Our second departure from Zimbabwe in a week came through a decision made just an hour before departure. The previous departure came through due to a day trip to Chobe National Park, but we did return the same day. On this occasion, we did a 180 degree turn (literally!) turning our back on Harara, Malawi and Mozambique and moving west to Botswana and Namibia. The lure of the Okavango Delta, Etosha National Park and the Namib desert was too irresistible despite the relative lack of a public transport infrastructure and the consequent rise in potential tour expenses
It was our intention to get to Maun (Ma-oon) at the foot of the Okavango Delta in a day from Bulawayo (680 km). This would require us to make a quick transfer in the town of Francistown in Botswana that lay just across the border. We learnt that we had to first get to Bellview, a suburb of Bulawayo and get on a shared taxi to get to the border at Plumtree. We got one right away for a reasonable $5 per person fare. Apart from his main duty, the driver also had to take down all the names and passport numbers of passengers exiting Zimbabwe to submit to the officials. After the exit formalities were completed, he had to gather all his passengers and drive the short distance to the Botswana border post to complete his duties.
At the Botswana border post at Ramokgwebana, we saw that our plan to reach Maun that day was completely hopeless. We knew that times were difficult in Zimbabwe but we did not expect a significant Zimbabwean population to be heading to Botswana on a single day. We must say that the crowd was quiet and orderly for the most part. However it got more chaotic as we approached the inner chamber where no one had a clear idea which window was for locals and which one for foreigners. Without warning the official in one window would simply get up and go away causing a mini-riot with those in that queue jamming the next window. This would inevitably elicit a protest from the official behind that window and she would refuse to process any more entries until she sees a single queue in front of her window. It seemed to be a miracle when we eventually got our turn after waiting 3.5 hours. Having been through an insane border crossing (Kazakhstan to Uzbekistan last September) and utter chaos at Dubai airport just the previous week, we have to say that this was a much more bearable experience. But something that we could have done without.
We entered Botswana and were promptly asked to walk over a wet sack that was meant to prevent foot and mouth disease from entering Botswana. We had experienced this procedure earlier in the week during our Chobe day trip. A share taxi bound for the nearby town of Francistown was waiting outside the border post. After waiting another half hour for it to fill up, it departed and reached Francistown by 5 pm. We got off at a completely deserted street with nothing open except for a Bimbo's (coffee shop) and a hotel. We managed to get a room at the hotel and later in the evening, a delicious Chinese meal at Mr. Delicious just outside the hotel. An extremely loud group of Chinese men and women kept up a high decibel level at the restaurant. The Year of the Snake was just a week away and we wished them Gong Hay Fat Choy as they left (much to our relief). They were immediately replaced by a large extended Indian family. They were no competition to the Chinese in terms of decibel level.
The taxi driver who dropped us at the Francistown bus rank the next morning did not have much hopes for a bright future for himself in Botswana. He seemed to be looking for a chance to escape to neighbouring Zimbabwe (!) or Zambia (better idea). We wished him luck before boarding the half-eight (8:30) bus to Maun. This was a long-haul day trip lasting more than 6 hours passing through the towns of Nata and Gweta (which had featured in a Zimbabwean tabloid the previous day on the front page on a story about an exorcism scare with priests working around the clock to contain the conflagration) as well as geographically interesting Makgadigadi and Nxai Salt Pans. The landscape was very different from the one we had encountered on the Victoria Falls-Bulawayo route in Zimbabwe, which had abundant greenery. On this route, it was more desert-like and we could feel the presence of the Kalahari (Kgalakgadi in Botswana) desert nearby.
The bus had a video on board and it played some contemporary music videos from Botswana. A trio of songs by the group Triple-R (featuring young men dressed up as old men conveying their social observations through comical dance moves) were amusing to watch. The two songs, Gaborone Mathata and Banaba Senegeyile, stuck in V's mind for days and he kept asking the good people of Botswana about them.
Maun lies at the edge of the Okavango Delta and is a centre for explorations of the region. We could have got here directly from Chobe National Park a few days earlier but since our decision to travel onward in Botswana was only made in Bulawayo, we had to take the long way there. There are several popular campsites in Matlapaneng, some 10 km east of the town center. These campsites also coordinate tours of the regions several attractions making it easy for the visitor. We stayed one night at the Audi Camp which has a large tree shaded campsite full of birds that made a lot of noise at dawn. The screech of the starlings and the tireless song of the doves will stay in our heads for a long time. The Cape Turtle Dove has a distinct call that seems to exhort its audience to "Drink Lager!". We also encountered the concept of the rooftop tents that seems to be a popular option in Southern Africa.
We enjoyed our stay at the Old Bridge Backpackers which lay on the banks of the Thamalakane river (one of the many arms of the Delta). The cottages are nicely overlaid with leaves and there are several comfortable relaxation spots by the river under shady trees. One can curl up with a book or simply watch the birds and let days go by. The bar and restaurant on site will help preserve the good humor created by the atmosphere.
Google Maps Link
Ahhhh - you touched Maun. Always been evocative since I read the story of Mark and Delia Owens, in their wonderful book, Cry of the Kalahari who live alone in the Kalahari long ago and for whom Maun was their gateway to the Okavango delta.
Amazing your experiences in land border crossings. Just those adventures will fill a book.
Onwards with much expectation of your next post on the Okavango From , on Feb 28, 2013 at 11:32PM