Africa: Botswana History Lesson (as told to me by Fish)

Big game parks. Both owned by a guy named Ratray. We met old Mr. Ratray at Mala Mala, he was wearing red tartan trousers and a red sweater for dinner. His traveling companion was a blue haired woman wearing a pith helmet to lunch.

I kid you not…but first…

Fish, the coolest ranger, ever, told me some Botswanan history while we were walking through the lands.  I’m trying to recall this from memory, a week later, so I may have to update it when I have real internet access again.

Mr. Fish
Mr. Fish

Great Grandfather Khama was one of three paramount chiefs in the land that later became the country of Botswana. There was nothing of value to Great Britain in Botswana–no minerals, no oil, nothing to be exploited. At this time, the British were doing everything they could to gobble up as much of southern Africa as possible. They claimed Rhodesia, north Rhodesia (Zimbabwe & Zambia), and most of South Africa. The Dutch had previous claims on South Africa, but the British had been harassing them badly, pushing the Afrikaners north east, to the land that became Transvaal.

The British  had little interest in Botswana, but were going to colonize it anyway as a matter of principle. They were building a railroad from Cairo to Cape Town, and through Botswana was the perfect choice. Their usual modus operandi was to claim the land, “hire” the natives to help with the manual labor, and pay them off with alcohol, which was largely unknown previously, quite addictive, and easy to manufacture and transport.

Khama and the two other paramount chiefs did the unthinkable. They wore western clothes, learned western manners, and went to England to petition the Queen. The Queen dumped them on her Lord Chamberlain, who just wanted the problem to go away. Khama negotiated a deal where Botswana became a protectorate of England, largely autonomous.  They deeded a small strip of their land, the Tule block, to England to build the railroad–think canal zone. He also convinced the crown to agree to immediately settle the Tule block with British subjects.

This was a brilliant move.  It created a tripwire between the British and the Dutch. If the Boers tried to cross into Botswana, they’d have to fight the British first. The British, for their part, seeing nothing of worth in Botswana, left the rest of the country alone.  This is one of the main reasons why Botswana is so less fucked up than the rest of the region. There was no “civilizing” of the natives by turning them into servants and/or drunken unskilled laborers.

Fast forward to the independence of Botswana. Khama’s grandson, Svetsee Khama (spelling?), made a similar trek to England. Again, there was nothing to exploit in Botswana, the Crown was more than happy enough to give up responsibility for Botswana. In fact, the deal that they negotiated included a hardship provision for Botswana. Cattle were imported to the country, and the UK contractually agreed to buy a huge load of Botswanan beef every year, with no expiration date on this contract.

(Off topic, Svetsee Khama and an English aristocrat fell in love. It was unheard of and totally scandalous that there could be a relationship between a black man, even the leader of a country, and an English woman of high standing. This caused a lot of friction and frustration to the British and a number of times nearly screwed the deal.)

Cattle is now the number two source of income in Botswana. Amazingly enough, just after the deal was inked and Botswana received independence, diamonds were discovered. A LOT of diamonds. Ooops. 🙂

Svetsee Khama negotiated a deal with DeBeers. For 20 years, DeBeers would receive 60% of the profits from diamond exploitation, but part of the provision was that they had to train locals to run and manage the operation. At the end of 20 years, the contracts would be re-negotiated, and, of course, now far more in favor of Botswana. DeBeers got a lot of diamonds, Botswana now controls the operation and gets the majority of profit, everyone’s moderately happy.

I love these guys.

Africa: Zimbabwe – part 2 – Who wants to be a Zimbabwean billionare?

We were mega-border hoppers today. We not only went into Zimbabwe for the elephant ride, but also crossed the border again to head over for high tea at the Victoria Falls Hotel.

Zimbabwe is falling apart all around us (we didn’t realize that while we were there, Tschangere came back into the country and was arrested and his folks were getting beaten and detained by the war veterans and police), and this grand old hotel is doing its damnedest to make us think it’s still high times in the British Empire.

