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! 

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