A Drive Through The Botswana Desert On The Worst Highway In The World
The most stressful highway in the world lies just south of the north Namibian panhandle across the Botswana border. Most border highways are pristine as to leave a good impression on the visitors entering the country. Botswana doesn’t seem to regard that as important and it’s evident by driving this highway.
I use the term ‘driving’ ultra lightly because it’s hard to say we drove this highway and easier to say we navigated our way through a half-paved maze. The conditions were awful. Miles on miles – for, at least, the first few hundred miles into Botswana – the road was a battleground. Plagued with craters in the road as if the country had just seen war.
I’m not exaggerating when I say potholes covered the road from side-to-side, twelve feet wide, at least six inches deep. This was a road less-traveled. We were one of only a few cars we saw on the road. Locals, obviously, are more informed than we are. The road was mapped as a dreaded ‘connecting highway’.
Connecting highways, fairly self-explanatory, are the local highways that connect larger interstates. In African atlases, a ‘connecting highway’ could literally mean anything; pavement, gravel, dirt pothole-infected, narrow-laned, no shoulders, mountain pass, blocked by farm animals – literally anything. We’ve learned through astute observation to not take any connecting highway lightly, and that was certainly the case for Botswana’s border highway.
“Shameful, just shameful,” Grandad mumbled under his breath as he was behind the wheel. I passed him driver duties just before we knew what was coming. He was referring to the country’s lack-of care for its country’s citizens and visitors alike to let a highway become so embarrassing.
“It wouldn’t take any time at all to fix this up,” Grandad said in rage, “A four-man crew, a tar truck, and a few weeks time – they could have every single one of these holes filled.” He swerved from on side of the road to the other, then back to the other side, then back, again, to the opposite side. A car a quarter of a mile down the highway coming the opposite direction was doing the same thing. We could never accumulate highway speed unless we want to end up upside down and airborne.
Grandad crept in-between hole after hole, rarely reaching a speed that exceeded forty miles-per-hour. Our five hour drive turned into a six hour drive, and then a seven hour drive. Soon, it’d be an eight hour drive. All we could do was beg the Gods of Fate to grant us solid, un-potholed pavement for a stretch of miles that would salvage our sanity. We dubbed it the ‘Worst Highway in the World’ and I can’t imagine it being too far from the truth.
Frustration kicked in. On such a long drive moving at such slow speed with our car taking a pathetic beating, it was bound to happen.
Maun, Botswana: A Living Nightmare
To make matters worse, we arrived in Maun – our destination city – without accommodation. Night had fallen and there were no street lights in the city; this being the one of the largest cities in the whole country. Our rental car’s poor headlights showed only half of the pedestrians on foot in the city. I wondered what kind of place saw every one of it’s 50,000 people walking on the side of streets at nine o’clock on a Sunday night. The driving conditions just weren’t getting any easier.
By now, I was driving and we had to ask multiple locals in the city for directions to anywhere to sleep. We thought we heard directions clear enough through their mumbles and shyness, at least, to get us down the road to a bed. We came to a dirt road, which I soon determined to be sand. We had no option but to continue down it.
The road led us to a narrower, back-alley-type road that soon put us in someone’s backyard. At this point, we had to turn around, but the sand was getting so loose and deep that I didn’t want to stop the wheels from spinning. I thought for sure we were done-for. If the wheels stopped turning, we’d be stuck.
It was pitch black outside. My adrenaline was pumping. This was the type of situations I live for while traveling. Grandad, on the other hand, had had it with the day. The stress of everything, in addition to some pressure from back home, had built on him to a boil.
I don’t blame him. Here, we were, stuck in someone’s backyard on a sand path made for a 4×4 in total darkness with no where to sleep. It’s not the type of travel that everyone can enjoy. I even had my moments of weakness during it all, too.
As carefully as possible, we guided our way through the sand with our pathetic sedan. I felt the car lose grip of the surface several times as we surfed up and down the plethora of back alley hills.
We navigated our way back to asphalt and Grandad elected the first hotel in sight with no matter of budget. We didn’t talk. There was so much frustration-build that we resented each other for a night. He sat at the desk in our room with his face in his palm. I hopped in the shower, sulked in the cool water to forget the hot stuffy hotel room we were staying in, and when I got out of the bathroom, Grandad still had his face in the palm of his hands. He was distraught. Finally, he spoke.
“I’ve thought about it long and hard. I want to spend my way out of this trip. No more budget. I’m a 76-year-old man in way over my head with this entire trip,” he said blatantly.
“O.K.,” I said, not wanting to discuss anything with him.
“I don’t need things like today getting me worked up. I have to be honest with myself – I’ve got nothing to prove to anyone. I don’t need to put myself through this to know I went to Africa. It’s ridiculous,” he said.
I went to bed steaming at Grandad, but mostly disappointed in myself. It took me until he fell asleep to have a moment of reflection. In a month that two of my best friend’s had lost a grandparent on separate occasions, I realized how extremely lucky I was to even be able to argue with Grandad. A pit open up in my stomach and it felt like my heart fell straight through it.
I couldn’t bare the thought of our trip ending this way, and when we woke up in the morning, it was evident Grandad couldn’t either. We both made an effort to recover our feelings and make things better. Maun, Botswana was a dark, ugly stop, but we couldn’t let the story end there.
The worst road in the world led us down a dark, dark path, but it ended up teaching both of us a lesson. No highway in Botswana is reliable, but this one will sure teach you some things about inner-strength.
This is Africa
This is a story extracted from my memoir with Grandad in Africa. It is only a short part of the entire picture. There was so much to be learned from the journey, I couldn’t help but write about it. It wasn’t the perfect experience in Africa; it never could have been. But, looking back, I think we did a damn good job of putting ourselves in some kick-ass situations to tell a good story.