Bike Safari -- it's not something you hear everyday.
Not long after Nick and I booked tickets to South Africa for the Kingdom Enduro, we were invited to join race director Rene Damseaux and a handful of friends on a post-race experience of a lifetime: a Bike Safari in Botswana. We had no idea what to expect -- what sort of riding was there in Botswana? What sort of animals were we going to encounter? Would we see a lion? What do we do if we see one? Were we going to be sleeping outside with the lions? What about malaria? Are there really black mambas -- wait, are we really sleeping outside? Has our guide ever had to use his rifle? You can google bike safari all you want, and you'll still be surprised -- truth is, it's an amazing experience, riding through herds of giraffe, sleeping under the stars, listening to elephants trumpet in the distance.
Botswana is located just Northeast of South Africa, and has a landscape defined by the Okavanga Delta and Kalahari desert. It is well known for its variety of game reserve's hosting everything from giraffe and elephant to hyenas and lions. The Mashatu Game Reserve, located in the Tuli Game Reserve in the Limpopo Province was our destination: 29,000 hectares (72,000 acres) of bush. The morning after the Kingdom Enduro, a crew consisting of race director Rene Damseaux, Ludo May, Chris Johnston, Max Schumann, Fabian Scholz, Nancy Pellissier, Nick and myself took off on a 13 hr journey from Roma, Lesotho to Pont Drift, the border of SA and Botswana via Johannesburg. The journey there was it's own adventure, with 10 bikes crammed into a single van, plenty of night driving (not suggested due to safety reasons), and a short pit stop at a Jurassic Park style game reserve/hotel. Let's just say it was interesting! After miles upon miles of potholes, we arrived to Pont Drift, where we met our Cycle Mashatu
guides, Mario and Lion, who would be showing us the reserve over the next four days.
Cycle Mashatu, Botswana, Africa (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Entering Botswana, we passed through a "Foot and Mouth Disease Checkpoint", where we were required to dip our shoes, and have our bike tires sprayed with "treatment". Mashatu Game Reserve is not only a known higher-risk malaria area, but also the location of a recent foot and mouth disease outbreak -- animals only (Photo: Kim Hardin)
After a brief intro, we were quickly ushered across the border for lunch and a safety briefing at the Mashatu HQ: “we do not want to see lions by bike”, “snakes are more scared of us than we are of them” (but there are plenty black mambas, puff adders, and spitting cobras in the area), “stop when I say stop, and be quiet when I say be quiet”. Mario wasn't kidding.
Mario (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Team Meeting, led by Mario (Photo: Rene Damseaux)
One of the many dry, sandy stream bed crossings -- These riverbeds only see water as flash floods in the summer "rainy season", between November and April. Luckily, no flash floods for us (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Once on bikes, we hustled to our first camp before dark, while quickly learning the in's and out's of safari: the animals are quite different when approached by bike versus vehicle. They see each person as an individual, and us a “herd”, while a vehicle is viewed a one large Individual, making them less threatening, especially as the animals have become accustomed to vehicles on the regular. This meant that when approaching an animal by bike, they would generally run away, or in the case of elephants or "Ellie's, they want to charge us. It was most important to respect each and every individual animal and give wide berth, especially to Ellie's, always having an “escape route”. This is no zoo, this is the real bush, and the animals clearly rule the bush. As we were getting to camp on Day 1, we came across our first Ellie, who quietly stalked us—we looped away only to see and hear a mock charge"and trumpet from a second elephant nearby, prompting another loop away. After what felt like forever, but was more like 10 minutes of sneaking through the bush, looping our way past Ellie’s, we made it to camp. What an intro!
Did I mention, Mario guided us through the bush without use of GPS? He did this everyday over a huge area of land and knew where we were at all times - impressive!
