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Heavy going on poor tarmac: south from Kasane

Having refuelled in Kasane and having made his way through just a mile or so of road-works, he and Sandra were on a straight, well-surfaced open road with no side-roads off it and barely any traffic on it, and there was every prospect of their being able to reach Nata, which was three hundred kilometres away, in under three hours. Clearly there was nothing to stop them, and those warnings they’d received about the road were either misguided (and based on some local digging-up around Kasane) or they were completely out of date. Hell, had Brian known then what he knew now, he could probably have spent at least another hour in bed.

However… after fifty or so kilometres, he wasn’t so sure. First there were temporary speed-limit signs for roadworks. Albeit these road-works never materialised. All that was ever observed was the evidence of some small-scale road-works in the past, with a few empty tar-barrels at the side of the road and maybe an abandoned digger. But never more than this Marie Celeste encounter and never a road-work-type person in sight. This was all a little unnerving, and it certainly reduced Brian’s average speed – quite significantly. Although not by quite as much as the road surface soon did.

Strip Van Wrinkle coverIt was still tarmac and it was still essentially coherent tarmac, in that little if any of it had started to separate. But that said, it wasn’t “encouraging” tarmac. It had a finish to it that wasn’t… well, particularly well finished, and in certain stretches even the less than perfect finish seemed to be wearing away. It tended to make driving in a straight line something of a challenge and occasionally (and unpredictably) it was so bad that it threatened to subvert the action of the steering wheel completely. Brian began to feel that he might have an unscheduled meeting with the flat (and un-surfaced) Botswanan landscape to either side of the road at any moment and without any warning. He therefore slowed some more, and the chances of a three-hour journey time to Nata were now looking slim.

More time was then lost at another “vet check”, another chemical dip blocking the road, and a dip that required not just the emersion of the Land Cruiser’s tyres and a stamp of footwear on a sodden mat, but also a stamp of all one’s footwear on a sodden mat, whether said footwear was on one’s feet or in one’s luggage! Needless to say, a token selection of the packed footwear was made (a pair of Sandra’s sandals), and this seemed to satisfy the requirements of the observing officials. But it still consumed time. So much so that Brian was keen to press on and to find “a bit of better road”. In the event he found “the detour”.

It wasn’t a conventional detour. It was nothing less than a one hundred and thirty kilometre stretch of the Kasane-Nata road, where the road itself was pristine, but not in use – and running along its side was the aforementioned “detour”. It was a tarmac track, bumpy, narrow, full of holes and eminently scary. And to understand why it was so scary (and increasingly slow) it is necessary to describe its bumpiness and its narrowness – and its collection of holes – in rather more detail.

Sandra likened its surface to the uneven topping one finds on a fruit cake – scaled up to road proportions. Brian considered it more like the surface one finds in a lava field. To him, this detour track was like a long, linear strip of some long-cooled volcanic flow that had been pressed into service as a highway and that certainly hadn’t been built by any road builders. Or if it had been, then they hadn’t used any steamrollers, but just a giant pallet knife to smear the lava into a series of uneven waves.

And then there was its narrowness… which alternated between very narrow and, where the tarmac had frayed at its edges, stupidly narrow. Indeed, in places it was not much more than the axle width of the Land Cruiser, which was something of a problem when the pot holes appeared…

To begin with, they were regular pot holes. But the closer to Nata Brian drove, these “depressions” in the road surface had to relinquish their pot hole handle in favour of “crater holes”. Because that’s what they’d become: holes which were so big and so deep that they were properly craters. It was as though somebody had grown tired of that giant pallet knife and had taken up instead a giant ice-cream scoop, and had used this to gouge great chunks of tarmac-lava from the so-called surface of the so-called road. Indeed, later on in their holiday, Brian and Sandra would learn one of the standard jokes about this stretch of purgatorial highway, and this concerned rabbits. For it was said that if one was driving down this “detour” and one saw the ears of a rabbit in one of its many craters, one would realise, as one neared it, that they weren’t the ears of a rabbit but instead the ears of a giraffe! The Kasane-Nata “pot holes” may be amongst the deepest in all Africa, and those that spanned almost the width of the road must also have been some of the biggest.

