Otse Hill and Monalanong Hill (~4,900ft each) – Highpoints of Botswana
Eric Gilbertson and Katie Stanchak
Sept 10, 2015 (Otse Hill), Sept 11, 2015 (Monalanong Hill)
Sept 18, 2016 (Otse Hill, Matthew)
Botswana is one of only a handful countries in the world whose highpoint location is not known with certainty. Two hills – Otse and Monalanong – are both contenders for the country highpoint, but it is not clear which one is actually taller.
By SRTM-derived data Otse Hill is 1,491m tall and Monalanong Hill 1,494m tall, but errors in SRTM data can be up to 16m (http://www2.jpl.nasa.gov/srtm/statistics.html). So this data is not conclusive proof that Monalanong is higher. One highpointer, Ginge Fullen, reported that his handheld GPS unit recorded Otse Hill to be taller, though handheld GPS units also are prone to high errors. The only solution for highpointers short of bringing a survey-grade GPS to each summit is to climb both.
Katie and I landed in Johannesburg, South Africa the night of Sept 9 and drove a rental car out of town towards Botswana. At 1:30am we pulled off on a dirt road and slept in the car. A few hours later at 7:30am we were woken up by a knock on the window and an old Afrikaaner woman looking inside. She and her husband were concerned about what we were doing there. Supposedly the place we picked to park is where local car thieves park stolen cars!
I explained that we were from America and had just stopped to take a nap, and they were quite relieved. The couple invited us to have coffee with them at their farm up the road, and we enjoyed chatting with them about how the country has changed post-Apartheid, and about what kind of animals they have on the farm (lots of zebras and horses!).
We soon said goodbye and made it to the South Africa-Botswana border an hour later. The South African customs officers were astounded to see Americans, and we ended up giving each of them US $1 bills as souvenirs. In their excitement, though, they forgot to give us exit stamps in our passports, and this caused a bit of confusion trying to enter on the Botswana side.
Shortly after entering Botswana we saw our first wildlife of the trip – a troop of baboons running across the road. We stopped to take pictures, and I noticed that the hill behind them was actually Otse Hill. We were almost to our first potential highpoint. Shortly up the road we passed through the small village of Otse, and turned west on a small dirt road just on the north edge of town. The road had a big vertical
white sign for Segorong Gorge on the side, and was guarded only by an unlocked gate. As we found out, this is a popular party place on weekends for locals, and appears to be a popular place to swim and/or get fresh water. Many thanks to Robert Gondek for giving route beta for this approach to Otse Hill and the actual GPS location of the highest point.
We parked about a mile up this road, near a sign for Lentswe La Baratani. This sign is near the local maximum closest to the main road, and says that climbing is prohibited in respected for local religious beliefs. However, the actual highest point of the Otse Hills is several miles west of the village, and it looks like the sign luckily does not apply to the actual highpoint.
The road towards the highpoint soon became too rough for our little VW Polo, and we walked along the
rough 4wd dirt road on the edge of a barbed-wire fence marking the boundary of a police training academy. Eventually the road improved to a reasonable 2wd dirt road after another intersection, and it may be possible to drive in here from a paved road just north of Otse Hill if you want to save a little bit of walking.
We continued following a sign for an old manganese mine, where the road ends. From here the summit is only about ½ mile away, though unfortunately there is no trail. We followed the ridge directly up from the manganese mine through the bush and boulders to the highpoint. On the summit there’s a big metal and concrete pole with “Otse 21” inscribed on the top, along with a few weird metal structures with rocks inside. On the summit my GPS read 1486m, and I kept this in mind to compare to the next potential highpoint, Monalanong Hill. After a quick snack we hiked back down same way and camped at the car.
Monalanong Hill has even less information online then Otse Hill, so I mapped out what looked like a good route on my GPS based on satellite images and hoped it would work.
