184. A Trip Down Memory Lane

7. July

After Gabarone, we set out to retrace the steps of my mother some 40 years ago. Our trip to Serowe started early the next morning, speeding through the wide open plains of Southern Botswana. The scenery doesn’t change much as we drive – we see the dry shrubs, trees and the occasional shanty town or gas station. A couple of hours into our drive we stopped off in Palapye, which you may or may not recognise as the filming site of the new movie A United Kingdom, which I have yet to watch. We set out to find the Palapye hotel, which apparently played a huge role in the movie. It was a quiet, maybe even desolate, building that we found ourselves at. As we walk through the door to the reception we are met by the grimace of the receptionist, who is busy chatting to someone on the phone. Without an invitation or even a smile, we wander further into the old building, which has the characteristic dusty, stale smell of old African buildings.

“Hello,” a sweet voice sounds as we walk through the quiet corridor. We turn around to face a pretty little, old lady who is walking towards us.

“How’re you?” Dad asks, and before the woman has a chance to answer: “are you a guest here?”

“No, no. I own the hotel,” she replies in a strong Cape Town accent. She looks up at him through her small glasses with clear blue eyes and a kind smile.

We tell her that we have seen the movie, and her face lights up. Although she has yet to watch it herself, she is happy to tell us all about the filming, the hotel itself, and Palapye town. She brings us into a dark room which serves as a bar. The room is lined with black and white photographs of colonial times – hunters posing beside their bleeding trophies, heavy officers riding ponies (I try not to cringe), and newspaper cuttings about the proprietor’s predecessors and Cecil Rhodes. When the lady hears that mom spent two years in Serowe as a kid, she becomes even more animated and tries to remember any one by the name Jensen. Although the name rings a bell, she doesn’t seem to be able to put a face to it. Instead she tells us about her husband, who, she says, would be able to remember much more than her and who would love to tell us – in even more detail – about the small town of Palapye.

The lady sends us down to the old train station, where the movie was actually filmed. We wave our goodbyes and trample across the railway tracks – me in flip-flops, which I come to regret as prickly little thorns pierce through my down-trodden soles. We walk right by a sign which reads: TRESPASSING IN THIS AREA IS STRICTLY FORBIDDEN. This must be the old centre (maybe even the present centre) of town. To our right we find the building from the film. Inside there are, again, rows of pictures lining the walls. Just like the hotel, this building is dark and dusty – it seems to serve as a little supermarket. There are tables lined up in neat rows. The tables are piled with packets of cow feed, crisps, and other random items.

Across from this building is the old train station, which is run down and way past its prime.

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After taking a decent amount of pictures and adequately stretching out our legs, we head to back to the hotel for a drink before we hit the road again.

A few hours later, we find ourselves approaching Serowe. Mom is beginning to get nostalgic as she spots the two hills, which she remembers so well from her childhood – Ma Swaneng and Ra Swaneng.

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We spend two nights in Serowe, at Khama Rhino Sanctuary. We arrive at the sanctuary in the early afternoon. We are handed the keys to a chalet, and in order to get there dad has to manoeuvre the tinny little rental car through the sandy maze intended for 4×4 use. The car skids and winds its way towards the hut, as we keep an eye out for any wildlife. Once we arrive at the chalet I am quick to set up the hammock, where I spend the next hour or so reading, listening to the chatter and whistle of the birds and watching a squirrel run up and down the big baobab tree. Mom spends the time in a chair close to the door of the chalet, nervously keeping an eye out for any dangerous game that may come charging out of the bush towards the blue hammock.

The late afternoon is spent on a gorgeous sunset game drive. Naturally, with our crappy rental car, there is no possibility of going on a self-drive, so for the first time in years we climb into a park jeep with a very astute ranger. The park has 30 white rhino and 6 black, and they haven’t had an incident with poachers in over two decades thanks to the help of the army, who patrol the grounds 24/7. We learn that the black rhino is very curious and will come out of the bush when it hears any noise, which is unfortunate because it makes it so easy for those damn poachers – which why it is so endangered. Nonetheless, the chance of us spotting one was small, seeing as they also like to graze in and amongst the trees, whereas the white rhino sticks to wide, open fields. We meet plenty of game on our drive, including a baby white rhino, which we are planning to adopt on our way back down to Serowe – her name will be revealed if and when we succeed.

After a meal at the park’s deserted restaurant we head straight for bed – it is freezing!

The next morning we set out to explore Serowe. First on the agenda is a visit to Swaneng Hill Secondary School, where my grandfather taught for a few years back in the 70s. We ask many friendly faces along the way: “have you heard of Swaneng Hill?”, many answer no, some give us questionable directions, then one kind women hops in her car and shows us the way. Mom then leads us up a steep hill and around a corner to the house the Jensen family occupied many years ago. We explore the building – after getting the okay from the present resident, of course. Mom gives us the story of 1976. We learn about the Drunk Canadian, who lived next door and the time she had invited guests over for dinner. She had taken the lasagna out of the oven and dropped it right onto the floor. Never mind, she had thought and proceeded to serve the dish, glass shards and all. We learnt about the time mom had been running down the path as a 10 year old. She ran up and down this path daily, looking for interesting stones to add to her collection, and she knew the way like the palm of her hand. As she came to a step she leapt through the air, glancing down at the python slithering by beneath her feet. 

