My unfinished journey to Mantshwabisi 2015
As a youngster coming up in our burgeoning city of Gabs in the late seventies and early 80s, I would, alongside some of my friends and cousins, go and watch car races at what was then called the ‘Cotton Fields,’ a disused piece of farmland, on the then western edge of the city, over the railway line, approximately in the area which now sits the Central Business District (CBD) – itself a burgeoning and prosperous piece of real estate at the heart of the city, housing offices, banks, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and we also hear, even some residential apartments, too.
Those were the heydays of the great scrambler motorbike and the off-road ‘Sand-Master’ car – a racing machine made simply of thick metal rods hung onto the chassis of a car to hold the engine, two seats and a set of wheels in place, basically; yet that simple frame could mount and tackle any obstacle put on its way and dispose of rough corners and curves with such dexterity and lightning speed it would soon put to shame better known and more trusted brands like the Land Rover, Chev Nomad, Cruiser, Ford, and the like.
Then over the years those early seeds of the Cotton Fields era would evolve and transmogrify into something bigger, both in size and spatial coverage, in the form of the Trans Kalahari Road Race – an epic, multi-day cross Kgalagadi desert odyssey that would see drivers going away for days on end, before suddenly re-appearing to pop the champagne bottle and claim the trophy. Until, in more recent times, came the 1000 km Toyota Desert Race – better known by its moniker of ‘Mantshwabisi,’ denoting a village by the same name located in the vicinity of the Thebephatshwa Air-base along the Molepolole-Letlhakeng road, in the Kweneng District, on the other side of the Bakwena capital, which had over time established itself as a popular camping spot during the race.
However, as the routes of the annual off-road show swayed and shifted, year in, year out, some of the more popular viewing spots and epicentres of the car and motorbike races that one would also come to visit and camp out at would include the Bakwena ploughing areas of Gakgatla and the surrounds of Kumakwane village, all in Kweneng. Then came another major and transformational stage in the ever-evolving trans Kgalagadi desert race – with it now moving even further away from the greater Gaborone area, and deeper into the desert, by way of the diamond mining town of Jwaneng, where its second edition in its new desert outpost was hosted earlier this year.
And while distances - and expenses, of course - have by all accounts risen markedly for car-race lovers and outdoors-starved residents of the capital, who normally patronise and form a sizeable portion of those in attendance at such events, we may also take consolation in the knowledge that moving the epic off-road event away from the greater Gabs city area, at the least, opens up opportunities for those of our own who are doing business in J-town and its surroundings, especially the small-scale, informal sector operators.
So then at the height of our last winter this year, and in its second coming since it relocated to J-town, as almost everybody on the ground seems to christen their town, ‘Mantshwabisi’ came beckoning again – this time in the form of a tall, lanky fellow, a cousin of ours from Moleps, and a real Mokwena man who ekes out a living as a long-distance, cross-border, extra heavy-duty driver for the Chinese-owned mega corporation, China Civil, a guy called MacMillan, and who, when we meet during the week, ahead of the on-coming weekend event, abruptly announces, ‘Tyga, I’m home this weekend with a car, why should we miss ‘Mantshwabisi’?’
He need not have asked. It was already a done deal; even before he could begin to open his mouth to ask his rather rhetorical and ever superfluous question. So come Friday evening after work and off we go, accompanied by one of Millan’s younger nephews, a school-going youngster of about sixteen, but who, against all expectations, would later turn out to be such a real piece of disaster, wreaking havoc on the cooler-box which somebody had placed unthinkingly beside him on the backseat of the Nissan SUV; meanwhile, another favourite nephew, Kgosi, has not made the trip, his parents refusing to budge before any of Millan’s pleas on the boy’s behalf, insisting the lad was in the middle of his mid-year exams. Then, on the way out of town, it soon turns out that the SUV, despite its magnificent and appealing looks on the outside and the sufficiently convincing roar of its engine, has some problem with its lighting system, its upper beam failing us as we approach the Polokwe escarpment on the Gabane-Sejelo highway, forcing us to park and encamp for the night on the side of the road.
And so we sleep in the car, under the dark, starry sky, on the foothills of Polokwe. And, with hindsight, one might now say that we should have read the signs of the times at that very point, and acted accordingly. But, to our later detriment, we did not heed that silent reproach of the gods!
So, at daybreak, the next morning, Millan revs up the engine, like his heavy industrial boot were back on the familiar foot-pedal of his work-horse, and we hit the road again, heading further on to J-town.
It takes slightly less than an hour to get there and before too long, at around eight or nine in the morning, we’ve already joined the fray, and are right in the mix, congregating alongside hundreds of other racing-car enthusiasts and sport lovers at the first viewing spot along the Jwaneng-Mabutsane road - itself a part of a very busy industrial and commercial artery that is the Trans Kgalagadi Highway, boasting trade links which stretch from the east coast of the sub-continent, in the Indian Ocean port-city of Maputo, Mozambique, to the Atlantic seaboard in Walvis Bay, Namibia, on the west coast.
But, back at the desert-race viewing spot, few people seem to be thinking much about the lucrative, sub-regional trade that passes through their town on a daily basis; instead, they’re kicking back and quietly sipping on their ales, or, in the case of the younger and more agile ones, jumping about excitedly at the sight of the noisy Sand Master that thunderously announces its arrival, a few minutes after we reach the area; generally almost everybody, including some familiar faces from the greater GC area that we come across, seem to be only too happy and full of praise, they say, that, at least for once, the ‘puso’ [the government’, or ‘the police’!] are today in something of a mellow mood and aren’t so keen on enforcing their anti-alcohol regulations as stringently as they can sometimes do, to the point of simultaneously arresting and detaining scores and scores of revellers on the eve of major public holidays.
