Beyond the caged cities - an exploration of Botswana
Updated: Apr 20
Travel holds within it a power words are unable to express. It opens your mind not only to the different landscapes, people, and animals that inhabit our earth, but also to the various ways of living on this abundant planet. From noticing the contrasts between home and other worlds, we are able to unearth perspectives we have not yet unveiled in our own minds.
We packed our bags in the trunk, chose the seats that were to be our positions for the next 12 hours, and bid the comfort of our home farewell. As the sun’s rays beckoned from the horizon, we took to the suburban streets, watching the city awaken as we fled to our escape. We observed the terrain take a gentle turn as we glided across the tar, twisting and turning until we arrived at the border station. After a long, dreary wait for acceptance to cross the imaginary line splitting country from country, we were officially in Botswana, the land of vast escarpments and the home to magnificent creatures and fascinating foliage.
Our first stop – Nata. As we approached, we watched the number on the thermometer rise, laughing from the safety of our air conditioned cars. But when we left this succour, the boiling air of 42 degrees slapped our faces and curdled our blood. After slightly acclimatising to our environment, we enjoyed an evening of nourishment and broad smiles. The next morning, as soon as the sun peeked over the horizon, we were up and revving for what was to come. The Nata salt pans were luring us into its mystery.
With wisps of clouds forming into a bombardment of white tufts above us, we admired the expanse of open grasslands. Besides from the shrubbery and trees jotted here and there, the land was seemingly barren. We passed puddles that entertained many birds, admiring their reflections in the water. We continued on our mission, spotting a male ostrich leaping from where he sat. Peering a little closer, we laid witness to his precious eggs. The ranger informed us that ostriches sprint from their nests in the presence of danger to confuse the predator, leaving the whereabouts of the eggs unknown.
Other animals that lurked about were wildebeest, tortoises, bustards, marabou storks, and more flamingos than I have ever seen before. Migrating from South Africa and Namibia, these strikingly pink, long-legged birds tap their feet to scatter crustaceans, algae, and brine to the surface for them to munch on – giving them their fluorescent hue. Huddling together, they perform a graceful dance next to the dunes. A strip of bright pink flashes between the water and the clouds, a kaleidoscopic brush of nature.
Finally, the escarpment transforms itself. From white and brown thickets of grass to a cracked desolate land, we approached the salt pans. Animals sightings became scarce as we peered towards the horizon, the dry surface of a crusted landscape continuing on for miles. No water. No food. No man’s land. But oh, how the stars must glitter over this infertile paradise.
After a steaming cup of coffee on the salt pans, we made our way back to the lodge, winding through the shrubbery and trying to decipher animal tracks embedded in the sand. We passed a baobab tree of magnificent magnitude. Staring at it with awe in our eyes, our ranger informs us that the crack in its centre is an indicator of its age. This one was over 100 000 years old. I can only imagine what shapes and turns the tangled roots create below.
From a scorched land to an abundance of lush greenery, we headed to Chobe. We stayed in a lodge that cradles the Chobe riverbank. Our first mission was a three-hour cruise along the calm waters that inhabit many weird and wonderful creatures. With a gin and tonic in hand, I comfortably placed myself on the roof of the boat and readied myself for the show nature was about to present.
Gliding across the water, we spied a hippopotamus poking its tube-shaped ears out of the water. It greeted us with a low grunt, unphased by our presence. An African jacana tip-toed across the water lilies in search of food. The melodic tune of the African Fish Eagle sparked everyone’s attention. Gaping and gawking, we looked to the trees to catch a glimpse of the sound of Africa. As we continued, the awe I had for my surroundings grews and flourished into a multitude of emotions. Delight, curiosity, hope, and inspiration, to name but a few. We witnessed a crocodile bathing in the sun, catfish in mouth, displaying a large rack of pearly white fangs as we passed by. Waterbuck lay lazily under the sun, their haloed tails wagging.
As we flowed and skimmed the river’s surface, the sun lazily dropping closer to the horizon, we noticed a herd of elephants approaching the water at a leisurely pace. The proud pack stood back as one of the male elephants stalked alone towards the water’s edge. He dunked his trunk deep into the liquid and fed it back into his mouth with what I would imagine was a sigh of refreshed relief after a long, hot journey. As he surveyed the safety surrounding his environment, he beckoned the others to join when he concluded the lack of predators. Eight elephants, including three calves, advanced towards the river, sipping deeply, nourishing their big, gentle structures. One calf even delighted in submerging himself underwater, taking heavy breaths through his protruding trunk.
