We eat more Flavored Maize Snack the next day and get sick again, but we don't eat as much and so we don't get as sick. We decide this spicy maize snack, good a deal as it may be, is not worth the accompanying fevers. We were planning on riding today, but it's hot and a hundred kilometers to the next town, and we decide just to stay here in Gweta and sit in or around the pool instead.
Late in the afternoon, Lauren spots a woman checking into the campground holding a pannier. A pannier is not a very practical piece of luggage for anything but biking, so we guess, correctly, that she must be a traveling cyclist like us. We corner her as she's setting up her tent and introduce ourselves. Her name is Teresie. She's coming from Cape Town, where she's lived for several years, biking all the way to Norway, where she's from. She's traveling in our direction.
A jumble of circumstances have momentarily separated her from her bicycle. It's in Nata, where we'll be headed tomorrow. She'll take the bus back to Nata the following day. We figure our paths will cross again at Elephant Sands, a campsite all of us should be arriving at in a few days' time. From there, the wildlife gets a bit hairy and strength in numbers is probably a good idea. If it all works out, we agree on striking north for Zambia together.
We ride for Nata. Like most of Botswana we've seen, it's a flat and boring ribbon of tarmac cut through dull dry brush. The most exciting things on these long stretches are typically the green steel rectangles of municipal road signs. Against a backdrop of brown and yellow, they're often visible from over a kilometer away, and once spotted, I race toward them with anticipation and burning curiosity. I wonder what this one will say. It's never terribly interesting: either a marker of the distance to the next village or an umpteenth warning to mind the wildlife. But it's just about the only thing to look at and keep the mind moving.
We pedal. We break for lunch. Lauren gets a bug stuck in her ear that has to be removed with needle-nose tweezers. The headwinds are only mild today, and we make it further than expected, all the way to Nata. It's an hour or two until dusk.
We'd tried to meet up with a Couchsurfing host in town, but he's been traveling for months and ended up remaining abroad longer than expected. Kindly, he had sent us directions to his house a little north of Nata and welcomed us to camp in his yard. But we won't have time to stop at the grocery, bike north, and actually find his place before dark. Nor do we want to pay for a campground. After the luxuries of eating in Maun, we keep banging up against our skinny budget.
Instead we opt to ask the folks at the petrol station if we might be safe just camping behind their building, something we'd done back in South Africa without too much trouble. The staff seem hesitant. They say it's not so safe. There may be thieves. They ask the station manager, leaning by the counter, and he mulls it over. It's not safe, he agrees. But if you'd like, you may camp at my home. It's a generous offer. We don't want to trouble him, and ask if he's sure about it, but he says it won't be a problem at all. It's not far, and he's knocking off work at this time anyway. Come with me, he says.
Kesebonye leads us out into the golden hour. We push our bikes along a sandy footpath parallel to the road and turn right into a nearby village. Kesebonye is a quiet, soft-spoken man. He offers a gentle hello to most of the people we pass. Some stare, and the children of the village seem rather baffled to see us. They form a small parade behind us and their numbers grow. They whisper and chuckle to themselves. Lauren asks Kesebonye what the children are saying. In Setswana, he hesitates, it means "white people." They are not used to seeing people like you here.
We move deeper into the village. It's a beautiful, simple collection of modest thatched huts and cinderblock dwellings and a few larger homes. The natural textures glow pink and amber in the fading light of the sinking sun. The sand thickens. The burgeoning procession of giggling children behind us, carrying jerry cans home from the water pump, help us to push our bicycles down the path.
We arrive at Kesebonye's home at the far end of the neighborhood. His wife and two children are seated on the stoop outside. He greets them endearingly and introduces us to the family. They only speak Setswana and we only speak English, but Kesebonye translates when he can and we make do without language when he goes inside to change.
It's getting dark. We can pitch our tent anywhere in the yard, Kesebonye tells us, but there's also a spare room inside that we're welcome to sleep in. At first we decline, really not wanting to be any trouble to this family that's already gone so far out of its way to accommodate us, but he insists. You are my visitors, please.
We set up inside. The family moved to Nata just a few months ago, and the spare room is still unfurnished, but of course it will do just fine. We go about unrolling and inflating our sleeping pads before venturing into the living room to play with the children. Aged four and one, and hopelessly adorable, they're seated on the carpet, entertaining themselves with small emptied tubs of snuff. We join their game, stacking, flipping, and rolling them along the floor.
