I was wildly excited as we began a challenging road trip from Namibia, through Botswana, to South Africa’s Kruger National Park.
As we left Swakopmund and travelled East towards Windhoek, clouds that had been slowly accumulating over the desert for months finally released a torrent of rain over the gravel plains. Puddles formed in areas of the desert that had been parched and dry. Yellow-billed kites took to the air to hunt, and Abdim’s storks settled in large flocks by the sides of the sand track. The rain washed away sections of the track and at times forced us to make considerable detours to avoid being bogged down. By late afternoon we were passing grassy areas on our way to Botswana, and giant millipedes appeared in their hundreds. We did our best to avoid them as they crossed the road in front of us and disappeared into the vegetation on either side.
That night we reached the Botswana border. Austin was keen to continue driving across Botswana during the night, but we were concerned about the livestock we knew would be roaming free on the roads and which would be impossible to see until it was too late. We decided to stay at the rest camp closest to the border, where we ate a dinner of picnic foods from our cooler and made the best of the tea and coffee facilities. Unfortunately, Austin was unable to sleep at all that night and was still wide awake when my mobile phone’s alarm went off early the next morning. We were worried his tiredness would affect our progress that day. We had to make the South African border by nightfall, as it was simply too dangerous an area in which to sleep in the Suzuki overnight.
We reluctantly left the rest camp shortly after dawn and drove to the Botswana border office. The immigration officers displayed a horribly rude attitude towards us that I had come to expect from some other parts of Southern Africa, but not from officials in Botswana, who were always friendly and tolerant on our previous visits. After we had paid the necessary road tolls and got our passports stamped with entry permits, I went to use the toilet. I used the same toilets the last time we passed through Botswana twelve months earlier, and had found them perfectly serviceable then. This time, they were in a disgusting state. Each toilet bowl was near to overflowing with insects and human excrement, and obviously had not been cleaned in some time. There was no toilet paper, nor hand towels, in the facility. Thankful for the tissues I always kept in my handbag when travelling in Africa, I shut myself in the most tolerable of the stalls and tried to quell the nausea that was building in my stomach. Giant moths alighted on my hair and an enormous spider settled between my feet. I was astonished that anyone could have neglected this place to such an extent, given that it was a necessary facility for everyone passing through the country by road.
When I had finished, I stepped over the spider, shook the moths from my hair, and made my way to the sink. It was filled with dead moths, beetles and spiders that had clogged the drain, which mattered little since there appeared to be no running water. This situation was typical of the deterioration we had seen in many familiar places each time we travelled anywhere in Africa. Facilities were often not looked after but instead left to disintegrate. Apparently, it mattered little to those in charge that the facilities would soon be unusable for visitors. The people running these places seemed to have no concept of preserving things for the future.
The drive across Botswana reminded us how wise we were to have stayed in camp overnight. The road was littered with vehicles that had collided with livestock during the night, the drivers now nowhere to be seen. Many of the unfortunate animals, mainly cows, lay dead at the edge of the road where they fell. It was while glancing at one of these that I became aware of dark shapes moving across the tar. The road was being used by large male dung beetles to transport their perfectly compacted balls of dung. With their heads down, and using their front legs to propel themselves, the beetles would walk backwards using their hindmost legs to push the dung along. Every so often, the beetles would stop rolling their heavy loads across the road and climb on top of the dung balls, apparently to check that they were still heading in the right direction. They would then climb down and continue rolling until they found a suitable place to bury the dung. Should a female dung beetle be impressed with a ball of dung a male gathered, she would lay her egg inside it and the resulting beetle grub would feast on the dung after hatching.
We made excellent progress that day until mid-afternoon, when we came to a roadblock set up by the Botswana police. A stop sign was placed approximately two metres before an area where other vehicles had been stopped and were being checked over by police officers. Austin slowly pulled in behind the last car and joined the cue, only to be ordered to reverse back to the stop sign and enter again for failing to wait for the officer to instruct us to approach. I sighed, realising that this was more about the police exercising their authority than a legal necessity. An officer came to Austin’s window and requested his driver’s licence. Upon finding it satisfactory, he ordered us to get out of the car and to open the doors.
‘We are screening for foot and mouth disease. Do you have any meat or milk in the car?’ the officer asked. We shook our heads truthfully.
‘Have you been near cows?’ he continued. I almost burst out laughing as every road we travelled in Botswana was infested with free-roaming cows, but again we shook our heads. I had never heard of foot and mouth disease being added to the list of known zoonoses.
‘Go over there, please,’ the officer said as he gestured towards a tray filled with a strange milky white substance standing by the side of the road. We were instructed to step into the tray to bathe our shoes, and we were then asked to step into another tray which appeared to contain only water. When we turned around, the same white substance was being sprayed on the tyres of our vehicle and onto the spare wheel mounted on the rear door. Other travellers were asked to hand over their food and we watched as the indigenous Africans who had been writing down number plates at the side of the road began to confiscate and stockpile everything from biltong to flavoured milk and cheese. After conducting a brief search of our vehicle but neglecting to check inside our cooler box, the police officer told us we were free to go.
Implementing such varied measures as these to control foot and mouth disease when cattle roam loose and unchecked throughout the country told me only one thing – the authorities still did not know for certain how the disease was spread. They neglected to spray the disinfecting substance on the parts of our tyres that were in direct contact with the ground, and spraying the spare wheel was a waste of time as it had never come into contact with anything. The shoes we were wearing were disinfected, but not the other pairs that were in full view inside our vehicle. The fact that foot and mouth disease may be an airborne, or droplet, infection did not seem to have occurred to them. Having lost valuable time, we were able to stop even less frequently throughout the late afternoon. The only animals we encountered in our haste were a pair of secretary birds hunting near the side of the road and a tawny eagle perched high in a tree.
To be continued in Chapter 49, in which we reach South Africa and stop at Hartebeespoort Dam Snake and Animal Park for a visit…
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