Monday, 16 January 2012

The No.1 Ladies' Detective Agency: Botswana

I'd never realised that the 'No.1 Ladies Detective Agency' was based in Botswana, until our first night when we realised how much the country was in need of Mma Precious Ramotswe.

Alex and I had driven that day to Ghanzi in Botswana, excited by the idea of a few weeks camping, relaxing and seeing a little of the region. Passing the border, where a guard spent five minutes laughing hysterically at my passport photo, we'd settled on a bush campsite in Ghanzi, set up our tent and after a drop of whisky and a good dinner on the open campfire, gone to bed. The sound of crickets and the laughter of the Afrikaaner family in the next pitch lulled us to sleep.

At 3:30am, Alex and I were suddenly woken by the Afrikaaners shouting "guard, guard!" followed by the sound of a crash. In our sleepy state it sounded like the guys from the next pitch were drunkenly wandering into our table and chairs and pushing them over, and we sat up in our tent rubbing our eyes with annoyance. Alex thought it might have been baboons.The second crash, however, jolted us wide awake and we scrambled out of the tent.

The car, which had been parked just by our tent, had both front and rear windows smashed in, and whoever had done it had rummaged through our carefully covered and concealed goods and made off with my laptop, handbag, all our documents, passports, money (hidden in various places) and camera. Many might think that it was a bad idea to leave stuff in our locked car overnight, but we had thought it was safer than in our tent. After alerting the guards and watching them run off into the night in pursuit, I wandered over to the family next to our pitch, and they told us how their tent had been slit open with a knife - whilst they were sleeping in it - and the thief had taken their valuables that way. Whoever it was, they were obviously after our stuff no matter what, and were armed. It was obviously also more than one person. We were then just glad they didn't try and get in our tent to find it.

The smashed rear window

We looked around at the chaos - the camp secretary was running around calling the police (who weren't answering), the owner's son - a Land Economy student at Bristol University, home for the holidays - got his gun out, called his San trackers, and the dogs went mad barking with delight. Once the trackers were on the trail of the thieves, it wasn't long before we had a call that they'd found something, and the camp owner's son drove me and one of our neighbours deep into the bush where we found our handbags thrown aside. Thank God! The thieves had been stupid enough to discard our passports, and had also left our car documents, medical documents, keys, and wallet (with credit cards and driving licence still inside, and most importantly, the pictures of my Dad that I carry in my wallet). Of course, the cash, laptop, camera and phone were gone. But we were so relieved - having our documents back makes a huge difference in terms of the time and effort we would have to go through. We thought we'd have to drive to Gabarone to go to the UK embassy for emergency passports. We weren't sure if they'd let us back into Namibia without our work permits - and we'd be working illegally until we could get that done again at Home Affairs - so we'd been spared a big headache in terms of administrative time. But everything else was gone. I cried with rage for a while, and then Alex and I sat down and had a cup of tea as dawn broke, counting our blessings. We weren't hurt. They'd been prepared to use brazen violence on the car that they knew would wake us, so perhaps it was best there was no confrontation. And since my laptop had just contracted a virus that had been shutting it down systematically, anyone handling the hot property would soon regret it. My mobile also wasn't working properly anyway since one of the kids at the shelter had dropped it in her milk. But losing the camera was a blow, even if the lens had never been quite the same since we took it onto the beach in Cuba...

The front window was almost completely cleared

The next morning, we went to the police station to make our report. The police hadn't turned up until 5:30am - two hours after they had first been called - and when we went into the police station, we understood why. Two women sat quietly on the floor in a pool of urine. They shared a blanket and seemed to be having breakfast of mealie meal. There was a lot of noise at the front desk as a bloodied woman with an enormously swollen face came in with her giggling abuser, reeking of alcohol. The whole station pointed him out and giggled. A man, clanking around in foot and hand chains, wandered aimlessly in and out of offices. Police officers sat fanning themselves in the heat. One of them got out a sponge cake and some Fanta and started to eat. Alex and I were ushered away from the crowds and into an office to make our statement. At the end of the lengthy process, I asked them what the next steps were to investigate the incident.
"Investigate?" The whole office was looking at me now. I'd clearly asked a silly question.
"Yes, investigate. To find the person." They looked uncertain, until a junior officer remembered some half-day workshop he'd probably been given by the UN on 'effective policing'.
"Yes, well, we'll talk with the relevant stakeholders involved and understand their varying positions and competing ideologies. We'll then cascade learnings and information across our networks and attempt to gather intelligence relating to the stolen items." His boss looked pleased, if not slightly baffled.
"What does that mean, exactly?" I asked
"Uh... after talking to you, we'll call the office in Gabarone and tell them what happened."
"Yes. Have a good day."

