Whilst I had no meat left, I still had a fair bit of Ladysmith cheddar cheese, carted all the way from Cape Town. I didn’t fancy the idea of losing it, and when two other Land Rover drivers at the border check point suggested I stick it anywhere other than in the fridge, I decided to follow their advice. They were right because the guy in leather jacket and dark shades ambushed me on my way to the vehicle: he wanted to search. I had a quiet chuckle to myself because he wasn’t tall enough to see inside the fridge, and had to climb up onto the tailgate to get a better look. Sure enough – no meat or dairy products inside and I was duly allowed to proceed.
The first thing you notice on the road south to Maun from Namib is the wildlife. Actually, not wild but rather domesticated cows and donkeys. You wonder who they belong to and how do they keep track of them? And then the potholes start. It makes for a hairy ride and you simply have to slow down. After a fashion, you recognise behaviours: goats are unpredictable, so you slow and poise for evasive action; cows are fine and you can tell when they’re ready to cross; donkeys don’t move, at all. In fact, I stopped alongside one who stubbornly refused to move out of the road, wound the window down and slapped him on his arse. Ever so slightly alarmed, he kicked into a trot and hobbled off into the grass.
At some stage, I told myself, I should stop and get the cheese out from under my seat and put it back in the fridge. However, I had 400km to cover in 4 hours and kept pushing. It was a good thing too, because an hour further on I ran into a “foot ‘n mouth” disease control point. This official too, wanted to look in my fridge and having done so and found nothing but beer, cider,wine and ice, he bade me safe passage. I arrive on the outskirts of Maun just before last light and select “Back to the Bridge Backpackers Lodge” on my list of lodgings from the GPS. It is one of the last on the North-eastern side of Maun and when I arrive, they have space. Situated on the edge of the river, the bar has the usual suspects congregated in their post-work positions. I would get to know this over the course of the next couple of days. ‘Rainer’, the offensive German, is already sloshed and being offensive, Tom the IT man is behaving with his normal antics that has everyone in stitches, the paramedic is buying ‘springbok’ shooters for unwary backpackers and the two bush pilots are doing their best to chat up any new potentials. Josh and another bush -guide do the same, but with more aplomb.
I meet ‘Mace’, a kiwi doing the ‘africa’ thing. Unlike me, he is carrying his belongings on his back and catching lifts or public transport wherever possible. He says it has been an interesting ride from Joburg to Maun, on buses packed with people that have luggage loaded on the roof that includes cages of chickens! Welcome to Africa. We do whiskey and converse a little, explaining our reasons for the time out to do the travelling, what we hope to achieve and experience. July can still be cold and inevitably we are drawn to the circle of fire, which is fed by the ‘Back to the Bridge’ staff, and meet others also on their treks.
The following day, Mace and I check out Maun, find a new sim card for the phone and eat chicken at Nando’s. The main road is packed with vehicles: 4x4s, of all types; lodge and motel people-carriers obviously fetching clients for safaris; safari vehicles packed with ‘germans’ and their cameras, new hi-tec boots and floppy hats. Unlike South Africa, where people just cross streets whenever, here in Maun they use the zebra crossings. It appears that motorists are quite disciplined and obey, duly allowing pedestrians over. In fact, so well established is this that even Maun’s goats line up to cross over to the other side of the road. And Maun’s motorists stop for them too. Makes you wonder about the dogs though. For all their supposed intelligence, they still cross willy nilly, causing drivers to brake heavily, and as the week passes by, so increases the number of dead dogs on the roadside.
Having got myself a new sim card, in order to have contact with one’s nearest and dearest, it didn’t work. The power in northern Botswana was down, and would be for days. I’d unfortunately bought the wrong service provider – Mascom – because Orange was still working. Terry was unamused. And so people congregated in the Bridge bar again because the generator was up and running, the food slightly behind and the beer flowing.
Having seen so much game recently, I opt for something else. The Netetwe Salt Pans just south of Gweta call – haven’t done any Salt Pans. I also realise that once Terry lands in Maun on the 16th, a two hour trip there would reduce travel time. So I pop into Gweta Lodge for a recce and provisional booking. I meet Terry (this time a man) who owns the place and Carol who manages it. I find myself eating breakfast and conversing with Terry about microlights! Terry is an englishman, who has been in africa 30 years and not lost a bit of his northern english accent. Travelling south to Chapmans Boabab, the roads become quite tough and I lower the tyre pressures by 25%. Works a treat. Eventually I make it out onto the salt pans where I bury the throttle and get up to 140 kph. Fantastic. I can’t help notice the elephant dung though, which raises a flag: Terry had talked about flying out onto the plains with a bed-roll and sleeping under the microlight’s wing- because no animals went out onto the salt pans. But here it was – elephant dung. And fresh.
A little further on, I catch up with the elles. I hadn’t expected to, but they were actually on the track, which you shouldn’t venture off for danger of getting stuck in the mud – literally. The elles are clearly unamused to find me intruding. They gather together and set off as fast as they can – which is surprisingly quick. I snap off a few shots with the Nikon, attempt to get round them to get head on shots but they evade me, changing direction. Conscious I am unsettling them, I drive off. Later, in the middle of the pans, where I can see nothing but white desert pans for miles, I sit on the RR bonet and drink an ice cold beer from my fridge. It is a great feeling. Back at the Bridge, I catch up with Terry – from Gweta – and tell him about the elles.