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On a ridiculous mission: crossing the border into Botswana

Across the border and on the way to Nokaneng

Across the border and on the way to Nokaneng

At one minute past 6 we exited the camp…fantastic admin according to the Marine! It was 75km to the exit gate but with the speed restriction this took us and hour and a half. Originally we had planned to leave at 5am to ensure we reached the gate for its opening at sunrise, but we failed to acknowledge that our campsite wouldn’t let us out until then also; this now meant that we were leaving the national park an hour and a half behind schedule…not such good admin! With so much ground to cover, it wasn’t a great start.

Once out of camp, the drive for the next wee while was pretty uneventful. A short stop in Groetfontein to refuel and get some cash about 3 hours in and that was about it.

Not very long after this, the metal road ended and we were back on gravel dirt tracks. Despite being so far behind schedule we pushed on to the Dobe border in a bid to get there before the apparent closure at 12:30pm (according to the ever faithful yet forever misleading ‘blue book’). This is where the tension began. Andy is a runner and when he runs he likes to run fast. He sets himself goals and he will most definitely get there. So, when he knew that we had a time restriction in place he began the race with himself to get there. Being flung about the gravel, pot-holed road by a man possessed (sorry ‘a Man on a Mission’ he informs me) was not exactly my idea of fun so I asked if he wouldn’t mind slowing down a bit. If we didn’t make the crossing then we didn’t make it…considering we had over 200km of this road to go in about an hour and a half it was obvious we wouldn’t get there by 12:30. My pleas, as usual, fell on deaf ears and ‘Man on a Mission’ was in full focus mode with his eyes on the finish line. It was unbearable.

With pursed lips and pretty much in silence, other than some arguing about slowing down and him refusing, Andy powered on. His military training was in full application mode and nothing, not even the passing of time, was going to stop him getting there before the border closed! Needless to say, we arrived at Dobe well after 12:30 (obviously!). Nature and all logic had provided us the clues to this end but this did not deter him. We refilled the tanks, knowing that the easiest part of the driving was done and we needed enough now to get us to Maun. The considerable difference in culture was already apparent here. Deprivation seemed more prevalent and babies suckling on their almost starving mothers surrounded us at the gas station, not begging but selling bracelets and necklaces.

Another twenty minutes of dirt track and we were at the border an hour after the closing time, only to find it open (typical). The smile reappeared on Andy’s face: “We will make it to Maun today!” silently seething from his soul. Damn…the race was to continue!

Welcome to Botswana

Welcome to Botswana

The border police were welcoming as always and showed us to the next section towards Botswana. This was where civilization as we had so far experienced in Africa effectively ended. Over grass and mud we bounded poor Nige onwards and through a pool of water to clean him of any foot and mouth disease. We were forced to walk through this also and then through a gate where we were ready to meet the customs officials. The presence of huge guns made me a little nervous, but they could not have been friendlier. Useless it turned out, but friendly. Unfortunately passing through the 20m of grasslands we lost an hour of our lives due to the time difference between countries. Great, we were now at about 2:30pm and still had half the amount of driving left to do.

Let me just explain the reasoning behind this crazy decision to do a 2 – 3 day drive in 12 hours: Andy! We knew that if we took 2 days or more over the border crossing we would not be able to squeeze in Zimbabwe and Victoria Falls at the end of the trip, something I thought we could sacrifice and leave until a future trip, but Andy was dying to get as much in in the time available. So, good on him, he set an ambitious target and truly believed we would make it despite advice from locals, people on the internet and guide books. The main setback to the plan was that we were not allowed to drive Nige in the dark due to wildlife on the road (boy did we find out how serious this was) and the car hire company’s insurance policy. The other problem was that should we decide to stop off on the way, there were no campsites between this border and Maun so nowhere to sleep. So, you see, a fantastic idea!

After being let through we asked the customs official how long it would take to get to Maun and what the road conditions were like (my most popular question of the whole trip it turned out). “Oh I think about 1½ hours, maybe 2.” He replied. This was clearly crap as we had 340 km of ground to cover and the sat-nav had suggested 5½ hours, but hey it at least kept us positive that he didn’t tell us we were stupid for trying it.

