A Highway Safari

Day 699 – 28 January, 2017

“Elephants!!,” someone shouted as our truck simultaneously slammed on the brakes. Such shouting of the obvious observation could not be contained on our safari truck. The excitement of seeing living and breathing creatures on the highway after seeing almost nothing in the Okavango Delta Reserve brought shouts almost as if we were trying to call their attention, “Hey, ELEPHANTS! Here you are!!!” The whole lot of passengers were spread out in various degrees of lounging – reading books, playing cards, listening to music, sleeping – but all immediately jumped to attention with cameras poised to see an elephant family peacefully, majestically lumber across the road and disappear behind a swath of acacia trees.

The Caprivi Strip is a narrow strip of land, geographically north of Botswana and south of Angola and Zambia. It is administratively part of Namibia, but it has been in dispute before and probably will be again. Meanwhile, our truck passed from Botswana to Namibia for a full day’s drive to the east where we would spend one night near the Zambezi River before doubling back into Botswana on the other side. Technically, our drive encompassed a reserve zone, preserving a natural corridor for wildlife that crosses between these man-made boundaries that we call border control. The most notable sightings of thriving elephant herds would elicit a shout without fail, if not only for us amateur photographers, but also because given a competition of elephant v safari truck, the truck will lose every time.

My fellow travelers – Tomas, Liz, Elin, Emil, Julia, Michael, John, Bianca and Marcelo from Brazil, and 4 others from Belgium and Brazil – and I had bonded over rainstorms, police road blocks and the ubiquitous sighting of the Common Squawker Heron, but like it or not, our itinerary would be drawing to a close too soon. We camped near the Zambia border, overlooking the Zambezi. The mosquitoes were thick; the river glowed cyan in the twilight next to our campfire. After a day of elephants and antelope and roadside baboons, this is the essence of Africa.

The following day we passed back into Botswana over the Ngoma Bridge and into Chobe National Park. Our afternoon itinerary included a game drive and a sunset cruise and our last opportunity to spot more wildlife before leaving the country. In two open-air jeeps, our Nomad Africa team piled in – we were on the edge of our seats to begin checking off the bucket list, which turned out to be a huge success, although you would never know from our poor attitude. Baboons, impala, giraffe, hippos, buffalo, zebra, kudu, warthogs, waterbucks, crocodiles, and vultures…absent, of course, were all members of the feline species. While this was unsurprising, our group finished the game drive like a deflated balloon, the ungrateful lot that we were. You mean that’s it? No cats?

A light rain was starting to fall as we boarded a “sunset” cruise that looked more like a small auto ferry than a leisure cruise. Already our hopes had been dashed by not seeing the king of the jungle, but now the threat of a thunderstorm might prematurely end our cruise as well. We had prestocked a cooler (an Esky or a chilly bin, for those of you that speak another type of English) with beer so at least it appeared we wouldn’t be bored. We kind of took over the upper deck, entertaining ourselves by challenging John to do 100 pushups or seeing who could do the most complicated yoga poses. At least two deep in Carling Black Label Lager we hardly noticed when the clouds began to part. Our boat cruised past crocodiles and hippos and the sun began to shimmer in every shade of gold. This is what I love about Africa and what will take me back there again and again – the drama in the landscape and the sky and the wildlife. Africa has a way of becoming part of you. You feel at one with the natural cycle and it’s with pure wonder that you marvel at how death begets life and life begets death and how life can really be that simple so far away from Western civilization.

The next morning, bright and early, we decided to go on a second game drive through the park. It wasn’t included in our tour package, but everyone really wanted to see some lions and I regrettably learned (insider tip!) that buying a single game drive on the spot directly from the lodge only costs about $50USD rather than the several thousand a tour operator would like you to believe. Thus, we got an early start back into Chobe on the lookout for the flick of an ear or the wiggle of a tail in the tall grass. If you’ve never been on a game drive, you should know that far more time is spent driving over bumpy dusty roads than observing actual living breathing wildlife and this morning was no exception. Almost everyone except for a few giraffe were hiding today. Unfortunately, it was a huge bust for the big five and a few members of our tour would be leaving Africa without this unforgettable safari experience. We all piled back into the safari truck with Doc at the helm, hoping for one last chance of another highway safari en route to the grand finale, Victoria Falls.

The Swamp

Day 696 – 25 January, 2017

Day 696 of travel started out with a drive that day took us to Maun, the gateway city for the Okavango Delta. A deluge of rain was falling when our truck pulled in to the supermarket parking lot. It was another opportunity to stock up on provisions and withdraw some Botswanan pula, the local currency. Some people opted to stay on the truck because of the rain, but I waded through puddles that came up to mid-calf in an effort to stretch my legs. When the truck was moving, you kind of had to stay seated unless you wanted to be tossed around like a salad. Just as quickly as the storm had rolled in, it was gone and clear and the puddles receded into almost nothing.

That afternoon we would have the opportunity to take a scenic flight over the delta at the price of about $90 each, which was just too good to pass up. The flight would be about 45 mins and we would do a low pass both ways over the marshy inland delta. I didn’t wholly expect to see much wildlife, yet it would be a different perspective over this famous natural reserve zone and it would be fun to go with so many new friends, especially those that had never been on safari before.