We walked out into the sunshine. "We're never seeing the stuff again, are we?" I asked Alex.

We headed off that afternoon to Maun, unwilling to spend another night in Ghanzi, and urgently needing to get the car windows fixed. We'd briefly thought about giving up and heading home but then thought that admitting defeat would let the idiots win. So we'd continue. We'd contacted the insurance people, and sent them the relevant information. And we'd been let off our campsite bill too. When Alex was pulled over for speeding on the road to Maun, we showed the Officer our police report on the robbery - and they let us off the fine.

"What on earth happened to your car?" was something we'd hear a couple of times a day over the next two days, and whenever we related our story, the reactions we met with fell generally into four different categories:
1) Helpful: "How awful, here, borrow my laptop so you can Skype the insurance people and email whoever you need to. And have some whisky on the house."
2) Sympathetic: "Agh, the same thing happened to us last year at Christmas. They took everything from the house, including the butter..."
3) No acknowledgement whatsoever: the VSO Namibia Office was a case in point (although VSO London replied same day to our email).
4) Robbery porn fetishists: "Wow, what happened to your car? Oh, that's awful, really, really, really terrible (nodding thoughtfully). What a mess. That's going to take AGES to sort out and LOADS of money too. What was the name of the place you went? I'LL NEVER go there. You must be absolutely devastated, really, really gutted. How UTTERLY traumatic. I'm surprised you kept going. Did they take much (hopeful)?! Oh well, glad it wasn't us. See ya." (drives off,brakes squealing)

In Maun, we found a secure campsite, and trailed around a few garages to find one who could fix our windows. PG Glass had no glass. Lish Windows had no glass. On the verge of giving up, we tried a final company. Result! Clearview Glass garage ordered our windows from Gabarone, which would arrive the next day. Jubilant, we went horse-riding that evening, enjoying the calm of the trees and the occasional excitement of a canter. We were accompanied by two teenage girls from South Africa, the elder repeatedly teasing the other about the size of her horse.

On the horse, ironically named Sandman

That night, we enjoyed watching a traditional Botswanan dance group, whose stamina and athletic prowess were certainly admirable. A young girl whose sister was in the dance troupe came and sat by me while we watched, and eventually fell asleep in my lap.

Botswanan dancing

The following day, we booked a mokoro (boat) trip on the Okavango Delta, a highlight of any trip to Botswana. 'Rodger' was our guide, a calm and quiet gentleman who showed us photos of his 6 children, the eldest of whom also worked on the mokoros. Riding on the water, surrounded by nothing but lilies and wildlife, which Rodger eagerly pointed out, was very relaxing. We had a bush walk at midday, spotting zebra and wildcats, and then swam in the delta itself.

The Okavango Delta

Ridiculous hat = maximum comfort

Water lilies

Local wildilfe

Landing for the bush walk

Spotting zebras in the distance

Swimming in a pool in the delta

Other mokoros on the water

Travelling back that evening, we picked up our repaired car, and hugged the eager little woman in her fabulous safari hat who managed the garage, under the Chinese owners. "I know what it's like, the same happened to me in Bolton" she said, "People were very kind to me, so I made sure we could help you." We left her some fruit and nuts before being waved off by the whole garage.

