I’m heading due east, next destination: Zimbabwe. To get there I have to pass through a small stretch of National Park, say 150-200km through the borderlands of the Nxai Pan and Makgadkikgadi Pan National Parks. I’ve been told by Thomas, the Steve Irwin doppelgänger, and various other cyclists that it’s fine – just maybe don’t camp solo in the bush. Locals in The Old Bridge Guest House supported this train of thought with a shifty look over their shoulder, as if to say ‘not a chance you would see me do it,’ though that could be down to their generous waist lines as opposed to the innate danger.
Animal wise, this is perhaps the most abundant stretch of the trip as seen from the saddle. I’m told not to worry about big cats, they’re wimps. That’s easily said by an overlander in the confines of a fast moving metal box. At this time during the wet season I could potentially see some big herds of migrating zebra and wildebeest and, of course, lots of elephants.
In a country with very few fences, the one running the parameter of the national parks was disconcertedly substantial. Jurassic Park would approve. But, despite the little internal monologue questioning this decision, against my better judgement off I go. It doesn’t matter where in Africa you are: desert, savannah or just the arse end of nowhere, there is always someone by the side of the road. I’m sometimes bewildered as to where they have come from. People hitch here to get around. A woman will sit patiently under a tree, knees together with her handbag on her lap and hands neatly folded atop. Men stand or pace impatiently. Here in the national park, however, it seems I’m the only one on the road. There’s not even a bloody goat to be seen.
To say that my first elephant encounter was intimidating is to put it mildly. The pastures and trees that line the road make for good feeding and I accidently found myself a stones throw from Dumbo and a few friends. I spot her surprisingly close considering her wide girth and great height, perhaps a bus length away. I quietly come to a stop and wait. She sees me. She turns to face me, flaring her ears to increase her stature, her front feet paw the ground like a bull about to charge a matador. Unlike a matador, I don’t deserve to be skewered.
A lone bull is particularly hazardous, they are known to charge land rovers. I’m sat still. The only movement is the gulp of my Adam’s apple as I dryly swallow my foot. Fortunately for me it seems that insignificant little old Harry is no threat; puny human. The elephant harrumphed, turned tail and joined the herd amongst the trees, their backs like leathery islands above the green canopy. We’ll call it even this time. The trick to passing elephants by the road side is firstly wait to see if they move on. Failing that, holdout for a car, get a run up, time your passing so that it coincides with the vehicle and pedal like hell.
That evening I sleep within the confines of a rangers compound. I am told that at night lions and hyenas will pass the camp and that they often get in, particularly the hyenas, they’re a curious bunch. In the dark when using the bushes, shine your torch first. The reflection with a green tint is likely a herbivore. Two yellow tinged orbs means a carnivore, in which case, hold on until morning. I have to delay leaving until the sun is up so make sure the cats and hyenas have had a chance to clear the roads. They are mainly nocturnal and sleep off a busy night in the heat of the day. I’m to watch out for one particularly surly male elephant with just a single tusk.
Although I see no zebra crossings over the course of the National Park transit, I spot numerous small game, ostrich, oryx and a good dozen or so elephants. As the sun climbs, the dew which settled over night lifts forming a slight mist. A female elephant and her two calves are crossing ahead of me, ghost like in the gloom, the newborn holding its mother’s tail with it’s skinny trunk and the older infant lazily lagging behind. It would seem that not all elephant encounters are spine chilling.
In deep water people often get a niggle in the back of their mind. What’s lurking beneath? Panic subtly building, they begin to feel uncomfortable, looking longingly at dry land. Some seaweed brushes their leg, that’s it, they freak out and swim furiously to shore in a panic. I’ve discovered the terrestrial equivalent. If you ever find yourself cycling through a National Park in Africa you’ll know what I mean. Instead of water, picture a sea of grass concealing who knows what. I cycle white knuckled, pumping my legs hard, knowing I’ve got at least three more hours of this; it might be that I’ve got an over active imagination but I’m constantly scanning the bushes and looking over my shoulders with neck stiffening regularity. Thankfully, I spot no golden eyes peering back at me. I’m some what relieved when I return to the realms of man with goats and cows lining the road sides. I can outpace a goat.
No Darwin award for me.