With the conflicting first view into Africa still on the platform of a Johannesburg train station we’re finally at the start of this road trip we’ve been looking forward to for so long. Loaded up with a mountain of Biltong and a few basic staples we’re in our home for the next few weeks to finally plunge into Africa free of the grimy filters, secure bubbles and confines of other peoples impressions. For now it’s just us two, one car and a bloody big continent, no longer a distant land of evasive mystique, it’s now the air we breathe and the ground on which we walk. We may just possibly have a few bottles of Stellenbosch wine with us but lets not let that get in the way, this is a three week episode of ‘Man vs Wild’ without the support crew and plush hotels.
We’re off to Selebi Phikwe, the town of Charlie’s African youth between the ages of three and ten. With a huge number of animals on the roads night driving in Botswana is a no go, so we hole up for a night in Pretoria, right next to the famous Loftus Versfeld rugby stadium. Loftus Versfeld is a mythical place on its own but for now we’re too excited to be on our way and getting into Botswana. Beyond a nostalgic waltz down memory lane for Charlie we have so much on the horizon to pack into this road trip.
Botswana jumps out to me as an African equivalent of Ecuador, a small prosperous country so often overlooked but bursting with amazing sights so little known in the shadows of more aggressively marketed neighbours. One glance of a map shows the Kalahari Desert, huge salt flats, the Okavango Delta, Chobe National Park and the rest. If you’ve never heard of these places don’t feel bad, neither had I and there’s only miles of road between us now and discovering some of what this interesting little country has in its cupboard. Let the road trip begin, it seems like we’re finally getting a little glimpse into this fabled idea that has been floating in the air, real Africa. I get the distinct impression I’ll leave this continent more confused about this idea than ever. For now we’re getting to know this little pocket that underpins so much of Charlie’s early life.
And what could a road trip be without cricket on the radio. We’re driving to the sounds of South Africa playing New Zealand in the World Cup semi final; we’re cheering on New Zealand. The red sands of Africa are outside the window spread out in wide flat plains dotted with small shrubs and trees, a very African scene but inside the car it’s so much closer to home. We’re so far away in Africa but nothing can stop a high-five as New Zealand hit a six off the second last ball of the innings in a thrilling finish. We leave South Africa crossing the border to Botswana as South Africa leaves the world cup and along with it the hopes of this nation.
Border control is neat and efficient, in no time we’re in Botswana. A few potholes dot the roads that weren’t there on the other side of the border but otherwise it’s a similar type of place just with a few less people. Groups of men work manually on the roads in the blistering heat, the dusty red sands tell a tale of arid harshness. The land here is all flat plain except for the occasional hill or mountain that rises up as if from nowhere, it seems there’s no such thing as rolling hills here, only flat plains or rearing peaks, nothing in between. No grand trees interrupt the landscape, this dry soil supports only the hardiest of small trees to offer little shade to the hoards of donkeys, goats and the few warthogs that share our road.
We’ve passed a bunch of out of luck hitch-hikers in this cabin for two but this one ahead seems really enthusiastic. To the familiar mantra of ‘sorry buddy’ we pass not a hitch-hiker but a police officer calling us to halt, oops. Quick reverse, a small piece of paper later and Charlie is now officially a criminal in Botswana, 108km in an 80km/h zone, tut tut. One day driving and one speeding fine already, this is going well.
Arriving into Phikwe it’s memory lane for Charlie; past his first school, the kopjie (small rocky hill) he used to always climb, the house that holds his earliest memories and finally to Heidi and Herman’s place, old family friends. Upon the warmest of welcomes Charlie is awash with memories and nostalgia, the African boy has arrived after so many years. Herman is as funny as always and Heidi cooks up a contender for our best meal of the trip under the shade cloth that Charlie helped put up nearly twenty years ago. This is such a new land for me but to Charlie it’s so clearly home.
I’ve heard it a million times, people say that Africa gets int your blood. Something mystical, romantic and inescapable about this continent of rough edges, wonders and danger seems to infect people for a lifetime to constantly call them back. Hearing Charlie talk about Phikwe in a manner that seems like it’s still his home town gives me the first hint of this constant call that Africa emits to all those bitten by it. Maybe it’s something that can never be observed using our five senses, the idea of the real Africa may have to remain to those knowing souls bitten by this place. On planes, trains and automobiles we’ll immerse ourselves into the red sands that call to so many. Three weeks out of the bubble to see how close we come to being bitten, for me the first time, for Charlie it seems we’ve lost count.