The garage that helped us in Maun

Alex cooks dinner

Next stop, Chobe National Park. We headed out of Maun and up the rough roads that led to the entrance of the park, and got out of the car at the office. Locked up. The gates were open, and the sign said 'welcome', but despite calling and calling, no-one came. Eerie. A few minutes later, a couple of Australian tourists drove up and jumped out of their state-of-the-art SUV. Glancing with distaste at our old, muddy vehicle, they said to us
"Oh? No-one here? Well, we bought our park ticket in Maun, so we're ok."
"Oh right? We went to the office in Maun too, but they told us to buy our ticket here - but no-one's in the office."
"They told you that? Oh no. We bought our ticket there. You HAVE to buy your ticket BEFORE you come. Didn't you know? Oh. Dear. " and with that, the two smugglies climbed back into their Hummer and disappeared off into the park in a swirl of dust. Alex and I felt a little worried. Had we been misinformed? It had been a long and demanding drive even to get to the park gates - there was no question of turning back now. We'd have to continue and argue it out at the next gate, if need be.To make matters worse, within two minutes of entering the park, we managed to get the car stuck in mud - knee-deep mud (it's the rainy season and many roads in Chobe are now impassable even for a 4x4). We had visions of sleeping there overnight amidst the lions and elephants and then being fined for having no ticket. Not possible. Alex pulled off his shoes and socks, rolled up his jeans, and waded into the mud while I threw sticks, stones, old rubber, anything and everything under the wheels to give them traction. Alex pushed while I slammed the car into reverse, and finally, the car flew out - just in time for an elephant to wander out of the bushes and spot Alex. Unfortunately, Alex hadn't yet seen him, until my frantic pounding on the windscreen alerted him to the presence of something nearby and he scrambled back in the car quickly, and we watched open-mouthed as the huge beast made its way across the road. Driving through the park from that point was spectacular - elephant after elephant walked across our path, with huge herds wandering by the side of our vehicle as we dodged pool after pool of water in the road. "So this is where they all went from Namibia" Alex stated, referring to our recent elephant-less visit to Etosha.

Alex was rather muddy after pushing the car out of the pool

The elephant wandering in front of the car

Arriving at the next gate, we parked and I went in, ticketless and ready to charm the officials and then argue if need be. I needn't have worried.
"We know the front gate's closed, and of course you can buy your ticket here."
"May I buy it now?"
"Ah, the guy who takes the money isn't here, he's sleeping at the next gate. You can buy it there, no worry. Who told you to buy it in Maun?"
"No-one important"

We drove on through the park and enjoyed the scenery and the animals, purchasing our ticket within two minutes at the final gate. Botswana is truly beautiful, and the huge number of elephants was absolutely fantastic. At one point on the road, we spotted an elephant disappearing into the bush, and drove slowly past so as not to scare him - of course, he'd disappeared into the undergrowth, and we couldn't see where he'd gone at all. A few seconds later, I looked in the rear-view mirror of the car, only to see not less than TEN elephants peering out of the bush behind us, watching our car drive off and waiting to see when they could come back out. It was a little eerie recognising the intelligence of these amazing animals, as well as their incredible ability to camouflage in the bush.


The long roads we travelled on through Chobe

Our last night in Botswana, we stayed at what we thought would be a nice, quiet campsite - until we realised that every Afrikaaner family in South Africa appeared to have had the same idea - they were all en route to Swakopmund for an adventure-sports holiday. Drinking games were underway, loud Afrikaaner music was playing, huge tents everywhere. "It's only for one night" we said to each other. Earnest, the guard at the campsite, came over and said hello. I gave him a cup of tea and we chatted about the hippos in the river next to the site. Earnest was very well meaning, and very zealous in his guarding duties - every hour during the night, he came over and shone his torch at the front and back of our tent to make sure we were ok. Between him and the bellowing of the hippos, which reverberated almost as loudly as the music, we didn't get much sleep (Alex lives in constant terror of encountering a hippo), and left at 5:30am to make it to the ferry that would take us over the Zambezi to Zambia. Botswana had been a land of extremes, between fun and despair. We wondered what we'd encounter on the other side of the river.


  1. I love love love your photo of the Mountain Zebra in Namibia. I would like to use it in an e-book I'm producing for children about identifying the different types of zebra. In return, I will credit you as photographer and publish your website or blog in connection with the photo.

    You can visit my site here to learn more about what I do.

    Thank you for your consideration, and great shot!

    Best regards,

    Jaycee Perley

    1. Hello there,

      Sorry to take so long to reply, of course, and we'd be delighted. Do send us the link/finished e-book when you're done, we'd love to see it.

      Best wishes,

      Linda and Alex

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