Kesebonye and his wife enter through the kitchen with two large pails of water, one cold and one steaming. They bring them into our room, followed by an empty washtub, and invite us to bathe. We've grown pretty accustomed to just coping with our filth, and so the gesture is both tremendously generous and really appreciated. We strip down and wash a long day's worth of dust and grease from our bodies.
When we return to the main room washed and refreshed, Kesebonye asks if we'd like dinner. We're now feeling rather like an imposition, having sprung ourselves upon this lovely, unsuspecting family so recently and suddenly, and say we'd be more than happy to cook for ourselves, even share the few potatoes we have stuffed in our panniers with them and the kids. He insists, hoping we'll sample the local Tswana nshima. We agree to make some potatoes but have a little of the family's nshima too.
It's a terrific culinary exchange. A half-hour later, we're all seated on the living room floor with full plates of food. We dig into the nshima, a firm and filling millet meal dipped into a relish of beans, while our hosts nibble at our modest assemblage of boiled potatoes, coconut oil, and spice. The baby chews a little, makes a face, and spits it out.
After a little more conversation and play with the children, we head to bed. Lauren wakes up in the middle of the night with a face covered in blood, a nocturnal nosebleed likely brought on by the dry, dusty conditions we've been cycling through. She cleans her face and we go back to sleep.
In the morning we thank our hosts for everything. We're moved by their generosity and warmth and so happy to have spent the night here, getting to know them, instead of parked behind a gas station maybe or maybe not riddled with thieves. Kesebonye's wife has baked some bread, and the couple kindly sends us off with a bag of rolls for the road.
Northeastern Botswana has the highest density and largest population of elephants anywhere in the world. There are over 130,000 of them here, about one elephant for every seventeen people in the country. The population is healthy and thriving and growing faster than anywhere else (Botswana no longer allows people to kill elephants, and this certainly helps the population grow).
Most of these elephants hang out in Chobe National Park, a bit north of Nata. But much of Botswana is unfenced and elephants don't care much for fences anyway, So they roam. We've seen a few already, and are sure to see many more on the long road to Zambia. We've heard about a campground built up around a waterhole on the way there, a place where these roaming elephants are known to come for a drink and a swim. It's only a few (very sandy) kilometers off the main road, so we decide to spend a few days elephant-watching at Elephant Sands.
Elephant Sands does not disappoint. We cross gargantuan elephant footprints in the sand on the way in. Upon arrival, a massive African elephant is quietly drinking from the waterhole. Throughout the afternoon and evening, dozens more arrive. A small strip of sharp rocks borders the area, uncomfortable for elephants to walk across, and so we watch them bathe and socialize for hours from at least marginal safety just a few meters away.
The elephants don't seem to mind us but also don't seem to enjoy us. They don't like eye contact, and here are a bunch of strange buildings and stranger humans surrounding their waterhole and ogling them as they drink. A few become aggressive, trumpeting and walking right up to the thin barrier separating us and them. They raise their trunks menancingly, and it seems all too clear that if they really wanted to get to us, it wouldn't be too difficult to rush across the sharp stones and wreak havoc.
But mostly, they just talk amongst themselves. They rumble and spar and greet each other by wrapping trunks. They come in from the bush sometimes alone and sometimes as a whole herd, rushing in and waiting around as everyone gets a drink. At night, a dim floodlight casts an eerie glow on their big grey bodies, dozens crowding around the only good drinking water for hectacres.
I hesitate to call this situation truly wild, because there is of course a bit of artifice involved. For one, water is added to the hole during the drier months through a series of pipes and trenches to keep the elephants coming back. Second, viewing the elephants is a rather comfortable affair. From the viewing platform one could order a beer, be served a heaping meal by waited staff, float in the cool waters of a pristine pool, recline in a lounge chair, or sit by the warmth of a nighttime bonfire. And third, these elephants have grown used to humans. They've accepted the ogling for the reliable source of water that comes along with it. They act differently around people than those elephants deeper in the bush.
And yet, these elephants are by no means tame. There are no fences around Elephant Sands; they come on their own accord. They do, indeed, live in the bush. They tolerate humans, but there's little stopping them from retaliating if provoked. Sure, there is some semblance of a safety barrier between the viewing platform and where the elephants stand to drink, but it's less than the reach of an elephant's trunk and not much more than some jagged stones poking up from the ground. And elsewhere in camp, there is no barrier. The pachyderms come in from the bush ambling between chalets and trudging right through the campground. At night, they rummage through the sites for food scraps. They park themselves outside of the bathrooms and dare anyone to pass.