We had two planes with 5-6 people each. My plane included John, Elin, Emil, Tomas, and myself. It was within 5 minutes of takeoff that we were already soaring over the Okavango Delta. It was incredible. You could make out the overflowing riverbanks and the network of waterways that were teeming with life. It was green as far as the eye could see until…. there was movement down below. “Elephants!” I shouted. Everyone jerked to my side of the plane, but we had already passed. Now this was getting real. With the knowledge that we COULD actually see wildlife and the expectations were set for how tiny they would be from our altitude, everyone began seeing life forms moving about. Loads of hippos, a few giraffe, more elephants, herds of antelope, and even a crocodile sunning itself on land were some of the creatures to be seen from the air. My love affair with Africa continues….

Elin just noticed we don’t have a pilot.

Hippos below!

When it was time to actually venture into the delta by land, the accommodated members of our group took their own flight directly to their lodge, while those of us camping would have to drive. Our Nomad Africa truck took us to the mouth of a rutted dirt track to wait for our further transport. It was raining again. The 4-wheel drive truck approached and was covered in mud with rain flaps secured around the back to hold us in. The rain flaps created something like a sauna, but we could hardly even adjust position for fear of being jolted off the seat.

Our camp was a semi-permanent camp with tents set up in clusters to accommodate the number of people they expected. We were 5 tents for 9 people all lined up in a row. We amused ourselves with card games and trying to capture photos of the blue-balled vervet monkeys until it was time for an evening sunset boat cruise. We rejoined our other friends at their lodge, which was an extension of our campsite, and set off from a murky shoreline that the Australians were just sure was home to monster crocodiles. I’m not doubting this was entirely possible, yet only an Aussie would even think of that.

We had been warned that we were visiting the Okavango Delta during the rainy season, not the best time of year for wildlife spotting. During the dry season, the water is virtually contained to very specific watering holes where all the animals must go to drink. Tours into the delta at this time of year are often conducted in overland vehicles and they search out wildlife on land. During the peak of the wet season, there is so much water that the remaining land is divided into a few large islands, which again, makes it easy to locate the wildlife. When I was there in late January, at the start of rainy season, the water is plentiful so that the animals no longer have to seek out watering holes and it starts to divide the land into many small islands instead of a few bigger ones. Thus, our boat cruise that evening was lovely for scenery, not so much for spotting wild animals.

Later that night, Liz and I were just getting settled in our tent. Some of our fellow campers were already snoring when we noticed loads of vicious-looking red ants all over our floor. I hate killing insects when I’m camping, especially when we are invading their space more than anything else (unless it’s a mosquito – I will always kill a mosquito), but these guys were nasty and they were swarming. With our sandals we were beating them against the ground, hoping the ants wouldn’t suffer if we could give them one good pop. It was getting worse. Liz noticed the ants were actually coming in through the top of our door, which was zipped, yet somehow the ants were wiggling inside and hurling themselves to the floor or our cots or whatever happened to be underneath. My duct tape always seems to come in handy so I whipped it out as if brandishing a sword. I taped the open corners and for a time, it seemed to work, but only briefly. A few minutes later they were circumventing even the duct tape – it was clear our tent had been set on their nest. Shining the light on the mesh door, it was covered in ants that only had one mission – to go home. We were calling out for help and slapping away with our sandals; the other campers continued snoring. Finally, a worker came that had heard the popping of our sandals on the hard ground and rescued us to a new tent for the night.

Sleepy-eyed, we began early the next morning for a boat trip to an island from where we would launch in mokoros, traditional dugout canoes maneuvered by a long stick. Mokoros are now often made of fiber glass for conservation purposes. On the way, the motor boats glided through narrow streams where long grass was close enough to brush our faces. We saw one lounging crocodile and a variety of bird life, but otherwise the delta was quiet. Once at the island, floating in a mokoro is quite different. They feel incredibly unsteady as if a sneeze will be enough to send you into the jaws of a waiting crocodile or the domain of an aggressive hippopotamus. A tiny green frog, the size of my thumbnail, hitched a ride on my pant leg. The only sound was the slight movement of water and the occasional song of a bird.  

Lazy crocodile

Eventually, our mokoro took us to another island where we could disembark. Our local guide was tracking a hippo. You could still see flattened grass where she had been and the telltale sign of dung that was splattered on the path (fun fact: after a hippo defecates, it uses its tail to fling it all over the place – there are many theories but no one really knows why they do this other than because they can). We cautiously tracked her on land until you could see the deep muddy grooves where she had plummeted into the water only moments earlier. Unfortunately, no other creatures emerged that day. Before returning back to our motor boat via mokoro, we shared a picnic lunch with the mokoro oarsmen and a few members of our group were brave enough to awkwardly try to steer the boats themselves.  

A leaf or a beret?

