It begins in the Angolan highlands, where the clouds scrape against the peaks of Mount Moco and the Serra da Chella. Rain falls and rain gathers. It collects itself into creeks and streams. It chases gravity through the mountains. It arrives at a plateau, and here one stream joins another. The waterways meld; they become tributaries. The Cuito. The Cubango.
They rush forth. There are more rains and more motion and a great confluence where a river is born. The Angolans call it the Kubango. To the Batswana, it's known as the Okavango. For a thousand kilometers the river carves its way through the earth. It crosses Namibia. It enters the Kalahari.
Rivers seek the sea, and the Okavango River is no exception. But the Karas Mountains of Namibia and the tall jagged ranges of Angola and Zambia force the water east, inland, away from the Atlantic and deep into the flat, sweltering sands of northwestern Botswana. Each year, ten cubic kilometers of precipitation arrives here at the Okavango Basin, a thousand meters above sea level. With nowhere to go, it rests. It fans out in all directions, still and stagnant, irrigating what has become one of the largest freshwater deltas in the world.
Across the basin live two hundred thousand large mammals. The elephant. The buffalo. Hippos, wildebeest, giraffe, baboons. Lions and cheetah, leopards and hyena, kudu and rhinoceroses. Plenty more, accompanied by over four hundred species of bird, abundant flora, and four hundred thousand other animals like crocodiles and snakes. The water demands to sustain this ecosystem are immense, and for most of the year, the Okavango Delta provides the only reliable source in the region. As such, it is a wildlife haven, a living sanctuary. Africa's declared it one of its seven natural wonders; UNESCO named the wetlands its one thousandth World Heritage Site.
At the edge of the Okavango marsh is the town of Maun. It has received no accolades of note. There's little remarkable about it. In popular culture, it was briefly featured during the seventh leg of the twenty-second installment of The Amazing Race. It is a dusty, crowded place, a clump of approximately sixty thousand humans orbiting the epicenter of Botswana's burgeoning tourism industry. It is the gateway to the Okavango. With its small airport and ample petrol stations and ambitious safari outfits, it is the place you pass through en route to that other place.
This is the way people describe Maun to us as we near it. But they can't knock us down. We are positively elated. We are thrilled to be arriving and eager for all of it. Maun may not be much, but it is the largest cluster of civilization we've seen since departing Cape Town two months ago. It may be overridden by cows and donkeys and mosquitoes, but there are at least three Indian restaurants. There's a bike shop. And grocery stores, in the plural. We couldn't ask for much more.
At the very start of our trip, we'd been hosted by the most wonderful group of people in Muizenberg, South Africa. They'd put us up for a few days and treated us to an incredible overnight in a car-less, road-less little village on the beach, and we'd cherished the time with the four of them: Meg and Steve, our hosts, and Chris and Beckie, their terrific housemates. Beckie, a conservation biologist studying vultures, splits her time between Muizenberg and Maun. Before we'd left, we'd exchanged information and she told us to drop her a line when we were approaching Botswana.
We did. Unfortunately we've been moving more slowly than originally expected, and our see-you-in-mid-August turned into a perhaps-we'll-get-there-by-early-September. In the time since we'd left the Cape, Beckie had driven back to Botswana, likely done several weeks of raptor research, and flown off to the United Kingdom for some time with family. Upon our arrival on September 1, we'd missed her by just a few days.
We told her we were sorry not to see her and asked if, while we were in Maun, were there any accommodations she'd recommend? Well, she said, let me check with my housesitter. If it's not a problem with her, you're welcome to stay at my place.
Messages are sent and details are exchanged and it turns out that Linda, the housesitter, is happy to have us over. You can stay as long as you'd like, she writes us.
We're touched by the generosity of these two women and excited to spend time with at least one of them. There's the soft bed and the hot shower and the standing kitchen to look forward to, sure, but during our travels we've found that it's typically the human connection that rejuvenates us best. If Linda's willing to put up with us for a week, we're happy to stay a week.