We sleep among them, and it's a terrifying, intermittent slumber. We leave the fly off and wake up regularly throughout the night to enormous, leathery legs stilted just meters from our heads. All of our fellow campers are resting in rooftop tents. We envy their lofty perches and question whether we'll be trampled by morning.
We survive the night. Teresie arrives the next morning, and we watch more elephants and chat with fellow travelers most of the day. We see twenty, thirty, maybe forty elephants. A few elephant babies. We get really close. We spend another frightening night on the floor of our tent.
You'd think elephants walk loudly. You'd think a 6,000-kilogram, 13,000-pound hunk of meat and matter would make some noise as its thick tree-trunk legs carry its weight against the hard earth. When Foley artists dub nature documentaries, approximating all the sounds that can't be captured from afar (one can shoot with a zoom lens, but there's no such thing as a zoom microphone), they're compelled to drop in a little thunder to accompany the visual of an elephant's mighty gait. People expect this. If David Attenborough were narrating a scene of an elephant herd crossing the savannah, close-up of a great leathery pad of flesh crushing the twigs and leaves underfoot, with broad silence behind his words, well, people might think the BBC's microphones were faulty or its sound mixers lazy.
An ambling elephant is a very silent creature. Oddly so. Nature documentarians know this, but have to give the people the boom they expect. And so people see elephants walking on the television and think and hear "loud" and the cycle repeats itself, the myth deepening each time. Those delicate pads on an elephant's feet, the ones that can send and receive messages through the dirt and that are too sensitive to cross a small line of sharp rocks, they're like big couch cushions. They're mostly fat, soft and spongy.
And so sleeping among elephants isn't about hearing thundering tremors, feeling the earth shake around you. It's about an elephant standing right next to your tent and you not realizing it until you open your eyes, or hear its trunk wrap itself around a nearby tree and snap a branch off. It's about knowing they're around, plenty of them, but not knowing precisely where.
In the morning, I head to the counter to pay. Elephant Sands is the most expensive campsite we've stayed at thus far, a full day's budget just for the accommodations, though really well worth it all the same. I greet the owner and say that we have to pay for the past two nights.
"Are you one of the cyclists?" she asks. She's already met Teresie, and she knows there are another few of us heading up toward Kazungula today. I say that I am.
"Well then, you don't owe us anything. We think what you guys are doing is crazy and awesome, and we won't accept your money."
I'm taken aback. Biking around the world is like getting smacked in the face with the sheer force of human generosity, and we're just starting to get used to people doing wonderful things for us as we travel. We've been the grateful recipients of some really genuine kindness these past few months, but most of it has come to us outside of commercial transactions. This is the first time a business won't accept our money (I literally have the pula in my hand) for services we're perfectly satisfied with and happy to pay for.
"Are ... are you sure?" I ask. "Can we pay anything?"
"No, no. Just be safe on this next stretch and have an amazing trip."
Be safe. Be careful. This is what people keep telling us. Whenever we talk to locals, they say we're insane. There are lions here. Murderous elephants. Crazy drivers.
Teresie, Lauren, and I set off. We pass a foot-and-mouth station and the officer peppers us with questions. Where are we going? Where are we staying? Do we have a tent? The road, he says, is "infested with lions." We assuage a few of his fears with the revelation that we have tents, and know of a safe place to stay, and plan to get there before sundown. He waves us through, warily.
We ride north. We pass elephants on the side of the road and elephants crossing the road. I get another flat. Something like my eighth in Botswana, for anyone counting. We don't really want to be stopped here like sitting prey, so I fix it quickly and we continue on. Ten minutes later, Teresie's front wheel goes flat. We stop and fix that too. Lauren, who hasn't gotten a single puncture since the first day of our trip, does just fine.
There is little human life in these parts. For eighty kilometers, we pass no shops, no villages, not much human development at all. Aside from bush camping amongst the lions, the only place for a cyclist to stay is at one of the cell towers between Nata and Pandamatenga.
We'd heard about these towers through the cyclist grapevine. They're fenced off, often with two people maintaining them, alone, for weeks at a time. They're keen for visitors, and used to the very occasional bike tourer stopping by for a secure place to camp.