The hotel is beautiful, if a bit threadbare, but is quite empty. There is one other party of Africans here, us, and a couple of Japanese tourists. It is a complete and utter transformation from Zambia, which is full of tourists, money, and absolutely no class. Think Russian Mafia chic and you get the Royal Livingstone at Zambia vs. the Queen Mother (who is still revered here at the Vic Falls).

The border between the two countries is a no-mans-land between the falls. There are people here carrying goods back and forth between Zim and Zam. The inflation here in Zim is so incredibly bad that you cannot keep the local currency. One of our party asked to see an inexpensive dollar bill, the waiter handed him a ZIM$25 million bill and told him to just keep it.

Our bill for tea was ZIM $44 billion, roughly USD $90 given the poor (and totally illegal because it was still 100x better than the official rate) exchange rate they gave us.

I have a strong feeling that if they can get Mugabe to exit, Zim is really going to come back in style, give it 2-5 years and it will be rocking here, just like Prague after the wall fell.



Africa: Zimbabwe – part 1 – Elephants

Since the credit card machine at Kasane was out of order, we had to pay for a fuel load with cash. We both had brought a lot of US dollars along for just such a case, but between the fuel load and the new passport visa fees into Zambia, we were on the verge of being cash-dollar poor, so I’ve started to become really stingy when it comes to spending US dollars.

We really wanted to ride some African elephants, despite it being one of those cheesy tourist activities. The elephant park in Zambia was full, but just across the border in dreaded Zimbabwe, there was the sister franchise for the local game park. So, off we went this morning at 5am.

_MG_0913 - Version 2

So far, I really like Zimbabwe. Perhaps Zambia and I got off on the wrong foot (staying in a tourist hotel in Africa makes me feel like a mark, and then paying US$100 per-person to ride some elephants made me feel even more like a mark). However, when I realized how many different people we were supporting, I started to feel somewhat better about it. We had a Zambia driver and a Zimbabwe driver who both helped us through immigration and customs, drove us 30km to the franchise, then there were 11 different elephants available to ride, photographers, trainers, etc.

Tourism in Zimbabwe is _way_ down. The place we went was clearly set up to handle a few dozen people at a time, and we totaled five. Everyone was very nice, proud, and not subservient like in South Africa. While their economy is totally screwed, they are making due as best as they can. There are still a fair number of white people there acting in specialist roles (videographer, vets, et al) but they seem to have pragmatically accepted that they’re not colonial lords anymore and are there because Zim is their home. I spoke to my elephant guide for an hour or so, trying to avoid politics, but we did discuss the economy and how they make do with a currency that is rapidly inflating. He works 40 days on, then has 10 days off. He has to travel 1000km to go home to visit his family. By train, 2 days each way, at 1 billion ZB$, or by bus (1 day) at 2.5B ZB$ (about 20USD). I asked him how he gets money to his wife in her village before it goes worthless. Obvious answer, shared ATM cards and he calls her. 🙂 Just when you think people are stuck in the stone age, you get slapped in the face. You can use an ATM in Zimbabwe, but you can’t get magnets.

I suspect if the MDC win the run-off elections, Zimbabwe is going to rapidly recover and could become another African powerhouse next to Kenya and SA. That said, I still love Botswana, who has no pretensions of doing anything other than doing what’s best for its people..

Africa: Zambia – Victoria Falls and ripoff of the south?

Flew out of Kasane airport, goodbye sweet Botswana, hello Zambia. We had to pay for gas at Kasane with cash, since the credit card machine has been broken for 3 months. This has almost completely blown our USD cash reserves, and I’m feeling a bit pressed since we have some expensive visa fees to pay for Zambia and Zimbabwe yet to come.

Overflew Livingstone Airport and then took a couple of orbits around Victoria Falls. I cannot put words to it, it’s amazing. Niagara Falls are big and broad, this is pretty narrow and steep, going into gorges and cataracts. It’s stunningly beautiful.