The next morning we drove to nearby Mogonye Village (mislabeled Boatle on google maps), and discovered a new national park entrance at the road leading to Monalanong Hill, called Mmatshwane Gorge Park and opened in 2014. This is a gorge near Monalanong Hill, and the new park may actually include the hill (though it’s still unclear). We told the people at the park entrance that we wanted to climb Monalanong Hill, and they first said it was impossible, then that it was too dangerous, and then that it was forbidden. To me these all just sounded like excuses from people who had never actually climbed the hill themselves, or had never heard of it.
We asked to speak to their boss, and one woman got in the car with us and directed us to a small building on the other edge of town. A young Japanese woman about our age greeted us and said she was overseeing the new park. It seemed like a sort of Peace Corps-type of job. She said she didn’t want to be responsible for us if we got hurt hiking up there, and our only option was to get approval from her boss, who works at the Botswana National Museum in Gabarone. She called him, and said we’d have to go and talk in person and submit a
request and a committee would decide within a week if we were allowed to proceed. I had no idea there would be so much red tape for this little hill!
We got in the car and drove an hour or so to Gaborone, and after some trouble eventually found the national museum. The receptionist paged a nice gentleman named Vasco, and we explained our situation to him, that we were trying to climb the highest mountain in Botswana and a lot of evidence showed it might be Monalanong Hill.
He suggested a few other places that might be higher, including Otse Hill and the Tsodilo Hills, but we convinced him we’d done our homework and thought Monalanong hill could very well be the tallest.
We explained our experience climbing mountains and going off trail and convinced him we would be safe. Vasco said he was actually interested in expanding the trails in the park and would consider putting a trail up there. He said if he had time he might even like to join us. Then he explained that the park didn’t want to be responsible if we got injured, so he couldn’t give us official permission but instead told us we could go at our own risk. Vasco then called up his boss, explained what we had talked about, and got approval to let us hike at our own risk. After being passed up the chain of command four times we were finally cleared to go climb the mountain.
We then drove back to Mogonye and told the Japanese girl we were permitted to go at our own risk. We wanted to go see the gorge to give the park workers something to do since we had given them so much trouble (and it looked like a slow day), but it was late in the day by then and the guides all seemed reluctance to leave the gatehouse.
So we offered to pay for a night in the campground, at least contributing something to the park.
The road to the campground was really rough and I was worried we might get a flat tire, so we tried to
find a place in the village to park. After a lot of back and forth with the park staff we finally decided the simplest solution would be to try our luck driving into the campground.
The little Polo made it, and we were finally inside the gate and on our own by 3:30pm. We had originally thought we’d just wait until morning to hike, but with the days so hot we actually thought it might be more pleasant to hike in the evening. So we started up Monalanong Hill right then, on our own.
We headed SW on a dirt road I’d marked on my GPS, and the road eventually petered out at a metal fence. Here we headed northwest following a ridge for about a mile up towards the summit. The hill is basically a big plateau with cliffs on most sides, but this ridge luckily offered an easy ascent through the cliffs.
The woods were pretty open and easy to navigate through, but this area is known for poisonous snakes like black mambas so it’s a good idea to have sturdy protective boots and to be careful. When we got over the rim the top seemed mostly flat. I followed my GPS to the approximate coordinates of the highpoint based on SRTM data, but a boulder about 100m SE from the marked point appeared to be taller than anything else around. Given that SRTM data is prone to errors greater than the variation we were viewing, we stopped at this point which appeared to be the highest point around.
My GPS read 1476m, about 10m shorter than Otse Hill. This isn’t definitive evidence, but does call into question any claim that Monalanong Hill is the highpoint of Botswana. We headed down and reached the old dirt road by sunset, and the car within an hour. The campsite was kind of dirty, and we decided just to drive back to our previous campsite at Otse Hill to spend the night.
The next morning we drove back to South Africa for our next objective, Mafadi, the roof of South Africa.
For future climbers of Monalanong Hill I would recommend two options:
- Pay the park for a night at the campground and perhaps a guided tour of the gorge, then hike up Monalanong Hill on your own afterwards understanding that it is at your own risk.
