Saturday, December 15, 2007

Leaving Botswana

Reflecting on Botswana

What does Santa wear when visiting hot countries? String vest?

Botswana is a young and relatively prosperous country, with lots of growing pains. The tourism industry here is small, high-end only, and owned by foreign interests. Geographically, it sits landlocked above South Africa, with Mozambique to the east, Namibia to the west, and Zambia to the north.

In terms of what Botswana offers tourists, the Okavango Delta is one of the highlights of Africa, a large area laden with an incredible variety of wildlife, game and birds. Chobe National Park is accessible and fascinating. The world-famous Victoria Falls are an easy daytrip from Kasane, probably the best way of visiting them until Mugabe’s dictatorship regime falls. Kruger Park in South Africa is also a few hours drive.

The flipside to this is that aside from good roads, there is little to hold tourists. Accommodation is very very expensive – there are no backpacker options available, so the cheapest rooms you’ll find are about 60 US$ per night. There is no way I would have stayed long here without my friend Thabiso Nasha and his family’s hospitality. There are few good restaurants and bars – Mugg and Bean, an unexciting South African coffee shop chain, is one of the food highlights of Gaborone! There is little in the way of art or culture, a single museum, and just a couple of clubs.

Having said all that, I feel so much more comfortable in Botswana than South Africa. I’m writing this sitting in a coffee shop in Jo’berg, and I tell you I cannot wait to leave, and my first choice would be the bus straight back to Gabs. Botswana has very limited crime, and with one dominant “tribe”, the Batwanas, there is no fear and division in society. People are open, friendly and kind. Now perhaps you can find something similar in rural or township South Africa, but you’re also highly likely to be robbed in the process.


I’ve had many discussion with those who disagree, but I’m sorry, I will not move on this – I have travelled a lot, have experience and plenty of traveller common sense, and frankly Johannesburg makes me feel sick with worry. I feel really really uncomfortable here – more so than the City of God outside of Rio!! Those who don’t feel this and have never seen any problems are either very lucky, or very stupid.

I also don’t like people pretending that it’s not all that bad, because it is. Sure not everyone gets stabbed, but there’s still a 100x higher risk than back home, and that is a risk frankly I don’t think the benefits justify. Everyone has a story – Thabiso arrived with a late bus straight into a street gun battle outside Park Street station, Colastraw was using a public toilets and a guy standing next to him showed him a gun and told him to place his mobile in the guy’s pocked, as the guy happily chatted away with him! And these guys are black – as a white guy with silly hair, and when I’m on the move, a backpack, I have a large banner over my head saying “rich tourist, please hassle”.

But in Botswana, none of this. A few days ago, I was interviewed by Thabiso on the radio. I’d slept at about 4am, then he called me at about 6:45am and told me I was on the air in three minutes! He asked me questions about Botswana and what I thought, and concluded by asking to rate South Africa and Botswana out of 10. I gave SA 7, and Botswana 8.5. This was the right thing to say on Radio Botswana of course, but it’s true. Botswanans come to South Africa for shopping, culture and a bit of life. I go to Botswana to feel welcome, to meet lovely friendly happy people, and to feel like I can walk to the corner shop without getting shot in the leg for a few bucks.

Pull your socks up, Botswana!

So what does Botswana need to do to develop tourism?

1. Promote! Apart from neighbouring countries and the UK (from our colonial links) who has even heard of Botswana? I certainly couldn’t place it geographically until I came to South Africa. They need to launch campaigns in Europe to get the message out – there’s a country called Botswana with some amazing stuff, come visit!

2. Advertise Botswana as a primary destination. I suspect most people currently come to Botswana as a side trip from a South African visit. Sort out Air Botswana, and encourage the European carriers to fly to Gaborone. Or perhaps subsidise and boost the Johannesburg shuttle flight for those with long-haul tickets, encourage people to connect straight through to Gabs. After all, who wants to stay in Jozi?!

3. Encourage independent travel. Currently most people are on tours with foreign companies, so the profits go abroad too. Independent traveller spend money with local businesses, mix with local people, and generally are a positive force for good in a country. I have the distinct impression that at any one time there are about a dozen independent travellers in the whole of Botswana!

