After having spent Christmas in Livigstone with Father John, I continued the road with a stronger spirit. Cycling with a broken heart is not an easy job, but once I had crossed the legendary Zambezi River, in Kazungula, I could be sure that when I arrived at the zoo, there would be no more room for sorrow. There, in Botswana, where there are more wandering wild animals than people around the bush, everything would be about riding the bicycle with the precaution of not altering the beasts, not to die in the attempt of doing so, and reaching safe and sound to 2015.
300 kilometers in Elephantland
300 kilometers separate Kazungula from Nata. They are 300 km of flat road crossing the monotonous wild bush, in which there's very little to see, not much apart from wild animals. There are no villages, no people. The only access to water is at a road stop somewhere, and at the ranger's camp at the end of the road. 300 km that are fairly known as "the elephants' highway". 300 km that caused me as much excitement as anxiety.
In Kazungula, Win and Busie let me hang mosquito net in their veranda. While Busie prepares my breakfast before leaving, she tells me how she always sees elephants go by the window while she's cooking. Later, Win wakes up with a sleepy face and asks me if the lions had woken me up. He says there had been a lion fight at night, and that the roars had kept him awake since 3:00 a.m., and that he jumped out of bed to check if I was fine out there, and after that he had trouble getting back to sleep. I didn't hear anything, but I would have loved to hear them roar. Anyway, after that I kept wondering up to what point it was actually a good idea to have a deep sleep in Botswana. Fearless but alerted, I leave the town to ride all along "the elephant highway". I need to ride 100km straight before I run into the only safe place to sleep and where I can also get more water. Easy, a piece of cake! The paradox of riding through an area of wild animals is that, on one hand, one would give anything to see them but, on the other hand, finding yourself face to face with one of those can certainly be lethal, an episode with no way back. Filled with these contradictions, I moved forward the first morning seeing nothing more than bushes along an endlessly monotonous road. There are several resting areas with chairs and tables on the way. However, it's not easy to digest food when the government puts signs like this one just beside them.
A couple of hours go by, and I still haven't seen a single elephant. I am starting to believe everything is a farce. I'm bored. Everything I see (and smell) is their poop, which is obviously proportional to the size of these beasts. It is beastly poop that can be seen many meters away from it. It is so huge that the insects feeding on it seem to be a group of mountaineers climbing Mount Everest seen from a helicopter. If I stepped just in the middle of it, my leg would sink until my knee. I need to be careful, because if I run over one of these my bike would be entirely covered in poop, but there are so many in the road that it's hard to do it. The whole way is full of mountains of green fresh poop, but no matter how hard I keep on looking in the bushes I still can not see one goddammed elephant.
Finally, I see a little gray dot on the horizon. I see it moving, it's the ears flapping in the air. It's just beside the road, too close, it's huge, gigantic, and as I come close to it I realize that I I can't simply ride beside it. The wind blows in my direction, which is a problem now, because it allows the animal to smell me long before I reach it. I suddenly see a vehicle coming and I ask the driver to slowly pass before me, to help me acting as a screen.
I successfully pass the first elephant. Very good. It's beautiful, I'm really mind-blown about riding with the elephants. However, I can't stay long to watch, it could get nervous. During the rest of the day I see a few more, which I pass following the same method: I wait for some vehicle and ask for help.
I get to the roadside stop that is the only safe camping point and I'm allowed to camp there because, according to to the few people working there in the middle of the bush, this place is fully surrounded by lions. A young batsuana guy stops to buy something and asks me what the hell I'm doing here with the bike. He tells me not to cycle at night, that yesterday he was driving in his car and he ran into two cats right in the middle ofthe road. Batsuana people are so cute, referring to lions as if they were talking about harmless little kittens. The guy continues with a huge smile and says: "if you pass by with your bike, you'll be barbecued!!!"-, and he laughs his ass off repeating the phrase as if he hadn't been clear enough: "you'll be barbecued!" The next day Ihave140 km left to go. till the park ranger's camp, but if the road is like yesterday's then I shouldn't have any problem as there aren't many animals really. I go out a bit disappointed, with little expectations, because the day before I had seen nothing more than five elephants. But not too long after I start riding, the situation radically changes and I start finding them all along the way. Suddenly, a driver stops beside me and says: "be very careful, these elephants are very wild and unpredictable". People who aren't africans imagine the lion as the most dangerous of all the animals. However, the animal the africans fear the most is, by far, the elephant. Decades of poaching have logically turned elephants very resentful against human beings. Therefore, anything can happen in our presence.
There's a lot less traffic than yesterday and I can't wait any longer, which is why I have to go ahead by myself, the most quietly I can. The situation is truly starting to worry me. Some of the elephants, the ones that aren't that close to me, stand still and look me in the eye in a way that freaks me out because, if they decided to attack, it would only take them seconds to get me. In the case of those elephants that are beside the road, I decide to wait at a certain distance and see how they react. But they are so many that I find them every one or two kilometers, and I can't wait all day long because I need to do 140 km., and if the night comes, well... the cats will show up, and I'll be barbecued. This is why I decide to start passing the elephants, with no help from the vehicles. I succeed with the first ones, I've even passed a whole family of them. It was amazing, being so close...
