Sunday, 16 October 2011

Botswana, Part 4

Dawn over Chobe

Back on the hardball

Inside the rustic roadside stall it was cool and I guzzled the most refreshing can of Coke I'd ever tasted. With a vague semblance of humanity returning we hit the road and I may have been the only one who was sorry to leave the dirt road behind, but such is the way of things. Onto the broad, brand-new tarmac we went, so new in fact that the speed limit was about sixty owing to the surface not being fully compacted yet. We soon passed a massive laager of encamped road building equipment with large Chinese symbols painted along the front wall with the words 'perfection is out ambition' or something similarly propagandistic in appearance.

Chobe game
Soon our road joined the highway leading from Namibia to Botswana and we headed east back towards Kasane to complete our circuit of a thousand-odd kilometres. We rolled into town mid-afternoon and could not imagine how much we had done and gone through since leaving the previous week. We took some tired group photos before stumbling to our rooms to have showers and change clothes. In our absence the rugby world cup had kicked off and we were scrambling for news of the games that been played to date. The rest of the afternoon was spent watching repeat broadcasts of matches and falling into the pool simply because it was there and it didn't have hippos in it. We relished doing nothing while Shanna and her mum were off at the police station again as we had discovered more items missing after the robbery last time we were here. Nothing too strenuous happened for the rest of the day, with another early start planned for the following morning.

Our 05:45 start was nothing short of routine as for the first time since our flight of the Delta we didn't have Shaba babysitting us. We were loaded onto a game viewing Cruiser and headed down the road to see Chobe game from the road. It was chilly as we entered the park, which again looked like a wasteland, in places 'the valley of the shadow of death' came to mind as the elephant appeared to have had a personal vendetta against foliage. Hardly a single tree stood, except for small huddles overgrown by a green vine inedible by the big guys. Soon we got to the river that we had taken the cruise along in our first day in country. The Cruiser was a hard and bumpy ride compared to the Land Rover, but they were the only two vehicles that seemed to be in use in Botswana. We saw two Nissans used by an operator in the park and when I pointed this out to our driver, Rambo, he scoffed and said that the only reason they can run Nissans in the park is because there is no sand, only the Toyotas and Land Rovers can cope with the prevailing conditions. From what I had seen, he was right. We saw many impala, kudu, and elephants. I must also add that there was an incredible array of birdlife throughout Botswana and often they were as much of an attraction as the bigger game. The most common (apart from starling, which don't count) were the hornbills which I cannot help but associate with the Lion King. Baby giraffe and elephant were also spotted to much cooing by our party and although we were tracking some big cat prints, we could not manage to spot any.

Teenie tiny giraffe
Kudu bull in Chobe
Roadside stalls, Kasane

Zambia, Round 2
Happy to be healthy!

Chilling on the border

We headed back to Kasane to pack up and move out to Kazangula and across the border. Getting back into Zambia was the usual stress, getting stuck in the bustly border post after our an extended period of isolation and space driving around Botswana. Also immediately one was alert and paranoid about having to say no to people selling and hustling, which is probably just a symptom of high population density and poverty. We were tired and a bit fed up heading from Kazangula to Livingstone, we were booked into accommodation at the Zambezi waterfront where we had all met the previous week and today it would be small permanent tents pitched on a concrete slab. Our tent had a broken zip and zero shade, which made it a furnace in the midday heat. Thankfully we were moved to a better location and after the briefest of rests, we were off again.
Red crosses on the border
Expanding the ferry slip
Welcome to Zambia
Scorched earth and blue cabs
in Zambia