When we had seen all we could of Swaneng hill, we once again jumped back in the car and drove down the hill. on our way out the gate we passed by the mounds of school kids who were on lunch break. They taunted and pointed at the car full of white people, which brought back great memories for mom, of her time spent in the local primary school.

Time had come for our visit to the Khama Graves. We drove in circles through Serowe, again relying solely on the help of the people we passed on the road. Eventually, we parked by the Khotla – which is a town assembly point, akin to a local parliament, where a chief is present to make decisions and listen to the people’s queries. Seeing as we needed to be granted permission from the chief in order to see the graves, we were told to wait in line. I sat in the sun, by the bonnet of the car, and read as we waited. Joe took over the camera… and I don’t like being on the other side of the lens.

Eventually an entitled man dressed in all black, with a bowlers hat and pointy shoes, slowly walked towards us and introduced himself as a Khama. He was undoubtedly expecting a starstruck reaction, but with his air of arrogance I couldn’t muster as much. Slowly, slowly, we began to walk up the hill. At the top we were met by a young and passionate man, who ended up being our guide for half of the day.

We viewed the graves of Seretse Khama (the first president of Botswana and an all-round amazing person) and his family. We were told not to take any pictures up there… and I’m not about to mess around with that again, so the camera stayed in the car. We could see most of Serowe from this high vantage point. It was dry and brown, but a stunning view of an African semi-desert. The graveyard was enclosed by tall stacks of red rocks where a rock rabbit was watching us as he bathed in the mid morning sun. We started our descent towards the car park, with the chief at the front, taking his sweet time. At the back, we were having a chat with the young and knowledgeable man who showed us the graveyard.

“Do you know where the Serowe museum is?” Mom asks. Her old teacher helped set up this museum.

“Yes,” the man says nervously. “But they can tell you,” he juts his chin towards the chief and the chief’s buddy. “There is protocol.” After thanking the chief and saying goodbye, the young man hops in his car and leads us to the aforementioned museum. The museum turns out to be by far the best museum I have seen in Africa. Our museum guide, Therese, bickers with our friend from the graves over the facts she has spent so much time and effort learning. We look at pictures, dioramas and artefacts, which teach us all about the Botswana culture.

With our stomachs rumbling and complaining about the lack of food, we have to cut things short and rush off to find some food. We buy beef stew and pap from Spar and stand in the car park, dripping sauce onto the bonnet as we tear off bits of the pap with our fingers and a plastic spoon.

Back in the car and we find ourselves back at the museum, where Therese offers to assist us in finding the local weavers. We spend the next few hours packed tightly in the car, driving around, trying to hunt down these mysterious artists. In short, we didn’t succeed, but we did end up in the home of a large, elderly lady who was very creative and busy with her arts… certainly not what we were looking for though.

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After a long day of sightseeing, we are glad to be back at the sanctuary. As the day before, I am quick to set up my hammock. I rush in to get my book, scared that I wont be able to sit there for long before the sun sets. I am trying to sort out the tangled hammock when I hear something shuffling around in the nearby bushes. I look up, straight into the eyes of a big black rhino.

“That is a rhino,” I half-shout to my dad who is standing outside the chalet, before I can think. “Guys, do you want to see a rhino?” He is chomping away at the grass, and I notice that he has a beak – the big and obvious difference between the black and white rhino. Fuck, I think as I remember what our guide told us about this species of rhino just the day before. I run to the chalet and his head moves with me. “That’s a freaking black rhino,” I say – quietly this time – to my family who have gathered by the door. We all glance around the side of the house and look at the animal and his massive horn. He chomps aways happily and doesn’t give any indication of aggression. He begins to walk, slowly, around the back of the house. Mom and Joe, who have fled inside to the safety of the chalet are shouting (well, whisper-shouting) at the two of us to get inside… But I want to see the goddamn black rhino, even if it kills me! We may be the few people on earth to get that privilege… especially in this day and age. 

“He’s outside the window!” Joe says. But by the time I get there he is gone. I grab my camera on the way out, but all I see is a big grey rhino butt disappearing into the bush. We stand on the balcony looking into the distance, slightly out of breath. It dawns on us that we have just seen one of the last black rhino.

“He’s moving towards the campsite,” I say and soon enough we hear a little squeal as our neighbours notice the mountain of an animal moving towards them. Guys, rhinos aren’t small. I knew that, you knew that, everyone knows that. But you don’t realise how insanely huge they are until you come face to face with one. The white rhino is about 180cm to the shoulder… which, just for reference is taller than Joe. That is big.

That is the story of how we met Nodi: the park’s hand raised black rhino.

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The rest of the evening we sat on the step of the veranda, watching the bush getting darker and darker. We ate peanuts, drank beer and chatted about the days adventure. We even had a visit from three curious birds, who were desperately trying to get close enough to eat our rusk crumbs… They never made it, but A+ for effort. They would peck, peck, peck at the sand, nonchalantly moving closer and closer. And then someone moved and squeeeeak!, off they shot.

We went up to the restaurant early in the evening in hope of getting some time on the internet… That most definitely did not happen, so we ate and headed back for another drink under the nearly full moon.

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//Niamh

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