Saturday morning comes, and we watch the sunrise from the rearview mirror. The landscape changes slowly as we cross the first border to South Africa. The red tint in the ground is slowly turning white with the sands of the limestone dessert. The thick forestry, and mountains are inching closer and closer to the horizon we are leaving behind. With every kilometer we travel, the road in front of us seems to stretch for 20 more. I am not use to seeing such flat land, after living among mountains and rolling hills for the last two years.
We stop every few hours, to stretch our legs, and fill up on snacks. I’m fascinated inside the petrol station complex’s, watching the crowds of white Afrikaans families wander around with bare feet, and speak in that shockingly abrasive dialect. The Afrikaans are relatives of the Dutch settlers that colonized South Africa. Their language is a close sister of the Dutch, rich with the full throat sounds, and unpleasant grunts that make it sound like they are coughing up a cancerous lung. George describes these people much like our beloved “American Rednecks”, and I can see why. The car-park is packed full of Caravans, RV’s and giant trucks packed to the brim with camping gear and shoeless children. Everyone seems to be on holiday this weekend, and we can’t figure out why– although these rednecks, have fully lined pockets from their hundreds of acres of farm land, so they need no national holiday to encourage time off to play with their 4-wheelers and braii freshly hunted meat on an open fire. They are a fascinating group to watch– and although I sometimes forget that I too am white, it feels so foreign to be among so many at once.
The road stretches on for what seems like forever. The space between towns is growing, the only reminder that there is any sign of life left on the road are the random signs for rivers or small villages off the main road. The signs are long; some with 20 or more letters, many of which repeat, and i’m entertaining myself by trying to pronounce these ridiculous words. “bloamfontein or vereeneging” I add a couple throat clears, and snorts for effect.
We have been traveling for over 8 hours since we left the house, the last 2 we have been alone on the road, no cars have passed, no people walking on the side. We are on auto pilot and getting a little slap happy from gazing at the sun for countless kilometers. We pass a sign that says “Restaurant and pub” and George nearly does a 360 turn without brakes. The feeling of the car stopping seems so foreign, like when you get off a trampoline and your legs feel like jelly. The sign above the gate proclaims “Predators Paradise Park”. The gate opens and we immediately see enclosures with wolfs, leopards, a few lynx and antelope, followed by monkeys and then lions. Lions everywhere. They are behind fences, but just a meter away. As we drive along the perimeter, they slowly prop their enormous heads up to investigate, and then let them drop like a heavy sack, back to the ground. There are easily over a dozen lions in this park, but looks like someone’s personal farm. I can’t figure this place out; so random; in the middle of nowhere; how did they acquire so many lions? And why? We follow the winding gravel road, following the scattered signs toward the Pub.
The Pub is in the far back corner, and guarded by a huge ostrich I hesitate to get out of the car as my track record with birds is not great, and this bird is bigger than me and George put together. But the thought of a cold cider is too tempting in this heat, so I follow George closely up the back stairs, watching big bird out of the corner of my eye.
The deck is beautiful, so we order and sit in the corner, overlooking a large field, enclosed by an electric fence just a few feet from where we are sitting. I notice something moving close by, and then see the outline of a white main. It’s a lion! A stones throw away, it is peeking at us behind the tall grass which makes a perfect camouflage this time of year. He peaks up at us every few minutes, and then drops back out of sight, while we enjoy our beers. We chat about how random this place is, and watch that creepy Ostrich roam around the ground below the deck. A bird should not have feet that big in my opinion- I find nothing interesting about this ugly thing. But George is fascinated by the way it is eating everything it can find on the ground, and watches as it straightens out it’s scrawny neck every few seconds, and the lump on the side slowly sinks to it’s stomach. I’m going to have nightmares, if I watch any longer, so we head back to the car. The key is almost turned in the ignition when we decide to get one more for the road, and George runs back up the stairs to the bar. I stay behind, opening my window and play with the radio. Then I see big bird staring at me from a few meters away. I huff and decide to play the “i’m not scared of you” card. Then it suddenly starts a steady gallop in my direction. I quickly drop my act, and roll up the manual window as fast as I can. I throws a couple peeks at the glass, and I see george at the top of the stairs holding two cold drinks. I can tell he is trying hard not to laugh, as I am trying not to scream. He pauses for longer than I can justify as he tries to regain composure, and walks to the car. The bird doesn’t move, just stares at me from behind those ridiculous eye lases. George gets in and starts backing up, laughing the whole time– big bird just stares and follows the car with little movement of its tiny little head. I’m ready for the road, and to leave this creepy homemade zoo behind.
The sun is setting now, and all we can see is the empty road, and the big orange sphere we are driving directly towards. I can’t understand why they would make such a road drive directly into the sunset, or why it seems to be such a deserted road leading to such a large country. We are staring directly ahead, and willing Tatianna (our faithful GPS woman) to sound the next direction. She has been quiet for hours, and i’m starting to wonder if she has short circuited or acquired some kind of glitch.
Finally we spot a few people on the side of the road, walking in our direction- they appear out of nowhere. And then a few cars with Botswana plates- we must be getting close- although I have no idea where these people have emerged from.
Tatianna directs us to turn left and we see the border before us. Nothing more then a small trailer and building. We get our passports stamped leaving South Africa, and then drive a few meters on a dirt road, and over a small river to the Botswana side to get our stamps for entry.
We realize on the other-side that we aren’t sure where to go from here. We were planning to stay at a backpackers I found online, near a game reserve, but we wanted to stop by George’s Aunts house first. Apparently Tatianna took us through the wrong border, and we are far from his family. It’s getting dark, so we decide to find the backpackers for the night. We find it after an hour of circling around a small neighborhood near the game park. It’s completely unmarked, and in a strange location. We were hoping for some kind of food, but were found wanting. The last thing we wanted was to get back into the car and find a restaurant, but we forced our backsides back into their well worn seat imprints and carried on. A nice man told us there was a small shopping center not far where one or two restaurants could be found. It didn’t sound great, but it was better than nothing so we went in that direction.
Now I should really have learned my lesson by now. Every time I go to another African country, I have this idea that it is deserted and undeveloped. That Swaziland is just this exception that has civilization that is unmatched by it’s borders. As we enter into town I am quickly reminded that Swaziland is so tiny in comparison to it’s neighbors. This “small shopping center”, is larger than any mall we have in SD. We are immediately met by a dozen fast food options, and giant stores. Despite my grumbling stomach, I have to walk around this place. Stores, and shopping and cafes. 3-D movie theaters, arcades and photo booths! I dream of a shopping center like this in Swaziland. After the wonderment wears off, we order a pizza each and head back to the backpackers.
The next morning we waste no time packing up and heading to his Aunties house. George has another 8 hour drive to Francis Town this afternoon, so he has to be leaving after lunch. His aunntie and uncle are so sweet, with stories upon stories of their life in Botswana. His uncle is Austrian, and Aunt is Swazi (George’s dad’s sister). They met over 40 years ago and have lived together in Swaziland, Austria and now Botswana, with a daughter my age living in Portland, Oregon. They are now house parents for a small group of government funded “top achiever” students in all of Botswana. They provide their meals and accommodation while the students attend class and study endlessly. The house is lovely, and the perfect little hidden gem for aspiring little geniuses.
George leaves shortly after lunch, and I check in to my motel, a few km’s from his family. It’s going to be a long week while he is away training for work- the longest we have been apart since we met. But it is nice to be able to get to know George’s family, and travel on my own a little. Seems like such a strange thing to do now, even though I have never really traveled with anyone before. It’s day 2 on my own, and who knows what this week has in store for me.