(70) Let’s see how it ‘pans’ out
Tuesday 13th August
We had an uninterrupted night’s sleep on the edge of the salt pan but we still felt tired. It was still cold as the sun rose so we let time pass before getting up ourselves. We had around 25 miles before the turnoff to the sowa salt pan we were going to cross and another 35 miles to the island along a sand road where we were planning on camping. The sowa salt pan is one of three salt pans in the north east of Botswana. It is a seasonal lake meaning that it fills with water in the rainy season but was currently dry meaning we could cross it by bike. We had seen photos and just had to cycle across it! Unsure how bad the road was we planned on riding the main road as far as we could then go onto the dirt road, having learned the hard way how hard going on soft sand could be.
We finished our toast and jam which felt a world away from the food we had been eating with Justin at the first camp and Neels at the second. We were finally on the road by 9am and arrived at the vet post where the turn off was by around midday. We got chatting to the police at the barrier. They were great fun and even got one to ride Sharon’s bike.
Having a taste of being a cycle tourist!
We could have stayed chatting for ages but were keen to see how the sand road was. We managed to cover the first 10 miles in around an hour making us think that we could get to the island in good time. We managed to get across the railway line and find a good place to have lunch of delicious fried egg, beef and onion sandwiches.
The road was still ok but with the odd soft sand pit it made it tiring trying to keep the bikes straight and up right. The track became worse with sections of soft sand that although not too deep it was enough to stop us or send us weaving from side to side. Our backsides were beginning to get sore from the constant bumps and erratic peddling.
Hard work in the sand
Passing a herd of cattle
We were getting tired and there was 15 miles to go which felt possible and wanting to see the sun set over the pans so we pushed on. We stopped from time to time to try and regain some strength. Tim delved into his pannier and pulled out the last energy powder that we had been given in Denmark almost a year ago. The powder had gone hard so we stood eating it like a sweet and finished riding to the turn off at the next veterinary gate with restored energy. Hearing there might not be water on the island we didn’t want to take any chances and asked the staff at the gate if we could grab a few more litres. Tim has been carrying a full 10 litres water bag since the morning and finding we could have got water at the gate was a little annoying but it was better to be safe than sorry as we would be crossing the salt pan the next day and didn’t know for sure where we could get some.
We had fun chatting to the guys on the gate. We continued along the fence and out onto the pans with the sun was almost setting leaving amazing moon like scenery only broken by a small island with scattered baobab trees.
Heading out on the pan
The ground was a cross between riding on a 4″ crust of snow and part dried cement dust and we broke the top layer as we rode over.
Enjoying a stunning sunset over the pan
We reached the island and climbed up to the higher ground. It was dark by the time we reached the top and so we followed some tracks to find a good camp spot. We lit a fire and sat on our sore bottoms, tired but happy to be there. We were the only people on the island and had only seen a couple of people since the highway. As the half-moon rose it lit up the pans below like snow on a massive flat sea – it was stunning and so quiet. There was no sound at all, no animals, birds, cars, voices or a breath of wind. Needless to say we both fell into a deep sleep ready to cross the pans the following day.
Wednesday 14th August
After both having vivid dreams we woke to the first light of the sun before it rose above the horizon. Sharon got up and took some pictures while Tim watched it rise with his head still on his Buzz-light year pillow. We were both tired and so had another half an hours rest before packing our things and rekindling the fire to make a cupper.
We took our time watching the salt pans slowly change as the sun rose. We headed down to a huge baobab tree that we had been told about but had missed it on the dark.
The bikes next to a magnificent baobab tree
There was a track that led out onto the pans so we followed it out to start our ride across it. The going was hard work only managing to ride at 4-5 mph and we needed to stop every 50 minutes or so to have a break. It took a while to get the hang of navigating and with no land marks we had to resort to using small shadows from the salt crust then look ahead for another one. We had a small rock from time to time which sped us up giving us an object about a mile or so away to aim for. The ground changed at times to wet soft clay like porridge making it really tough and slowing our progress even further.
Trying to ride in straight line which proved tough!
