Surrounded by Rhinos in South Africa 30 April- 4 May

Francistown, Botswana, to Palapye 170km
Martin’s Drift, South Africa 100km
Gnu Game Reserve, Lephalale 130km
Marakele National Park, Thabazimbi 100km
120km to Kokoriba Nature Reserve, (30km north of Brits).

19,783 so far

I have finally reached South Africa, and it has already been an amazing and heartwarming experience. I’d seen a lot of wildlife in Botswana but here the animals have come even closer and what has amazed me the most is the generosity and friendliness of total strangers. The route has mostly been flat with hills only as you approach Thabazimbi and Brits. So the cycling has been good too. Here’s the full story…

After a big day of cycling the flat main road from Francistown, I reached Palapye, I went into a Wimpy to get food and use their wifi. The manager, Lorato seemed to like me and with her great big smile it was impossible not to like her too. She asked to ride my bike and I said “no problem, but you might need longer legs”. After trying to get her leg over, she realised this was true. Later I asked her if there was a cheap guesthouse nearby. She went away and came back to tell me that the cheapest guesthouse was 275 pula. I frowned and said that this was twice my budget and I think I would have to camp. First she insisted that I camp in her garden, but when her brother arrived to guide me to their home, he said he was staying elsewhere that night and I could sleep in his room! Such amazing generosity.

The route to Martin’s drift was again flat and not interesting at all but after a relatively simple border crossing I had my first night in South Africa. It was country number 21 but more importantly, I had reached my last country in my 6 month journey across Africa.
I stayed at the “Fig Inn” and I was so happy to be in South Africa I bought 4 beers for some retired South Africans. And Camping was reasonable, 80 rand, (under £5).

Next day i went around 130km, 40km past Lephalale. It was getting dark and I luckily met Anton at Gnu Ranch, a game reserve, who said I could go ahead and camp near the chalets on his game drive. As night fell, I pushed my bike through sand until I was sure i had gone the wrong way. Sweating and tired I turned back and found the right path but it was flooded and I knew from experience I wouldn’t be able to get Silver across. She would sink. So I camped just inside the front gates. Anton eventually drove past with his workers brandishing rifles. They had shot 2 Kudu (Antelopes). “Hey English boy, look at these!”, he said. I could see that the Kudu were very big, and very dead. “why are you camping there?” He asked” I Said “i cant cross the water with my bike” “Shucks well be careful, there are lions here!” Great, I thought. The next morning Anton’s kids came to see me and Silver. They wanted my autograph! I said I think a photo would be better for them to show at school and Anton invited me for coffee and we got chatting. He had been an accountant in Pretoria but had suffered years of epilepsy brought on particularly when stressed. One bout had caused him to crash his car. After an operation to remove part of his brain he was cured, but he also resolved to make a big change and move out to the country. With 2 beautiful kids, 3 crazy dogs, a successful lodge and acres of game reserve, he seemed to me to be living his dream. It’s people who take a risk and make big changes in their lives who really inspire me. And his kids were adorable. We shook hands and I left having paid nothing, with bottles full of ice.

The rest of the day was unforgettable for many reasons. I passed warthogs, antelopes (impala and kudu) and, on a bridge, a funny monitor lizard who ran backwards and forwards like a crazy drunk until he finally found his way off the bridge and back into the long grass. But it didn’t stop there. I cycled about 50km when I met a cyclist on a mountain bike. He was enormously impressed by my journey and invited me for lunch in Thabazimbi. And in the evening he took me to Marakele National Park, he managed to persuade them to drive me to the campsite (bicycles are not allowed) and he even ‘sponsored’ me by paying for it. Amazing spontaneous generosity.

Well, it was an incredible experience. The area next to the camp was teeming with wildlife. I saw a rhino and I was so excited. I had never seen a white rhino in the wild. And with it, there were at least 100 animals- antelopes, wilderbeest, and even ostriches. As I stood and took photos, the other campers, all South Africans, said they had never seen anything like it. And then something amazing happened. Three white rhinos who were grazing came closer and closer until they actually entered the campsite. They were so close but we did not feel at all unsafe. (While the black rhino is aggressive and dangerous, the white rhino is much more docile and can only see about 5 yards away). Yet they are huge, powerful, and imposing animals which really demand your awe and respect. We were all astounded as they came into the camp area and continued to graze like giant armour-plated cows, munching their way through the grass and paying us little attention.
It sparked a lot of conversation and I got talking to a family who invited me to eat their brai with them. And they even gave me wine. I was touched by their friendliness and generosity but it went further and I left with a map of South Africa and the rest of my route planned and mapped out.
And later as we all retired to our tents, I thought the rhinos returned, but this time it was wilderbeest.
I could hear them grazing and walking around my tent. Quite incredible. As there was a light outside my tent, you could even see their shadows on the walls of the tent. I unzipped the tent a little to see the wilderbeest not more than 5 meters from my tent. They ran out of the glare of my torch and I zipped up again as I knew my chances of catching them on camera were small and it was better to just enjoy the strange experience of lying in the dark and trying to identify all the different noises. And one large grunt alarmed me. I unzipped the front of the tent again, and there was a rhino, facing to my left. It hadn’t seen me and continued grazing. I was like a kid at Christmas, I couldn’t believe it.
I could also hear jackals in the distance, their high pitched cackling and howling unmistakable.
And then a huge shadow loomed above the tent and my heart lept as the legs of a huge rhino came into view and lumbered past my tent, no more than a meter away. I could have reached out to touch it! I just lay there and hoped that with their poor eyesight they would not walk directly into my tent, and crush me. My heart was beating fast, but as the munching and grunting became more distant, I relaxed again and fell asleep knowing I was truly lucky to have had this experience. It was something I could tell my grandchildren, an extraordinary night that will stay with me for a long time.

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20140505-111633.jpg Up close with the Rhinos in Marakele National Park, near Thabazimbi

In the morning, as I was making coffee, a large female ostrich walked right past me. It made me laugh. I left the park and headed towards Brits. On the way my friends from the night before pulled over in front of me to give me a cold drink and fill my bottles with ice. And they recommended Kokoriba reserve as a place to stay. 30km before Brits, I entered Kokoriba and cycled past 2 giraffe, to the lodge, which was effectively closed as it was Sunday night. But Johannes, the owner gave me food and wood to make a brai and a luxurious chalet with a comfy bed. I swam in their pool, and had a very relaxing night. I walked round the site in the morning and saw Impalas running in front of me. I wish I could have stayed longer, and next time I will pay for the night. This time I was again not charged a single Rand.

So far so good. The North of South Africa is full of animals and kind people. My next step is to look for bicycle parts in Brits, or Pretoria.

That’s all folks! Have a great day!
-The thirsty cyclist