Vic Falls

The afternoons adventure was now to the world famous Victoria Falls. I mentioned before that we were fed up, but this is something of a euphemism, our fatigue knew no bounds and it was hot and Zambia was just a bit overwhelming after the calm of Botswana. We got to the border post going to Zimbabwe, but turned off to the right into a long fenced parking lot that seemed almost like a holding area of sorts. Along one side rows of vendors sold the same African carved trinkets and jewelry we get at Cape Point. We passed through the gate into what seemed to be a garden of thick bushes, it was a strange environment, looking like a European autumn, but too hot and stuffy. There was no sign of the mythical falls and no apparent direction to them, although we followed a sign that promised the best spot for taking photos. We walked several hundred meters along a deserted path, past a broken fence until we had the path obstructed by a number of obstinate baboons. The members of our party saw this as an impossibly dangerous obstacle and were about to turn back when I took proudly South African action by making a lot of noise and throwing rocks, which helped our simian friends on their way. Eventually the woods to our right opened up and we caught our first glimpse of the falls. It was initially difficult to get a clear sense of how the falls lay as the landscape is an apparent jumble of deep cataracts and massive buttresses. Walking further, the cliff to our right fell away and below the seething waters of the Zambezi became visible. There was a lip and a fall with nothing but flattened grass to stop you from going over. We took our snaps and marched back to see the falls up close and the view was immense. A vivid encompassing sensation as the spray thrown up changed the environment completely, it became drizzly and humid where we had had nothing but drought. In the late afternoon sun the spray was also diffusing the light into a soft glow. I told myself I was taking too many photos, but these things happen, I could always cull them later. Shanna and I finally made our way into the very lip of the falls, avoiding the volunteer guides who would take us to the pools where we could swim to the edge and peer over. She was still very wheezy form the asthma and we had to take it easy, but the knowledge that we would not be coming back to this insane place kept us going, because we would regret it otherwise.

Rain forest at Victoria falls

We were speechless and burnt out as we piled into the Land Rover one last time. Heading back to our tents we all felt that if anything, at least we hadn't wasted a minute of our trip. We met up for dinner and had a great time with our new friends, for whom I am writing this, really. There was much wine and mosquito repellent passed around before we retired for the night.

Getting soaked after two bone dry weeks

The following morning Shanna's dad asked whether we had heard the gunfire during the night, across the water in Zimbabwe apparently. We met for a final meal before parting, having breakfast as a group one more time. We recounted our fond memories and exchanged details while Marianne promised to have words with their travel agent upon returning to Stockholm. They may have had a memorable experience, but it was very far removed from what they had been promised (there was no champagne nor white table cloths allowing our "Out of Africa" experience to be realised for starters!). We said our goodbyes and headed down the road back to the hotel where we had stayed on our first night. With one last outing planned before returning to our respective civilizations, a sunset cruise on the Zambezi, we spent the day by the pool and soaked up the quiet time.

Vic Falls Cataract
Ominous-looking steps at Falls.
We were picked up and taken back to the Waterfront (apparently everything happens from this point) and boarded a small skiff. There were many loud and disagreeable tourists coming and going, heading for the larger vessels that operated from the mooring and thankfully we did not have any of those on our cruise. Our crew cast off and then promptly announced that the bar was now 'fully open'. So for two hours we sped along the Zambezi, stopping to approach pods of hippo or interesting birdlife, with refreshing beverage in hand, while taking in the splendid sunset. We zoomed over rapids, rocks banging our hull but apparently not causing much damage, which amazed me. With the last light fading we pulled into port and headed back to our hotel where we got sucked into watching movies and ordering room service before bed. We were fried.
Over the lip. Vic falls
Zambezi Waterfront residents
Ice and beer delivery

Homeward Bound

Livingstone departure hall
All aboard! Livingstone
The next morning we took it as easy as humanly possible, packing our bags and sitting in the sun beside the pool before our cab arrived to send us on our way. The cab was somewhat overloaded and almost half of our luggage ended up on our laps, but we made it in the end, back to Livingstone airport where we were processed into the departures lounge that was strictly standing room only. We had one last chuckle at the tabby cat lounging around as though he owned the place.

Back across the tarmac and into the not-quite-blue yonder we went. The haze from all the veld fires was appalling, worse than we had seen, and during our climb out of Livingstone, it was hard to make out the falls almost directly below us. This is what I imagine China to be like on a bad day, but we can only hope that some years are worse than others and that this was a bad one. At Johannesburg Shanna and I parted ways with her parents and we set off into the setting sun back to Cape Town with a whole other world of fun things to encounter like housebreakings and impending deadlines, but this would all come later. For now we just had the usual sunday-evening blues of leisure time left behind and nothing but the grind waiting for you, but someday the cycle may be broken and we might all do what we love and never need a holiday.

Thank you to everyone who made this trip so memorable and to Helen & David who made it possible. And to the brilliant people of Botswana, we'll be back!

And we're outta there! 

Botswana, Part 3


Part 1
Part 2


Wealth of game in Moremi
I zoned out and fell asleep, wondering how the hell managed to stay awake through the whole tour, because if were always on the go, then he was always working, but he never flagged and never seemed overly fatigued. We had our closest near miss along this stretch of road with a very lazy dog ambling across our path (we must have been doing about 80km/h at the time) and after barely getting out of our way decided to double back. Somehow, in a flurry of brakes and dust, there emerged a seemingly unphased pooch heading to its home, although now he seemed to be moving with a little more urgency.