But things wouldn't be so easy. Some moments later, I run into one elephant eating from a tree. Its immaculate white tusks have the length and the size of two samurai swords. The elephant sees me getting closer and I can tell he gets nervous, but I don't know what to do, so I just keep on going really slowly. I see it getting, agitated, and my heart goes up directly to my throat, but I decide to stop would be worst. Suddenly, when I'm about 20m far from it, the elephant stands on two legs and starts trumpeting. In this exact moment, that trumpet makes me react instantly, as instinctively as an animal. I step on the pedal as I never did it before. No thinking. My mind is blank, all the blood flows into my legs, pedaling as fast as I can, not looking to the sides, not looking back, riding for my life. This was one of the most terrifying moments of my whole life. Later that day, I would learn from a park ranger that I should have done exactly the opposite: I should've stopped, stood still and waited. But fuck that, how can anyone stop when being only 15m from these 7 tons beasts, without trembling out of fear and feeling the legs turning to jelly?
My heart hadn't gone back to normal pump rate before I run into the next elephant. African elephants are nothing like the Asian ones, those weight between 1 and 2 tons and are ridden by tourists around Thailand, all of them are kind and docile animals. The African elephant weights from 5 to 7 tons, when It stands in front of you they block the sun. It's terrifying. They are so huge, they seem so serious and their tusks are so long that I wonder what acid Walt Disney was taking when he imagined an elephant with the character of Dumbo. There are so many elephants I need to pass that -at some point - I realize I'm not having a great time anymore. A group of young people in a small car help me pass another huge elephant. But as we move forward -me close to the vehicle- the beast goes crazy. Yes. Completely crazy: it starts running along the road in our direction. The guy riding the car tells me not to separate myself from the vehicle. However, my legs tell me to run for my life again and so I turn around and try to escape as far as I can. I stop the bike about 50m from the car and the images gets printed on my mind forever: the beast facing a car that could easily fit under its legs and -if the elephant wanted to- a car that could end up smashed into a thin layer. The young men wait in the car and I wait to see how they would be turned into smashed potatoes. Finally, the irritated elephant goes away in the opposite direction and I get back close to the car. The guys are laughing their asses off!!! Then, we start going really slow and I can hear the elephant walking away and demolishing every tree in its way, he is really pissed off. I don't even want to see. When I finish passing through I'm terrified. I don't want to see one more elephant in my life.
However, there's much more distance to go. Elephants keep on appearing, some closer to the road than others. As soon as I distinguish them in the distance I start trembling. They're everywhere. I don't want to see them anymore. Today I've already seen more than fifty of them. Sometimes they surprise me suddenly appearing by my side, hiding between the trees when they're eating. I spent too much time waiting for cars to help me get through and the day is near the end. I can't stop anymore because the cats are coming out soon it feels like a trap being here. I see giraffes, I see zebras and I see a couple of hyenas too. Documentary films make us give us quite a wrong idea about hyenas, in most people's mind, including myself, they are like they size of a dog. However, in real life they're beasts whose heads may reach the height of your ribs, and their torso and frontal legs seem like two columns of pure muscle. Terrifying, to say the least.
After such a scary day, I reach the park ranger's camp, where I can finally relax. Supposedly, this is the end of the park. They tell me to camp there with them, but the radio is on, they are too noisy and I want to camp in the bush, now that I am out of the area with the greatest concentration of animal life. It's a magnificent sunset, one of those with such colors that they give you tickles inside. I start feeling melancholic because I really miss Julia, and the last thing I want now is being with these men.
I ask for water and off I go into the bush, but only about 3 km away, to camp before it gets dark. It's a full moon night and the bush is completely illuminated, while I dine alone under the stars.Yet another quiet African night I think: bush, stars, moon, complete silence, and that's how I go to my tent to get some sleep. However, I am not allowed to sleep straight through the night. In the middle of the night I feel some steps outside and I listen to what I wished I didn't have to listen to: a roar. It's not a roar of fight, they're gentle, soft roars, like a deep respiration. The light from the moon is very strong, and my heart rushes into tachycardia style when I open my eyes and see the silhouettes of two lions surrounding my tent. I pull out my Leatherman while I try to be quiet. Unfold the knife on one side -8cm.long!-, and the saw on the other side. Yeah, genius - I think to myself - it'll be nice to tickle them while they eat me up-. I sit and wait. They say lions never break into enclosed spaces, but in a moment like this there's nothing you have been told that really matters. If you have lions outside your tent all you can think of it's you'll be barbecued. I start believing that two days away from 2015 they will dine me for an early New Years Eve dinner. One thing is certain: at least they were going to set me free from the sorrow for Julia. It's easy to joke four moths after this, but the truth is that I almost shit my pants. Finally, the lions kept on their way without returning, but after that I couldn't go back to sleep....
