10 Days in Botswana and South Africa

Last year today, I returned to Hong Kong after 10 unreal days in Botswana and South Africa to celebrate the transition from college to first job. I was (and still am) roommates with Jane, a Botswanan native, who adopted me for her annual trip home. What better time to make this happen?

A year and 9000 words later, I finally convinced myself that it is time to publish my Southern Africa special. Don’t give up on your readers, Mel. They like you! They do!

I present you 10 days in Botswana and South Africa. For those unfamiliar with this blog, it is the electronic version of a travel diary I’ve kept since 2012. My personal pensieve (what is a pensieve?). In hindsight, I should have written more how-to’s and planning resources, but that was no easy feat in the face of furious scribbling onboard a moving safari truck or staying focused at the sight of my first lion. The good news, however, is that you need not worry about any loss of authenticity from Day 1 to Day 10.

Unconventional situations for pen and paper ahead.

I want to leave you with the real-time emotions and unencumbered voice of your favorite travel writer’s first time on the African continent. Warning: embrace the starry-eyed college grad.

Day 1. Sunday 7/12/15 9:34 AM.
Boarding for flight BP 208 from Johannesburg to Gaborone

Arrival in O.R. Tambo International Airport, Johannesburg. Alone and ready to transfer to Gaborone, Botswana.

This is the last segment of my solo leg before I reach Jane’s mysterious, landlocked nest in Africa. Couldn’t contain more excitement, or as much excitement as one can contain after a 16 hour flight from Hong Kong to Jo’burg.

The boarding area resembles countless large bus stations I have embarked in China- a long row of gates where you line up to get onboard a bus that takes you to your plane. Time to go.

10:15 AM, Seat 5A of 14-row Air Botswana propeller plane.

I’m sitting right next to the giant propeller engine attached to the wing. I don’t remember the last time I’ve boarded such a small plane.

Welcome on board Air Botswana, the primary (and only) airline that operates within Botswana.

The propellers are whirring at full speed, a mechanical buzz of centripetal force, as we prepare for liftoff. The overhead broadcast tells me that we shall fly from Johannesburg to Gaborone at 18,000 feet, first in a language I don’t recognize (Setswana, I later learn) and then in English. We are taxiing rather slowly across the O.R. Tambo International Airport tarmac in South Africa’s capital city, and I’m beginning to wonder whether these propeller blades will ever be able to lift our metallic body off the ground, when we come to a complete halt.

Beyond the whirring blades, Tambo Airport is an endless, flat grassland on which humans plonked a maze of tarmac runways. In the current winter season (July in the Southern hemisphere), the dry red-yellow grasses bow under the windy criss-cross of air currents from planes landing and taking off. I was seeing many airline vessels for the first time- Egypt Air, Air Namibia, RwandAir, Air Zimbabwe, and of course, my airline of choice on my previous flight, South African. Alone and taking in my new environment, I fed off their exotic names like a hungry bird.

On this new continent, I can be sure that I’m seeing new faces for the first time. I definitely get a high out of this. If I were a battery, I would be powered by curiosity, with just a drop of discomfort to complete the sensation of novelty. That stuff is delicious.

And would you believe it- we’ve taken off! You have to put a lot of trust in small planes. At takeoff, it was a slightly wobbly experience where for a few minutes I was teetering from side to side with my eyes fixed on the whirring blades, daring them to freeze for some bizarre reason midair. When that didn’t happen, I let loose an irrational sigh of relief. Then I proceeded to enjoy the flight, defined by Botswana biltong: a bag of jerky made of the toughest beef I have ever had the pleasure to chew through. I was hungry and it was the bomb.

From above, Johannesburg is primarily flat (on my flight back to Jo’burg 4 days later, I realized there were exceptions to this observation). There are lots of townhouses, quite a few with bright blue swimming pools, and many factories, warehouses and mining grounds. Mostly, a mass of red-colored buildings, some with blue tops. The land is also heavily cultivated for agriculture, especially as we move north. We must have flown over South Africa’s political capital, Pretoria, at some point, but I wouldn’t have been able to tell. Some of the farms are perfectly circular, a surprise of geometry on a terrain of irregular shapes. I wonder why.  Maybe it makes it easier for farmers to measure volumes of crops, as the circles have been meticulously sliced such that different crops occupy different partitions. Ideas?

Quick take on land use to explain regional terrain: the Botswana-South Africa borders are defined by mining and agriculture, key revenue sources for government and private sectors.

This is a short flight as we are descending in the next 10 minutes. We must have passed the South Africa-Botswana border by now.

I really wonder how Jane grew up here, not in the sense that it’s difficult or undesirable, but that her childhood experience is unlike any environment I had known before.  At one point, we flew over a mountain range splitting the earth in two, abruptly raising one half of land above the other. After a lot of mulling, I came to the tentative conclusion that this might be a fault-line, but who knows if tectonic plate even exist in this part of South Africa?

Sometimes we pass red lands undulating with contours in a dough-like quality, but it is mostly flat. A long road cuts across the vegetation, and as its subsidiary roads branch off like capillaries, they trace the land with more irregular marks.

I think we are almost there. These are mighty good propellers. Closer to the ground, I see endless stretches of bush, no houses. If you go for a wild guess, you might even be tempted to think we’re in Nevada. With two loud crunches, I feel the plane’s wheels unfurl beneath me. God, it is so yellow with so much space. I wouldn’t have believed it a year ago that I’m landing in Gaborone, Botswana, today!

Do lions accidentally wander onto runways? (They don’t.) My imagination has come alive.

10 days and 3 destinations. #2 (not labelled on this screenshot) is Chobe National Park.

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