When one mentions the town of Palapye in Botswana's Central District, the association with the now well-frequented Moremi Gorge (read our review here) is often made. If, however, you want something a bit more off the beaten track, then why not explore the Old Palapye ruins and visit the smaller, but still very scenic Motetane Gorge?
We were visiting friends of ours living in Palapye and went with them early on a Monday morning (it was a public holiday) to see the Old Palapye ruins and hike to Motetane Gorge. "Motetane Gorge is a revered site where Tswapong communities come to praise their ancestors" is written on the large sign at the beginning of the hiking trail that will lead you into the gorge and the few waterfalls and streams within. Getting to this gorge isn't as straightforward as following your GPS to the entrance, as you would do with Moremi Gorge. From Palapye you head south, turn towards the Martins Drift border post (border with South Africa), pass though a couple of villages on the way, pay entrance at Malaka village, pick up your guide and he will then take you into the Old Palapye area (entrance gate: 22°37'20.3"S 27°17'25.9"E) and will guide you on your hike to Motetane Gorge and to the ruins of the old London Missionary Society (LMS) church.
We meet up with our guide, Cisco (cell number +267 74255784), at the Malaka village Kgotla (traditional court) who then took us to the local village treasurer to pay our entrance fees (P10/$1 for residents, P20/$2 for citizens and P30/$3 for non-residents + P20/$2 per vehicle under 5 tonnes (P25/$2.5 per vehicle over 5 tonnes)). Once this was done, we drove to the Old Palapye entrance gate (Cisco drove in the car with us), and we then proceeded for another 7.5km East, until we reached the start of the Motetane Gorge hiking trail (22°37'56.2"S 27°21'14.6"E). We then proceeded on foot with our guide along the dusty trails through the bush and into the green forest preceding the gorge.
The hike itself lasts about 30-40 minutes (depending on how fit and fast you are), and Cisco took us through the forest and to a large plateau in the middle of the gorge itself with a clear brook trickling down through it. We paused here for a few minutes, taking in the gorge around us, snapping a few photos and washing our hands in the icey cold but sparkling clean water. We followed Cisco onward into the forest again, this time climbing up and over some rocky surfaces - nothing too difficult, but it can get a bit slippery, so make sure you have your hiking boots or decent sneakers on. We eventually reached the "end" of the trail, which led us to not only a quaint little waterfall and pool below, but also a rock-face that depicted the artwork made by the San people "a long time ago". The sign wasn't too specific about how old these paintings were, and neither was our guide, but "a long time ago" will do, I suppose. We relaxed here for a while, in silence, listening to the water flow, the birds chirp and the wind rustling though the leaves and branches over head.
It was here that we noticed a number of dry and hardened wax blobs on the rock surfaces (something we had seen a few times along the hike as well). We asked Cisco about this and he told us that this was where the people of the Tswapong communities came to pray to their ancestors and the wax blobs were where they light candles during their prayer sessions. Make sure you bring along some water as it can get quite hot during the day, and here was where we quenched our thirst before heading back down into the gorge and back to our car.
View of the plateau in the middle of the gorge
Our guide then directed us towards the ruins of the old LMS church, which is the largest of the ruins left of Old Palapye. Along the way we saw the ruins of old walls and houses in the form of stone blocks scattered here and there. But when we reached the church itself (22°38'44.2"S 27°17'32.8"E) we were surprised by the size of the ruins that were left. Sure, there are no side walls or roof, but the front and back sections of the church are still mostly in tact and give you a realistic scale of the size of the church and how grand it probably looked over 100 years ago.
"Old Palapye" (or "Phalatswe - land of impalas, as it was originally known as) was established in the 19th century by Khama III and was meant to become the capital of the Bamangwato people, but due to water shortages in the area, Khama III decided to abandon the settlement, told his people to dismantled the city and leave after 13 years and relocate to the village of Serowe which is where they finally settled and which became the birthplace to Sir Seretse Khama, the first president of Botswana.
We took some photos of the church ruins and left about 15 minutes later. We headed back to the main road, dropped off Cisco at Malaka village and then made our way back to Palapye before packing up and heading off home to Gaborone that afternoon.
If you have been to the more popular Moremi Gorge (or if you haven't, read about it on our blog, here), then you will know that it's relatively easy to get to the entrance of the Moremi Gorge, they have a reception, curio shop, informative guides, restaurant, bar, pool, chalets, campsites and lots of tourists (both local and foreign). Motetane Gorge couldn't be more different. It's a mission in itself to get there, although that is part of the adventure, there is no reception or curio shop, the guide isn't that informative at all (which is something that does need improving) and there is no restaurant or fancy bar or swimming pool to enjoy along the way.
To visit Old Palapye and Motetane Gorge is probably more for someone looking to stray off the beaten track a little. Someone who is willing to make the effort to find it and explore it. But why bother then, you may ask? Well, the gorge itself is still beautiful to see, the babbling brooks and flowing waterfalls are still relaxing to sit next to, the hike itself will give you a decent workout, there are no other tourists to make noise, ask obnoxious questions or ruin the experience for you and you will feel a genuine connection with this ancestral heritage site and the peaceful, tranquil experience is something that will definitely make the visit worth your while. For these reasons, we would suggest you do stray off the beaten path a little and do go visit Old Palapye (supporting the local community along the way) and explore the ruins and the gorge before it turns into a fully-fledged, commercialised, tourist hot-spot.
"We are a Botswana-based family of 3, with a passion for going out into nature and the bush any chance we get!"