We meet Linda at the gate of Beckie's shady compound and we're warmly welcomed into the house. We spend some time getting to know her and learning of the circumstances that brought her to Botswana. She's American, like us, and we quickly realize that she's neither an expat nor a Motswana immigrant, but a traveler on vacation for just a few weeks' time. She tells us all about the global housesitting community she's a part of, of the many websites now helping to pair people having homes, animals, and somewhere to be with those, like Linda, willing to look after things while they're gone.
Recently retired (and with a pilot son conferring discounted airfare to the whole family), Linda had created a tremendous life for herself. Several times per year, she'll snag a great housesitting gig somewhere in the world she'd like to go, grab an airline ticket for next-to-nothing to get her there, and spend a few weeks with a free place to stay. Of course there are accompanying responsibilities: feeding the animals, cleaning the pool, keeping everything tidy and secure, but to a pair of rough travelers like us, who've spent seventeen of the last thirty-one days sleeping in the bush, this housesitting thing sounds mightily appealing.
Before Linda leaves Botswana, she'll head into the delta and the national parks of the north for some adventure and wildlife watching. But until then, she's alone in town for about two weeks, and assures us she'd love the company.
And so we settle in. The three of us spend days talking, cooking, and driving into town. Beckie and her partner have two dogs; we pass several mornings walking with them through the nearby bush. We try one of those Indian restaurants and it's delicious. Almost every evening we head to a local riverfront bar for a beer while watching the sun set. We drink copious amounts of tea, reduce our dependence on peanut butter, and sleep soundly. We do laundry and play cards. My front tire, which developed a slow leak on the way to Maun, is now fully flat, and I don't even bother changing it during the first six days we're in town. The bikes gather dust as our bodies heal.
With nowhere to drain, the wetlands of the Okavango rise. Sixty percent of the freshwater is transpired upward by the plants of the marsh, the boggy trees and the thick reeds. Almost all the rest evaporates under the blazing Kalahari sun. The delta is not humid by global standards, but compared to the arid deserts whence we've come, there's a definite heaviness to the air. Though we can't see the Okavango directly, we can feel its weight from Maun. It's close, less than ten kilometers as the crow flies. We're seated at the very edge of this great wondrous swamp.
But this is the closest we'll get. The Okavango is not for people like us, bicyclists on a budget. For one, there is the matter of surface. A swamp is not a friendly place for a bicycle, a swamp riddled with hungry crocodiles and territorial hippos even less so. There are no roads through the Okavango; it must be crossed by boat or by plane. And with less than two meters of elevation change across the wide floodplain, there is little terra firma.
Now, there is one spot that rises above the reeds and the muck. If one could manage to cross the thick marsh, forge north through fifteen kilometers of murky, precarious waters, they might arrive at the shallow shores of Chief's Island. Here the ground underfoot would be dry, and the wildlife viewing exceptional.
But then there is the matter of finance. The Okavango is unlike anything else in the world, they say. And so visitors will travel from anywhere else in the world to see it. The demand for space on this small island is immense. Everyone is willing to pay, and some are willing to pay more. Some are willing to pay quite a lot.
At the rustic Duba Plains, a shared tent will cost you $1,495 per person, per night. The nearby Mombo Camp, featuring more spacious shelters, runs for $2,577. The most exclusive of the Okavango's luxury lodges can charge up to $4,000 per individual, each evening. And, mind you, that's with a three-night minimum stay. A weekend getaway to the delta might cost a privileged couple upwards of $24,000. Our plan, meanwhile, is to scrape by on just over $7,000 for this entire year of travel. Even the cheapest of the Okavango's offerings could swallow two months' worth of our budget in a single night.
We cannot cross the swamp and we cannot afford the swamp. And so we spend our days loitering at the entrance booth, the gateway to the Okavango, this little place called Maun. And truth be told, we still manage to have an absolutely wonderful time. There are no zebras, but there's plenty to enjoy all the same.
It's a pleasure getting to know Linda. We empty bottles of wine over long conversation and prepare terrific meals over Beckie's six-burner stove. Linda treats us to drinks one afternoon at a local cafe; another day, she buys us lunch. On our last evening in Maun, the three of us head back to the Indian restaurant we'd tried a week earlier for a fantastic dinner. As a really generous parting gift, she insists on paying the bill. Later, she sneaks a snack bar into my pannier while I'm not looking, for some energy once we're back on the road.