We ended off our cruise with whispers of wonder. As we turned around to behold the echo of our journey, we were presented with the gift of the landscape. Above us, a show of clouds turned into shapes of unknown enormity. Below us, the windswept water glistened where the sun's rays pierced through the misted sky. Scattered boats jutted out of the apparently unscathed environment. As we reached our port and embarked, we were informed that our adventure expanded over only 10 percent of the entire river. For a remarkable amount of life to take place in that small a section is an almost surreal reality.
After a day overflowing with fascination and bliss, we gleamed and beamed as the sun kissed the sky goodbye, making way for a wave of stars to blanket the heavens. We delighted in a night of food and wine, and later, allowed the music of Botswana's wilderness sing us to sleep.
5 am wake up call. Rubbing our newly opened eyes, we sleepily limped towards the bus. As we took our seats, none of us knew the treasures we were to unearth that day. Our next stop - Victoria Falls. Named after Queen Victoria in 1855, this vast, cascading waterfall pours itself over a neatly cut slab and into a crack so imperishable deep one would think the waters were extinguishing the earth’s core itself.
We were gifted with a new perspective of this worldly wonder. The helicopter's wings propelled at an impressive speed, lifting off the ground with curious ease and landing with unbelievable grace. We excitedly hopped in, trying to drown out the pounding noise with views of the falls. Above the clouds, we rose. And with it, our smiles. I fear that words are unable to express the immense nostalgia I had over a place I had never encountered. In the air, the horizon is never-ending. A thin covering of atmosphere tubes around the globe, and beneath it, animals and trees pepper the land. In what seemed like the middle of the landscape, a wide-reaching river snakes through the escarpment, reaching its demise at the pinnacle of the waterfall. From there, it begins anew, carving and meandering through mountains to create a zig-zag of astonishment. A rainbow reverberated colour through its rocky chamber, gleaming at us in awe of its own creation.
Once we were back on land, feet sinking into the ground and feeling incredibly small, we set off to add more steps into this unknown sanctuary. It was time to wind our way alongside the liquid cliff of Victoria Falls. We begin our trek in a land covered with raw sand, seared from the sun. The further inward we ventured, the more the territory transfigured into a dense jungle. Sprays from the waterfalls shower the vegetation, feeding its untamed roots which bloom into a delightful emerald roof. The adjacent rapids surge and gush downward forming a monumental torrent. As portrayed in the media to develop a panic-stricken response, I came to realise that many publications aim to gain the largest reaction out of their audience, whether their story is true or false. All I can say is, this waterfall is not barren.
From amidst the flow to unburying grounding experiences, we make our way to our final destination. Tuli, located in the high northern regions of Botswana, is parched and holds a nebulous glow. The heat steams the land, leaving only sand and dust basking in the fiery rays. We arrived at Tuli Lodge only to discover that we were the only visitors there. With our very own solace enclosed by the savannah, we eagerly explored our new surroundings. With a cool pool overlooking a quaint watering hole, we grabbed our books and looked towards the wild. Springbok, warthogs, and even elephants appeared to revitalise their bodies.
The falling sun lured us towards the car as we headed on our first Tuli game drive. Our dedicated ranger gently enticed us with knowledge and stories about our surroundings - and the creatures we may see. As we snaked through the Tuli wilderness, the sound of crackling, crunching leaves beneath the wheels echoed through the otherwise hushed escarpment. Then we heard a snap unmade by us. Our guide led our eyes to the near distance, almost shrouded in haze - an elephant.
As we crawled closer, we realised this ellie was not riding solo, but instead headed beyond his large herd to snack on the succulent greens ahead. Suddenly, a pack of what looked like 15 elephants trodd past us, almost undeterred by our presence. The clan consisted of a range of ages, from the old, grand matriarch, to the tiniest calf - born only one moon ago. As they glided across the sandy surface, our eyes transfixed on their enchanting grace and enormity, we shared a moment of natural, raw pleasure, and I said a prayer of gratitude to the universe.
We continued along the rugged, untapped path, passing trees whose roots tangle above the ground as so below, years of growth and determination displayed at our level. We drifted past rivers whose beds lied empty, every droplet of water summoned into the air by the flaring sun. A buffalo skull imprinted the earth. Our ranger informed us that this came to be because of the drought, reminding us of the harsh reality of our changing weather. The further inward we continued, the more devoid of verdant vegetation we experienced. The landscape turned rugged and seared. But still, creatures find a way to nourish life into themselves. Kudu and springbok walked hazily to find shelter for the night, gently picking on the shrubs they passed. The blue sky pierced the outlook with its magnified contrast against the hot, yellow sand. But nature always finds a way. Trees, whose life forces have formed around boulders, are still able to grow with vigor.