Thank god, thought Brian, that they had this Land Cruiser and that they were able to drive through these monsters. Or should that be ‘drive into them and then out of them’?

Strip Van Wrinkle coverHis average speed was now about twenty kilometres per hour, falling all the time. Near the end of the tribulation it was barely walking pace, and he was beginning to concede that all those doom merchants who had warned him of this route over the past couple of weeks hadn’t warned him sufficiently. Even taking account of the sand-tracks he’d tussled with already on this and on previous holidays in Africa, this really was the worst road he’d ever driven on – by miles.

However, it was coming to an end. On the detour, there was an arrow-sign ahead, and this arrow was directing him back onto a regular stretch of road – with a regular pot-hole-free surface of regular tarmac – and he could finally apply some pressure to that right-hand pedal. He speeded up and kept up this speeded-up speed for more than a kilometre – until he encountered the next barrier in his quest to reach Nata. And this was a fire!

Unbelievable. But he had to believe it. There, at the side of the road, was an enormous conflagration. Not the first that he and Sandra had seen, as in this part of the world, wild fires are common, as is the practice of burning near a highway to keep it clear of encroaching vegetation. But this one was a whopper, and it came with the added features of a blanket of smoke and an intimate proximity to the road. And, with the way that the wind was blowing, that meant that the smoke and the flames were actually across the road. Cue use of footbrake as well as accelerator, some erratic turning of the steering wheel and some growing activity in Brian’s sweat glands. So that when he’d finally reached an expanse of Botswana that wasn’t alight, his armpits were flowing over only slightly less than was his relief.

And now he had only the donkeys, cows and goats to contend with…

Yes, he and his wife had reached the outskirts of Nata – and the outriders of its complement of roaming domestic animals. They were all over the place – including the road. And whilst a few of these four-legged hazards had been encountered earlier on in Botswana (on the way to Nxameseri), they hadn’t before been encountered in such copious numbers. Still, once the travelling duo were through Nata, all would be fine. Brian was sure of it. And that meant that although they had taken over four hours to reach this place and not the three that Brian had anticipated, they could make up some time. They had reached the extremity of their southern progress and would now be turning west towards a place called Maun, and the Nata-Maun road had nothing like the notoriety of the way they had come.

It would be a doddle.

So too was Nata. Not so much a town, more a junction with a couple of service stations. And having used one of these to fill up again, Brian was soon out of it and on the easier route. And it really was. It was (inevitably) straight, it had a good road surface, it had essentially no traffic – and it had just a few of those mobile hazards, especially donkeys. But soon these occasional hazards had disappeared – to be replaced by continuous hazards!

Yes, Brian could barely come to terms with it, but this road, leading into the heartland of Botswana, appeared also to be leading into the heartland of its donkey population. And it wasn’t as though the cows and the goats had disappeared either… Jesus! The odd four-footer he could deal with, but this was like driving through an unending herd of them. And according to the road-safety section of his Guide to Botswana, legally they had the right of way. Hit one and not only do you damage an animal and your vehicle, but you also damage your prospects of leaving the country without a fine or even a prison term. Again, Brian found himself driving at a rather sedate pace – and studying the habits of the different species in the ubiquitous throng.

The donkeys were keen on whatever grazing was available at the very edge of the road (which was negligible and looked more like a green spray-can job than anything that was substantial enough to eat). But they were careful – and predictable. Brian quickly learnt that they very infrequently made sudden movements and, in fact, they were pretty disinclined to move a great deal at all – and never at speed. A bit like Brian himself really. But not like the cattle. These chaps tended to move as a group, and if the leader of the group (and there was always a leader) decided to lead his followers across the road, they would all trail behind him and show disdain for any vehicles. They were almost sheepish in their behaviour and indifferent to its consequences. So a little like committed socialists. And talking of sheep, there were then the goats. They were the most unsettling of all, essentially because they were very irrational in their behaviour and they would panic, and if one panicked they would all panic – with unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences. So they were a bit like bankers…

Almost one hundred kilometres out of Nata, Brian was still musing on these animal/human likenesses – and still avoiding the animals – when he spotted a giant aardvark. It was by the side of the road, a house-size sculpture of this secretive animal, designed by a talented artist and also designed to tell all those who were seeking it that they had now arrived at the turn-off to “Planet Baobab”.