We leave Maun, eight days after arriving, well-rested and well-fed. We say a sad farewell to Linda and the dogs, spend a few wobbly moments remembering how to steer our loaded bicycles, and carry on east into the heat and the wind. Both have worsened during our stopover. The temperature is nearly one hundred degrees Fahrenheit, that point where a body cannot cool itself against the ambient air and really begins to suffer. Gusts of hot air surge from the east, slowing our progress.
Before leaving, I'd patched that slow leak in my front tire. We're fewer than twenty kilometers outside of Maun before a tiny scrap of metal in the shoulder of the A3 lodges itself into the rear one. With a groan, I stop, drag my bicycle into the sand, remove all its bags, flip it over, and get to work replacing the back tube.
My body is baking in the midday sun. As I work, sweat drips from my forehead, shoulders, and arms. Flies flock to them for the water and the salt. They land on my face, my lips, my nose. Sand sticks to everything, and it's near impossible to keep the gritty soil away from the tire and the fresh tube. I'm frustrated, and I handle the tire levers aggressively as I work to reseat the firm tire walls inside the rim. In my haste, the edge of a lever catches against the tube itself. I pull, and a whoosh of air escapes from the new tube, now useless with a wide gash torn into its side.
It's only taken one hour to go from clean, laundered, rested, and happy to filthy, covered in dirt, exhausted, and annoyed. The day is only growing hotter, and here we are making no forward distance, tearing up our few precious, imported tubes on the side of the highway. I take a breath and give the tire another try. I unseat it, again, remove the tube, again, swap in a patched one, again, give it a few pumps of air, again, and work the tire back into the rim once more, this time handling the levers with a little more care. The tire pops back on, and Lauren begins to pump air into its cavernous two-inch diameter as I reattach the wheel to the bicycle. Filling the tube with air using a miniature pump takes almost as much time as all the preceding steps put together.
We're off, again. We ride in spite of the weather and forge east in spite of the wind. We drink plenty, refilling our bottles wherever we can. At one point, a kind family stops their car to offer us some ice water from the cooler in their trunk.
We cycle all day. It's after 4PM when we cross a police checkpoint on the road. The sun will be setting in under two hours, and this is not a part of Botswana one wants to be when the sun goes down. That is when the bush comes alive, when the elephants get to roaming and the lions wake to hunt. But until then, there is just a bit of reprieve from the heat. There is a brief golden hour where the sun isn't so strong and the lighting quite pretty and the cycling conditions a bit more tolerable. It's a great time to make some distance.
Four policemen are seated at this checkpoint. It's a foot-and-mouth stop, an inspection station to control the spread of cattle-borne disease. No meat can travel east of this line, and these individuals are charged with enforcing that bovine barrier. But also, they're police officers trying to keep the area safe. They ask us where we're headed tonight and where we plan to sleep.
We tell them the bush. The bush is where we sleep most nights, in the modest shelter of a nylon tent tucked away in the thorny brambles off the side of the road. They do not think this is a very good idea. There are elephants here. Lions, even. They really insist we don't continue on until morning. If we'd like, we're welcome to camp in the safety of their compound, just within the fences on the other side of the road.
Lauren and I look at each other. We look at the sun. It's still high enough above the horizon to get a few dozen kilometers in, to be a few dozen kilometers further across Botswana by morning. And it's cooling off. It'd be such a shame to waste these precious hours of reasonable temperatures just sitting around. But then again, it's best not to be too reckless. Camping in the bush would probably be just fine, but here is a safe, free spot we've been invited to use. We accept, and pitch our tent next to a row of a dozen canvas tents used by the Batswana police.
A deciding factor in the decision to call it a day is my tire. The front one, this time. I'd noticed a few hours ago that it was beginning to lose pressure. It wasn't flat, but it would be soon. It seems to have sprouted another slow leak since fixing it yesterday in Maun. It could probably have made it another few hours down the road, but this fenced compound seems a safer place to go about fixing it. And so for the third time today, and the fourth time in two days, I change the tube. I remove the old one, find the tiniest of thorns hiding inside the interior wall of the tire, and feed a patched tube back into the space between the rubber of the tire and the aluminum of the rim. I reseat the tire, reinflate the tube, and reaffix the wheel to the bicycle.