Our Team: Mario, Rene D. Fabien Scholz, Ludo May, Nancy Pellissier, Kim Hardin, Nick Hardin, Chris Johnston, Max Schumann under the great Mashatu Tree
(Photo: Rene Damseaux)
Breakfast is served: Yogurt, muesli, fruit and fresh-made bread (Photo: Kim Hardin)
The circle of life was very apparent in Mashatu -- Nancy shows us a Water Buffalo skull (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Riding in the "bush-bush", as Mario says of Day 2 (Photo: Nick Hardin)
Elephants or "Ellies" were everywhere (Photo: Kim Hardin)
I'd say Nick's ACL rehab is going well... (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Devinci Spartan's in the wild (Photo: Chris Johnston)
Stories by firelight (Photo: Chris Johnston)
When in the bush.... (Photo: Rene Damseaux)
In the middle of no-where, Botswana, taking in the views of the Mashatu Game Reserve (Photo: Nick Hardin)
The next few days we rode between 25-35km per day, guided by Mario and Lion. Between the two of our guides, they had over 12 years of experience guiding by bike, resulting plethora of knowledge in regards to animals, vegetation, and astronomy.Fun facts:
A group of giraffes is called a "Genie," while a single giraffe is known as a “Tower”. Females have straighter “horns”, while males have tufts at the top (Photo: Nick Hardin)
A lion's roar can be heard from over 8 km away! (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Mom, Dad and baby Ellie (Photo: Kim Hardin)
While Lions mate for five straight days, every 5-15 minutes, elephants are pregnant for 24 months! A baby elephant on average weighs 250#. Elephants drink over 150 liters of water a day, and urinate over 50 liters of water a day!
Vervet Monkeys do indeed throw poop (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Just your typical Mashatu Safari camp (Photo: Kim Hardin)
A day in the safari life consisted of waking up around 6am to leave camp by 7am. Once on trail, we would “read the morning newspaper”, looking to the ground for tracks from overnight as to what animals were nearby. We would see giraffes, zebra, impala, and baboons almost immediately, with eland, cheetah, warthog, and leopard on occasion. The animal density was very high, meaning we never really had to “look” for the animals, they were always there.
Got Impala? (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Around 12:30pm, we would stop for High Tea (Roobios of course. Coffee too!), and observe the hundreds of thorns in our tires. Thank goodness we brought extra sealant! We’d ride for another hour or two, Ludo would find a tree or two to ride down or up, while Max and Chris took proper photos. We’d then ride for another few hours, and settle in at camp for a bucket shower and rest— it was simply too hot to be out pedaling for very long in the heat of the day. Simple, but delicious dinners were cooked over coals in cast iron: braai (BBQ tandoori chicken), bobotie, curry and rice. After an astronomy lesson or two, we’d go to bed and do it all over again the next day, hoping to hear the roar of a lion or cackle of a hyena as we went to sleep.
It may have been 90 degrees out, but high tea was always a welcome stop! (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Ludo May, embracing the way of the Vervet Monkey (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Got sealant? Don't pull the thorns or you'll flat! (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Sometimes the "trail" was a road, sometimes the trail was simply our own: going off-road through the bush (Photo: Rene Damseaux)
Proper tea time, Landcruiser and all... (Photo: Kim Hardin)
The third day of the trip was most memorable: we rounded a corner and Mario stopped abruptly, "Be very quiet." He pointed to the ground at what was a very fresh set of lion tracks. Lion in Mashatu are very elusive (6 in 23,000 hectares) and we were very close to one.
Mario, talking tracks... (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Mario radioed the sighting, and a larger safari truck came for support, while we pedaled in a direction opposite that from the tracks. Whew, that was close! I think we all were excited about seeing a lion, but not so excited to be on the ground with one, especially if it didn’t like bikes.
That evening we “rolled da wheels” (Mario’s queue in Afrikaan accent), into our last camp: Rather than sleep in tents, we slept under the stars, in a “Boma” of sorts, a protected circle with a fire in the middle. Vervet monkeys made home in the Mashatu tree above us, greeting us with plenty of entertainment upon arrival. The go-away bird was almost constant “wahhhh”, and quickly became the group’s “chant”. We were told to watch for lions as “this area has quite a few”. I was still on the look out for snakes...
Our "boma" camp for the night (Photo: Kim Hardin)
A view inside our "boma" camp for the night (Photo: Nick Hardin)
Chris Johnston making the most of sundown next to the renown Baobab Tree, Africa's Iconic "Tree of Life" (Photo: Kim Hardin)
Throughout the night, baboon and Hyena talked nearby, but the lions stayed away. Rhinoceros bugs were a plenty, as were the “talky talky” bug, known to beat their legs against their chest as they walk in search of a female. Mario and Lion shared stories around the fire of their safaris, and their lives in Botswana, a reminder we would be back to civilization the following day.
Our last morning came quickly, and we hustled back to the border, full of new perspective and appreciation for such a special experience, as well as each other. Between the Kingdom Enduro and our Bike Safari, we were reminded how simple life is, and how it's not things that enrich our lives, but the people and experiences along the way.
"Dumela", Good morning, Good evening, Good Night.
Kim & Nick Hardin
To read more about The Hardins and KickStand Coffee & Kitchen, visit www.meetthehardins.com