African Adventures: Botswana Cycle Safari with our Besties (Part 1)
The bicycle is a curious vehicle. Its passenger is its engine.John Howard, US cyclist
There are certain routine activities that we engage in that we compare to learning to ride a bicycle. Why is that? It’s as if riding a two-wheeled, self-propelled, chain-driven structure in a forward direction – and hopefully in a marginally straight line – is the most natural thing we as humans can do. Or is it more the fact that once you’ve learned how to ride a bike the skill is not easily lost? I guess it’s the latter. You can imagine how these supposedly instinctive bicycle-riding capabilities were put to the test when our very dear South African friends, Gert and Annelize, pleaded with us to join them on a four-day off-road cycling safari in Botswana!
We arrived at Johannesburg International Airport with precious little of our own cycle gear. To be perfectly honest, we own very little personal cycling gear back home. And that which we own wasn’t worth bringing along. Or so we hoped! As “the overseas guests” we’d opted to rent all our gear from the Safari Tour outfit, Cycle Mashatu. This included bicycles, spare tires, tubes and pumps. They also took care of our tented accommodation, food and beverage requirements! This experience was promising to be a safari with a difference, with stylish rustic tented camping as part of the mix. Or, as stylish as rustic camping can get! Essentially, all we were required to bring was clothing, toiletries, bedding and any additional treats and snacks we might prefer. The Cycle Mashatu team would take care of the rest. And they did. Exceptionally well, I might add!
With our travel bags packed and laden in anticipation for almost any eventuality, we left Johannesburg in a raging late-July pre-dawn thunderstorm. Heading northbound we made the seven-hour journey to the border crossing at Pont Drift. Here we were met by the Tour Operators who accompanied us through South African passport control. Leaving our vehicle at a secure parking location in what felt like no-mans-land, we were escorted on an open 4×4 cruiser with all our luggage through to passport control and immigration at the Botswana border. The process felt surprisingly effortless.
Once we had cleared immigration we were dropped at a nearby grass thatched enclosure. Here we were provided with a light lunch and drinks while we changed into our cycle kit. At the same time our 29-er mountain bikes were adjusted and prepared for us in readiness for our first excursion through the bushveld. The maximum tour group size was eight with a minimum size of four. As things turned out, nobody else had booked to cycle as part of our group, so we were spoiled to have the full attention of our dedicated guide, Marius, with camp amenities and Staff attention all focussed on our little party of four! We felt very privileged and spoiled to have our friends, and the memories we were to share on this adventure, all to ourselves.
Part of the luxury of this kind of safari is that you don’t need to carry any of your own luggage. Once we had our cycle gear and day packs in-hand, equipped with cameras, binoculars and other touristy must-haves, our luggage was whisked off to our overnight camp for us. We were left to cycle unfettered and just enjoy the scenery!
Heading out, with Marius and his rifle in the lead, we fell in behind him, hoping that our cycle instincts wouldn’t let us down as we attempted to ride single file through the African savannah. It didn’t take long for us to find our stride. Marius was ultra-accommodating, setting a very comfortable pace and tailor-making the cycling conditions to Christa’s and my very basic off-road cycling skill abilities. Within the first kilometre we found ourselves already having to get a grip on the phenomenal reality that we were on bicycles, pedalling through the African wilds, seemingly a million miles away from the contrast of our Calgary home near the Canadian Rockies that we’d closed the door on only days before. We felt so alive and awed.
Our afternoon ride from the border post to our tented camp took us along jeep tracks, elephant migration routes and savannah grasslands, passing cautiously by curious giraffe, zebra, wildebeest, impala, warthog and elephant as we rode. It also took us over terrain littered with Botswana agates that left Christa beside herself with excitement at the abundance of natural beauty, even right beneath our tire treads. We were able to stop for frequent breaks to identify birds through our binoculars, have the animal habits explained to us by Marius, and explore the flora and minerals in more depth and up-close.
