In 2011 the cycles of the moon combined with political upheavals in the early 90’s made for a series of public holidays that was just beautiful. With this in mind it was decided to go big.
The decision fell on the Victoria falls; nice and far away, featuring border crossings, wildlife and the prospect of a beer on a sunset river cruise.
The Spies had stopped-over at the falls during a motorbike trip to Zanzibar a few years earlier, so they were a good source of information. The two of them wanted to travel by motorcycle again so we drove the backup vehicle, filled to the brim with people and wine.
We set off early morning on day one from our ancestral hometown of Hartbeespoort. The aim was to cross over into Botswana at the Groblersbrug border post just north Lephalale (Ellisras) and since it was Easter weekend, we wanted to be there early.
The R511 between Brits and Thabazimbi, just 20 km into our journey, could hardly be called a road at all. We frantically searched for bits of tarmac, or even relatively flat bits of gravel between all those potholes and by the time we reached Thaba we were all game for a break and some breakfast at the Wimpy.
For this first time since their country’s independence the good bureaucrats of Botswana were on strike. At the border post this manifested itself as a ‘go slow’, but this is Africa so in reality it was more like ‘movement barely perceptible’.
This was looking back towards South Africa
And this was the view towards Botswana.
The sign on the left states: ‘1.5km to Border Post’
To add to the fun, with all the starting and stopping at the border post Aileen’s 650BMW decided it was a good time to develop battery problems. By the time we crossed into Botswana we had to either push- or jumpstart the bike every time we needed to move.
Aileen’s bike in its natural environment
The bakkie went in front with the Corsa making up the back in an attempt to provide some protection for the two motorcycles in between.
That evening there was no time for photos as we eventually stopped counting the near misses. There is just something different about the donkeys of southern Botswana. One moment we’d be driving along with both the high beams on and the additional spot-lights turned on and the road would seem clear all the way to Zambia. Then there would be oncoming traffic forcing us to dim the lights. By the time the traffic passed and we switched back to high there would be at least one donkey right smack bang in front of us causing panicked moments as Janniel tries to bring the bakkie to a stop, which by the way is not exactly its forte.
In the light of day the next morning we got a better look at the campsite, and I must say we were impressed. Situated on the banks of a river, Woodlands has a pool, electricity, and all the facilities are clean and neat.
From the positive pole on the battery, a cable was extended through the fairing and covered with duct tape for some token protection. The frame was used as the negative, and this allowed us to get the jumper cables connected within seconds without first having to remove the panels. For the remainder of the journey this would become part of our routine and eventually we could get that bike started faster than a car thief in Gauteng.
Despite the long trek ahead we were in a holiday spirit and that meant taking it easy and often stopping for a break.
Of course that did not stop us from acting all touristy at the first sight of elephants next to the road. At first we stopped to photograph each herd we encountered, but after a while, well it actually got quite boring so we pushed on towards the Zambian border.
It was here that the fun started again. Before we could even get out of the car we were ambushed by ‘helpers’ promising to smooth our passage. Unlike some other borders we have crossed a firm ‘NO’ seems to make them back off a bit, but as always in these situations it is important not to look unsure of what to do.
There is a lot of information available about the do’s and don’ts in these situations. It is important to do your research and to make sure that you have all the necessary documents and currencies available. All things considered it is not really all that difficult (once you know what to do), and these helpers, with their exorbitant fees, are not a necessity.
Note that this advice is applicable on the Botswana side.
In retrospect this may have been a mistake.
If our crossing into Botswana had been tedious, then the border on the Zambian side of Zambezi was a downright nightmare. As with Mozambican border posts this one seems to be deliberately rigged for the purpose of stimulating the informal economy flourishing in its shadow.
There were countless little bits of insurance to buy, each in a different office, and inexplicably requiring a different currency.
At one stage an official discreetly lead us to a portion of the fence behind the main office building where an unofficial 'colleague' of his, furnished us with US Dollars at an exchange rate of his choice.
The whole process was about as convoluted as it could possibly be made, and with the border crossing closing at 17:00 time was running out.
When we finally made it through, the light was fading again and we were in for another night-time excursion. This time around we not only had the animals to deal with. There were people all over the road.
On the outskirts of Livingstone we found the Waterfront campsite, chose a random site, pitched our tents and fell asleep. It had been another long day.
The next morning we had to apologise to the camp management. It turns out that Janniel, in his only little 4x4 adventure of the entire trip had completely ruined the lawn.
They shouldn't have left the sprinklers on.
Bernard and Linda were doing an extended trip in their Corsa, and would continue on their own when the time came.
Naturally, on that first morning, just after breakfast and some beers, we had to go and admire the main attraction.
The parking lot at the entrance to the viewing area on Zambian side was crowded, noisy, and the stalls mostly sold the generic kind of curios found all across Southern Africa and could easily have come from a factory somewhere in China.
Come to think of it, the general prevalence of these ‘artifacts’ seem to suggest a production line on scale unheard of on this continent...suspicious.
The Victoria Falls, has a total height of 108 meters at its center. It is 1,708 meters wide and has an average flow rate of 1088 cubic meters per second.
All of these facts we found on Wikipedia once we were back home.
It turns out that the Victoria Falls, or Mosi-oa-Tunya (the smoke that thunders) is the most spectacular thing we never saw.
As already stated, we had made up our minds not to do another border run, and thus not to pass into Zimbabwe. It was only later that we were told that the Victoria Falls are best viewed from the Zimbabwean side. The Zambezi river was flowing strong this time of year, and where it plunged over those great cliffs it created so much spray that it almost completely hid the falls in a cloud.
The smoke that thunders indeed, a great deal of smoke.
The bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe which we didn’t cross
We took ample time to sample the local cuisine.
Below is a photo of a boat on the Zambezi. It is not the one that we went on, but that was also a boat.
Still the drone of the engines and the late afternoon breeze has a soothing effect. Maybe it was the booze talking but the overall impression of the cruise was that of a 'highlight'.
That night we cooked the inevitable potjie, and sat there next to the fire, staring at the flames, until deep into the night. It was perfect.
The journey home, following the same route, was fairly uneventful.
Two incidents that do stand out both involve Aileen.
Somewhere between Kazungula and Francistown she became the only one of our party to have a run in with the local authorities when she was pulled over for speeding. The fine was paid on the spot and we continued on our way. The culprit seeming completely unfazed.
At Palapye in southern Botswana , not too far from the South African border, the BMW's battery seemed to finally expire completely . We left the girls sheltering in the shade of a warehouse on the outskirts where no one could help us, and set off into town, searching for a motorcycle battery. Such a battery was not to be found, but we did get to stand around in a bank for half an hour, trying to withdraw some local currency.
Eventually by some miracle we managed to get the bike started, although now it would no longer idle and required the throttle to be kept open constantly. Still the brave lass pushed on.
it was late afternoon by the time we crossed into South Africa, and pitch dark when we reached the R511 road from hell. Finding the bits of road we could actually drive on had been challenging in daylight. At night it was impossible and we were all shaken up and dead tired when we finally reached home.
A journey could never be called great if there was no drama, no crisis to overcome. Hence we will always welcome bad roads, frustrating border crossings, and waterfalls that rain on you without revealing themselves.