4. Use South Africa 2010 World Cup to pull people up. But be careful – if they just come up to Gabs, they may not have the best impression of Botswana! Perhaps work with Namibia, SA and Zambia do develop standard recommended tourist routes. Something like Cape Town and Garden route to Namibia for sand dunes to Botswana for Okavango to Zambia for Vic Falls to Mozambique for tropical beaches.

5. Encourage some domestic competition for the national carrier - South Africa now has several low-cost carriers, it’s high time Botswana had the same. Also organise the domestic bus network better – perhaps look at timetables, and modern buses. This could be as simple as inviting some of the larger South African carriers, like Greyhound and Intercape, to service routes north of Gabs.

6. Low cost accommodation! You need something between camping and 60US$ per night (and many times up). Build or encourage backpacker or budget hotel chains, or perhaps encourage Cresta to offer cheaper options, and to be more sensible about pricing – it would seem that rack rate here is just for tourists – if the room is 1,000P, Thabiso seems to be able to get it to about 200P. Start with more realistic prices in the first place!

7. Clamp down on drink driving! I have never seen anything like it in my life! I’d be interested to see the accident rates in Botswana – I suspect they must be some of the worst in the world – there is no stigma around driving whilst very drunk, and unfortunately because of good roads and cars, people drive very fast inebriated, a very bad thing.

8. Do more to maintain and capture traditional Botswanan culture, before it disappears with city life and globalisation. There’s lots of interesting music, ceremonies, and ways of life that are fascinating to tourists. For example weddings – in Botswana one must “buy” one’s wife, usually for a certain number of cows – 12 is the going rate for a fairly classy girl, though I wonder whether you could haggle them down and substitute a few chickens and goats. This sort of thing is very interesting – how about museums, or cultural shows, especially in Gabs. How about a theatre – plays or musicals?

Indian Wedding

A converted school

My final evening in Botswana I attend an Indian wedding. Thabiso had been roped into being the MC at short notice, for a wedding of several hundred, possibly a thousand people!

At least he finds his own jokes funny

The president, His Excellency, Festus Mogae, President of the Republic of Botswana, was in attendance, and I introduced Herbert to him, taking the photo we missed out on in Palapye a couple of weeks ago.

The President of Botswana and Mr Herbert Ganje

In attendance must have been every Indian person in Botswana, most dressing very well. I used my longji, and tried not to draw attention to my Crocs!

Interestingly I met two girls who were sitting behind Khumo and myself on the bus when I first came up to Botswana! They remembered me, and once reminded, it came back to me too. Was quite noisy behind us! Anyway, they were very friendly and chatty.

Just talking to one of these girls, her thug-like brother came over, told me in no uncertain terms not to speak to his sister, and suggested I should be leaving Botswana the following day. I was tempted to step outside and resolve this in the time-honoured tradition, but it would have been rather stupid to get into a fight on my last night in Botswana, plus it would have been embarrassment for my friends. What an idiot though, and a shameful example of the worst kind of Hindu.

Anyway, we’re sitting somewhere near the back. There’s a waiter per table, and so our drinks flow!

Has Herbs has annoyed yet another girl?!

I cannot explain this look

After plenty of booze, the dancing starts! I asked the President if he’s going to dance later. He says no. I make do by watching the “future president” and his fiancĂ©e dance. Unfortunately Thabiso dances like a white guy!

Saris swing

I love Africa!!

The gang

A triangle of crazy love

A fun evening. We leave, and pop in to Lizard Lounge for a final drink on my last night in Botswana. It’s empty as usual!

The next day, I say goodbye to lovely Sukuo, who has looked after me so well at Dr Nasha’s house.


Thabiso’s cousin

Then Herbert. Oh my Herbert! Life will not be the same without this guy and his maniacal smile! I understand now why Thabiso has not taken getting married to Malebogo lightly – it means “breaking up” with Herbert, and that’s certainly not something easy to do, the guy is a sterling chap.

The final goodbye perhaps isn’t reciprocated, but dear old Chocky certainly has given me some exciting times in Botswana, from the first night where I was nearly eaten on several occasions, to now where she’s a big softie with eyebrows expressive enough to melt your heart.

Who’s a cuddly sweetie now then?

Only yesterday she detected a loaf of bread at the end of the couch hidden under my duvet. In one swift motion, her head slipped under the duvet, and she drew the loaf out, her eyes looking at me guiltily and waiting for the inevitable yell.


