Gaborone, Tropic of Capricorn, and Serowe

Happy Boxing Day 2016. As the year draws to an end I’d like to squeeze a couple more snippets of my Botswana 2015 story into this coming week. Rewinding to a crisp morning on July 13th aboard our white Toyota SUV in Gaborone, Botswana, en route to the Tropic of Capricorn and Serowe, home of rhinos…

Good morning Gaborone (Day 2 in Botswana)

Sunrise over Gaborone, Botswana, from my hotel window

7:55 AM On highway driving to Mahalapye.

The time now marks my first 24 hours on the African continent (jokingly, “SoAf” for Southern Africa like “SoCal” for Southern California. Doesn’t seem to work).

Although I got up at the ungodly hour of 5:30 AM, the colors of the sky outside our hotel window slowly illuminated by the rising African sun were incredible. We went to Jane’s house first to pick up some snacks before setting out at 7:15 AM. The 15-20 minute window before 7 AM is rush hour in Gaborone because parents need to drive their kids to school by 7 AM. Residential, community (e.g. schools), commercial and industrial plots of land in Gaborone are distinctly allocated, so we burrowed into bottlenecks of traffic as commuters, parents and kids alike filled the roads in their metal vehicles.

After leaving downtown Gaborone, we embarked upon the A1 highway, which takes you straight up from the capital to as far as Kasane, if you aim to drive for 11 hours.

A curious incident

Driving into an unexpected encounter in the bush

Less than an hour’s drive into the bush, we were stopped by a roadside police and almost illegally fined. The man peered into our window. My sleepy eyes blinked into wariness when I realized that he was in uniform. I offered a tentative “how are you?” whereas Jane stayed silent.

He did not respond. Instead, his purposeful eyes gave our Toyota SUV interior a three second sweep, before he jerked his head meaningfully toward his dilapidated desk on the roadside dust, indicating, “someone get out. We need to talk.”

Jane’s Dad confidently left the SUV and we peeked behind the window to see what might unfold. I was sure nothing extreme would happen. One or two cars whizzed by every two or three minutes. My lips felt as cracked as the bush.  What felt like a dry spell later, Jane’s Dad walked back, hopped onboard and started the ignition so that we were on our way, before explaining: the cop accused Jane and me of not fastening our seat belts in the back row. This allegation is in fact unfounded by Botswana law. The negotiation, which was eventually resolved with “compensation”, proceeded as follows:

Police:  You need to pay me the fines for breaking the law.

Driver: Botswana does not require passengers in the back seat to fasten their seatbelts. [In hindsight, this was an understatement. We have passed numerous pickup trucks filled to the seams with passengers, open-air seating, where seatbelts are clearly nonexistent.]

Police: I am teaching you the traffic law to help you.

Driver: No problem. Why don’t you write me a slip and I will pay it at the police station in Gaborone.

Police: That is not possible.

Driver: Alright, man. Talk to me straight. What do you want?

Police: I’m hungry.

With that, we settled the unexpected matter with 100 Pula and continued on our way. The cons outweigh the pros in a system where anything can be settled with money. On one hand, as evidenced by my Zambian friend’s experience in Jo’burg, you can get away from gunpoint situations with your life. On the other hand, prevalent bribery signifies a greater politico-economic system weighed down by graft and corruption.

Hello earth:  the Tropic of Capricorn

Looking for the Tropic of Capricorn in this parched landscape
A big smile as we spot our marker!
There it is! A big hug around the lower belly of the earth.

Two hours’ drive out of Gaborone, we began to scan the roadside for a signpost that marked the Tropic of Capricorn, one of the five key rings of latitude that marks the sphere of the earth. To my delight, we found the lonely signpost “TROPIC OF CAPRICORN” just ahead of the town of Mahalapye. Here I was on one point of a circle that marks the most Southerly latitude touched by the sun. Every year, it peaks above my exact location on midsummer day (summer solstice)- that is, December 22nd at 12:12 PM. How cool is that?

If I kept walking (and swimming) along the Tropic’s circumference, I’d slice through South Africa, Mozambique, Madagascar, Australia, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay and Namibia. According to research on glaciation and Milankovitch cycles at Montana State University, this line is actually moving northward, albeit very gradually, at a rate of 15m/year. At this rate, it would take the Tropic roughly 50,000 years to shift north to the Botswana-Namibia border by Kasane, where I will fly to tomorrow. Imagine squeezing that seismic shift into an hour’s plane ride! Time warp.

Engraved: this point is on the Tropic of Capricorn, which is the most southerly latitude reached by the sun. Here the sun will e at the zenith each year on midsummer day at midday local apparent time which is on 22 December at approximately 12 minutes past twelve o’clock noon. At the above time the sun will shine directly down the tube above this notice.
The tube into which the sun shines precisely every midsummer day, approximately December 22 (summer is in December in the southern hemisphere, remember)

I later read some amazing facts about the native tribes, or San people (“bushmen”, though that is somewhat pejorative), we passed on the way. They are the hunter-gatherer people of Southern Africa who primarily farm for a living after the modernization program of the nineties. I learned to greet locals with “dumêla”, which is Setswana for “hello”. The Peace Corps has compiled a handy booklet if you’d like to be a better tourist, volunteer, or migrant in the Setswana-speaking countries of Botswana and its neighbors.

Setswana: dumela “hello”, Zama “let’s go”, baba “guy”, mama “girl”

Random observations 11:55 AM Nandos at Palapye

Making new friends every Nando’s I go. True joy.

Every stop at Nando’s is a good time, even if your order for chicken wraps is mistaken for burgers. This is easily rectified by re-ordering wraps to-go AFTER your burger. I’m shocked that the only Nandos available in the US is in Washington DC. I need to expand it to the West Coast ASAP.

Our entire crew is on navigation mode so as not to miss our turn into the Khama Rhino Sanctuary north of Serowe. Yellow grasses and endless bush flash by the corners of my eyes. We slow occasionally in case traffic police stop us for over-speeding or any other reason that can possibly be conjured. We are approaching Serowe.

Note on car plates: Botswana plates begin with “B” followed by 3 numbers and more letters. Cars from South Africa have more diverse plates, though most of which I observed begin with DS, CA, or other double/triple letter patterns.

If you love wildlife, better join me at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary tomorrow for a breathtaking safari.

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