- Approach the hill from the north, avoiding the park entirely. This may require a 4wd car and some routefinding through the cliffs on the northwest side of the hill, but satellite images do show roads here.
Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like GPS tracks for either of these highpoints.
Trip report from Matthew and Amanda’s trip
We had three and a half days left in Africa and had positioned ourselves in Johannesburg, South Africa – a convenient hub for travel to and from regional destinations. It was our fifth time entering South Africa within the past month.
Those days had been set aside for the clear task of seeking reliable schistosomiasis treatment (available in South Africa, not in other places we were traveling). We were undecided about the rest. We could climb country highest mountains – Otse Hill in Botswana and Mt Emlembe in Swaziland – or visit Kruger National Park.
When Matthew mentioned Swaziland, I had no prior concept of it. At his mention for the first time, I traced its border and became aware that this small country was situated southeast within striking distance of Johannesburg
. Botswana was in the opposite direction at a similar distance.
Although we didn’t know if we had time to cross the border into both Botswana and Swaziland, when the helpful Indian rental agent at Hertz asked us if he should prepare the paperwork for both, we said yes and paid the necessary 87 US dollars. That cost applied just to stricter Botswana, while Swaziland paperwork was free.
I was a bit nervous about the responsibility of and safety w the car. The US Department of State website had warned about driving around South Africa:
“Violent crimes, such as armed robbery, rape, carjacking, mugging, and “smash-and-grab” attacks on vehicles affect visitors and residents alike. Crime can occur anywhere, but you should exercise particular caution in the central business districts (CBDs) of major cities, especially after dark. Avoid visiting informal settlement areas unless you are with someone familiar with the area. Never walk alone after dark.”
The rental agent reassured us, “That only happens like one in a million,” he said. “People always think we have lions behind our desk too, and I just tell them, we are humans just like everywhere else.”
The maneuverability of our small, automatic, aqua blue Ford Fiesta on smooth tar roads was freeing compared to our month-long drive with our large (yet spiffy) manual white Toyota Hilux truck on the gravel roads of Namibia. We accelerated and zipped toward our hotel, trying to beat the dark.
However, because of our late flight, we didn’t leave the rental agency until close to sunset. Furthermore, our hotel City Lodge Sandton, which was right across from our scheduled travel clinic appointment, was about a hour’s drive across the sprawling city.
After dark on the urban streets to Sandton, the presence of other cars comforted us like traveling in a convoy. Still, we passed metal slums with roaming people illuminated by the dim orange glow of a street lamp, car headlight, or bonfire. It was then we realized our car didn’t have a manual lock button inside. Circling the block, we finally relaxed upon reaching the hotel’s secure, gated parking lot in a posh part of the city.
Then next morning, we focused on the priority at hand, namely healthcare. Much to our pleasant surprise, it went smoothly. First at the travel clinic, the female doctor about our age was agreeable in providing prescriptions as well as lab requisition forms. Second, the medications were in stock. Third, the lab phlebotomist was well-trained, showing me that she was opening a clean needle. We were out of the hospital within an hour and a half.
With so much unexpected daylight, we realized that we had a chance of reaching both high points. We checked out of the hotel and hit the pavement.
In contrast to the flat and dusty desert of Namibia/Botswana, the South African national highway swooped through fertile agricultural hills and dense logging forest. Sometimes, though, there was the familiar sight of blackened soil from recent fires.
We had chosen a major toll road expecting to get to the Swaziland border at Bulembu before it closed at 4 pm, but with frequent construction zones there was no chance. Highway signs I learned to dislike were “Stop and go ahead” and “Your highway dollars at work”.
Without access to cellular data or wifi, we lacked information about towns that lay between us and the border. While this would not be an obstacle to some travelers, it concerned me given the US State Department’s warning: “Avoid visiting informal settlement areas unless you are with someone familiar with the area.”
To our relief, an offline navigation app called “maps.me” imported names of hotels and their ratings. With names like Queen Sheba Hotel, Fountain Guesthouse, and Bushwhacked Barberton, the town of Barberton seemed to have an appealing array of options.