Impala buck making a break for it.
I awoke as we approached the South Gate of Moremi game reserve. The tall, lone thatched gate building seemed deserted, but one or two staff were around doing as little as possible, which was only fair in this heat. Shanna was beginning to show signs of fatigue, which would later become a worry, but for the time being all we could do was take it easy and have lunch. We headed due north to the North Gate to fill up our jerry cans with water and then moved on to our camp.

Despite passing a few 'gates', the sense of isolation with overwhelming as we made our way through the low bush. We saw a number of elephants along the roadside, but generally we saw the effect of the big guys more prominently. There were very few trees over six meters tall still standing, for every one tree that was upright, there were about five of six broken on the ground and in places the road wove all over the place as fallen trees had forced new routes to be taken.

Zazu's kin
Through many of these twists and turns we finally arrived at our camp and everybody seemed dead pleased with the site except for Marianne, who had been told that there would be showers and there was not a single standing structure in sight, so this was some kind of cruel joke, right? She was eventually (grudgingly) placated and we set about pitching our tents, which was a much easier process during daylight hours. As the sun began to sink, we headed off on our first real game drive. The pickings weren't great, but we did manage to see lots of impala, a crocodile and an elephant at pretty close quarters. Game viewing is exciting in the sense that you never know what you're going to see or when, so you have to keep your eyes peeled. Often you might start to drop your guard on the way back to camp and come across a massive herd of elephants, as happened to be the case the following day. We returned to camp, dog tired from the long day and went to bed dirty yet overjoyed to be there in those surroundings

Our stealthy visitor's calling card.
Not Katrina, but elephants. 
This was our first night spent camping in a park where our campsite was unfenced, so we had to take a number of precautions in order to protect ourselves and our supplies from the scavengers and general animal traffic. Tents had to be zipped up and food securely locked away. Sleep did not come easily, as all around us animals hooted and cackled. We heard lions, hyena and hippo, which were close by in the river. I slept terribly and the next morning we were up at dawn, which by now was a pleasant ritual, starting early before the sun began beating the life out of you. Behind out tents, we found tracks where a rather large elephant had passed during the night and none of us had heard a thing, which was surprising until Shaba explained that elephants have very complex feet, capable of controlling the pressure they exert to the extent where they may walk by and not make a sound. Except for the breaking trees of course.

We got going early as we had a tricky water crossing to do, but after some examination, the river we intended to ford proved dubious in depth, so Shaba opted for a safer drive west towards the Hippo Pool. We seemed to be skirting an endless shore as the marshland stuck to our right during the two-odd hours of twisting drive. Generally we saw only buck and some birds, with glimpses of what may or may not have been crocs, but we were all very keen and alert, except for Shanna who had been going downhill since yesterday as rest had not really been an option. We arrived at the Hippo Pool and climbed the several metre-high viewing platform, but during the midday heat, we could only catch glimpses of the big guys as they lay submerged among the reeds. Some distance across the water was a herd of zebra, but generally the animals seemed to be in hiding. I couldn't blame them.

Shanna's Lion
Warthog family
So we began, somewhat dejectedly, making our way back to camp. Here and there we took side paths as Shaba often had a hunch about what game might be in the area, tracking animal prints in the road ahead as we went. We spotted a herd of impala that seemed to be concentrating all its attention away to their left when Shanna saw a lion, obviously the object of the Impala's concern. We were very chuffed seeing a big cat, as they had thus far eluded us. It was an old male who had probably been kicked out of his pride and he was looking a little worse for wear, although still not to be trifled with. We edged closer and eventually stopped mere metres from where the old guy was sitting. By now he had given up his stalk, as we had obviously blown whatever cover he might have had, so instead he sat there yawning. After a few minutes some members of our party became a bit wary of being this close to such a big ball of muscle, claws and teeth, especially after Shaba told us that only desperate lions are prone to attacking humans. Desperate being outcast males that are unable to hunt with a pack. Yes, exactly like this one.
So we said our goodbyes to Shanna's lion took the long road back to camp. Upon arrival we hooked up the bucket shower before heading off on another game drive. Shanna was in no state to keep knocking about in the jolting vehicle as she had acquired a bad cough and Bonny Tyler hooker voice over the past few days, so she stayed behind with her dad. Of course we promised them we wouldn't see any game and they weren't missing out on anything and five minutes after leaving camp we had giraffes and zebra on the side of the road. We had been down this road four times and now the luck of the draw went in our favour. We were at the far northeastern reaches of the delta in what was otherwise a murderously dry country and clearly life followed water. In places the water looked as though Katrina had passed though, because as far as the eye could see, every tree had been snapped a meter off the ground by elephants. As majestic as these animals are, they take a significant toll on the land and it seemed that trees just didn't stand a chance with big herds around. We drove all the way to the North Gate to fill up our jerry cans in order to have a shower later and made our way back to camp, about an hour's drive each way.