How to get a visa for Mozambique
What a morning! After a painful rise from bed after Travis plied me with Carling Black Label beer last night, I realised I was locked into Travis’s house. I rang the security, who tried to find the maid to open up, but she wasn’t about, so, deciding I couldn’t wait any more, I jumped out of a first floor window. Just as I jumped, grazing both my wrists, an old lady walked past with a dog. I think I shocked her more than myself by my actions. I explained that I was locked in. Oh yes, she says, it happens all the time.

I came down yesterday on the TJ bus, as recommended by Malebogo as being much more reliable than Intercape. No internet booking though! At Park Station, I went out to the taxi rank, and ended up in this dodgy car with a chap who quoted 150r, a fair price. Every junction we stopped at, I looked about nervously, but made it to Travis’ place without event.

So, off to the Mozambique embassy. I found a taxi about to leave, and shared it with a girl going round to Sandton Mall, before heading on to the embassy. When we arrived at the address I had, 18 Hurlingham Road, it turned out that the embassy had moved. Bugger. That would explain why I had two addresses – the other, 11 Boundary Road, corner with Casie O’Gowrie, which is where it is now, in a office complex called Island of Houghton. Inside, I pay the new taxi fare of 140r instead of 60, now we’ve driven around half the town, and head in.

Inside the embassy, or rather consulate, the chap behind the desk asks me if I’ve paid already? No. Ah, you have to go to Ned Bank. Where is that? At a mall a few miles away. Do I have a car? No. He advises me not to walk. Oh, and I have to be back in a couple of hours as they stop receiving applications at 12:00 midday. And today is the last day they issue visas before the Xmas shut down. And how much is the visa? An expensive 750r. Why? Reciprocal charge for UK. Okay, I guess I can’t argue with that then.

So I walk to the mall, feeling worried about being robbed. It’s daytime and I’m next to a busy road, so hopefully I’ll be okay. I feel so uncomfortable. Finally reaching the mall, it’s busy, I’m hungry and there are plenty of coffee shops, I wish I could stay here, but I need to get back before 12, then wait a few hours for the visa. I do a spot of shopping, including asking at a chemists about Malarial tablets. The woman says I need a Doctor’s prescription! How ridiculous. I’ll wait till Mozambique and try to buy them there. I also pick up some airtime finally. And then head back on to the streets to feel more Jozi stress.

Back at the embassy, I fill out the application form, for which one pays 1r. Yes.. about 5 pence, for the piece of paper. That’s a first for me. Even the rip-off British Embassies don’t charge you for the application form! I fill out most of it, and then ask the chap about a couple of the boxes, where I’m not sure what to put, for example border crossings. I go for a double entry visa, so I can go to Malawi if I want to. Plus if I’m paying 750r for the visa anyway, why the hell not?

I wait at a coffee shop round the corner, blogging, until 2:30pm, when I head back. Picking up the visa, I ask them what the meaning of one of the words on the visa is, does it mean multiple entry? No, he says, it’s single entry. What? I wanted double. Oh, they made a mistake. Never mind, he says, you’ll just have to apply for another visa next time. What, and pay another 750r? I don’t think so. The British visa is for a fixed period, though he doesn’t agree with this. I dig my heels in, and eventually he concedes and goes off to reissue the visa, which only takes about a minute. Another full page sticker in the passport! Idiots! Somewhat childishly, with hindsight, I spend the rest of the afternoon peeling off the voided visa. I hope this doesn’t screw me up at the border. Why didn’t I wait until I’d left Mozambique at least? My logic at the time was that the sticker would be easier to get off now, rather than when it’s been left for a while. Anyway, it’s off. Wish me luck. Remember that as this passport costs about 1,600r, it’s about 100 bucks a page! I’m not having full pages wasted!

In the evening, I meet Travis at Sandton, and we buy some Hansa Marzen Golds to enjoy in the evening. I’ve printed out some photos for Thabiso, Herbs and Malebogo at the Kodak shop too. Tomorrow I’ll go to Pretoria, meet Thabiso and Malebogo, and we’ll drive to Maputo, staying there overnight before heading up the coast to Tofo for diving! I can’t wait to be back underwater, and this time around one of the best areas for whale sharks!


Anonymous said...

Best blog post I've ever read about Boswana, I'm going to link to it from next weekend's newsletter at South Africa flights.

bathmate said...

nice posting...