Barberton was an inviting town with its lampposts adorned w giant soccer balls left over from the World Cup in South Africa. Blooming purple jacaranda trees lined its avenues. An equal mix of white and black families socialized in the supermarket parking lot.
At the edge of town at the foot of grassy mountains, the tarred road diminished to an uneven, dirt road that was reminiscent of (but tamer than) the roads in Namibia. It meandered with limited signage to the home of Bushwhacked Barberton.
The barefoot host Pete appeared. Raised in Kenya by British parents, Pete built the guesthouse, showcasing his love for Africa and his British roots. The property overlooked a breathtaking view of the valley and was sheltered by indigenous trees that he planted. Accessories in the parlor included warthog tusks and graceful line drawings of wildlife. The kitchen looked like it came from the English countryside. As related by many in the guestbook, we wished to linger longer.
Yet, the Swaziland high point beckoned even as a cold front began to move through. The next morning at the low key border patrol, the agents wore long, thick coats. We were the only car there. Without any hassle at all, we crossed and the polished buildings and shiny signs of South Africa gave way to more fade and rust in Swaziland.
At the first town across the border Bulembu, we met our guide Benjamin for Mt Emlembe. He had been arranged through the Country Lodge, which had once been the estate of the asbestos mine manager. Other western tourists were in the reception and dining room.
Eric and Katie’s previous trip report* had described Benjamin as a “funny character”, and indeed he was. Introducing himself, Benjamin removed his hat, bowed his peppered gray head, and smiled, missing teeth. He was voluble about being a good guide, being sensitive to tourists with different walking paces, teaching the youngsters not to frighten tourists with talk of money (although he unsurprisingly did), and not fearing foggy weather.
In the fog, we drove to his 80-year-old mother’s house (remarkable longevity in Africa), which was at the base of the mountain. Dressed in a warm hat, she let us park our car within the shelter of tall sticks around her yard. Up a little ways, we passed a family gathering sticks, looking still and ghostly in the fog. Just a little further, two soccer goal posts emerged on a narrow ridge, where countless balls must have been lost. Higher, we passed a man with a bowsaw cutting branches. We ascended steeply, stepping into holes in the dirt that baboons had dug. A cow appeared then disappeared seemingly off a cliff in the fog. Soon the terrain began to level out, and we realized that we had reached the summit plateau.
The wind picked up, and it grew colder. The temp was probably 45F with wet 30 mph winds, making it seem more like drizzly April in Boston. Matthew checked the coordinates and altitude w his GPS. Just as Eric foretold, the rock cairn did not mark the spot. The true summit was a little higher through the fog. Upon making it there, we tiptoed one step further over the downed barbed wire fence (which marked the boundary between South Africa and Swaziland) to the shelter of the abandoned guard house, which watched over illegal immigration. There, we hunkered, eating lunch.
On the way down, the fog thinned. Across a ravine, cows grazed on a steep cliffside. A panorama of the valley opened up before us. The whole scene of green pinnacled mountains and misty clouds reminded me of Chinese paintings and Irish landscape. I could not believe that all this elevation and beauty had been around us the whole time. The greatest revelation was: had I been able to see how high I was or how much higher I had to go, I might have been afraid and discouraged, but the fog helped me to see I could make it up just fine.
Back in the valley, Benjamin was proud to show off the school that had featured in Eric’s story too. Almost exactly one year prior, Eric reported: “He told us how the school situation was pretty difficult in Bulembu. There was only funding for school up to 6th grade, and students who wanted to go the middle or high school had to travel to Piggs Peak, a town down a rough road with no bus service. Many families didn’t have enough money to send their kids there, and the kids then didn’t continue their schooling. Hopefully funds raised from tourism and donations can help the situation out.”
Adolescent boys were stirring a fire at the edge of the complex as we entered. After a brief wave to Benjamin, they returned to concentrating on the fire. The school buildings were getting a new layer of paint as several men from the community were renovating it. It was Saturday, so the classrooms were empty except for desks pushed to the side (perhaps for cleaning) and scattered math and English textbooks. Through a window, I could read one Table of Contents. The final unit was entitled, “Swaziis are beautiful”.
