How to almost die of dehydration
I crossed into Botswana from South Africa last night and camped at a small lodge on the border post at Martin’s Drift. It’s was surprisingly expensive, at 140 pula (about $10) just to camp! I was warned before coming that Botswana is not cheap.
I cooked up some oats and coffee for breakfast, then packed up my stuff and used the lodge wifi to do some quick work before hitting the road. I had a litre of water from the camp but bought one more litre from the gas station and then got going. I wanted to draw cash and get a simcard but the station didn’t have either and said I could get further down the road.
After a few kilometres I passed an even smaller gas station but it didn’t look like it would have either so I assumed the place they meant was further along.
Boy, was I WRONG!
For the next 100 kilometres there was absolutely NOTHING. Ok, there was a few donkeys and several cows but they didn’t have any water to sell me and even if they did – I had no cash!
I continued to cycle on, 10 kilometres, 20 kilometres, 30 kilometres all passing me by, constantly thinking there must be something up ahead? Surely!? But alas I was alone in a never-ending landscape split in half by a hot strip of tar.
Fortunately, I had filled both my water bottles before leaving but this was nowhere near enough water to get me the 100 kilometres to Palapye. Eventually, at around 60 kilometres, I saw what I thought could only be a mirage – two women sitting at a table under a tree! I cycled off the road and gingerly approached them, expecting the dehydration-mirage to disappear at any second, but no! They were real!
They had some pots and a small stove and appeared to be selling food to passing travellers. I asked if they had any water and they indicated that they have frozen bottles for 8 pula. I emptied my coins on the table, a paltry 2.50 pula, and explained my situation and the error of my ways. Fortunately, the road Gods took pity on me and these lovely women gave me the remaining half of their own two-litre water bottle, which amazingly was mostly frozen! I thanked them profusely and promised to repay them should I pass back this way.
Now with just enough water to potentially get me safely to Palapye, I cycled off with renewed energy. This didn’t last too long, as the midday heat and sun beat down on me relentlessly. Eventually, by 1 pm, I decided I needed to take refuge in the shade of a tree before I die.
Long rest and a surprise gift
I put down my sleeping mat, ate some biscuits, drank lots of water and desperately tried to cool down in the shade. After about half an hour a car pulled up suddenly and braked sharply, a man jumping out in a hurry. I sat up in a start, wondering what I had done wrong. He leapt out pf his car and handed me a mango, instructing me to eat, and then wandered off to shout at some cows. How bizarre.
I graciously devoured the mango as I the only other food I had was biscuits and dry noodles. The man returned shortly, gave a smiling wave goodbye and sped off again. Another road angel! After a further hour rest, I decided I was cool enough to continue the last 30 kilometres.
After about 10 km I came to what I now know was a veterinary checkpoint to reduce the spread of cow disease. I stopped there to waterproof my stuff as I could see a storm coming on the horizon – surely the water I prayed for! They also had a large container of water onsite and offered me some happily and for free. Now I had more water than I could carry!
After a few more kilometres a gale began blowing into me and the first drops of rain fell. Tired and unable to pedal into a headwind, I flagged down a truck and asked them to take me Palapye. They gladly agreed and I threw my bike in the back while I jumped in the rear cab. Within a few minutes, a storm of unimaginable proportions exploded from the sky, absolutely drenching everything. I realized I would need to keep an eye out and avoid these in the coming weeks as they are certainly not safe to cycle in.
The truck dropped me at the Palapye intersection where there’s a shopping centre and a few food places, so I parked my bike, drew some cash and ravenously devoured an expensive chicken meal from a fast food shop. Then I decide to buy a sim card. After putting in the sim, setting it up and loading data I still couldn’t get any internet and told the staff at the shop their stupid simcard doesn’t work. Then the friendly woman at the counter took my phone and switched mobile data on. Oops.
I was finally ready to cycle the last 5 kilometres to Itumela rest camp where I planned to stay the night. The rain had finally subsided and the town had that dusky after-rain glow to it as I cycled around puddles and wet sand.
When I arrived I was tired, sunburnt and exhausted and needed a good night’s rest in a proper room, so I decided to take a dorm bed. Fortunately, I was the only one (as so often happens with dorms in Africa), so I had the whole place to myself. After showering I headed to the bar to work but the wifi wasn’t working so I had to use my newly purchased data. Luckily it was working and was quite fast. There were a few other people hanging around the bar, mostly the staff, but I was too tired to socialize, so after a few beers, I hit the hay.
Day 9: A small rest and restock
I slept like a log on my comfortable bed in the nice cool dorm but still didn’t feel ready to head off again immediately in the morning. I decided to take a chill day, buy supplies and sort out some things.
