama Rhino Sanctuary to Home (Julie)

“Well. I’m ready to do it again.”

“Me too.”

“It sounds crazy. But it’s not.”

“No. It’s not at all.”

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Crazy, not crazy.

3 comments on “From Khutse to the Kalahari, in Seven Conversations

  1. Kim says:

    What a great adventure! And a great post!

    Like

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