We’re staying at the Royal Livingstone hotel, a new 5 star resort by the people who do Sun City. It’s a trip back to British colonialism and it seems to be filled with people who think that white tablecloths and lots of butlers and other servants in the middle of Africa is the only civilized way to live. Half the people here seem to be Brits wishing for former colonial times, and the other half seem to be Russian Mafia. Everything here is expensive — as bad as back in the SF Bay area, if not worse. The primary industry is tourism and it’s completely out of whack with everything else in the area.

Went into town, had a great dinner with Brian and Charlotte, two of our traveling companions, at a little local place called “The Rite Pub & Grill”. Was kind of funny when we walked in, just like an old west movie, all the conversation stopped. It’s a local joint, there appears to be a fairly healthy upwardly mobile middle class of people who are profiting from tourism. Meat on a stick (it’s a Brazilian Churascaria like Espetus in SF). Some good beer, fun conversations, good Elvis impersonations, really really bad, simply awful, Beatles covers by the band.

So far, I dislike this place, even though everyone is nice and helpful, I feel like I’m a whale surrounded by sharks. I think it’s because we’re staying at a tourist trap which has a wrap on the local market.

Such a complete and utter change from Botswana where I felt connected to the locals and they treated us like friends and equals instead of marks or masters. Again, everyone here is nice, but they feel like entrepreneurs clearly going for the tourist dollar, and we’re dollar poor at the moment so I don’t feel like playing along.

Africa: Botswana – Shinde and the delta

This place is so beautiful in a totally different way than the Kalahari. I can’t believe we’re only 100 miles away. There is water everywhere here, fresh, and clean. You can drink right out of the delta, assuming the hippos and crocs don’t get you.

The only practical way here is to fly in. There are more Cessna 206’s flying into Maun airport than just about anywhere else in the world. They deliver packages, food, and mail to the two dozen camps in the delta area.

While we were on the runway, a truck pulled up and asked us if we were going to Shinde. We said yes and they proceeded to unload about 120lbs of fresh veggies and mail to take out to the camp. Luckily we had a group of four planes, so we all took a share of the veggies and I took the mail. Now I’m an official African Bush mail pilot! 🙂

There are game animals and predators everywhere. The place we are going, the Shinde lodge, is a collection of tents. Five star tents, built on teak platforms with lots of running water, hot showers, excellent cooking, and lots of alcohol. The British who colonized Africa must have been major drunks, because there are so many artificial drinking events (every evening has a Sundowner, where you stop, watch the sun going down, and break out the gin and tonics).

Went out on a boat into the delta and got some good photos of birds and hippos, otherwise not much on the first night. Saw two hippos fighting each other in the water. They are insanely fast. No matter how stupid they look on land, you do not want to screw with a hippo in the water.

Spoke to a few of our guides about life in Botswana. They have a lot to be proud of and they put a lot of faith in their government, which seems to be about as benign a government as you can get. The Botswana way is to work through collaboration and community, and people seem to cut each other a lot of slack.

Do not piss off the hippos, I shot this one and we ran.
Do not piss off the hippos, I shot this one and we ran.

There are private concessions here that manage the delta resources. They’re given 15 year leases on the land, and the bids for the leases is extremely competitive (sealed blind bids). They typically include packages to support the local communities and their infrastructure, have strict conservation pledges, social pledges (bringing Botswanan kids out to the delta for field trips) and pay a fair bit of taxes to the central government which is redistributed into the education system. They realize that Ecotourism is the way to go, and the government appears to be fostering that transition in a free-market way that still benefits the locals.

Botswana is missing something that SA has in abundance, razor wire. In SA. I felt like we were moving from compound to compound through a war zone. There is almost no crime here because a pickpocket or thief, if one is stupid enough to commit a crime, is going to get his ass kicked by everyone around that hears a shout of alarm.

This morning, we woke up, and a hippo was walking by our tent, not 15 feet away. We went out on the deck and watched it. it looked at us, and we all decided it was too early in the morning to kill each other, which was a good thing, because hippos can be insane and violent. Oh, you can’t help but laugh when you see one walking on land. I can’t describe it but it’s totally comical.