After an easy three hour, 10km saunter we eventually arrived at our tented camp, nestled beneath a majestic Mashatu tree, in the late afternoon. Snacks, beverages and our luggage were awaiting us upon our arrival. Our safari tents were big enough to accommodate our luggage and two camping beds with comfortable mattresses, provided by Cycle Mashatu. There was little space left for anything more that that! Perched on the banks of the Limpopo River, the natural border between Botswana and South Africa, the view from our canvas cottage that would be our home for three nights was surreal. Being the rainless winter months, the river bed was dry, allowing barking troops of babboons and the odd rogue elephant to freely pass from one side to the other.
Once we had settled into our tents, rustic outdoor showers were prepared for us to refresh ourselves. Camp Staff had filled the gravity-fed shower bags with hot water so we could wash away the days’ travel grime. Standing on a wooden platform with privacy fencing on three sides, open to the wild bush on the fourth, and with an iconic Mopane tree and blue sky towering above us, Christa and I juggled for position to maximize access to the limited supply of gently trickling warm water to soap and rinse ourselves. This little shower-dance would characterize our late afternoon antics for the next few nights as we became more proficient at it.
Shortly after dusk a hearty three-course dinner was laid out for us, prepared by the exceptional Camp Chef and Staff. With only the light from a few strategically positioned paraffin lanterns or our head lamps, the most appropriate thing to do was to enjoy a wind-down chat and night caps around the campfire while being entertained with cycling and bushveld stories from Marius before retiring to our respective tents for the night.
An unfenced campsite remains the territory of wild game, day or night. There’s no telling what could be waiting for you beyond the darkness. Consequently, a pre-bedtime excursion to the make-shift long-drop near the campsite for the last time before settling in for the night meant you couldn’t venture out there alone. If the call of nature struck in the middle of the night it would have meant us calling on our ever-vigilant Marius to accompany us for safety reasons! We were strongly discouraged heading out into the darkness alone.
Prior to bedding down by 10pm on our first night I made a half-hearted effort to zip down and secure the tent flaps. Aware of our travel buddies settling into their nearby tent roughly 30 metres away, some nearby rustling in a bush that could’ve been a bird or a mouse, and the periodic grunting of a distant lion, Christa and I huddled close to one another for warmth. We were taken a little by surprise by the near-freezing night time temperatures, but were grateful for our light-weight down-filled camping blankets, Canadian toques and gloves, and thick winter socks for added comfort.
We had barely fallen asleep when we were ejected from of our deep slumber by an approaching disturbance that seemed to roar towards us from the surrounding trees. Within moments we were thrust into a windstorm that brought with it a driving rain that clawed at our tent. Loose flaps began thrashing at the canvas walls of our domed dwelling. I lunged out of my warm cocoon, groped for my flashlight as I tried to make my way out of the zippered doorway in a feeble attempt to batten down our hatches. With that, sheets of lighting and peels of thunder descended on us. For a time, it felt like we’d been translocated into a war zone. I managed to secure a few ropes and flaps before scurrying back into the relative safety of our tent. Christa and I squinted through a slit that I’d left unzipped in the front door, astounded at how quickly this weather had engulfed us, and transfixed by the torrent-drenched scene lying before us periodically lit up by the blinding flashes of the electrically charged atmosphere. Within 15 minutes the squall passed over as quickly as it had arrived, replacing the night with an eerie silence. “Where did that come from?” We eventually calmed ourselves and cautiously settled back into our sleeping bags wondering whether we should anticipate another weather assault. That never came. Instead, we drifted into a welcome sleep.
Do you want to find out more about our memorable Botswana cycle experience with Cycle Mashatu? Check out my follow-up blog where I’ll offer you a remedy of how to overcome an aching saddle butt, recount memories of being charged by an elephant, let you try to spot the leopard we managed to locate, all-too-briefly, and even tell you how to bag your breakfast!