As the sun dipped under the horizon, we made one last stop on our three-hour drive. What seems like a mountain collapse, large sand stones lean on top of one another to present well-hidden caves. These cavities are home to none other than the hyena. A mother and her two teenage daughters were soaking up the last of the rays before nightfall beckoned them to hunt - and they certainly had much hunting to do. As we admired their spotty coats and preserved demina, exuded from being comfortable with the ranger’s frequent visits, we peered towards the mouth of their hideout. Six pups of all sizes appeared as they deduced the area safe. Yelping, squealing, and cackling with laughter, the sweetness of these minute and playful animals swerved my perspective of the species. Their reputation, shown in various films and stories, have dampened their mighty existence. But I plan to share my exquisite experience of them with all who wish to deter from their true character.
We made our way back to the campsite with full hearts and few words. The darkened sky silhouetted two giraffe heads as they peered over mounds of leafy trees, their towering bodies strutting across the road. We returned to our lodgings to find an unprepared camp. Dazed and confused, our guide commanded us to collect some warm clothing as we had one last place to visit. Driving though the unknown, stomachs grumpling and mouths nearly as scourches as the land, we arrived. A bush dinner has been laid out for us. Candles peppered the ground while lanterns hung from bleached branches. A large fire licked the air around it. We gathered under the starry sky to welcome the infusion of luxury and wildlife inside our memories. As the night continued, we heard the laughter of the hyenas on the prowl as we ourselves dipped our heads in happiness.
The rise of our home star welcomed a fresh morning and new perspectives. When it’s time to say goodbye to a place, it’s inhabitants, and the experience that has made an unabated mark in your mind, things appear differently to arrival. You’re more likely to notice the soft breeze tickling your skin as it makes its way through pathways that whisper to the leaves. The birds' songs become melodies that act as soundtracks to your flashbacks. The sand beneath your bare feet feels slightly warmer than before. It was then that I realised, I too am part of this world, this microcosm of serenity, this fierce reality.
Watching the landscape rush past and wave goodbye from the distance, my mind kept wandering back to the health of the ecosystem that has fast made its way into my heart. The drought had a violent and wounding effect on the vegetation and the animals that rely on it. The arid river banks pierced my mind, conjuring emotions of humiliation as I placed my blame on human activity and climate change. My flashbacks brought with them a poignant reminder of this incessant worldly change. Are we really destroying the raw beauty of this planet for our own solace, a comfort that is quick-lived and unnecessary?
On my return, I began to research Botswana’s weather force. Drought is one of the largest cataclysms of biodiversity, and it hits these lands particularly hard. They are, unfortunately, common. In recent years, these dry spills have grown intense, frequent, and long-lasting. However, although human induced climate change plays a role in this devastating play, it is not the main culprit. The drought is natural, and has been ever occurring since the land's dawn of existence. With ruinous activity comes strength. Survival of the fittest. When the sky finally sheds its desired tears, it nourishes the land like never before, shedding a life-giving force that is soaked up by the entire escapement.
The climate is always changing, warming and cooling as the thousands of millions of years pass by. There was the ice age, where the whole planet lay under a blanket of frost. Icy glaciers moulded almost inhospitable environments. But the earth heated as it continued its seemingly endless spin around the sun. Shades of verdant foliage were welcomed back into the land of the living. Fauna adapted and evolved as flora bloomed all around them. Our fragile, negligible species weren't the cause of this transformation. However, as homo sapiens advanced, they fashioned themselves tools, discovered fire, began farming, and built empires that, in their wake, left corpses of a world that once was free. It seems that we are a species of death and destruction.
Although the climate is ever-changing and forces exterior to our own have left the world in ashes, humans have been able to forge weapons great enough to obliterate entire countries and species. We are already to blame for several mass extinctions. Are we on the eve of the next? We may be more conscious, but many still bathe in the waters of denial and ignorance.
But we are not of this universe? This planet made us who we are today - is our destruction then unnatural? Perhaps, in the grander scheme of things, this is simply the way things work. But that's no excuse for us to neglect the earth, the planet that continuously provides for us, and live in harmony with with all that call it home. If we wish to experience this earth for generations to come, we must do our utmost best to protect it from ourselves, and to mitigate the negative effects cast by an already ever-changing planet.
A few weeks after I arrived back in South Africa - Tuli saw its first rainfall of relief.
To view more photographs, visit: https://www.carterstories.com/botswana