Botswana: Cycling With Cyclists

I had a nice start to the day at the campsite. Two cats came and joined me in my tent and we watched as a pack of about fifty meerkats frolicked around outside.

I rode a couple kilometres to a mall where I’d agreed to meet up with Betti, another cyclist who’d contacted me through a WhatsApp group for cyclists in East Africa. We set off cycling south from there.

The 300km road from the border to the town of Nata is called the elephant highway, but we saw just one that day, in the distance. Not long after that we were caught up to by Rob and Anna, the cyclists I’d met in Livingstone. We chatted to them for a bit then they went on ahead.

Betti and I ride at somewhat different speeds; her normal pattern is to ride 15km, take a break, do another 15km, then a 4hour meditation, and do another 15km or so before calling it a day. Since we’d made a lateish start today we did not make her usual 4 hour stop in the middle of the day, and reached a petrol station after about 50 kilometres. She’d have been up for doing another 10km or so but given the number of lions and elephants around it made more sense to camp at the petrol station.

Betti and I are very different people with different positions on things like spirituality vs materialism. She was very open to talking about them though and we had an interesting afternoon and evening of conversation.

It was nice to cycle and talk to someone but our pace was just too different for it to make sense for a long time. We set off together in the morning but when she stopped for a break I continued on.

For an hour or two I rode through wilderness, before crossing a cattle grid as I entered the farmlands surrounding the village of Pandamatenga. These huge open fields provided nothing to block the wind, which had been mild before but was quite a strong headwind here.

I stopped at a petrol station in Panda, and bought some chips and a cold drink. I also bought some airtime, to top up the simcard Rob had given me – which he had in turn received from some cyclists heading north. Unfortunately there was no data connection out here.

I knew Rob and Anna had stayed in Panda last night, about 50km ahead of where Betti and I stopped. I also knew they planned to ride on 150km to a lodge, and I decided to catch up to them. Having started 3 hours later than usual, 200km would be a long ride so I rode fast.

It was quite warn, but a dry heat, so sweat evaporated quickly and it wasn’t uncomfortably hot. However, as my clothes started to turn white from the salt I realised that cycling hard like this was using up too much water, and at this rate I wouldn’t have enough. I slowed down, and also didn’t eat anything, because that would have made me too thirsty! I ended up collecting a bottle of water at the side of the road and filtering that. If I needed to, there was enough traffic that I’d have had no trouble stopping a vehicle and asking for water, but I’d rather not do that unless I need to.

For most of the day, I didn’t see a great deal of wildlife. I saw a few zebra a long way from the road, then an elephant, and then another group of zebra right next to the road.

It was getting quite late – an hour or so before sunset – when I reached an area with much more wildlife. Now I was passing an elephant every few hundred metres!

On one occasion I crossed the road to be further from an elephant. It was only as I rode past that I realised there were a further four elephants in the trees on this side of the road.

I saw one elephant that was just a couple metres away from the road, and looked like it might want to cross. Most animals are not really used to cyclists and I very much wanted to avoid causing him to panic and charge me. I waited for a truck (which took a couple minutes) who slowed down to drive between me and the elephant. Unfortunately he misjudged it a little, and sped up again just as I was passing the elephant! It’s head snapped up as it saw me suddenly quite close to it. Thankfully he just went back to eating grass.

I passed a foot and mouth checkpoint, where I was very glad to be able to fill up a bottle of water. Not long after, I saw a group of 15 or so giraffes. These were one of the few remaining animals I’d only seen on my Kenyan safari, and now I’ve seen them in the wild too! It was a great experience to see them running around, looking like they were going in slow-motion due to their great height.

Elephants continued to be a frequent sight as I rode the last few kilometres to the lodge.

The lodge was 2 kilometres down a sandy track. The setting sun was in my eyes so it was difficult to watch the road and my surroundings, but it was important to do so! There was an elephant near the track, so I went to a parallel track a little further from it. I pushed my bike to avoid scaring it with the unpredictable movements of a bike slipping and sliding in the sand.

Past the elephant, I cycled slowly through the sand until I reached the lodge, drenched in sweat. I went to reception where the lady there offered to put my water bottle in the freezer. I followed her through to the bar, where Rob and Anna saw me and came over to give me a nice cold beer. They were having a steak and chips which looked very tempting, so I ordered the same.

We spent the evening sitting there in the bar/restaurant, watching the elephants which were drinking from the pool just a few metres away. One of the bull elephants seemed a bit territorial, and kept challenging the others, who usually backed away in a hurry. At one point he turned toward the restaurant and looked like he might charge there! Another guest, sitting quite close to the elephant, stood up in a hurry!