We leave early and bike hard. We ride toward something that appears to be a donkey but turns out to have stripes. It's a zebra! It's not altogether different than a donkey, but after passing roughly one thousand donkeys during our time in Botswana, its an exhilarating change.
Down the road, we pass another zebra. This one isn't as lucky as the first one, at least in the sense that it is no longer alive. It's swarmed by vultures that disperse as we near. When we dismount our bicycles to inspect the carcass, because curiously inspecting roadside animal carcasses is a thing we now do, we find that they've disemboweled the zebra, by the looks of it only recently dead, and also rather grimly eaten its eyeballs. It's a grisly sight.
Not more than five hundred meters up the road from the second zebra is a herd of elephants. Alive, this bunch. There are perhaps fifteen of them crossing the asphalt. A few walk adorably single-file, one's trunk wrapped around another's tail. We're rather far from them, but they appear massive on the horizon.
Elephants are truly wondrous creatures. Of course, they're the largest land mammal, and this makes them thrilling and humbling, and yes, they're rather cute with their enormous, flapping ears and dextrous, leathery trunks. But what makes the elephant truly remarkable is its sheer intelligence. Keep in mind that the elephant brain weighs over twelve pounds, four times that of an average human. The elephant brain has as many neurons as a human's. At birth, an elephant's brain is only one-third developed (by comparison, a human's is one-quarter), while most other mammals are born with a brain over ninety percent developed. This means that elephants, like humans, learn a great deal throughout their lifetimes. They have societies and they have culture.
They have language, too. Only a quarter of an elephant's vocalizations, all that rumbling and trumpeting, can be heard by the human ear. The rest falls outside of our audible spectrum. And then there's this: in addition to the noises elephants can and do make to communicate with one another, they also relate sub-sonically. In a manner we're still puzzling to comprehend, they send each other tremors that can be felt and understood kilometers away through the incredibly complex and sensitive pads on their feet.
Elephants mourn when their relatives die. They cry with actual tears. They can break down sobbing when anguished, and they can remember faces for decades, and they appear to recognize distinct human languages. They use tools and unlock locks and understand that an electric fence can be disarmed by smashing the generator that powers it. They're regarded as the only animal other than the human to hold grudges and exact revenge. They do not have opposable thumbs, and we interpret their consequent inability to shape earth's minerals into architecturally-precise polyhedrons as proof of their intellectual inferiority to us, but by all object measures, Loxodonta africana may very well be a smarter, wiser, more thoughtful being than homo sapiens sapiens.
The Batswana respect the elephant and fear the elephant. We're warned repeatedly not to bush camp where elephants roam. And so on our second day crossing central Botswana, we pull into the entrance gate of the Makgadikgadi Pans National Park.
There are two gates, really. We hop off our bikes to open the first one, a thick steel panel several meters high topped with barbed wire. Two hundred meters up the road is a second gate, taller still, with beams and rebar anchoring it deep into the ground. It's security reminiscent of Jurassic Park, a small sliver of safety from the beasts north of the first gate and south of the second gate.
Between these gates is a cluster of staff houses and an empty visitors' center. There are campgrounds deep in the park, a few dozen kilometers south of here, but we're not here for the wildlife. Just a safe spot to set up a tent for the night. We ask the friendly woman in the visitors' center if it'd be alright to camp anywhere within these two gates. She invites us to set up near the mechanic's garage. It's just a slab of concrete next to a tractor, but there's a roof offering some shade and a tap to fill our bottles and no easy way for animals to cause trouble for us during the night. There's even a working toilet nearby.
As Lauren begins cooking up a heap of potatoes, I go about unseating my front tire because, unbelievably though perhaps at this point predictably, I have yet another flat. The patch on the tube I'd inserted yesterday didn't seem to hold. And so I do it all again, my fifth tube swap in three days.
They're peaceful creatures, elephants. They spend most of their days drinking water, eating grass, and cooling themselves in a favorite watering hole. They don't want much of anything from humans.
