From Malaysia to Makgadikgadi Well known adventurer talks
Born to a rubber planter in Johor Bahru-Malaysia 68 years ago, Grahame McLeod has travelled the world in pursuit of excellence in Geology, Agriculture and writing.
After traveling across Central America in countries such as Mexico, Panama, Guatemala, and South America where he walked the streets of Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador, McLeod finally found a place he could call home after setting foot in Botswana in 1973.
An accomplished educator and author with many educational books under his name, McLeod sat down with Voice Reporter Kabelo Dipholo to talk about himself and his latest book Makgadikgadi Pans.
Q. You’ve published a number of books over the years. Would kindly take us through some of the material you have written?
A. Most of the books are educational material I co authored with colleagues from different institutions including the University of Botswana and Colleges of Education.
My first book was published in 1989 titled: A Physical, Social and Economic Geography which I co-athoured with Dr Silitshena.
Q. You’re originally from Malaysia. What was life like for a young man growing up in the Southeast Asian country.
A. I grew up in Johor Bahru, the capital of the Malaysian state of Johor and was raised by a father who worked as a rubber planter for many years around Kuala Lumpur.
He later worked for the Malaysian government in the Agricultural Development Schemes.
I left the country early to study in the United Kingdom.
I graduated with a Geology Degree from the University of Wales.
It was difficult to find employment as a Geologist in the UK, so I found temporary employment with a Building Society.
So for over a year I was not a geologist.
Q. When did you arrive in Botswana?
A. I came to Botswana in 1973. After struggling to find employment in the UK, I looked overseas and I found employment with BCL in Selebi Phikwe.
It was still a new mine and my duty with others employed was to explore the land for ore bodies.
We lived in bush camps and took samples of soils to be tested for copper and nickel at the mine’s laboratory in Shashe.
Our first exploration was drilling in where Mowana mine is today.
We set up our bush camp near Mosetse river and called the operation Bushman Prospecting.
The exploration also took us to Matsitama, where Thakadu mine is located.
Q. How would you describe Phikwe at the time?
A. Back then it was a very small town. I remember there were BCL staff houses, Kopano Primary School, Botshabelo and roads were gravel.
One outstanding feature of Phikwe then was that there were direct flights to Johannesburg, Maun, Francistown and Gaborone.
Douglas DC-3 used to fly in and out of Phikwe, and transportation was not a big hassle.
Q. Do you still remember your first day in Francistown?
A. Yes I do. I came to the BCL Exploration Offices on Blue Jacket Street.
I spent the night at the mine’s single quarters in Francistown and I remember looking for snakes under the bed.
I’m dead scared of snakes.
I only spent three years with BCL but I remember it as one of the most interesting years of my life.
We used to board the train for Rhodesia in Francistown for the four hour journey to Bulawayo.
That was our holiday destination.
The city was already advanced and much more secure, far away from the political warfare in Mashonaland.
Q. Besides being a Geologist, you are also a teacher. Can you talk us through the transition.
A. After leaving BCL in 1975, I headed back to the UK and did a one year Teaching Course at the University of London.
I was offered a job by the Jamaican government to teach Geology and Geography in 1976.
It was during my stay in Jamaica that I truly started touring the world.
I toured many Spanish speaking countries in Central and South America.
Q. What memories do you have of Jamaica?
A. It is a very green country.
There are Rastas everywhere.
Jamaicans plant a lot of sugar cane, bananas, yam and of course marijuana.
It is a beautiful Island, especially Montego Bay which is a popular tourist resort.
I was in Jamaica for only two years when Botswana came calling again.
I saw a job advertisement for Maruapula School in Gaborone.
I came back to Botswana in 1978 to teach geography and I found the school to be very different from public schools.
I remember one of my duties was to clean the pool and every Wednesday and we went for community service where we fed the less fortunate at Holiday Inn, (now Avani).
I was with the school until 1980 before going to Lobatse Senior Secondary School.
It was during my stay in Lobatse that I met the then Moedin College Head Teacher Ken Smith who introduced me to Dr Silitshena a UB lecturer, and together we started working on the book Botswana: A Physical, Social and Economic Geography published in 1989.
In 1987 I left for further studies in the UK.
This time I focused on Economic Agriculture, a course which was in high demand at the time.
Q. …And then again you found your way back to Botswana?
A. (Laughs)…Yes, it was difficult to find employment in the UK and at the time Teachers for the Botswana Recruitment Scheme was in full force, so I applied.
To be honest I had no inclination to come back to Botswana, but upon graduation I had two choices.
The first choice was Nigeria.
The University of Durham was undertaking a land rehabilitation programme at Jos, which was the centre of tin mining at the time.
But instead I opted for Matshekge Hill School in 1989 to take up employment as an Agriculture teacher.
The school operated on a generator at the time and the road from Phikwe was still gravel.
I rose through the ranks and was promoted to Head of Department at Moshopa Senior School.
In 1990 I was offered a lecturer post in the Agriculture Department at Tonota College of Education.
I stayed at TCE for 21 years and left in 2016 to pursue other things, and took up full time writing.
I published three editions of New Trends in Agriculture with a colleague Dr Joseph Kasozi which were prescribed for junior schools by the Ministry of Education.
Q. You also travel a lot and have published a lot of travel journals.
A. I started writing travel journals while at Lobsec.
From 2003 up to 2006 I became interested in the Sahara Desert and visited countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Algeria, Mauritania, Chad and Tunisia.
I took a lot of photos and kept records of what I saw.
I later used that material to publish two books.
The Sahara impressed me because it had a variety of landscapes.
I’ve always loved travelling.
I went to Sudan, Khartoum and found the people there are very hospitable.
People are always shocked when I tell them that Khartoum is probably the safest city in Africa.
You can walk around anytime of the day and no one will bother you.
Q. Your current book is titled Makgadikgadi Pans. What inspired you to write this book?
A. I usually stay at Nata Lodge whenever I’m touring the Pans as do most foreign tourists.
However unlike me they were never going in to the pans, but on their way to the Delta, Kasane or Maun.
I then realised that very little was known about Makgadikgadi and I sat down to write this guide book.
It has everything you’d ever want to know about this beautiful area.
The book should be available in book shops very soon.
Q. What else to you do when you are not travelling?
A. I spend time with my family. I’m married to a Motswana woman from Maunatlala and we have two kids.
I usually spend time in the garden and dream about my next travel exploits.
Q. Thank God its Friday. What are you up to this weekend?
A. I’ll probably be in my garden, or spending time with my family.
A smile says a thousand words.