We make it to the tower just a little before sundown and are welcomed into the comfort of the electrified fence by a friendly pair of Tswana. They invite us to pitch our tents anywhere, ask us if we'd like any water for a bath, and leave us to ourselves as we fire up our campstoves and journey over to the pit toilet. It's an early night.
Botswana remains uncomfortably hot. Each day tops out at around 100 degrees Fahrenheit. The sun is relentless. We start early the next morning and ride for most of the day.
There are more elephants. Some we don't spot until we're passing them. Others we see off in the bush. Around noon, we arrive at a point in the road where a large bull is situated just a hundred or so meters ahead. He's on the opposite side of the road, feasting on some leaves and presumably aware of our presence. But he doesn't really turn to leave. He stares and we stare. We discuss our options.
Option A is to wait for a vehicle headed our direction to pull up and ask if the driver wouldn't mind escorting us along the road acting as our shield. Option B is to start cycling as an oncoming vehicle approaches and just use its bearth as that shield. Option C, of course, is to just go for it. We settle somewhere between B and C. There are no drivers coming our way on the horizon, but a big truck thundering toward us in the other direction. We mash on the pedals and race forward, hoping to meet it right as we're passing the bull.
Our timing is way off. My fault, I'll admit. We cross right by the elephant well before the truck gets there. I eye it in my periphery, watching us. It is no longer chewing. We pedal quickly. Don't make eye contact. Don't look. Don't look.
I look back. The elephant seems distressed. It is having a fit, twisting its head back and forth and flapping its ears. I pedal faster.
Lauren is to my left and Teresie slightly ahead. I look back again. He is moving. He is running. He is charging toward us. "Uhhhh ... he's chasing us," I stammer. "Go. Go. Go!"
Teresie's eyes widen and her cadence quickens. We all start slamming against the pedals and racing forward. I turn my neck and he is still coming toward us, hurtling down the roadside maybe a hundred meters back.
A charging elephant can run forty kilometers per hour. On our loaded bicycles pedaling into a headwind, we can do about twenty at best. If this elephant had decided we were worth his time a few seconds earlier, he would certainly have caught us and mauled us already. Fortunately we have a headstart, though it is dwindling quickly. This is just the very worst situation to be in. The truck is well gone by now. The road is empty, just three small humans on leg-powered steel triangles and one very large, very fast, very mean elephant rushing after them.
Maybe twenty or thirty seconds has elapsed since this chase began. Maybe ten, maybe forty. Time betrays the mind during these situations. I look back and the bull has slowed. He turns, dust kicked up all around him, and heads back toward his tree.
We cycle quickly on a little longer, just for good measure.
We arrive in Pandamatenga, a small but noisy freight town at the Zimbabwe border. It's getting late. We ask the owner of the chaotic little gas station if it'd be okay for us to pitch our tents for the night next to the building. She says it wouldn't be a problem at all; there's overnight security and a safe spot right next to fifty rusty steel cylinders of propane.
We build our shelters, start our fires, and cook. We grab a few groceries from the station shop. I tell one of the security guards about our chase earlier in the day and ask if it was just a mock charge. If the elephant would have just trailed off in the event we had stopped, or he had caught all the way up to us.
He laughs. "No, no." Grin on his face. "He most certainly would have killed you."
It's a noisy night of big idling engines and eighteen-wheelers crunching on gravel and security guards talking boisteriously well into the morning and roosters crowing at dawn. But it's a free and safe place to rest our heads, so we can't complain.
We bike a hundred kilometers. We see more elephants. We cycle our final few hours across Botswana, our home for almost a month, and arrive at the edge of the Zambezi a bit before sundown. We turn into a police compound and, before we can even get the question out of our mouth's, the friendly Batswana officers ask if we'd like to camp at the station. Why yes, that would be great.
There's a spot for us right next to the main building, but we're told to wait until dusk to set up our tents. We cook as boar and baboons shuffle past. The chief of police comes out and inspects us. She asks about our tents. She seems concerned.
She explains that this spot directly opposite the wall of the station is dangerous. There are elephants. We can see them, right now, just across the road. Plenty of them. They've knocked down the fences around the station and regularly roam right outside its doors. Indeed, the fences are still knocked down in several places. Just a few days ago, a Chinese tourist was killed by one of these elephants, a few hundred meters from here, going for a morning walk. She suggests we move our things into the courtyard of the station, and we're eager to do so.
In the morning, we leave Botswana, the third country these little bicycles have carried us across. We cross the Zambezi, and we enter Zambia.