After a successful descent, we discussed: Kruger national park or Botswana high point? Several factors favored the high point. It was cold; I had a head cold; and there were no indoor accommodations in Kruger during a weekend. Also, I didn’t want Matthew to have to come back this way by himself.
We positioned ourselves halfway back to Botswana in the small town of Machadodorp at the Old Mill Inn. The owner was a retired South African who built the hotel to preserve the town’s heritage. In industrial hallways on the butterscotch yellow walls, there were assorted black-and-white photos from the city archive. We liked the historic, small town ambience, and the place sheltered us during a severe lightening and thunderstorm that evening.
A full day of driving later at the Botswana border, the immigration officers expressed disbelief, you’re going to [that small, nondescript town] Otse for just a few hours then you’ll be back? “I can’t wait to see you back here tonight!” Fortunately, the borders here were open until midnight.
“We’re going to pull off at a dirt road that should appear on our left in less than 0.5 km,” Matthew instructed based on the homework he had done on Eric’s GPS track. Once we turned, there were about a few unlabeled dirt tracks to choose from. Matthew steered into one with decisiveness, and I asked, “How do you know?”
“I studied the satellite images,” Matthew said.
Following Eric’s accurate description of the landmarks, we then parked as far as the dirt road would take us, turned at the sign for the Manganese mine, and bushwhacked toward the ridge.
Although Eric’s report had mentioned the absence of a trail, I didn’t picture how the actual experience would go. Thorny, low-hanging branches pulled at my hair, clothes, and backpack. Loose rock caused my feet to slide backward on the steep incline. Looking upward and seeing cliffs, I didn’t know if we were heading toward a dead end, and the sunset didn’t help matters.
This situation unleashed some grumbling from me. “Why do I always feel like I’m in some Bear Grylls survival situation?!” The pursuit of high pointing had led me through infected waters of Madagascar and now on a steep scramble as darkness threatened in Botswana. I introverted into moody, reflection mode.
The good parts about high pointing were many… my husband and his brother had a wholesome sport that others could share. It kept us in shape. It led us off the beaten path, which often revealed genuine, un-touristy side to places. It fostered adventure. It made Matthew happy.
The main complaint I had was the surprise element, i.e. “I didn’t know it was going to be his hard!” My analysis led me to conclude the following. The very fact that high pointing was associated w going to remote locations meant that information could be scarce. That meant whatever info was available was probably written by alpine awesome crazies, who might consider hard things easy, and despite being experts in getting to the top, might not be familiar about other hazards, such as an invisible microbe lurking at stream crossings. I felt the onus to do my own homework to make informed assessments about safety down the road.
We got to the top, and I tried my best to smile. Matthew, a true leader, acknowledged my sentiments then refocused us. “I’m sorry this has been harder than we realized. I found a better way down the ridge. Now we’ve got to focus on safety. We are going to take it slow and make sure each step is secure.”
Next, he did something I consider to be one of his most life-giving qualities – enjoying the present without doubt or anxiety. He coached me about how to bushwhack and lifted my gaze from internal ruminations to the beauty around. “See that lake down in the valley? We pick that spot then navigate to it… This will be our last sunset in Africa.”
We got ourselves back to the intact car then to the hotel in Zeerust back in South Africa. It was late, but the Avanti Guesthouse night watchmen were still there. They offered, “How about the honeymoon suite?”
We chose to venture outward, away from home, knowingly accepting the risk. We wanted to see the world. We chose to do it together to share it as a couple. My quality of desiring stability and security and worrying about the future (as well as medical background) helped us know and manage the health risks of one particular high point. Matthew’s spontaneity, positivity, and bravery helped us to go forth to others and cope in another way. We were complementing one another and fulfilling what we set out to do – experiencing the world as two.
*Eric’s trip report of Mt Emlembe:
Eric’s trip report of Otse Hill:
Otse Hill summit pics from Matthew and Amanda