We set about erecting the shower screen and began heating buckets of water so we could finally get clean, which was a pretty good feeling in the end. By now Shanna was down in the tent most of the time trying to get some rest and her cough was getting worse, helped in to part by the hard days on the road and the freezing nights in the tent.

Our visitor, scared the shit outta me. Look closer.
When everyone had turned in for the night and I was some distance from the main camp using the makeshift facilities, there was some hurried tearing of velcro and zips being pulled. I paid no mind until someone said 'hyena' and then I froze. It was dark and I had no idea what was going on, so I scanned the camp and 'felt a presence' as bad descriptions often read. There was an animal scratching less than ten meters from my tent, where we had buried our leftovers the previous day and the beam of my headlamp caught the illuminated eyes. It was starting at me, but for now there seemed to be only one. I was transfixed, but also wanted to get clear. In the end curiosity prevailed and I stood there for some time, trying to take photos while maintaining my night vision and not taking my eyes off the bastard. Mental note, next time bring a tripod. Many unfocused shots later I backed into the tent, woke a very dopey Shanna and lit the animal again, but even the next day she had no recollection. Eventually the hyena hopped over a fallen tree and out of sight, so I went to bed, wondering how many were out there and what if I had to go pee! So naturally that thought made me have to go, so I got back up and stuck my head out of the tent. The moon was full enough to not need a flashlight, so I got out peering all around. Some way off I thought I saw a big dark shape, so I lit in that direction and saw a pair of eyes again. Great, he was now hanging round the camp. What I do know about hyenas, apart from having the strongest jaws of any mammal is that they are known for sneaking into tents and biting people in the face. With their vice-like jaws. Awesome.
I finished and keep looking the direction of the shape, lighting it, but not seeing the eyes. Then I realised it was an Impala standing there! Bizarrely I was then overtaken by a wave of adrenaline and stood there with goose bumps. Clearly the hyena was gone if there were buck hanging around, so I went to bed chuckling at my misapprehension. I still don't know whether I slept well that night, but I generally woke up freezing when we were in tents, so at some point I would wake up and have to put on more layers of clothing.

Kudu bull, Moremi
Another brilliant sunrise along with another early start. We struck camp and got moving early as we had a lot of bad road waiting for us, today it would be sand. I was responsible for the loading and unloading of the trailer and by now the routine had become a familiar one, everything had to be ordered according to weight, shape and the abuse something could take. Tents, steel folding table, folding chairs, food boxes, cooking pots, buckets, mattresses, luggage, sleeping bags, tent poles, shovels and various other bits and pieces. I was much happier doing the heavy lifting and leaving the cooking to those less likely to screw that up, so a happy distribution of tasks reigned. We drove to the North Gate one last time, crossing the bridge spanning the river Khwai (I shit you not) and about five minutes later we had our first 'challenge' (as Shaba called it) of the day. We had to cross two rivers the hard way about five minutes later and the 'easier' point to do so (on the more tricky of the two crossings) was unfamiliar to our guide, which meant that we were winging it. We had had a few splashes before, but this time all bags and luggage came off the floor. We plunged into the dark water and snaked left and right across the stream in a big S before finally emerging at the far end. We had been up to the gunwales in water, both inside the vehicle and out, but luckily in this climate a little moisture wasn't going to stick around forever. On the far bank we let the water drain before getting back on the road, away from the Delta and into dry country.

