The Voice (Francistown)

2 July 2007

Botswana: Top Gear Stoke

opinion

Those loony characters from 'Top Gear' are coming to Botswana to film an episode for their unbelievably popular BBC Automobile show.

As a matter of fact, by the time you read this piece, they may already be here. Isn't that great news?

Well, actually... I don't think it is.

You see Jeremy Clarkson and his partners in crime aren't planning a scenic drive around Gaborone or along any of our highways. Nope, they're going to drive safari vehicles straight across the middle of the Makgadikgadi Pans - evidently, someone let it slip that is something that has never been done before.

There are several good reasons why, up to now, that has been the case.

First of all, there is no drinking water. Secondly, there are no landmarks so it is very easy to get disoriented. Thirdly, the environment is extremely fragile and essential to the survival of Africa's flamingo population so environmentalists object to recreational use. And finally, the area has great spiritual significance for its long-time inhabitants.

So why is Top Gear trying to make this trip?

I guess it could make for a light-hearted TV show and it would certainly give the vehicles some great publicity - if they don't get stuck too often - but it won't help protect the local wildlife, environment or culture.

Yeah, I know what you're saying, this is the BBC and they have their standards to maintain. They wouldn't do anything that was harmful to our country.

Well, I'm sorry to say that ever since the British government decided the service had to pay for itself, those standards have been slipping. They're even advertising margarine these days.

Makes you wonder why they would care about giving those 4x4s good publicity, doesn't it?

Anyway, when Clarkson wrote an article in Britain's Sunday Times about an exclusive holiday he experienced in the Makgadikgadi last year, he took great pride in the fact that he knows about as much about nature as Jim Morrison did about swimming.

To give him some credit, however, Clarkson did try to get Jack's Camp operator Ralph Bousfield to organise the expedition since the conservationist is widely recognised as the leading authority on the pans.

As a matter of fact, Bousfield says the Top Gear crew told him they would only make the trip if he agreed to be in charge to make sure everything was done in an environmentally friendly manner.

Noble stuff.

Unfortunately, when Bousfield declined because, as he says, he believes the trip and the publicity would be bad for the pans, Clarkson and crew found alternative adventurers with different views or fewer scruples.

Hum. I think I'm going to take whatever he says on the pans show with a grain of ...salt.

Now don't get me wrong here. I'm fairly certain this trip will not do any great harm to the environment and that Clarkson will point out to his viewers that the pans are very sensitive - but it's not the scars left by the truck tyres that I am worried about.

The big problem is that Top Gear is extremely popular in South Africa, and that there are an awful lot of yobs down there who are going to see this show and think it would be a great idea to pack up the Land Rover with 50 cases of Castle and try a similar trip.

Up to here I've been having a bit of fun, but now we are getting into serious stuff.

There are varying degrees of prejudice.

At the lower levels you have Clarkson who wouldn't want to spend his holiday with an American family, and yours truly who would hate to get stuck on a safari vehicle next to someone who wanted to talk about internal combustion engines.

But there are also some very nasty characters out there - many of them in 4x4s - who have very little respect for Botswana or Batswana.

I'm told by the people at Y-Care and at the National Museum that ever since Kubu Island has been opened up to public camping there has been a growing conflict between local residents and the mostly self-contained South African convoys that have been passing through for a 'jol' at the sacred site.

One of the great worries for residents is that they believe their ancestors are leaving the area because it has become too hectic and because anger and nastiness have been introduced to the area.

But even if you don't believe in, or care about, such things, you have to wonder how promoting this kind of trip fits in with the government's policy of high-cost, low-impact tourism.

These guys bring everything they can possibly carry and they often leave ugly scars on the land and on the souls of the people they deal with.

Perhaps after the Top Gear boys have had their fun, the government should consider protecting the pans and their residents from too many copycat safaris.

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