It was 1pm by the time we stopped for lunch and being 31 degrees with no shade for miles, we put up the outer part of the tent to protect us from the sun and rolled out our thermarests to lay down to eat lunch. We only had little water left as we seemed to be drinking more being out in the sun and what we did have we wanted to save so we decided to forego a cuppa and have an energy powder in our water. Lunch consisted of 1 and a ½ carrots each and 3 biscuits with jam on. It wasn’t a lot but enough to keep us going.
We packed up at 3.30 so not to ride in the heat and tried again to spot tiny landmarks. We had been keeping a good line with the odd wobble now and then although a little slow. The sun started to set and with it the colours became more amazing in this moon like scenery. It was truly one of the most spectacular places we had been to.
Enjoying the pans!
Tim riding on the moon
Shaz riding on the moon – look at the colours!
It wasn’t long before almost all the sunlight had gone but with the white of the pan it felt like we were riding through an infinite snow field. It wasn’t long before we spotted some lights off in the distance indicating the town of Mosu where we were heading. The lights gave us a clear point of reference to aim for. As we rode towards them they never seemed to change much and the only difference was that new ones would appear. We got within 4 miles of Mosu and decided to camp on the pan and make the most of this landscape. It was a great place to be but with less than 3 litres of water left we had to be careful. We had a large potato, an onion and a carrot in the food bag and we decided to fry them to save the water for drinking in the morning. Although it was only 4 miles it could still take us an hour to get to the town through the thick porridge. It had been a hard couple of days ride but so worth it. With the tent up and the temperature dropping we climbed into our bags feeling sticky – a wash would have to wait.
Thursday 15th August
The night started with total silence and not a breath of wind, then around 3am the tent started to flap furiously. The tent had only been held down by 2 pegs at one end and as the wind starting to lift Tim’s thermarest he quickly jumped out to hold the house down. It was blowing hard from the side making the tent shake. The pan looked stunning with a half-moon lighting as far as we could see. We settled back into our sticky sleep and woke with the wind gone and the sun rising.
The morning sun
It had been such an adventure sleeping out on the pan and watching the sun rise over a lunar landscape. With only about 2 litres of water left we put some in our bottles and managed to have enough for a packet of noodles followed by a tiny orange each and 1 and a half biscuits. We loaded the bikes and slowly navigated the 2 miles off the pan and through a maze of thorn trees.
A heard of cattle on the edge of the pan
We picked up a track after pushing our bikes along animal tracks and managed to find the small town. We asked a guy who was washing some clothes where we could get water. He replied there is no water in the town. Sharon asked where he got the water to wash his clothes from to which he replied ‘the bowl’. We spotted some ladies and asked the same question and they pointed to the school and said to help ourselves. We were surprised at how many new buildings there were – the school was a well-built new looking building. The ladies showed us to the only shop in the village – unfortunately everything was really expensive so we picked up a cold drink and biscuits to get us by. We left the village and headed for the town of Mmatshumo which was 31 miles away along a hard gravel road. Our speed increased but the corrugations made the going tough. We stopped at 12 to cook and rest after a long couple of days and looked forward to Tarmac roads again. After 2 cups of tea and loads of rice we were starting to feel a little bit more normal.
We re-joined the gravel track passing a few cows and donkeys and after what felt forever we finally reached the village of Mmatshumo and finally tarmac.
Donkeys along the dirt road
With another cold drink and a couple packs of biscuits in our bellies, we turned left to head back to the main highway and on to the town of Lethakane. We picked up a strong headwind and only managed to push out 9-10 mph. It was hard going but after a few hours and the sun set we arrived in the town in the dark. We never liked arriving in the dark but Botswana had always felt safe and as we needed food we had to risk it. The town was bigger than we thought with many big supermarkets and hotels. Sharon went in to pick up the bits we needed then we set off out of town to find somewhere to camp, picking water up at a garage on our way. Finding a camp spot in the dark was proving difficult with fencing on both sides so we waited until we saw a side road and headed down it. There were camel thorn trees everywhere and finding a good spot to pitch without damaging the tent, our bikes or the thermarests was a bit tricky. We arrived at a bend with a space in the corner just big enough for our tent. All we needed to do now was cook and have our long awaited wash.