The road was straight and hard letting us cover quite a lot of ground. We stopped for firewood, as this was not allowed within the park boundaries. The reason for this is to protect the ecosystem as insects and small animal may nest in fallen trees as well as to deprive poachers of fuel, as they would otherwise set up permanent camp in a park and operate there for extended periods of time. Within the park's boundaries, the going soon became a slugging, sandy mess. Vehicles running slowly would bottleneck the traffic and the thick sand did not allow us to stop just anywhere, so it was all a very squishy affair as we slid along the straight dry track, fishtailing as we went.


Seeking shelter from the midday heat
For a long distance we drove north along the western edge of the Mababe Depression, a massive seasonal wetland that at present had nothing but grass. Absolutely flat and featureless except for the odd dead-looking tree which invariably had a raptor of some description perched on a skeletal branch. We left the depression and ahead small round hills became visible, the largest features we had yet seen in Botswana. Everything so far had been flat as a tack with only the plants changing shape. On we twisted between the low hills and turned from the main track. Soon we were fishtailing like crazy in deep powdery sand until we came to a standstill in what was evidently our new camp. It was brutally hot, with the sparse trees providing scant shade. We went through the ritual of pitching our tents, each one huddling in what little shade it could find.

Enthusiasm was very low at this point. Shanna was getting steadily worse and we were worried about her asthma. We were very far from civilization and at this rate the prevailing conditions (blistering days and freezing nights) and our daily routine of hard driving and dust were not much help. After dozing for a few hours, we went on another drive, once again leaving Shanna to rest at camp. We went to see some rock paintings in the nearby hills and I got some good shots of a massive baobab which I happened to need for an upcoming work project. Across the river we could see the hindquarters of some lions lazing under a bush, but I would hardly call this a solid sighting. Some wildebeest, warthogs and giraffes crossing the road was a good way to round off another full day and with that we retired to camp after fetching water for another shower. It was less cold here at night and for once it was my turn to cook (we're hardly going to trust foreigners with a braai, now were we?), which all went well.

Couple of Wildebeest, Sav
It had been our last night camping, but we were not out of the woods yet and the following morning before we went out on a short game drive, Shanna's dad was threatening to have her evacuated if her condition did not improve. I agreed, but I also hoped it would not come to that, as it would completely derail our trip, so we all kept our fingers crossed and had Shanna stay put. The previous day she had been supplied with a course of antibiotics from Thomas, who is a retired dentist, which we hoped would bring her condition in check. Off we went looking for lions and leopards that were suspected of being in the area. We followed several sets of tracks around a koppie and across a number of jeep tracks until they finally disappeared into broad grassland where we had no hope of following. Soon we came across a cluster of game viewing Land Cruisers who had followed a leopard into the shrub, but we were too late to spot it and the clock was ticking, so we had to get back.

Luckily Shanna's condition had begun improving, so we would press on and see how things went. We had struck camp earlier and just had to pack and get moving. Everyone was huddled and tired as we drove off in our last hard day back to Kasane. We passed the Savute airstrip and left the picturesque parkland behind. The landscape was pretty grim which stunted low shrub as far as the eye could see. We soon had our final 'challenge', a nasty long sand slope which bottomed out and inclined beyond, like an inverted sand dune. We had to gun through this, because getting stuck at the bottom could end up being more than merely getting stuck. Struggling to get a vehicle out would put a lot of strain on the engine and a mechanical breakdown was really not something we would want. On the way down we passed some Delta Rain vehicles going the other way and the guides had their usual chinwag before we bombed down the slope and everyone held their breath, the sand was thick and we were heavy, but once again Shaba kept his foot down and kept us moving and some nervous swerving later, we pulled out up the far slope. We found solid footing on a grass patch and let the engine cool for a minute before continuing out of the park.

The Longnecks
There was still a lot of sand ahead, much of it single-track, which meant oncoming traffic could be a problem, as there were tall bushes and trees close along the roadside. The landscape began falling away to our west (we were heading north) as we approached and in the distance, like a bloody mirage, appeared a stretch of dark tar road. We could not believe our eyes and there was a cry of dismay as we pulled off to the right mere meters before crossing onto the elusive hardball. The moaning ceased as soon as the 'cold drinks' sign and presence of flush toilets were spotted. Alongside our dusty, motley bunch was parked a shiny white Windhoek Toyota looking like something out of District 9. Round the back of this pearly monstrosity was a German couple who seemed to have found a way of cloning clothing and accessories. They were dressed from head to toe in matching bleach-white everything and had identical sunglasses. No doubt they had his'n'hers watches too, but I didn't want to be rude and look to closely.
Battling the dust
Leaving Savute