- Tim Notier
Marisa and I have wanted to visit Botswana ever since we watched The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency on HBO, a series based on the books by Alexander McCall Smith. The show made Botswana out to be an African paradise of giraffes and elephants roaming the landscape, friendly people greeting you everywhere with big smiles, and it seemed to be run by a peaceful, stable government. So, we were curious to find out if this was all true.
We’d come into Botswana in the northern half near the Okavango Delta where most of the wildlife action is. Unfortunately, these sites are not accessible by motorcycle (due to motorcycles not being allowed into National Parks for safety reasons… like lions…), so we had to be a bit creative with where we went and what we saw.
Our first destination was a place called Planet Baobab, which, as you guessed, is famous for its baobabs. Baobabs aren’t just your average tree, they’re ancient and unique with girthy trunks and stubby branches that you often see in pictures of Madagascar.
There’s something about baobabs that’s magical: they stick up huge and mighty right out of the flat shrub land like a beacon to all people and animals to come for shelter, for shade, for a home. Some of these trees are over 2,000 years old, and as you walk under them, you feel the coolness of its immense shade, you touch its elephant-hide-like bark, you smell the fragrance of the summer sage grasses growing under your feet. And you know that this is where people have congregated since before white settlers ever came, since even before the Bantu people migrated from the north.
This tree was here giving shade and refuge to the original bush people who hunted antelope and lions barefoot and with nothing more than spears. And to this day, you feel as if not much has changed around this tree. Antelope have become cows and goats with bells hanging around their necks, creating a wind-chime music to the place. And now there are paths winding through the landscape where 4x4’s and crazy motorcyclists try to push their way through the sand. But those are the only differences. The elephant dung is still fresh all around, the vultures still make their nests high up in the branches, and the air still smells of a humid heat carrying the scent of animals and flowers, just like it always has.
We spent a day riding down the backroads around Gweta, doing nothing more than searching for baobabs. We’d keep our eyes out for the silhouettes of enormous trunks, and then we'd weave our way through the thorny brambles until we’d park under the shade, take off our sweat-soaked jackets, and have a snack next to the baobab. We were thankful that we brought our water bottles as we definitely needed to rehydrate. It was a perfect day, even though it was a little hot out (ok, it was a lot hot out), but I will always associate Botswana with our search for the majestic baobab trees.
After Planet Baobab, we headed off to another famous campground: Elephant Sands. This place is built around a watering hole where elephants like to hang out, and even though they’re wild, the elephants are used to people camping there, and they wonder around like they’re just another patron of the establishment.
It’s truly incredible to be that close to elephants, but I also gained some respect for earth’s largest land animal as I witnessed the lengths at which the place had to go to make sure that both people and their buildings were safe from the elephants’ destructive behavior.
Rebar was sticking up out of the ground so elephants couldn’t walk over it, the bathrooms were encircled in concrete walls, and signs were posted everywhere saying, “Don’t leave the water running or you could endanger your life." It turns out that elephants seek out water like a backhoe digs through the earth, and they will topple walls, pull up piping, and trample anything in their way to get to it. So just like how you must keep your food protected up in trees when camping around bears, when camping around elephants you have to make sure your water supply is guarded in a fortress-like facility. And then just hope they don’t accidentally walk over your tent at night.
The night that we spent there we were suddenly awoken by a roar of a monster. It was like the belching of a bear mixed with the low bass of a 90’s rap song. If I was a sound editor for the Jurassic Park movies, I would definitely use these elephant sounds for my T-Rex, because they are deep and freaky noises. At night, the elephants grumbled and groaned to each other, sometimes in anger as two young bulls clashed their tusks together in a fight. The sounds almost vibrated the earth beneath my feet with their low reverberating calls.
Marisa and I sat up in our tent at the sounds, and through the darkness we could see a massive elephant just fifteen feet away from us. We held our breath as he lumbered past and headed to the waterhole, where we could make out the shadows of ten more elephants, including some babies.
Excitedly, we headed over to the main building and got a great view of the waterhole, and spent an hour or so watching the elephants slurp up the water through their trunks, and protect their little cute babies under their legs. I have to say, this was one of our most memorable experiences of our lives.
We will always cherish the time we spent chasing the giants of Africa.
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