Friday 16th August
It felt hard to open our eyes from our deep sleep. It had been a great spot hidden from the road not only making us feel safe but giving us a longer lie in without being seen. We slowly packed and had breakfast whilst trying not to get caught up on the thorn bushes which were barbed making it a nightmare to unhook ourselves.
Our barbed camp spot
We made our way out onto the road to find the wind had picked up and so meaning we would have a head wind all day. Although the road was good we struggled to get 8 mph. We tried a few things – Tim went to the front and tried to pick up the pace but with it being gusty he soon slowed back to a crawl. Tim then sat behind Sharon and pushed her with his stick which worked for a while until he miss-timed it and disappeared down the road embankment. We then resorted to the tried and tested method of taking it in turns at the front. It was hard going with the scenery only changing with a left hand bend or a right. We could have been anywhere on the road and it would have looked the same with the only difference being the sun was in a different place in the sky.
We covered 30 miles and reached a veterinary fence with a police checkpoint and a shop. We brought a coke each before heading over to have lunch at the police camp. They were nice guys and we chatted whilst cooking our soup and tea. We filled our water bottles and water bag and headed on after one of the policemen had a go on Tim’s bike.
The wind had dropped a little giving us a faster a pace and a chance to look around at the scenery. The view was the same but without battling with the wind it was much more enjoyable. We managed to cover 50 miles and stopped for a cupper under a tree. We were approached by some locals, one of which asked for food. As this was an everyday occurrence we politely said no, finished our tea and rode on the last few miles before camping.
The scenery didn’t change but the sky was stunning
The scenery although the same was made more dramatic with an amazing sun set which felt like an apology for a boring and hard day. It was stunning with bright orange bands crossing the sky.
A stunning sky
Shaz as the sun set
We reached a small town and rode through to look for somewhere to sleep. We went on for a couple of miles spotting a half open gate with no sign of vehicle or footsteps passing through. It was perfect and once we were out of sight of the road we settled down for a good night’s sleep. Sharon had mentioned a few times that she was cold at night. Tim decided to swap bags for the night to see how bad it was.
Saturday 17th August
As the night went on and the temperature dropped Tim decided that swapping sleeping bags with Sharon was a bad idea as he woke around 3 am freezing cold and looked longingly at his bag that was now keeping Sharon nice and toasty. In fact she was too hot and so shared a little of its warmth. We both woke tired and not really ready to ride another 64 miles but if we were going to get to Gaborone by the 20th as we had arranged.We needed to cover the miles to reach our friend Sara’s Godmother Sarah who lived in Gaborone and had kindly invited us to stay.
As we made our way along the track we noticed there was no wind so joining the road was much better than the day before. We continued to climb steadily for the next 35 miles finally reaching the top to descend into the small town of Paje. We stopped to buy a coke from some lovely ladies on the road and chatted to them for a while before riding on a little, stopping under a tree to cook chilli beans on toast. It was so nice and a change from our normal lunch. We rode on out of Paje to the junction where we turned off to Serowe. As we headed towards the town we were met by a strong head wind for the 2 miles stretch. We didn’t mind as we knew we would have a tail wind on the way out. We spotted a super market and rode around to the entrance. We appeared in a small market that sold all sorts. We picked up a few supplies including steak crisps and chocolate ready for a feast when we stopped. We loaded what we could in the food bag and rode to a garage to top up our fuel bottles and water. We rode the 14 miles out of town now with a tail wind and a downhill and soon covered the miles. Almost on cue we saw a gateway, headed in and found a good spot just off the road out of sight. With half an hour before sunset it gave us chance to have a good wash and prepare our feast. We were both fed and watered by 8pm and feeling much better than we did the previous night. With less than 180 miles (approx. 300km) to Gaborone we were on target.
Sunday 18th August
After another cold night we were starting to wonder what it was going to be like climbing up into Lesotho which at its highest point is over 3000 metres. Tim said it was lucky his sleeping bag was warm with a little grin. Our night passed unnoticed and we both woke feeling refreshed.
