Wednesday, 2 May 2018


For three weeks I’ve been travelling around Botswana without WiFi, texts, emails, Instagram, Facebook or Twitter. I notice something else very specific that's missing... something I’ve grown so accustomed to that the lack of it, almost makes me dizzy – no rush of cars, no throb of taxis, no bleeping of lorries reversing, no jackhammers ripping up tar, no police or ambulance sirens, no throb of music coming from cars, no buzz of Deliveroo motorbikes, no hum of air conditioners, no ping of texts. In fact not even another human within miles and miles… just our group of ten alone under two enormous baobab trees at the edge of the Nxai Pan. (pronounced nigh with a click at the beginning).

(all this written on paper a day ago when I was still in that miraculous place under a full moon)

A few weeks back, at Savute, the blue-black sky was filled with so many stars it seemed a million sparklers were alight. Over the weeks we've watched the moon change from the tiniest sliver in the west with Venus up close, to this great ball of light it is now, coming up full in the east, flooding the grasses and salt-pans… so bright, our shadows stand out dark.

At Baines Baobab campsite 2, in the early evening a hum comes off the salt-pan. Perhaps it’s the crust of broken salt making flutes for the faintly wafting air? Then as the sun slips away, the deep silence, broken intermittently by the yowl of hyenas, the yip yip of jackals and the prrr of a Scops owl. Lion paw prints when we wake in our Ihaha campsite on the Chobe river a few days ago, and the crocodile-severed body of an extremely large python floating in the reeds of the river, bare witness to quiet night-savagery.

The days are hot… 31 degrees… filled with the silent tread of elephant that emerge unexpectantly through the grass at the side of the track, and silent clouds of white and yellow butterflies that settle in the mud of the Chobe river. 

The horizons are wide. The sky immense. A photograph can never do justice to this landscape nor to the reflection of cloud and reed in the waters of Xakanaxa and sunsets across the water of Chobe.

My diaphragm loosens and my lungs expand. I’ve crossed a wide threshold to be here. Last year I was extremely ill. But here I am, doing this 3 500 km round trip in a hired camper-van through the Okavango Swamps to Savute, Linyanti and Chobe. Deeper and deeper into the heart of Botswana we go, staying in campsites with names like Xakanaxa, Khwai and Ihaha. I’m travelling with friends from varsity days. Five 4x4 vehicles. We sleep in our tent up on top of our vehicles. Some of my braver friends sleep in tents on the ground.

We get stuck in the sand and in the mud and are towed or winched out in turn by one another. It needs stamina.  Some tourists travelling alone get stuck in the mud for 6 hours and are eventually found in the dark by an army truck. 

I’m not a camper. The last time I camped was when I was twelve… alongside the Victoria Falls. Showering in ablution blocks under cold water is not my scene. At the most remote campsite near Baines Baobabs, where I’m writing this, we have had to bring in all our own water and firewood… not even a tap… just a pit toilet and an empty bucket with a showerhead. No one walks out to them at night, even under a full moon.

I think back to Thomas Baines, the British artist and explorer, who painted the clump of eight baobabs in May 1862. Little has changed. They were already thousands of years old then. In the painting they look exactly as they do now. In place of the ox wagons and horse drawn carts, are 4x4s, with tread on their tyres and a desire to explore some of the most historically significant and inspiring areas of remote Botswana. Baines’ two year trip from Namibia to the Victoria Falls was a death-defying journey, riddled with risk and danger. Many members of his group died en route, falling ill, and dying of starvation or dehydration.

We have forged our way here in six hours from the nearest small town along a sandy track that slews us around. And of course the trees are in leaf as they were in May 1862 after the rains and not the stark silhouettes we normally imagine of a baobab. We have fridges powered by a solar panel on out tent roof and ice tinkles in our cold wine. How good it is to laugh with old friends. How good life is in the silence of the African bush. Remote and removed.

This is me… is all I can think. I am here standing next to this tree. Present and now.


Dianne Hofmeyr’s latest picture book set in Africa, Fiddle Dee Dee, illustrated by Piet Grobler, will be out in 2019 published by Otterbarry Books.


Charlotte said...

I felt my diaphragm relax too as I read this. I am not a camper ether, but having read this, I feel inspired to explore and take Jack too! I am so glad that you had such a wonderful time. Cx

Sue Purkiss said...

What a wonderful description! Sounds really magical - I almost felt as if I was there.

Paeony Lewis said...

How utterly incredible, Dianne. I'm inspired! Did your ears feel fuzzy with the still silence?

Penny Dolan said...

What a truly wonderful travel experience for you and your friends, Dianne.

Natasha Mostert said...

Such a wonderful, wonderful description, Dianne. People talk about digital"detoxing" all the time but I doubt there are many who can say they have gone through this kind of profound cleansing of the spirit and the mind. Well-done for embracing this adventure so shortly after you were so very ill. Now come back to London so you can tell me all about it!

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Thank you all. What I didn't include is how much fun we had. Hanging out with people you have known for 50 years means there are no foibles and weaknesses that you're not prepared for. We shared the hardships and the cooking... and even had Thai Green curry, Tom Yum Goong, roast fillet, goulash, slow cooked lamb shanks and paella. Quite stylish for camping with a limited freezer! And also played boules under the baobabs!

Lydia Syson said...

You are taking me back beautifully, Dianne, and filling me with's far too long since my Okavango and Chobe trip, which I made with a fellow teacher on the cheap way-back-when... tents and canoes... one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. Waking up the best thing ever. So glad you were able to do this.

Candy Gourlay said...

This is wonderful, Diane. Thank you.