What in 2009 was hailed as a sure-fire investment for Botswana has, five years later, turned out to be another one of the costliest blunders by the government. It is also something that the ministry of environment, tourism and wildlife (MEWT) is apparently not willing to talk about because two months after questions were submitted to it in writing, no response has been tendered.
This project, the Boundless Southern Africa Expedition, was so big that on the morning of August 19, 2009, five regional leaders visited a small Namibian town of Oranjemund for its branding launch of the route. These were presidents Ian Khama of Botswana, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, Hifikepunye Pohamba of Namibia as well as prime ministers Barnabas Dlamini of Swaziland and Pakalitha Mosisili of Lesotho. The 10 000-kilometre route was to pass through 30 protected areas in nine Southern African countries, running from Durban on the Indian Ocean to Oranjemund on the Atlantic. Along the way it was to connect a total of seven Trans-Frontier Conservation Areas and adjacent communities.
The expedition leader was Kingsley Holgate, an otherwise credible explorer who has transversed the African continent and written books about his adventures. Physically, he stands out on account of his extraordinary visage which is in the form of a luxuriant forest of gray Old Testament beard.The project was touted as a brilliant investment that would draw attention to the Southern Africa’s culture, sport and communities ahead of the 2010 World Cup tournament in South Africa. The tournament was expected to draw some 10 million tourists and hoping to benefit from what it thought would be a bountiful windfall, Botswana invested in the Boundless Southern Africa project. The documentary was to be screened on international channels like National Geographic and BBC which command a huge global audience.
A day after the Oranjemund event, Tautona Times, the Botswana government’s electronic newsletter reported: “The Boundless Southern African Route and branding campaign was originally conceived as a way of marketing the SADC region's conservation areas as favourable destinations for tourism and investment ahead of the 2010 FIFA World Cup in South Africa.
Speaking at yesterday's event, President Pohamba congratulated Holgate's team for promoting the route, which includes 51 packaged investment opportunities in the seven Trans-Frontier Conservation Areas, ranging from small and medium lodge type developments to larger development projects.It is anticipated that the branding campaign will further organise an international investor conference and introduce additional marketing campaigns to sell the pre-packaged investments.
At yesterday's event the regional leaders collectively endorsed the Boundless Southern Africa brand as having enormous potential to market the SADC region as a single destination offering a wide array of tourism products.”
Two months before the Oranjemund event, the expedition had passed through Botswana and the writer was part of a team of journalists that, with then environment minister, Kitso Mokaila, was flown to Kasane in a Botswana Defence Force aeroplane to cover the expedition’s stopover in the village. Days earlier, the nation had been introduced to this expedition on Btv through images of a convoy of stylishly-branded all-terrain vehicles entering Botswana from South Africa. In a feat of technological exuberance and showmanship, the vehicles were shown, one after the other, sending sheets of muddy water splashing to the sides as they forded a border river.
In Kasane, the jam-packed schedule kicked off immediately upon touchdown. The team from Gaborone met the expedition at Chobe Lodge and after a sumptuous lunch, cruised down the Chobe River on a double-decked cruise boat for almost an hour, finally docking at Chobe Marina Lodge. (Chobe Lodge has great historical significance because it was where Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton honeymooned at the height of their Hollywood careers.) In the evening there was a cultural event at Mowana Lodge that began with speeches by both Mokaila and Holgate, the former good-naturedly ribbing the explorer about his unusual goatee. Both stressed the importance of the project and enthused about how it would bring visitors and riches to the region.
The Kasane community showcased its culture by way of a traditional dance troupe doing a Hambukushu dance called seperu, another doing borankana as well as an old woman sangoma sitting in a reed enclosure who wouldn’t do so much as exchange greetings without a consultation fee being deposited in a receptacle in front of her. The sporting aspect was featured the following day when two local teams played a football game after which the expedition immediately left for Namibia via Ngoma border.
In private conversation with those involved in the project at the time, Botswana was said to have invested some P10 million. With the ministry not having responded to questions sent to it, it has been difficult to verify this figure but it is the only one we have. Hoping to take its brand and products to a global audience, Nandos Botswana was one of the sponsors of the expedition and its headoffice in Gaborone sent representatives to the Kasane event. The company’s spokesperson, Simiso Ncube, later told this writer that Nandos had been approached by the Botswana Tourism Board (as it then was) to be part of the expedition. However, Botswana Guardian learns that the project was coordinated by MEWT which is not too keen on answering questions about what seems to have been a disastrous business venture for the government.