Unfortunately, there's a lot we want from them. We want their meat for food, their tusks for carvings, their silly ears and ambling gait for cheap laughs and passing entertainment. For decades, for centuries, we have hunted them, killed them, dismembered them. We've torn apart their societies and locked individuals in zoos and circuses. Thomas Edison literally electrocuted an elephant to death to demonstrate how dangerous a competitor's brand of electricity could be. The people of Tennessee once lynched an elephant. Seriously, lynched. As in, tied a chain around its preponderance of neck and hanged it from a crane. In conflict zones of eastern Africa, militias have tossed grenades into the middle of elephant herds to kill what they could and sort out the pieces later.
Slowly, we're getting better. Circuses have been pressured to send their elephants to sanctuaries. Zoos have begun to phase out their elephant exhibits on the grounds that it is simply inhumane to put something so large and smart in cages so small and dull. The world has finally begun to confront the perils of poaching. We're no longer playing out our capital punishment fantasies on unwitting pachyderms. But still, culling is a thing one can do. One can still pay an obscene sum of money to fly to Africa, be handed a rifle and driven into the bush, and fire bullets at one of the world's most majestic and longest-living creatures in the hopes that killing something so big, strong, and significant will make the individual pulling the trigger feel less small, weak, and insignificant.
An elephant's life doesn't end with its death. Elephants live in societies with collective memory and the rare capacity to mourn. When an elephant is killed and its family flees into the bush, they bring a very human-like trauma with them. They remember. Some elephants, like some humans, suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. Those in captivity, in zoos and circuses, have been known to kill themselves and their young. They've been recorded sobbing, quite uncontrollably, tears streaming from their eyes. Young elephant bulls, scarred from watching their mothers slaughtered and without anyone to teach them, have taken to raping and killing rhinoceroses. They've taken to killing each other. And they've turned their tusks on us, too.
In Uganda, elephants have organized retaliatory raids on villages, charging in, trampling fields, and smashing huts. Elsewhere, they've created road blockages and flipped any car daring a pass. In an overcrowded India where they're being pushed further into the hinterlands, they're killing over a hundred people per year. Locked in zoos and circuses, where they're at their most unstable, they regularly kill their handlers. They can break a human spine with one slap of a trunk, gore or trample a person without much effort at all.
On our ride through Nxai Pan National Park the following morning, we see them up close. One at first, just twenty meters off the road, nibbling on some branches. For such gargantuan creatures, they blend quite well into the drab grey of the bush. Then a second, even closer. And a third, perhaps thirty meters back. On our little bicycles, we're dwarfed by their stature and frightened by their proximity.
Botswana outlawed trophy hunting of its elephants less than five years ago, preferring tourists shoot them with cameras instead of guns. And within the shorter part of a decade, while a strange sort of interspecies chaos rages in other parts of the world, elephant-Batswana relations have improved considerably. The elephants of Botswana aren't as hostile to humans as they once were.
The elephants spot us, turn around, and walk away.
We make it to Gweta and find a campground. We've eaten virtually nothing all day, and the options at the village shop are sparing. We buy a two-liter bottle of Coke and, for just twenty pula, an absolutely massive sack of "flavored maize snack" that could be most likened to off-brand spicy Cheetos. In under an hour, we finish the Coke and make a frankly disgusting dent in the waist-high bag of flavored maize snack.
I head to bed early. I'm not feeling so well, perhaps because we biked seventy kilometers in dangerous temperatures, ate nothing the whole time, drank a fair bit of tepid, perhaps dodgy, water, then suddenly filled our bodies with substances that could hardly be called food. By the time I walk from the pool to the tent, I'm stumbling. My limbs feel weak, head heavy, sweat suddenly coating my skin and glistening in the sulphurous glow of the overhead lamps. I lie on the tent floor and begin eating everything within my reach. I make a bowl of cold oats and shovel it into my mouth. I eat slices of bread plain. I have a half-sleeve of Oreos I'd been saving for the ride tomorrow, but consuming them all right now seems like something my life depends on.
Lauren arrives fifteen minutes later in a similar condition. Lacking the energy to blow up her sleeping pad, she rests on the hard ground. She tucks into the rest of the bread as we mumble at each other. We arrive at a consensus: blame the Flavored Maize Snack.
And then, quite and suddenly ill, we go to sleep.