Sometimes on a trip like this (even with Steve’s meticulous planning) your route ends up being decided by forces totally outside your control.
As we bumped along the gravel road heading for the remote South African border post we were keeping our fingers crossed. We had been stressing about it for months, even before we arrived on the continent. Stamped out of Botswana we made away down to the Limpopo River bed; the causeway across its bed was just slightly wider than the truck. With just a few inches each side of the tyres, I kept my head sticking out of the window the whole time to check we stayed absolutely straight. Just metres on the other side our fate lay in the hands of just one lady with a stamp. Just how long would she let us in for? Her stern face didn’t look promising, as she asked us about our plans. I tried to distract her with the children’s birth certificate, another newly required border entry requirement that had also caused us a headache. Then out came the stamp…”thwack”….a quick scribble and she was done – our fate decided. With poker faces we thanked her and rushed out……… YES!!! We had the 60 days we needed to continue the journey we want to do, heading south to Durban to ship to Australia. If she had given us just the 7 days she was supposed to, it probably would have meant that we would have had to dramatically alter our plans: head north to wait to try again in January?; abandon our Australian plans and ship straight to Malaysia later?; drive through Africa to Port Sudan and ship to Saudi Arabi, then Iran and go that way to Asia?……the possibilities were endless (and had been endlessly debated over the last few months).
Why all this stress you might ask? Unfortunately for us South Africa changed its visa rules last year so if you are entering their country for a second time without returning to your home country first, you are only entitled to a 7 day visa. For 99% of travellers, especially if they are flying in, this isn’t a problem. But we had heard other overland travellers whose whole journey had been dramatically altered because of it. Our Swiss biker friends, who are also in the same boat, had even been to the South African Embassy in Harare to ask about it and they had been told if they explained their situation they might be able to get longer but it was up to the border guards discretion. There is a big border crossing at Beitbridge between Zimbabwe and South Africa but as lots of trucks pass though, it is known as being stressful and very busy. We thought a quieter border would give us a better chance. Hence the detour to Botswana. There are several tiny border crossings across the Limpopo River either driving through the dry river bed or a concrete causeway. The added advantage for us is that is that if we were offered just 7 days we could turn around and re-enter Botswana, where as if we had crossed from Zimbabwe we would need another visa to get back in.
Leaving Bulawayo we headed west to the Botswana border, where we turned south to Francistown. That night the clouds and cold came in, we set off towards the wilderness area known as the Tuli Block. We spent a couple of nights on the banks of the Limpopo, with South Africa just across the other side. At this time of the year there was nothing in the sandy river bed apart from a couple of green pools, we were told they were full of crocs so didn’t go too close. With no fences, we listened to the elephants crash around the bushes in the dark just beyond where we could see with our torches.
After our successful crossing we spent a couple of nights on the other side of the Limpopo in Mapungubwe National Park. Impressive remains from the Iron Age have been discovered in the park. The museum explaining their huge cultural significance of such a find, is made of beautiful domes made of compressed mud. The structure is hugely impressive, as is the golden rhino they dug up. In addition there is a lovely drive that culminates in an overlook of the confluence of two rivers. Here South Africa, Zimbabwe and Botswana all meet at a point.
The campsite is on the western unconnected side of the park. We had to drive through huge orange and tomato farms to get in. I can only imagine the problems they have with elephants with such tasty foods just outside the park. This side has far fewer roads but the campsite was lovely. After squeezing under some trees to get in we decided to save our game driving till our time in the Kruger in a couple of days. We had plenty of game in the unfenced camp anyway, we all fell in love with the doe-eyed bushbuck pair who were completely unafraid of us.
Our friendly South African campsite neighbours were kind enough to show us some of the best of what their country has to offer for supper that night. With delightful company round a proper South African-sized fire, they fed us delicious prawns and sent us away with homemade jams and fruit.