First thing, I needed to move to a campsite as it was too expensive to stay in the dorm a second night, so I packed up and moved everything. Then I went to ask about breakfast but they weren’t serving any and also informed me that the drinking water had been turned off by the council.
This meant I had to walk all the way into town just to get some food and water. I had slept quite late so by now it was 10am and getting hot. I made the mission and stocked up on loads of food for the road ahead but the Spar didn’t have any bottled water for sale. Luckily there was an Oasis water shop nearby. Obviously, the cash machine didn’t accept my card so I had to walk halfway back across town to another cash machine and then come back for the water. By the time I got back to Itumela it was almost lunch time.
Anyway, I ate some breakfast and then decided to try to find the source of the clicking sound coming from my crank shaft. While riding around the campsite I discovered an awesome camp kitchen with a covered roof area, so I moved my tent there in case of rain and so I could use the cooking equipment.
A failed lunch
I had bought some samp and beans because I was trying to be all local and decided I give them a try, only to discover samp needs to be soaked overnight! I had already started boiling it in water so I just took it off the stove and left it to soak for dinner while I made noodles and soya mince instead.
Then I headed back to the bar to see if the wifi was back, but no such luck. Again, I had to work off mobile data – which I calculated costs me about $1 per article, which is annoying but not too bad. After a few hours work, I headed back to have my samp dinner which seemed a bit small now, so I added some spaghetti and a tin of tomato and onion and in the end, it came out pretty good.
When I returned to the bar they had finally fixed the wifi so I did one more article, had a beer and then headed to bed in preparation for waking up at 4am. It had been raining a bit earlier so now it was humid as hell and my tent was a sauna. I knew it would be hard to sleep but I had no choice and just lay there naked and sweating on my shitty thin mattress.
As soon as I fell asleep I heard an insane rattling noise that sounded like a machine gun right next to my head. I awoke with a start and the noise stopped. Then it came again, so loud it sounded like it was in my tent! I realized eventually it was the world loudest bullfrog, croaking in the pond right outside my tent. This continued non-stop throughout the night, this insane gunfire rattling every 3 seconds. Needless to say, I barely got any sleep and didn’t wake up at 4 am.
Day 10 – To Khama Rhino Sanctuary
After desperately trying to sleep through the gunfire croaking of the toad right outside my tent, I eventually dragged myself out of bed at 6 am. By now it was already light and I missed a lot of the cool morning I was hoping to most of my cycling done in.
I packed quickly, skipped breakfast and hurried off, stopping to buy a pie at the only shop I could find open – a gas station. Fortunately, it was still quite cool for the first three hours and I managed to cover the 50 kilometres to Serowe by 11 am.
Along the way, a policeman drove up next to me to ask where I was heading and where I camped, but otherwise, it was a mostly uneventful few hours.
50kms later In Serowe, I stopped for a second breakfast/early lunch at a Hungry Lion fast food joint. They didn’t have wifi, of course, so I did one article off data again while eating fried chicken and coleslaw. Then I drew some extra cash in preparation for the next few days through the remote Kalahari desert, where I probably wouldn’t find any shops but emergency cash is always a good idea.
Ice cream in Paje
I listened to music for the first time on this trip as I cycled the next 10 kilometres through beautiful countryside to the quaint village of Paje. I was planning to stock up on last-minute food supplies here but the place turned out to be a real tiny African village. Some guys flagged me down and told me to eat with them but I explained I’d already had lunch. I bought an ice cream from their stall, which appeared to only sell ice cream, and they kindly filled up my water bottles with chilled water.
Then one guy, my new friend Patrick, took me to his cousins store to get some supplies. Unfortunately, it was a bit limited to mostly rice, beans and tea but I managed to secure some macaroni and a tin of chakalaka for a slightly high import price. I gave Patrick 5 pula for his troubles and cycled off to Khama Rhino Sanctuary, where I planned to camp the night.
On arrival, it didn’t work out so well though. The campsite is actually inside the sanctuary so you can only enter with a vehicle. They seemed to think maybe a ranger could take me in but I would still have to pay the full 84 pula park entrance fee on top of the 105 pula camp fee, even though I can’t actually see any of the park. This seemed ridiculous – $20 to camp for the night?! This left me with a bit of an issue, as it was getting late now and there was much ahead for another 50 kilometres.
The Khama Rhino receptionist explained I could go camp at a cattle pen down the road where they have water and possibly even a cold shower, but first I asked if I could have something to eat at their restaurant and used their wifi to get some work done. They agreed and a ranger took me the 300m to the restaurant. Just before 4 pm, a thunderstorm began and it starting raining and hailing hard for about an hour. When I got back, fortunately, they had moved my bike out the rain although not before most things got wet.
