We Are the Road Crew

“This is dedicated to a fine body of man.  It’s called ‘We Are the Road Crew’.”

—Lemmy Kilminster

Roads are the backbone of the Tuli Wilderness in Botswana.  But what exactly is a road?  No matter how you define it, the majority of earth’s human population would probably scoff at using the term “road” to describe some of the things we drove on in the Tuli Wilderness.

The early European settlers of the greater Tuli area found that the only viable modern use of the land was for raising livestock, and even then it proved to be tough going.  After years of struggling, most ranchers in the Tuli turned their holdings into game farms, finding that the business of wildlife tourism was much easier and more lucrative than raising livestock.

The majority of the roads in the Tuli Wilderness were probably first established by the ranchers for accessing their livestock.  And many of those roads were probably established on or near game trails; those “highways” used by animals that followed the path of least resistance and were burned into the landscape over the millennia were the obvious place for the humans to later place their own roads.

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Once established, a road for humans also becomes an important artery for animal travel as well.  This was an important aspect of the Botswana Conservation and Research Project, as we drove the roads each morning and scanned the thousands of fresh animal impressions left in the soft, dusty sand before they were obliterated by the passing of our vehicle.

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In some places, the roads we traveled were deeply eroded and barely passable, almost like small, rocky canyons.  In others, they were two faint lines in the dirt, hardly visible in the daylight and completely invisible to all but the trained eye at night.

In some places, the roads were nothing more than faint depressions in the tall grass, identified with great difficulty only by carefully scanning the landscape and looking for near indiscernible changes in the height of the vegetation.  And sometimes, even though the expert behind the wheel would swear otherwise on his mother’s grave, you were certain that there was no road there at all, and that he was just making it up as he drove along.

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Some of the roads were little more than a faint path up a rocky outcrop, while others were hard packed red dirt that turned in to long stretches of deep mud after a rain.  In some places a road traveled along an area of soft pink sand a foot or two deep, making it look more like you were driving along a dry river bed than a road…because you actually were driving in a dry river bed.

These were the roads of the Tuli Wilderness.

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The primary purpose of the Botswana Conservation and Research Project in the Tuli Wilderness is data collection.  It’s all about the data.  And you can’t collect data on an area without passable roads; if an area is inaccessible, you collect no data.  So out of necessity, a big part of the project was road repair work.

The name of the road we traveled most frequently, Mohave Highway, has to be a pun created by someone with a wicked sense of humor.  While it is the major artery running roughly north/south through much of the Tuli Wilderness, it’s hardly a highway.  Practically the only thing it shares in common with a major highway is that it’s mostly straight.  Because of its importance in nearly all travel across the Tuli Wilderness, most of our road repair work was concentrated along the Mohave Highway.

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We collected rocks—some so close by that they could be carried just a few feet from their resting places; others up to a mile away that we had to haul in to the work area by truck—to fill the ruts and the holes and the divots, and then we backfilled them with shovel full after shovel full of dirt and sand to fill the gaps between the carefully placed stones.  It was backbreaking work.

Road maintenance may not be nearly as romantic a task as chasing elephants and lions across the African plain in an open Land Rover, but it’s very necessary and highly rewarding.  And unlike data collection, the results of your work are instantaneously visible.

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A couple of days after a long, hard session of rebuilding Mohave Highway, we headed out in the vehicle with Andrew driving and Johannes in the passenger seat.  Johannes had not been out with us for a few days, so he had not seen the result of all our hard work.

As we passed by one and then another area where we had moved so much rock and dirt to fill a few deep ruts, Johannes looked carefully at the road.  When we passed by a third area that had benefited from our handiwork, he turned to Andrew and said something in Setswana.

Andrew turned back to the road crew and said, “Johannes says ‘good job’.”

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This story is excerpted from my book Back to the Bundu [ Paperback | Kindle | NOOK |iPad ].

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