Although Botswana has the potential to be a great hiking destination, there are very few recognised hiking paths or marked trails. That’s not to say there are no hiking places – you just need to have an adventurous streak and to be prepared to blaze your own trail! The Botswana Tourism Organisation highlights that the hills in the south east of the country are good hiking options. However, they caution that “the bush is harsh with many acacia thorn trees and other prickly scrub”. They recommend long sleeves, gardening gloves, a pair of gardening clippers and some form of GPS to guide you. So armed with garden clippers, Ditiro and I set off for Otse Hill.
At 1,491 metres, Otse Hill is widely considered to be Botswana’s highest peak though some argue that nearby Mannyelanong may be slightly taller. When looking for information on Otse Hill, I stumbled on a blog by two American travellers who climbed both hills over a weekend in 2015 and found that Mannyelanong was 10m shorter than Otse. I also found a blog from a British climber who visited Botswana for the sole purpose of climbing its highest peak! With the hill just a 45 minute drive from Gaborone, we thought it was about time we tackled this hill.
“To touch the sky, you just have to get that little bit closer.” –
We anticipated at least 3 hours of hiking so we left the kids with my dad. As we headed out, we weren’t sure what Otse Hill looked like and although we had read the blogs I mentioned earlier, we didn’t pay attention to the finer details, something we would soon regret! On the road to Otse Police College we saw an open gate with a dirt road to our left which looked like it was headed in the right direction. After a bumpy ride we got to a sign pointing towards the old Manganese Mines. Shortly after this, there was a left turn with the sign Segorong Gorge which I remembered was mentioned in one of the blogs. We took this turn and then passed the distinctive and infamous hill, Lentswe La Baratani, literally translated as the “Hill of Lovers”. The name comes from the story of two young lovers from Otse who climbed the hill and disappeared after being told they couldn’t marry. One version of the legend says they committed suicide by throwing themselves off the cliff and another version states they hid in a sacred part of the hill never to be seen again. Climbing this hill is strictly forbidden but we stopped for a quick photo.
Soon after, we reached the Segorong Gorge sign and parked. We set off through a dry river bed filled with rocks and boulders which eventually became the gorge. The gorge meandered around the beautiful sedimentary rocks of the Otse Hills and is the highest gorge in the country.
We were surrounded by many moselesele trees, the odd mogonono and the occasional fig tree with spectacular roots embedded in the rocks. The vegetation became more dense with trees lining our path quite beautifully and dominated largely by moologa which has a distinct peppermint scent. There were mohudiri trees and various other Combretum species. The earth was dark brown to red often littered with dry brown leaves which sometimes concealed holes as I discovered a couple of times. There were some great rocky outcrops and also some caves with remnants of fire likely from religious ceremonies. We also saw a few bovine bones.
The path started off fairly obvious but once we had entered the gorge it was pretty much non-existent. We followed the gorge, zig zagging through it to avoid some of the steeper sections. We didn’t see any hills at this point as we were surrounded by so much bush so we weren’t sure whether to keep going or to make a decision to leave the gorge. We got to a point where there was a clear hill on our right but on Google Maps, the Otse Hill Peak was shown to our left. Ditiro looked at the contour lines of the map and noticed that the one on our right had one more contour. But Google and another topography app we had both said left. So we went left.
With no actual path, we had to make our way through long prickly grass, oftentimes loose rocks (many of which had been overturned by baboons hunting for scorpions), always bearing in mind that snakes were coming out from hibernation with the warmer temperatures. There was also a lot of scrambling up and down boulders and slippery rockfaces. As we battled the terrain and hot sun, we kept looking back and the hill on the right always looked significantly taller than where we were heading. Ditiro consoled us by saying we would soon see a difference.
We finally got to the top, looked at Google Maps to find that we had arrived at the peak. But there was no beacon. We walked around holding the mobile phone and watched as it told us we had zero metres left. We were here. But we were not! Where was the beacon?! Then Ditiro with his sharp eye spotted a beacon on another hill in the distance. It looked far but we had come too close to give up now. So off we went, now walking through chest-high grass with barbed seeds, chasing the beacon. Vultures circled in the distance and with the blue skies and the hilly terrain, it was a magnificent sight. But we were exhausted. At one point, I cried. We had gone through most of our snacks and I told Ditiro, “I’m not built for this. I’m not having fun.” But at last, three hours into our hike, we got to the beacon. It read Otse East. This was NOT the highest peak.
We glanced at the hill next to this one which looked taller and thought maybe there is a beacon up there. So we walked across only to find a fenced area with large concrete blocks which looked like they were for anchoring some telecoms masts. As we approached, a rock dassie darted away and then a pair of bushbuck sprung behind the structure and down the other side of the hill. But no beacon. We called it. We were done. We sat on a rock, ate our last snack bar and responded to my dad’s message, “Are you back from Otse Hill?” We replied, “We are still hunting for a beacon.” We were so disappointed and Ditiro in a huff said we should NOT walk back to Google peak and instead pointed in the direction he thought our car was, stating, “Since we made it here on no actual path, we might as well make another path.” So we set off like pioneers, bush-bashing through scratchy shrubs which lined our socks with prickly grass seeds.
I’m not a very superstitious person but with Lentswe La Baratani always in our sight to the right, I felt nervous and thought if ever two lovers were to disappear again, this would be the year it would happen! There were very eerie gusts of wind causing the leaves to rustle very loudly.
We heard barking baboons and a herd of kudu would occasionally bolt through the bushes. We also saw hyena droppings. At this point, we had run out of water. Eventually we found a gorge that Ditiro presumed would meet the gorge we had started on. There were a few treacherous drops that we had to work our way around. But eventually we found the original gorge (with our faded footprints from that morning) and knew we were soon done. As a final farewell to us, we saw a troop of baboons casually crossing the path ahead. After 5.5 hours, we emerged from the dry riverbed – exhausted, thirsty, hungry, sun-burnt. What an unexpected adventure!
Once we had loaded up our stats, we saw we had climbed 20 metres lower than the 1,491 metres and when we re-read one climber’s blog – we realised that the hill Ditiro had pointed out to our right was THE hill we should have gone up after all. Google had it wrong and we should have gone with Ditiro’s map reading skills from Mr Walker’s High School Geography class! So my friends, we didn’t get to the highest peak but what a great adventure we had. I’m proud that we persisted, climbing peak after peak in search of THE one. We didn’t get there this time but this just means the search for Botswana’s highest peak continues!
Have you ever had a hike that didn’t go according to plan? Has Google Maps ever led you astray? Have you climbed the highest peak in your area or country?
I’m joining two amazing runners, Kim from Running on the Fly and Deborah from Confessions from a Mother Runner for their link up, the “Weekly Run Down”. Hop on over to their blogs and others, and be inspired!