Road Tripping, Botswana-Style

Over the past month or so, I’ve been getting out of Gaborone most weekends, so there have been a few road trips. The big one was a trip to the Tsodilo Hills that I took a few weeks ago. More about the Hills themselves in another post — just getting there and back was an experience worth sharing all on its own, at least for me (hopefully you’ll agree).

The Tsodilo Hills are located in the northeast corner of Botswana and Gaborone is located in the southeast corner, so it’s quite a distance to cover — a little under 1000 kms, or about 600 miles, as the crow flies. But the crow would have to fly over the Central Kalahari, which for a human driver would require a 4-wheel drive vehicle, reserve tanks of gas, and decent wilderness survival skills, none of which we had. So we took a more hospitable route, which added over 300 kilometers, bringing us to a grand total of about 1300 kms, or 800 miles. That’s 1600 miles roundtrip — about the same distance as a roundtrip from New York to Chicago — and we covered it in three days. Which is a lot, but not so crazy, except that Botswana highways are no Route 80.

Here’s a map of Botswana showing the route that we took, to give you a better idea of what I’m talking about. We drove from Gabs (the star in the southeast) to Maun (sleeping smiley face) on Friday, from Maun to Tsodilo and back on Saturday, and from Maun back to Gabs on Sunday.

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Our trusty Corolla, still gleaming in the sun before it was assaulted by birds, dust, and thorny branches.

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Looking as excited as I can look to embark on the trip early in the morning.

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Looking more excited, during the home stretch.

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Trying with minimal success to take ipad photos of the other passengers without turning around. The guy in the middle lived near the Hills and we picked him up at the gates to give him a ride. Hitchhiking is very very common in Botswana (but don’t worry mom, I will not be embracing that part of the culture).

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Part of what made the trip so — colorful? — is that the roads in Botswana pose certain challenges that I haven’t experienced during my U.S. roadtrips. Enemy Number One while driving: Livestock on the road.

In Ethiopia, we heard the following story about animals on the road:

A dog, a goat, and a donkey got on a bus. The dog overpaid and forgot to get his change. The goat snuck on the bust without paying. The donkey paid the right amount, but got off at too early a stop. So when you drive by a dog, it will run after you, looking for its change; a goat will run away, since it never paid; and a donkey will just stand there, waiting for a ride to the correct stop.

My experience with dogs here is that they don’t do much chasing, but it is definitely true that goats will run away (or at least try to — they aren’t that bright, so sometimes their version of running away means running in front of you), and definitely true that the donkeys will just stand there. A donkey can be standing in the right lane on the highway and will not even flinch as you blow by it in the left lane. Cows are only slightly less apathetic — they will move if you honk enough, but they’ll do it at their own pace, which is significantly slower than a car’s pace. So it’s mostly on the driver to see and avoid animals.

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Enemy Number Two: Birds.

Our car suffered greatly at the hands (wings?) of two birds that I’m convinced were suicidal. When we returned the rental car with the bird-inflicted damage, the rental car guy said, “please fill out this form to describe what happened when you hit the birds,” and everyone in the car had the same reaction: “those birds hit us!”

The first incident happened on the way to Maun, when a bird flew up from the side of the road and directly into the side mirror, somehow taking the glass from the mirror along with it and leaving behind a disturbing display of blood, guts, and feathers.

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The second incident happened the following day, when a smaller bird flew directly into the front of the car, thankfully below windshield-height. His body had to be manually removed, and one foot was really stuck in there. Yuck.

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Enemy Number Three: Potholes the size of a small child. I didn’t take pictures of them, but trust me, they were there. And while you’re looking straight ahead to catch sight of approaching cattle, you will hit one.

Enemy Number Four: Ill-maintained dirt / sand / gravel roads, including the entire last 35 kms on the way to Tsodilo HIlls. When you’ve been driving for hours, getting to that last stretch is really exciting, until you realize that the last 35 kms will take you about the same amount of time as the previous 150.

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In exchange for these safety hazards, though, Botswana does offer some pretty nice scenery on the road.

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In addition to looking out the windows, we kept ourselves entertained with regular stops. Batswana are, for the most part, very friendly people. We stopped basically every time we saw someone pulled over on the side of the road, and even if we couldn’t help we would stay and chat. We didn’t do anything to help these guys with their engine problem, but they still offered us drinks from their cooler for the road.

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Another side-of-the-road stop, to watch this crowd try to load pieces of a dead cow onto the backs of their donkeys, who were not having any of it. The cow had been hit by a car, and the people who found it had skinned and carved it up and were trying to transport its useful parts. Bottom photo: guts and other undesirable parts to be left behind. This stop was a short one, due to the smell (not good).

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Impromptu photo shoot orchestrated by a group of kids I met on the side of the road when we stopped to ask for directions:

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This woman was excited to have her picture taken. When my friend asked her if it was okay for me to take the photo, she said something along the lines of “yes please, after I’m gone it will show that I lived.”

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A visit with our driver’s cousin and her adorable twin babies:

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And our first glimpse of the Hills!

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5 thoughts on “Road Tripping, Botswana-Style

  1. what an adventure, Elana, although I’m not sure I could have handled it at all….
    Are’nt you sick of cars….
    anyway, keep having fun and we love you and can’t wait for you to be home. Love always Mom

    • Most definitely yes, but it actually wasn’t very much for the mirror. And we washed it before returning it so that it didn’t look so much like it had just been used in a hit-and-run.

  2. I’m a bit late reading this but it’s so beautiful. I love the scenery pictures and especially when YOU are in the picture ! The animals on the road gave me a good laugh because I remember in India we had some of the same problems.

    • Driving in Bots is definitely not as bad as driving in India! But sometimes scarier because without all the people and traffic, you’re going a lot faster when the cow crosses the road …

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