Africa: Botswana – first day in the bush – the Kalahari desert

Flew out of Jo’burg today and up to our first border and customs crossing. Lots of paperwork to take the plane out of SA, and when we went through immigration, the computer crashed, so we had to wait 45 minutes for someone to reboot it. Modern technology at its best.

Cleared customs and fueled at Gaberone’s airport, simple and painless and such a breath of fresh air from South Africa. These people seem to own their own country. There’s no “fuck you back” officiousness, no subservience, just people getting on in life and looking forward to making their own future.

My friend Charlotte, a US citizen living in South Africa said, “When I leave South Africa and come here, I feel like I can start breathing again.”

Buzzing the leopards before landing on the Kalahari
Me buzzing the leopards before landing on the Kalahari – photo Credit Alan C.

On to the Kalahari.

Botswana is flat. I mean totally fucking flat. I think the biggest hill here is a couple of hundred feet up, and there are maybe 4 in the whole country. There are no visual references anywhere, the desert is totally homogenous, so I’m flying by headings and hoping we hit our airport.

Along the way, in the plane, we spotted a few elephant by a watering hole, but that’s it. Everything is hiding in the mid-day sun, except for mad dogs and former Englishmen.

Made it to camp, dumped our stuff in our tent, and went out for our first game drive. Plopped into a land rover and went looking for wildlife. Our first Impala siting was eventful. We were shouting, “Oh, wow, look! Impala!” and we stopped to take pictures. By the next morning, we were so sick of looking at Impala, we didn’t even bother to point them out. They’re the Mc Donald’s of Africa. Plentiful, cheap, and on every corner.

It’s dry here, really dry, but the temperature in the afternoons is warm. At night, it’s so cold that you almost can’t move. Keeping a fire going is essential. Luckily, it’s so dry and cold, no mosquitos can survive.

Met a couple of bushmen (it was an organized encounter). Had a great time “chatting” with them. They showed us how to find water in some tubers, how to start fires the old fashioned way, and other good desert survival skills. The government has limited the number of bushmen in the Kalahari to only 1000, but there are around 2500 total, and some of them want to continue to live the bushman experience, so there’s a bit of a silent protest going on. The issue seems complicated, so I have no opinion.

Africa: Jo'burg – learning to fly (again)

Made it into Johannesburg. Staying at a nice B&B near Lanseria airport. My jetlag is awful and I need to start flight tests in the morning to validate my American license in South Africa.

In SA, in the winter, there is never a cloud in the sky, it’s perfect weather.

Except for the past few years. I’m dodging thunderstorms today, jet lagged, in a Cessna 182 that is almost as old as I am and has instruments from the 70s. Thanks global warming, big wet fuzzy kisses to you.

Next day: License validated, I can now run off around the world flying South African registered aircraft for the next five years. Scary.

Met our hosts, really awesome folks, Nick and Christina Hanks, and their niece Charlotte. I have a good feeling about these guys, I think this is going to work out OK if I don’t kill us. The other pilots and their wives are pretty cool. Canadian couple and a Belgian couple living in Cyprus.

South Africa is totally fucked up. Everyone here is absolutely nice and wonderful, but the segregation is still overwhelming. Almost every house has bars and razor wire surrounding it, security is heavy, because the poverty is so high. If it’s not locked up, someone’s going to steal it. At our B&B, the visible staff is all black, including the manager, a great guy named Moses. Only Moses seems the slightest bit self empowered. I accidentally ran into a waiter and apologized to him and he couldn’t stop apologizing to me, even when I said it was totally my fault. That said, the quality of life here, if you are white and have even a little money, are quite good, probably better than home. I could see people wanting to retire here if they could get used to it.

Julie is going into Soweto to see how the other 95% live while I continue my SA license validations. We’ve got some friends of our host who do volunteer work there, so she’s going to get the inside scoop, not the tourist bullshit. I wish I was going too, but everything here just takes a fuck-load of time.

African tip: “Just now” means between now and a few days from now. “Now now” means now. “I’ll bring the car around to meet you, just now” means go have lunch while waiting for your rental car.