Chapter 31 – Driving Through Botswana

In April of 2008, Austin and I began the 2500km drive to Pretoria in South Africa to attend Austin’s interview with the Australian Department of Immigration as part of Austin’s partner visa application. If granted, the visa would allow Austin to live and work in Australia and we would be capable of spending as much time in Australia as we wished to in the future. The long drive was unavoidable since there was no Australian Consulate in Namibia. We had spent six months compiling all the documents necessary for the application, most of which centred on proving that our relationship was genuine. It was not unheard of for Australian citizens to be offered money by people from overseas to accept a marriage of convenience for the period of time it took to bring them into Australia, something which the Australian Department of Immigration had become expert at ferreting out. Some of the documents, such as our full marriage certificate, had to be obtained from Namibian government departments located 400km from Swakopmund in the city of Windhoek, and on the rare occasion that someone there answered the phone, we were often met with extremely rude administrators who cared nothing for our situation and were of no help to us at all. More than once these administrators lost our paperwork and we were forced to apply for the individual documents we needed all over again. When we did finally manage to obtain all the documents, we then spent another two months waiting to hear whether Austin would progress to the interview stage for his Australian visa. During Austin’s visa processing for Australia, we were also trying to obtain my temporary residence permit for Namibia that would allow me to remain in the country for more than three months at a time, all the while dealing with the same disastrous Namibian government offices. It was an extremely stressful time, but we felt that we were making progress towards our goals now that an interview had been granted for Austin’s Australian visa application.

We decided to drive the little Fiat Uno to South Africa, which was much more fuel-efficient than the huge four-wheel drive Mazda. We knew the drive would take us a couple of days, and we left with plenty of supplies and prepared to sleep in the car each night in case we didn’t find a camp site.

On the first day of our trip, we drove across Namibia and spent the night in a rest camp located a very short distance from the Botswana border, deciding it would be safer to stop and travel Botswana throughout the next day. Crossing Botswana during the night would have been extremely dangerous as livestock such as cattle, donkeys and goats were not fenced in and roamed freely on the roads. They were often totally obscured by thick bush on either side of the roads, and when they decided to cross, they frequently caused accidents. When beef cattle weighing hundreds of kilograms collide with a vehicle, the outcome isn’t good!

Dung beetles. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Dung beetles. Photo by Austin J Stevens

The rest camp was full of dung beetles, which were about five centimetres long. Each beetle had a rounded body, powerful legs, and was jet black in colour. They moved like robots, raising their legs in an exaggerated fashion, and when they fell over onto their backs, they promptly righted themselves again and continued on their way. A couple floundering on their backs seemed to be having a bit of trouble with this, so I picked them up and set them on their feet again.

Our accommodation for the night consisted of four concrete walls with a tent over it serving as a roof, and a concrete floor. The room had two small beds and a plastic chair inside, and it felt great to be able to stretch out on the beds after twelve hours of travelling. The rest camp was full of giant armoured ground crickets, also known as ‘goks,’ but unlike our colourful Namib Desert goks, these ones were entirely black. We had to walk from our little hut to an ablution block to use the toilet, and we narrowly avoided stepping on the goks in the darkness. Goks have long legs that carry them high off the ground, and they made us laugh whenever we passed them as they tried to move away from us without lifting their feet. They leaned back as far as possible until they seemed about to fall over, and then they gave a warning chirp as we walked by. Some of the goks took to resting on the tyres of our car, and they hung there for hours.

We were up at dawn and ready to leave half an hour later after a breakfast of tea and a rusk. The Botswana border post was home to more goks than customs officials, and everyone at the border post did their best not to cause the goks injury. After filling out forms, getting our passports stamped, and paying various road taxes and tolls for our vehicle, we were permitted entry into Botswana.

The long road across Botswana was a scene of total carnage! We had travelled only thirty kilometres from the border when we saw a small car being towed. The entire bonnet and windshield had been crushed in, with the main depression in the centre. Then as we drove a little further, we saw two large, dark shapes lying across the road in front of us. They were two of the largest cows I had ever seen, with enormous horns and brown coats. Both cows were dead, and from the unnatural angle of their heads in relation to their bodies, I was quite sure their necks were broken. I figured the driver of the towed vehicle was probably not in much better shape. It was only just light, and this accident had obviously occurred during the night. Austin informed me accidents like this were so commonplace here that we could expect to come across many more such scenes over the course of the day, and he was right.

We drove all day, frequently having to slow down to allow donkeys and cows to cross the road in front of us. The only wildlife we had seen was a group of ostriches. Then five or six hours from the border, and hundreds of kilometres from civilisation, we reached an area of particularly dense bush and saw magnificent vultures circling above the right side of the road. We pulled over to take some photos of them as they landed in the trees, and that was when we saw the blood. A large pool of it was drying by the side of the road, and there were bloody drag marks leading into the bushes. On closer inspection, we found the body of a donkey that had been hit by a car on the roadside, and then been dragged into the bushes and feasted on by hyenas. The hyenas had exposed much of the donkey’s rib cage and entrails, and the vultures were then able to gain access to the carcass.

White-backed vulture. Photo by Austin J Stevens

White-backed vulture. Photo by Austin J Stevens

Austin took some photos of the vultures that were perched atop a nearby tree, and I noticed a white car in the grass further down the road. There were black tyre tracks on the road that showed the car had veered off at speed. It was empty, and the driver’s side door was open, indicating that the driver may have survived the crash and continued on foot. The front of the car was damaged, so the vultures appeared to have the owner of that vehicle to thank for their meal. Austin’s mobile phone had no signal in such a remote area, and there was no one to call to report the accident to regardless, so we drove on.

We hardly stopped at all during the drive across Botswana, and we made such good time that day that by late afternoon, we were crossing the South African border. We would normally have travelled with a firearm for protection when undertaking overnight trips in remote areas, but we had brought nothing besides Austin’s nunchaku as we were anticipating a search of our vehicle at the border. As it happened, none of the seemingly poorly trained officials could be bothered with us.

We drove across South Africa as the sun set, and shortly after nightfall we saw bright green eye shine reflected in our headlights. As Austin slowed the car, an African wild cat slinked across the road in front of us. It had a long tail with a rounded tip, and that was the last we saw of it as it disappeared into the grass. It was probably hunting the nightjars and small mammals that were active at that time.

The South African roads were not in much better condition than the Botswana roads, but for a different reason. Large, deep potholes were barely visible in the dark until we were right on top of them, and Austin exhibited great skill in avoiding the ones that would have sent us flying off the road. Eventually though, our right front wheel hit a deep hole with a jarring thud, and Austin swerved masterfully to avoid the next one. We didn’t realise it at the time, but we had a hole in our break pipe at the rear of the vehicle that was leaking brake fluid, and by the time we reached the town, our brakes were not responding at all. We coasted through and phoned Dave, Austin’s contact at the Kwena Gardens Crocodile Sanctuary at Sun City Resort. Dave took us in and his colleague Krystal set us up in a luxurious chalet on the grounds of the Sanctuary. While Dave made arrangements to have our car seen by a mechanic, we enjoyed our first showers since leaving home a couple of days earlier.

White-backed vultures in Botswana. Photo by Austin J Stevens

White-backed vultures in Botswana. Photo by Austin J Stevens

To be continued in Chapter 32, when we wake up surrounded by crocodiles…

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