We rode the 14 miles to Palapye where the road turned south west, putting us into another strong headwind and gentle climb. Any energy we had got back from a good night’s sleep evaporated in minutes and we were soon forced to a slow pace. The scenery was a little better and on a still day would have been enjoyable. The cars and truck drivers were being generous with their space while over taking and many would wave but it didn’t really lift our despondent mood. Surprisingly we managed to cover 38 miles before 1pm but by now Sharon was finding it tough. Tim had picked up a puncture so we stopped under a tree to cook lunch and soon found the offending thorn.
Lunch under a tree
Lunch seemed to be over too soon but still needing to cover the miles everything was put back into its place and we set off into the wind. The passing cars and trucks gave a little respite from the wind as they passed but didn’t make us go any faster. We reached a sort of summit but with the wind it did feel more like a climb. We finally reached the town of Mahalapye where we picked up supplies and water whilst chatting to a few friendly locals outside the supermarket. We only needed to cover another 8 miles to reach our target for the day so we headed off out of town. A mile less than our target, we spotted an entrance which looked perfect for a camp. With the light fading, we pitched the tent and washed before tea and had another night to catch up on some well-earned rest.
Monday 19th August
Other then another a cold night we both slept well. It was another nice day with not a cloud in the sky and as yet, not much wind. Not knowing if this would change we managed to sit up bend our legs crawl to the door and got our legs and arms slightly mobile again. Sharon was still really tired so Tim had the tea made and the tent almost packed away while she was still in it and loaded the bikes. We had the usual ceremonial breakfast of toast and jam (which was more like artificial flavoured sugar) and got on the road. We looked in shock at each other. It couldn’t be! It was. We had a tail wind – all be it a slight one but a tail wind is a tail wind.
We set off with the cracking of knees and 120 miles to cover in 2 days. We wanted to get a good distance done to leave us with as little to cover the next day as possible. It wasn’t long before we covered the first 10, then the next 10 and the next. We noticed on the map that we were about to cross the Tropic of Capricorn. Sure enough a few kilometres later we reached the sign at 23’30 (which was different to our map which said it was at 23’27). Still we were here and it felt great.
At the Tropic of Capricorn
We had covered 45 miles, so found a tree, cooked beans on toast and enjoyed the thought of a good day. Not knowing whether the wind would change we got going covering another 20 miles when Sharon spotted Justin (who had treated us to some great nights in the north of Botswana)waving travelling the other way to work. He was soon on the phone apologising that he couldn’t stop as he was late for a meeting and we promised to meet up in Cape Town. The wind kept pushing us south towards Gaborone and after a long day we stopped for a drink. We didn’t stop long as we wanted to make the most of the wind. As we were getting to the end of the day we were surprised there weren’t any settlements being only 40 miles from the capital. We were low on water and according to our map we would have to ride another 25 miles before we could get any water. Almost 10 minutes later we passed a telecom tower with a few voices shouting hello. Sharon asked if they had water and they replied yes. We managed to get enough for the evening and went on a mile spotting a good place off the road now only 34 miles from the city. It was perfect. Our legs were about to fall off and our eyes fall shut but after a good 86 miles ridden that day we were pleased. All we had to do was ring Sarah in Gaborone to get directions to her place for the following morning, pitch the tent, light a fire, cook tea, have a wash and fix Tim’s thermarest – oh yes and sleep.
Our camp for the night
Tuesday 20th August
We woke bleary eyed and Tim’s thermarest was flat again. The fix had either failed or there was another puncture. Sharon got up while Tim put a little more air in his mattress for a few more minutes kip. It was Sharon’s turn to feel spritely and busied around rekindling the fire for breakfast. Tim got up and sealed a couple of tiny holes in the fly sheet of the tent concerned as the rains were on their way. With only 34 miles to go we hoped the wind was in our favour and that it was empty of busy traffic. We made our way out to the road and to our surprise the wind was with us and the road was indeed quiet.