First time in the morning, after having slept five hours, I jumped on the bike and continued my way to Nata. I found more elephants on the road but - either for the excess of adrenaline of the previous day, for having learnt how to act on their presence, or for the fact that elephants weren't that hysterical in that area-, I had almost lost fear for them. Quietly I waited for them till they finished crossing, because in any case,when they cross the road, they obstruct it completely. That's how big they are. Some time later, there wouldn't be more animals.
Sometimes people ask me very simple questions but, without them realizing it, they are very existential. During the past three days I have been on the edge of being smashed by two giant bull elephants and I have dealt -better or worse- with dozens of others. One afternoon two hyenas passed some meters away from me and last night two lions took a walk around my tent and didn't hesitate on letting me know that they were there. By the time I got to Nata it was noon and 38 C. I decide to sit down on the shade for some "fresh" air at the tables outside the local supermarket, to look back with some perspective. At that moment, a luxurious Audi pulls over and a batsuana couple gets off. Eventually they end up having lunch with me. The man is fascinated and keeps on asking me questions. His beautiful girlfriend -who I suspect is behind the man's wealth- asks me with a disgusted expression:
"but, aren't you afraid of dying doing what you do?"-. At that time, all the past days -and maybe even years-, instantly came back to my mind. After a pause, I smiled and answered:
"You can be sure that I'd rather die enjoying life with plenitude, doing what I love, what makes me happy, than die after having lived my whole life trapped in an office, obeying orders and repeating the same task over and over every single day of my life. That's what scares me the most. Dying is not a choice, we have no power over that. Therefore, given its imminent and inevitable arrival, I prefer death to find me happy."
Her face went from disgust to a wide smile that even made her boyfriend jealous. I'd better get going now -I thought-, because I'd rather be eaten by a lion, than beaten by a batsuana man for accidentally making his girlfriend fall in love with me.
During the rest of the way, already in the most inhabited areas of this uninhabited country, people ask me over and over again about my trip, as it happens to me everywhere. However here everyone seems to be convinced that at the end of my journey the government of my country will pay me for this trip. How cute they are, so innocent if they only knew something about the government of my country... "So they pay you nothing? Nothing at all?"-they ask me in disbelief. "Are you sure?"- I answer I'm sure, completely sure, and at that point, they keep staring at me in complete incomprehension. "Then, why do you do it?"-. Such question would require a whole book for me to answer so I just limit myself to answer that I travel because I love the world and learning from its people. I'm doing my Ph.D. in the University of the World. "What? Learning? Learn what?"- They don't understand it, and they end up more confused than before asking.
There's only 200 km left before I arrive to Francistown, where I've contacted local people in advance not to die out of sadness for spending this New Year's eve completely alone. But it's 200 km of headwind and that doesn't help, it drains my energy, burns my brain and shatters my mood. Monotonous boring landscape, headwind, no more animals and no more adrenaline. The sadness of a year that ends without Julia, who I met almost exactly three years ago, and now this fucking wind against me that seems to have appeared to let me know that I will not make it to 2015 in company. Sometimes I don't know where I get the strength from. Maybe it's because I'm a stubborn fuck when it comes to adversity and I may break down for love, but I will never give up to an atmospheric phenomenon. Like this, struggling, I arrive in the afternoon of the 31st at Francistown. Eddie wasn't there, but he sent his friend Mowresi to look for me and she took me to her rastafari family, with whom I happily received, as much as I could, the New Year. I spent the first days of 2015 with Mowresi's family and it was a truly delightful time.
I will return to the zoo
In Botswana I said goodbye to 2014, a year that went from being a daydream, to having me dream that it had never happened, or wishing at least for a year that only had had eleven months. A year in which, once more, I learned the same old lessons of impermanence. That lesson that one seems to never learn, or that one doesn't really want to remember in times of plenitude. That was a kick that 2014 gave me to throw me brutally into 2015, where I started already fallen on to the ground. It's time to keep on going, now living inside this laundry machine, struggling not to loose my way, as I try to pick up the pieces of me to rebuild myself, hopefully, as a better person.
Botswana also got to see this sad part of me, but thanks to its little animals, it has at least distracted me succesfully, albeit the fear, it helped me find some peace of mind during the nine days it took me to cross this country and, eventually, it made me feel better. It's impossible to dissociate Botswana from its animals. Everytime I think of Botswana I will think of a world of elephants, lions, zebras and giraffes. I will think of it in the real world, not that world that Walt Disney made up. However, it is true that Botswana does seem to be a fantasy country: it's a zoo-country, but one that doesn't punish with confinement to its very precious inhabitants. Even moreso, it's the first country truly protecting them. Millions have been invested on giving an end to poaching and nowadays the elephant population is growing (I can attest it) as the biggest in Africa now. Batsuana people are very educated, though rather reserved, and they speak perfect english. It's a country where I have felt very pleased, and which I wouldn't think twice about visiting it with my children, if there are children some day, to wander around this true zoo of the world, called Botswana.