The next hour or so were quite probably some of the horrendous of my life (up until this point)! Goodbye Namibia, goodbye roads it seemed. Ahead was a quagmire piled up with rubble along the side; a flooded mass of clay with tress on the other side. It was our only option, but the build up of head high stone meant that we had no route around the waterlogged puddles, we would just have to go straight through. Trusting his training in this stuff I agreed to go for it. “You’d be best to take your seatbelt off so that if we turn and it starts flooding you can get out quick!” He warned me before putting his foot down.

WHAT!!!!!!

Off we skidded, side to side revving it up with muck flying all over the place. The lack of low ratio meant the only safe option was to whack on the acceleration and go for it with no hesitation. Phew, we had made it through about 10m. Andy stopped the vehicle ahead of a huge bog to try and assess its depth. I got out of the vehicle “I think I am safer here” I told him. To be honest getting attacked by a lion seemed like a better option than flipping in the car, drowning and then being eaten by one anyway. It was apparent that no one would be coming down this track again today to help us if we got stuck.

“Ok!” Andy agreed “Although you are going to have to walk through it which may be worse than doing it in the car.”

Hmm. My legs were pretty much lodged in the mud already so I decided to stay put and see how he got through. Luckily he made it; the car rocking around side to side with the wheels spinning through the mud, so I followed along and jumped back in. I realised for the sake of both of us I needed to calm the nerves. I was not helping the situation at all; bursting into tears and shaking with panic. Out of my bag I pulled the hipflask of Scottish single malt (drained from a £100 bottle of Laphroig I later found out) which I had brought along for Andy to enjoy by the campfire. Knocking it back I felt an immediate sense of calm. I’m not going to pretend the next hour of sliding through similar terrain was pleasant, but the whisky certainly made it bearable.

The face says it all!

The face says it all!

Eventually the clay turned into sand and a small handwritten sign pointed us in the right direction. Now we had to contend with getting stuck in the sand!

Little villages along the way

Little villages along the way

Kids playing out

Kids playing out

Eventually (hours later) we drove through Nokaneng as the sun began to make its way to the ground. In hindsight we should have pulled in here, chatted to the locals and set up camp for the night, but that would have been way too sensible! Ahead was a paved road…pah…paved, it was literally decorated with huge potholes every few metres. So on we ploughed. Cattle crossed the roads freely and elephants frequently graced us with their presence on the side of the road. It was most definitely an experience, but as it started to get dark we realised that we were never going to be able to pick up the speed we needed to get to Maun that night. We began scouring the roadside for possible camp spots. There was nothing and it looked like we would have to just drive onto some farmland and hope we didn’t anger some crazed farmer in the process. Darkness was falling fast though and there didn’t seem any appropriate spot.

We should have stopped!

We should have stopped!

According to the map a township called Sehithwa was coming up so we decided to head there in the hope we would find a campsite. Turns out Sehithwa is not much other than some shacks. It was seriously dark now and the road was full of cattle. We were driving at around 2km per hour. We had to call it a day.

So, somewhere between there and Toteng we saw lights for a garage. We pulled in and asked if we could possibly park up somewhere for the night. A couple of phone calls and about ten minutes later a man appeared saying that we could park behind the gas station in his garden. We were ecstatic! Even better, he didn’t seem to want anything for it. As a way of thanks we offered him a couple of beers.

After setting up, he appeared back at the car. The realisation that here were some stupid white people that had got themselves stranded in the middle of nowhere and could be conned had had time to sink in; now he was clearly wanting some money. “Oh you give me pula” He declared. To be honest we weren’t in the mood for a fight, but we only had Namibian dollars and no Pula. He directed us back to the garage, where for not too bad a rate we could exchange some dollars for pula. After some no hassle bartering we managed to settle with £3 and 12 beers to set up for the night. We were gutted about the beers, but luckily had a couple on reserve in the fridge which we hastily knocked back. We had no idea whether we would be attacked and killed overnight; quite frankly we were so exhausted we didn’t care and fell into a deep sleep. Tomorrow we would have to do the same again to get to Moremi!

The next morning before heading on towards Maun. We survived!

The next morning before heading on towards Maun. We survived!

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