The cats did not seem to pay much attention to the elephants

When we went to our tents, the elephants walked through the camp. I could hear them munching away on the grass, and could see the shadow of one on the wall of my tent as it stood in front of the moon. Definitely it was one of the more disconcerting experiences in the tent!

We set off the next morning after breakfast. Anna started cycling a minute or so before Rob and me, and when we’d reached the road after 2km of sand, there was no sign of Anna. We waited a few minutes, and still no sign. We flagged down a car, who said they hadn’t seen any cyclist ahead. Rob went back to the lodge, and called to say he hadn’t found her. I rode on to see if that’s what she’d done, asking a few cars along the way – none had seen her. I’d been riding for about half an hour, and it had been an hour or so since we saw her, when Rob called. Apparently Anna took a wrong turn on the sandy track and ended up pushing her bike through deep sand for ages, before eventually reaching the road a couple kilometres ahead of the “main” route from the campsite. She backtracked and found Rob. I found a shaded tree and settled in to wait.

They caught up and we rode on together. They rode at a good pace; with my legs fatigued from the 200km with insufficient food and water, I’d have struggled to go faster. We saw a few more animals but not as many as the day before. After a couple hours we started to see more cows as we approached the town of Nata, and reached the end of the Elephant Highway.

Nata had a Choppies (one of the big chain supermarkets in southern Africa) so we went there, ate a lot of food and stocked up with more. Then we went to a water shop (the tap water here is salty) where we could top our bottles for about 1 pula (£0.06) a litre. We rested in the shade there for a while, and the people working there kindly brought us chairs. A guy running a nearby hostel saw us and came to invite us to stay, but it was still early in the day so we wanted to ride on.

Photo by Rob

After a bit more rest that’s what we did, cycling west in what was now a fairly hot afternoon. There wasn’t much wildlife to be seen – unless you count cows and donkeys. The road was quite bad at some points, some big potholes and then for a short while completely gone. Apparently this is the result of flooding, which this area is prone to.

We stopped for a short time outside a shop in the village of Zaroga, to enjoy some cold drinks. Kids gathered around to stare at us in a way I haven’t experienced for a while now. Unsurprisingly, they were particularly fascinated by Anna.

Photo by Rob

We rode on for another hour or so past there, then pushed the bikes over to a grassy area and set up camp.

In the morning we rode to Gweta – or as Rob had taken to calling it, Gweta Thunberg (and sometimes David Gweta). On the way we passed a campsite, which had a statue of a big pink aadvark outside.

There were lots of termite mounds in this area

Once we reached the town we rode a couple kilometres away from the rode to a supermarket, and sat down to eat. Then, we said our goodbyes. Rob and Anna are heading west to Namibia, while I’m going south.

The next bit of riding would be a tough off-road stretch so I wanted to have an afternoon’s rest. I went to the Gweta Lodge, and asked about camping. Their shower block is being renovated, but they were offering rooms at a discounted rate (240 Pula (£14), cheap for Botswana) for those who’d come for camping. The room wasn’t ready yet so I decided to check somewhere else in the meantime.

There was a spot marked on iOverlander, a backpackers hostel. After a couple kilometres on sand, a few hundred metres of sand, I reached a locked gate and abandoned premises. I turned around and went back to Gweta Lodge and checked in there.

The manager, Lesh, was also a safari guide and I asked him about conditions in the salt pans. He said they wouldn’t be flooded, but would be impossible to cross on a bicycle. It’s not the first time I’ve been told that so I wasn’t unduly daunted.

It would be a long way without water so I repacked my bags to increase my capacity. I have three big bags: a handlebar bag, frame bag and saddle bag. The handlebar bag contains things I use at night, the framebag contains things I use during the day, and the saddle bag is for things I rarely use. I moved a few things (inner tubes, puncture repair kit, lights…) from the frame bag to the saddle bag. With 1.5 litres in the bladder on my handlebars, a 2L bottle on each side of the fork, two 2L bottles and a 1.5L one in the framebag, I had about 11 litres.

In the evening a group of people invited me to join them for a drink. They were from Gabarone, and were in Gweta trying to develop a hydroponics system. They lamented the resistance of the villagers to any new ways of doing things. As someone who barely drinks, I felt a remarkable effect from just one big, strong beer.

Feb 7: 50 km

Feb 8: 200 km

Feb 9: 118 km

Feb 10: 46 km

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