The Worst Highway in the World

A story of frustration in travel hitting a boil.

Photo by Michał Gałężewski on Unsplash

The most stressful highway in the world lies just south of the Namibian panhandle, on the Botswana side.

Most border highways are pristine. To give a good impression to the visitors entering the country. Botswana doesn’t seem to regard that as important. Evident by driving this highway.

I use the term ‘driving’ ultra lightly. 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 for miles and 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. Craters twelve feet wide and 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 are the local highways that connect larger interstates.

In African atlases, a ‘connecting highway’ could literally mean anything; paved roadway, gravel, dirt pothole-infected, narrow-laned, no shoulders, mountain pass, blocked by farm animals — literally anything.

We learned through astute observation to not take any connecting highway lightly. This 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 one 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 in 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. 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 speeds, with our car taking a pathetic beating, it was bound to happen.

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 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 all its 50,000 people walking on the side of streets at nine o’clock on a Sunday night. The driving conditions 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. But when we came to a dirt road, which I soon determined to be sand, we knew we went wrong somewhere.

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 situation 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 nowhere 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 insight 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 and sulked. Trying to forget the hot, stuffy hotel room we were staying in.

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 friends had lost a grandparent on separate occasions, I realized how extremely lucky I was to even be able to argue with Grandad.

A pit opened up in my stomach and it felt like my heart fell straight through it.

I couldn’t bear the thought of our trip ending this way. 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 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.

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