A failed camp mission
After searching for an hour I couldn’t find the cattle ranch and decided I’ll just have to wild camp somewhere. I cycled on past Khama Rhino for 6 kilometres and stopped at a rest stop as the sun was setting. As I was considering setting up camp there a stray dog came and starting barking aggressively at me. I took out my mace and walked off slowly towards the road with my bike. The dog entered the rest stop and starting eating trash off the floor.
I decided this was bullshit and I was gonna go back to Khama Rhino and ask if I can just camp at the gate. Upon arriving back they seemed confused how I had not found the cattle ranch but as it was getting dark now I asked if I couldn’t just camp near reception and I’ll leave early – I was even happy to pay the camp fees of 105 pula.
They discussed between themselves and then said okay let’s just get me checked in. I asked how much it will cost and they said don’t worry about it so I figured they have taken pity on me and might let me stay free. Unfortunately, as I found out in the morning, this was a bit of a trick, as they then asked me to pay the full 200 pula amount! On reflection, I should have just refused and left but stupidly I paid.
The wifi wasn’t working that evening because of the rain so I just watched some TV in the restaurant before going to sleep.
Day 11 – Back to Palapye
This morning as I left Khama Rhino, the grinding noise in my bike was worse than ever. News from my cousin in Maun wasn’t reassuring either – there were certainly no bike repair shops there that could help me. As I cycled towards Orapa and further away from Gaborone I began to consider my situation.
It was highly unlikely the problem would go away or fix itself and the further I got from civilization the less likely I would find a mechanic and replacement parts. Eventually, I bit the bullet, turned around and decided to go to Gaborone and get it fixed once and for all. It would shed some days off my trip, but I wasn’t on a tight schedule so it didn’t matter much.
Halfway back to Serowe, one of the friendlier rangers from Khama Rhino passed by and asked why I was going back. I explained my situation and he said to he’ll take me to a bike shop he knows. I doubted a bike shop in Serowe would have imported French parts but I came along for the ride. Naturally, it didn’t in the end but I thanked him for his help and cycled off back towards Palapye to check with a mechanic there that he recommended.
Unable to find any help there either, I decided to call it a day and check back in at Itumela Campsite. It was Saturday now and nothing would be open until Monday so no point rushing to Gaborone where accommodation would no doubt be more expensive. I grabbed some beers and lunch and headed to Itumela to relax for the afternoon. That evening I took advantage of having the Sunday off and got quite drunk with a Scots guy and someone else playing pool.
Day 12 – Lazy Sunday
Today was a bit of non-day. I woke up on a bed in the dorm where clearly I had somehow managed to pass out drunk. Fortunately, nobody else was in there and nobody noticed that I wasn’t supposed to be there, so I quickly snuck back to my tent.
After some coffee, a shower and a bit of breakfast of samp and beans, I went to the train station to ask about a train to Gaborone. A security guard said it only opens at 2 pm and to come back then so I went to the bottle store but it was closed. Lame.
Back at Itumela, I decided I may as well get some work done and then had lunch and went back at 2 to the station. I was informed there is a train just after midnight that arrives early morning in Gaborone but since no parcel staff were on duty I wouldn’t be able to check in my bike.
I decided to give up on the train and just hitchhike early in the morning. I did some more work back at Itumela, had dinner and some drinks, played some more pool and then secretly slept in the dorm room again since it has a fan and is away from the loud frogs.
Day 13 – Hitching to Gaborone
I was up and packed by 7 am and began cycling south for about 10km’s to get out of Palapye before hitchhiking. After about 10 minutes a workers vehicle that has just passed me turned around and came back to ask if I need help. I explained I had bike trouble and needed to get to Gaborone. They were only going to the next town of Mahalapye but agreed to take me there.
In Mahalapye they dropped me off just past the town and I cycled a bit further out before beginning to hitch again near a bus stop. Again, after only about ten minutes a guy in a pickup stopped and agreed to take me all the way to Gaborone. We chatted along the way about Botswana and crime in South Africa. After about 2 hours we arrived in Gaborone and struggled a bit to find the bike shop which had recently moved. Eventually, he got me there and I gave him 50 pula for his troubles.
The bike shop seemed unsure about my problem and needed to investigate so I left it with them and went to grab lunch and do some work at a nearby Steers. While there the bike shop guy found me and told me the issue was actually in my rear cassette not my bottom bracket bearings as I had expected. This was the same cassette I had replaced just a few weeks ago so I asked him to double check as it seemed odd that it broke so quickly.