We whizzed along up and down the long gentle slopes enjoying the wide hard shoulder and good tarmac. We were surprised not to be arriving in the usual city outskirts of small towns and shanties and suddenly found ourselves in the city. We turned off the highway and rode into town, spotting a lady with a sewing machine. For £1 we had our fuel bottle bag sewn up and the back side of Tim’s shorts patched which involved him taking them off and staying very still as his cycling shorts had become very see through. Sharon stood with a big grin on her face while Tim protected his dignity and once fixed, set off to pick up a few bits from the supermarket. With the help of the GPS we found Sarah and Mike’s house and were met by a huge smile and a big hug.
It was great to arrive and they had such a lovely place with 2 lovely dogs and a completely mad but very charming cat. Sarah is also mad about horses and we enjoyed hearing about them and seeing their paintings on the walls. They were kept about an hour’s drive away so unfortunately we wouldn’t have time to meet them. Sarah competed in all types of riding competitions and had recently completed her first endurance ride. She was a fine host and bought us juice, fresh tuna salad and a beer after we had jumped in the freezing pool and changed feeling refreshed.
Tim, Sarah and Shaz
All our dirty clothes were washed by Sarah – we had a huge pile of washing and she was such a star to wash it all and did not even flinch when we handed her the smelly pile. We managed to get so much done and even have time to relax before tea. We were given more beer and time to sit in a living room with the fire lit complete with pictures of the south west of England. It was very reminiscent of an English home which was so nice. We were soon joined by Mike’s sister Flee and her husband Noel. We all had an amazing evening with amazing food cooked by Sarah and amazing company. How would we ever forget Botswana?
Sharon, Noel, Sarah, Tim, Flee and Mike
We said goodnight and retired into our room with amazing comfy beds. Life on the road can be tough you know 🙂
Wednesday 21st August
We woke around 8 and were shortly brought tea and coffee and breakfast was already laid. We sat with all the things we love on the table and enjoyed the moment. Sarah had taken the morning off to take us around town to pick up a few things we needed – 2 carabineers (used to clip our panniers on), a potato peeler and a bike lock as we had sent our one home with Andrew by accident. We were then treated to a delicious lunch. We appreciated relaxing and chatting with Sarah. She was incredibly busy and was soon off to oversee the import of some horses that were crossing the border from South Africa and being taken to the Okavango delta. We appreciated her taking time out to spend with us.
Our time with Sarah and Mike had been short but were made to feel so at home. We headed on to a mall where we could get internet to work on our blog. Sarah couldn’t host us that night as the horse owners were staying at her place so we had arranged to stay with Alan Golding and his wife who are good friends with our friend Neal Munro who we met in Khartoum. We sat outside the cafe drinking coke and working on our blog when a load noise was coming down the mall. It was 2 people from the African Big Brother. It was so funny sat watching them pose for the many photographers. It was like a totally different world. Alan arrived at 5pm and we followed him to his house. Alan and his wife Dipuo were such a lovely couple and we felt so lucky that they had agreed to let us stay and very soon felt at home. They told us they would treat us to an Indian meal in the town along with Alan’s step-daughter and so we spent the rest of the evening having a great time getting to know them.
Thursday 22nd August
We woke in a warm bed happy to have another days rest. We had a list of jobs longer then both our bikes put together so set about ticking them off. We started with looking at flights from Cape Town to South America which seemed to take longer than we thought it would. Alan had given us a name of a lovely travel agent in Jo burg who was very helpful and helped us put a request in for our bikes to go on the plane. With the request in, we would have to wait for 7 days to find out if it had been agreed. We reserved the flights for 7 days hoping it would all come together. We managed to get so much done and it felt so good to have the time speak to home. Alan returned home for lunch and told us we would be having a braai in the evening which was great news! We spent the rest of the day working through our list and enjoyed a great evening with Alan and his family. They were such lovely people and it was great to chat – we would be sad to leave Botswana but were excited about crossing the border into South Africa the next day.
Alan, Dipuo and Tim
We had been nervous and excited about Botswana with the wild animals and very few people but it was what we loved about it. Botswana is beautiful with much more diverse scenery than we imagined with many wild animals, unreal landscapes and new friends, what fun we had. It was truly brilliant and the only disappointment was missing the Okavango delta but we had to leave at least one reason to come back 🙂
Thanks for reading!