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Elephant fiesta

January 11, 2010

We buy a tent, sleeping bags and rent a car in Jo’burg, sharing the cost, the driving and the journey with a couple from Ireland and New Zealand on their holidays here. We head north, churning hundreds of kilometres along the route travelled by so many of our illustrious European forbears, including Speke and Livingstone, and so many of our not so illustrious forbears who were less intent on exploration so much as exploitation.

We skirt west into Botswana, finding a wonderfully organised country with a very low crime rate, good clean roads, quality housing, and friendly, well-educated people. Our road north from Francistown – Botswana’s second city but to us, more like a small country town – is, like most roads in this sparsely populated country, surrounded by African bushland. It’s not long before we have to stop to avoid hitting a crossing elephant. Unlike with other road fauna like goats or monkeys or deer, elephants aren’t the kind of obstacles you hurry along by tooting your horn. Elephants interrupting our journey are very much free to take their sweet time crossing in front of us – I’m certainly not hurrying a 5 tonne beast with huge tusks and a stream of musk running down from each eye.

Wow, Botswana is fantastic. Most of the country is Kalahari desert (84%) and the rest is a riverine system of wetlands thriving with wildlife. Our journey to Kasana in the northeast corner of the country is better than a game drive through a national park anywhere else. We see antelope, elephants, baboons, giraffe and more just from the highway. We set up camp in grounds bubbling up with deafening frogs on the bank of the Chobe River, a few hundred metres from its confluence with the mighty Zambezi (Africa’s fourth biggest river after the Nile, Niger and Congo). Across the river is Namibia, but we aren’t crossing yet. After a troubled night, nervously staring into the whites of each others’ eyes in the dark, while enormous-sounding elephants trumpet nearby and hippos munch and fart scarily close to our flimsy nylon tent, we organise a boat trip down the river.

Apart from a massive boat taking the visiting Indian prime minister, his press and armed entourage, we are the only boat on a vast expanse of river that’s boiling with hippos and crocs, whose heads appear disturbingly near us as we cruise by. “I’ve lost a couple of tourists in the past few months,” says Elliot, our boatman/guide. “One fell in the water drunk and got eaten by crocodiles. The other was on a fishing trip and got dragged in by the line.” I gulp and move back a bit from the helm. Just one of these hippos can overturn our boat, should it choose, Elliot says.

We spy fish eagles and kingfishers, antelope and deer, hippos and giraffes. We stop to watch an elderly male elephant pee, poo and then cross the river from an island (with a Botswanan flag defiantly waving in Namibia’s face) to the other bank. Then we come across a broad, shallow bank where around a hundred elephants have gathered to play, wash, swim and bully each other. It’s a magical sight and we stay a while enjoying the scene. A tiny baby elephant, no bigger than a dog, trots down the bank towards the river and is knocked over by a clumsy adult male dashing past. Immediately, a group of 10 concerned elephants rush over and encircle the baby, protecting him from further injury and stroking him with their trunks. Meanwhile, a couple of teenagers run around tormenting birds, chasing them till they fly off and then rushing after them and trumpeting when they settle again. It’s great fun and we’re all sorry when they leave en masse and head back into the bush.

Botswana is Africa’s success story. A fully functioning non-racial democracy since independence in the 1960s, which benefits from a tiny population of less than 2 million over an area the size of France or Texas, Botswana funds its impressive social security system with its rich natural resources, including platinum, diamonds and gold. Everyone here is educated – schooling is free. The streets are clean, there is no corruption, housing is provided for the poor and frontpage news in the national broadsheet is about the scandal of a woman who has been living in a converted bus and has been overlooked by social services. Where else in Africa?

But I fear for this shining beacon of a country. Two years ago (at the end of 2007), President Festus Mogae retired, handing over to his deputy Lt. Gen. Ian Khama. Yup, you spotted it, a military man. As are his deputy and most of the top members of his cabinet. Khama acquired his position on the basis of his father, Seretse being the first president of the liberated country in 1966. On election, two years ago, Ian’s first move was to clamp down on press freedom, issuing a rule that all reports have to pass through his office first. Other limitations on democracy have followed. It’s not looking good for this nation, which has such a small population that rebelling against a military-led authority would be near impossible.

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