Strip Van Wrinkle coverNow, it is worth pointing out at this stage that Brian and Sandra had spent almost six hours driving through a country in which features of any sort, including people and constructions, are virtually non-existent. But here they were, in the middle of all this nothing, and there was this surreal object marking their arrival at what was to prove an even more surreal undertaking. For Planet Baobab isn’t what one would describe as a standard destination.

Indeed, it wasn’t Brian and Sandra’s final destination. They had come here simply to pick up an escort. But what a place!

It was a kilometre or so off the road, hidden in the middle of some half-hearted bush and, as its name suggested, accessorised with a number of fine-looking baobabs. Between these remarkable trees had been built an eccentric lodge-cumcamping-site, where the ethos was über-relaxed and the architecture was a mix of colourful African and the downright peculiar.

Brian had parked the Land Cruiser in its small gravel car park, and he and Sandra were now entering its reception. It was amazing. Almost conventional looking from the outside, but within, it echoed the interior of a flying saucer. A smoothsurfaced, porthole-equipped corridor swept in a semi-circle around a similarly-shaped reception desk, which must have given every visitor to this place the idea that they were indeed about to step onto another planet. None of the flying saucer’s crew was about at the moment, so the accompanied Brian passed through the ship and into Planet Baobab itself – and found himself smiling. It was such a smile inducing sight.

All around there were low concrete walls, shaped and painted to resemble the local vernacular style of building, albeit a version of it that was more than a little slanted towards the psychedelic. And between these walls were little thatched roundels, an enormous (empty) swimming pool, a large outdoor lounge (with gaudy upholstered furniture) and a large thatched building, which was clearly the bar.

Brian and Sandra were soon within this edifice, not only drinking lager, but also marvelling at its eclectic decoration. For as well as the expected African embellishments, there was a whole gallery of ancient prints and posters (from Africa’s colonial past), hide-covered 1960s-style chairs, and a gigantic chandelier dominating the drinking space and fashioned from empty green beer bottles. When illuminated, it must have looked a sight, even more of a sight than it did now in the early afternoon. Brian was impressed. And no less so by the story of its sister chandelier…

Strip Van Wrinkle coverHe and Sandra had been approached by the captain of the flying saucer – otherwise known as the lodge manager. He, having observed the new visitors to his domain admiring the lighting arrangements, clearly thought they would be interested to hear about its bigger sibling. For the one here, although enormous, wasn’t the size of a similarly beer-bottle-adorned monster that, a year ago, had been hung from the ceiling of the lodge’s dining room. This, apparently, had taken ten men to lift it to its supports below the thatched roof of this building. And there it had stayed, until just a few days ago when it had pulled the roof to the ground… There had been a shaking, then a creaking, and then the laws of physics had eventually decided that the force it was exerting on the roof of the dining room was a force too far – and gravity took over. Inevitably, the manager told this tale not as an anguished account of a disaster but merely as an amusing end to a preposterous endeavour. And who, in this climate, needs a roof to a dining room anyway?

Well, Brian, at this stage of the proceedings, was beginning to regret that he and Sandra hadn’t chosen to stay at this hostelry, if only for one night. It was so odd, but also so inviting and so laid-back, that it was a pity that they had to move on.

But they did have to move on. Because, as Sandra was quick to point out, they had an appointment with one of the most expensive lodges they were ever likely to stay in, and their escort to this lodge had now arrived in the bar. So it was time to go, and time to drive further south for another fifty kilometres in order to secure their final destination for the day, which just happened to be located in the dead centre of absolutely nowhere: Jack’s Place.

Extract from David Fletcher’s latest book from his travel series, Strip Pan Wrinkle.

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