While waiting, a woman I didn’t recognize came up and asked if I was Mark Hartley. I briefly thought I had finally become famous but it turned out to be Inga, my father’s cousin’s daughter, who had recognized me from Facebook. We hadn’t seen each other since I was 12 years old. I explained my situation to her and her husband and they immediately invited me to stay the night with them while the bike is repaired.
Back at the bike shop, the mechanic said it is a cassette issue and I’m likely looking at about $150 to fix the bike properly because the rear hub would need to be replaced too. I told them to get me an exact price and I’ll come back tomorrow.
I went back with Inga and partner to her home just outside of Gaborone where they have a bit of a farm with miniature horses, ducks, geese, peacocks, quail, rabbits and a few other things. They show me the spare guest cottage where I could spend the night and I met their two young daughters who were off school for the holidays. That evening we caught up over dinner and a few drinks.
Day 14 – Chill time in Gaborone
I spent most of the morning getting work done and then went in the afternoon with Inga and John to check up on my bicycle. On the ride there I spent the entire time considering my options – could I afford to spend the estimated $150 on repairs or should I simply abandon the trip for now until I can buy a better touring bicycle in Europe later?
As it turned out, the store was unable to source the correct parts needed to fix it but directed me to a guy named Paul who may be able to help. We gave him a call but unfortunately, he was heading out for the day and said he would only be free tomorrow. So we put the bike in the back of the car and went to do some shopping for dinner. Passing a pharmacy I was reminded that I need to still get my yellow fever injection for Malawi and Inga kindly called up a doctor and arranged an appointment for the very next day!
We swam that evening before dinner and afterwards I met the neighbour’s son and a friend who catch snakes for fun. They brought in a python and two egg eater snakes that swallow quail eggs and regurgitate the shell. Lovely. We also watched a tiny duckling being born before getting to bed early since the school was starting again in the morning and the kids would have to be up at 7 am.
Day 15 – Paul’s Amazing Bike Store
After grabbing an early morning coffee I went with John and Inga to their office and then checked at another bicycle store next door if they could help at all. Again, they didn’t have the correct parts so we called Paul. He said we could come round immediately, so we headed off.
Paul runs a shop that is a subsidiary of Mike’s Bikes, which is a kind of charity organization that ships in large containers of bikes from the United States to support cycling in Africa. They also run a bike shop and sell and repair bikes to cover costs. The store is run from the most incredible old game lodge out in Mokolodi reserve, with a huge three-story main house overlooking a bar and swimming pool area. The entire house and every room is completely stuff full of bicycles and bike parts with everything you could possibly imagine from BMX’s to fixies, to full carbon racers, 29ers, mountain bikes, fat bikes and classic old steel frame antique collectables. It is truly a cyclist’s heaven and worth a visit even if you don’t need any repairs done.
Paul immediately took great interest in my trip and offered to do all he could to help, free of charge, wherever possible. We couldn’t find a suitable rear cassette to replace my broken one, so he took me to look through the crates of bicycles to find a replacement rear wheel with cassette included. We found an excellent Alexrims wheel with an 8-speed cartridge which the mechanic fitted and adjusted my 7-speed shifter to somehow accommodate all 8 gears!
He also replaced my handlebar tap, gave me a new seat, a second bottle holder, cycling shorts and rear rack – all free of charge! I couldn’t believe my luck and was incredibly appreciative, not only for the gifts but also the level of help and interest he showed. Although Paul wouldn’t accept any money from me, I tipped his skilled mechanics 100 pula each to say thanks.
I was planning to catch the train that evening to Francistown but decided to stay one final night and test the bicycle properly the next day to ensure everything is ready before I leave. This decision may possibly have been influenced by John and Inga’s spectacular hospitality and the enjoyment of the company after a week of relative solitude.
Day 16 – Final day in Gaborone
We headed off early again in the morning to John and Inga’s office and after some minor adjustments, I cycled off on a 20-kilometre circumnavigation of the city. The new wheels and gears definitely felt like a great improvement on the old ones and the only slight problem was the rear rack which needed some adjusting. After lunch, we picked up the daughters from school and headed back to Paul’s bike shop because John and Inga wanted to buy them some bicycles. I got my seat adjusted and spent some more time looking through all the gear like a kid on Christmas.
With the bike now ready to go, we drove to the train station and I checked it into the parcel carriage and bought a ticket for the 9:30 pm train that night. In usual African style, it took as long as possible but eventually it was all packed and ready to go by 5 pm. We headed back home for one final meal and then my wonderful hosts dropped me back off at the station at 9 pm.
I can’t be more appreciative of the incredible generosity and hospitality John and Inga showed me while staying in Gaborone. They went far out of their way to help an almost-stranger and I hope one day to have the opportunity to repay their kindness.