We hang around the place awhile, taking in the bubbly, excited mood of jubilant fans and friends that we meet there, happy to see each other again, out here, after so long a time, and so far away from home, at this annual off-road fiesta, watching and ululating windswept vehicles as they noisily ram in and out of sight amid such fanfare and sheer style, like it were all music in the air! Then after that we’re off again into the town looking for something decent and reasonably priced to chow, before we drive around surveying a couple more viewing spots, as well as planning where we shall set up camp and light our fire later in the night.
Then it’s more and more of the dirty and besmirched racing car after racing car, scrambler after scrambler, and more fun and laughter!
But, intuitively reminded of the condition of the car’s lighting, we retire early to camp, choosing a spot a short distance off the Jwaneng-Mabutsane road, alongside a number of other night owls who’ve also sacrificed the comfort of their homes to come and sit it out here, braving the cold and whistling wind of a Kalahari night in the winter. Nightfall comes early in winter, but in the Kalahari it seems things are worse, with its sparse and silhouetted acacia trees and stunted shrubs forming a desolate and ghostly backdrop in the horizon, much earlier than you might expect in other parts of Botswana.
From what I can still recall of the rest of the events of that evening, before ‘blacking out’ with the rw pain of a broken and twisted bone, we had been offloading firewood, camping equipment and stuff from the jalopy, including the cooler box that the youngster did not want to part with, preparing to pitch our tent and set up camp, when, all of a sudden, from one end of the camp, a loud clatter of voices erupted, shouting ‘Legodu! Legodu!’ [‘Thief!Thief’].
And soon thereafter a short, stocky figure of a guy in baggy pants comes sweeping past our camp, clumsily trying to hold onto a ‘dori’ [street slang for a ‘hat’] perched on his head, while outpacing the menacing throng in hot pursuit behind him, before running down the beaten up car alley, exiting on the other side of the Mabutsane road.
‘They’ll never catch him,’ I tell Millan, who is bringing down the wood from the car, while I busy myself away looking for a missing packet of fags in the car. ‘He’s too good, too good, for them!’ But just about then, another loud cacophony of angry voices, some persistently questioning the would-be culprit, ‘Jaanong o siela eng?’ [‘So why are you running away?’], breaks the silence of the camp, coming from the other side of the road, signalling that the would-be criminal had been caught and brought home to answer for his doings. ‘What’s happening?’ I ask Millan, turning around to face him. ‘What’s happening?’ he repeats my question, relishing his moment. ‘You’re the one who was just saying that they’d never catch him, so what are you saying now, mister?’
And, without much thought, like someone trying to make some amends of sorts, I make him a proposal which I would soon live to regret.
‘Ok, then, let me go check whatta gwaan!’I make the offer as I abandon whatever task I was on about and start trotting towards the main road, hoping it might give me a quick glimpse into what is happening in that little skirmish brewing up at the end of the beaten down car alley! Then when I am almost there, the angry and hostile vigilante group and their alleged ‘culprit’ becoming visible ahead of me, on the other side of the road, I notice, mid-sprint, that there is a car, some greyish Toyota Corolla, swerving off the road and spinning off the rails as it advances towards me. I almost want to hold it off with my bare hands, feeling as if I have been caught going one way while I should be going in the opposite direction.
It hits me with its left fender on the right shin, sending me hurling backwards, and landing with a thud. I have just enough faith and energy left in me to realise that I have broken both bones of the lower right leg (the ‘tib-fib’, as the doctors call it in their own lingo) and ask a bystander to call me my brother down the road so he may take me to the nearest health facility at once, and everything else could wait until later on! Unfortunately, that would include missing the next day’s programme, leading to the completion of the race. I would read later on the Monday paper, dropped for me on the hospital side-table by Millan that this year’s race was won by the Toyota group.
But, even in that state, I would still recall having seen the tail-lights of the car brightening up like the driver were braking in order to come out and assess the damage; but, alas, no, I would find out later that this had been another one of those hit-and-run cases, the trail going cold almost at once. Then I ‘black out’ in pain, and tears. When I come to, I am in the emergency room of the Jwaneng mine hospital, a nurse taking my temperature and checking the bp, and a doctor tearing off the side hem of my jeans and cutting loose the shoelaces of my takkies with a sharp hospital razor blade, to get to the injured leg, which they bandage before applying a temporary cast; afterwards they give me some antibiotics and painkillers, enough to tranquilise me to sleep until the next day!
I’m their case now, I sense, another medical statistic entering the public health system. And so I would remain, even following two weeks of surgery at Princess Marina, where I had been referred on the next day - sharing an ambulance with a middle-aged woman patient suffering some post-natal complications, and screaming all the way from the Kalahari hinterland to the eastern hardveld - followed again by another extended period of immobility and constant ‘elevation’ of the leg – all of which soon hits me with a queer sense of déjà vu, having once been their client in our early primary school days on account of a broken ankle incurred during a school sporting event.
Except only this time I think the hospital, notwithstanding the effects of the current national water crisis, has grown tremendously since those early days, and now boasts a large pool of medical experts and specialists, including a good number of young local doctors, who are using some of the latest, cutting edge medical technology available.
Besides, they saved my life…!