I had been looking forward to a safari in the Okavango Delta for ages, but I must admit I was feeling rather disappointed. We had seen so much wildlife from the air during our scenic flight; it felt like such a tease, not just for me, but for all the people I was traveling with that had never seen Africa’s wildlife up close. We retraced our steps out of the reserve by 4 wheel drive to rejoin our overland truck on the paved road. Again, it started to rain and we made a half-hearted attempt to protect our lunch setup from the elements.  When the clouds dissipated, a storm of yellow butterflies bid us farewell.  And so it went…rain and sun, rain and sun.

The Kalahari

Day 694 – 23 January, 2017

One of the most obscene wastings of food I have ever witnessed occurred on the border between South Africa and Botswana. Earlier that morning I left from a lovely boutique hotel in northern Johannesburg on a Nomad Africa camping safari with 14 others, including Tomas from Chicago, Liz the American living in Istanbul, Emil and Elin from Sweden, Michael and Julia from Australia, 4 Brazilians, a mother and son duo from Belgium, John from Australia, and Paola from Holland.

The truck was almost identical to the one that we had used in Kenya and Uganda three months earlier. Our guide was Amen, Doc was our driver, and Clever was our cook. They were all natives of either Zimbabwe or Zambia and worked really well as a team, hilarious and great fun all around. Our very first day we would be crossing the border to Botswana so we stopped at a supermarket just before the border to gather some supplies, including all of the food that we would need for the next several days of camping – fresh produce like oranges, potatoes, tomatoes, spinach, and onions and animal items like chicken, eggs, and milk. In addition, the passengers were also encouraged to buy any alcoholic beverages that we wished and other personal snack items. In hindsight, it’s kind of funny how much we bought personally, as if we would never see another supermarket. I think it was about three days until we stopped again.

Before leaving the parking lot, Amen warned us that we would have to hide everything for fear that it would be confiscated at the border. He told us that Botswana imports almost all of their produce from South Africa; however, it can only come in with a permit which he did not have. They stashed all of our alcohol, fruit, and a couple of other produce items in a bin in the far back of the truck. He said that they rarely looked that hard and we should be fine. I was about to get my first real introduction into African politics.

Our passports stamped, the only thing preventing us from continuing our journey was a luggage inspection. Amen opened up the storage compartments and immediately the officials began taking all of our produce – the items that weren’t hidden away – and throwing them in a bin. Most of the conversation happened in the local language and we only observed from inside the truck, but from what we could gather, the list of restricted goods had recently changed and now there were several new items that were not permitted. Our stowed goods were not noticed and were left alone. From the safety of the truck, we surmised that the officials just wanted to take our food home to their families or else were expecting a bribe. Either way would be a benefit to their cause. But with 15 foreigners on the truck and about 5 officials gathering at the spectacle, there were too many people to bribe and there was nothing left to do but to ruin the lot of it. They took all of our meat, eggs, produce and bread and proceeded to pour the milk all over it in a large plastic bin. I still kind of hope someone went through it and was able to salvage some edible items, but it wasn’t us. We were sent on our way without proper food, although there was enough alcohol for a small army that we secretly got to keep.

Luckily edible leaves were plenty so we would not starve even though our food was confiscated. Also, this photo demonstrates that I was at the stage of travel where I never looked in a mirror.
As I write this now, I googled the allowable produce because I couldn’t remember the details of what was taken. The government site for Botswana does indicate that the list changes frequently because of current disease outbreaks, but it also indicates an allowable amount per person that far exceeds what we could possibly have had in rations. This is Africa, folks, warts and all.

Our first day was a driving day to our destination near Kang, Botswana. We set up camp behind a petrol station and ate in the restaurant attached to it. It was our first opportunity to get to know each other without the noise on the truck. We organically and loosely separated into two smaller groups – the Americans, the Swedes, and the Aussies in one group with the Brazilians, the Belgians, and Paola in the other. This was somewhat based on age demographic and ability to speak English, whereas John the jokester kind of bridged the gap between both groups with his tiresome rhetoric. Only some of us were camping while a few were staying in accommodated rooms, which further served to join us or separate us in a different way.

Tomas, originally from Mexico, was currently living in Chicago and it had been ages since I had met someone from my hometown so he and Liz and I became good friends. Liz had been teaching English in various places, but most recently had been teaching and living in Istanbul where she met and married her Turkish husband. Elin and Emil, traveling together as friends just before he was on his way to study in Australia, were dubbed the Swedish Mafia for a reason that I can’t recall. And Julia and Michael were newly dating and were both very photogenic.

Elin and Emil – obviously Elin is thinking about the fact that we have no food
Tomas, Liz, and I
Julia and Michael
The following day we continued driving deeper into the Kalahari Desert until we reached a remote camp. The threat of rain was imminent so we rushed to set up camp when we arrived. Liz and I had placed our rain cover and were prepared by the time the rains came. The other campers were falsely confident and had to run to take care of it at the last minute. A storm in the desert comes in with violence and anger and departs just as abruptly with a whisper. The sun returned.

We went for a bush walk with a traditional Kalahari bushman, who showed us signs of tracks and scat and how they identify the species. He showed us plants that are edible and those used for healing. He showed us how to hunt with poison arrows and how to make a fire. He even showed us a juicy green caterpillar that is considered a delicacy in the Kalahari diet. And he did all this while wearing animal skin briefs and carrying a jackal satchel for his bow and arrows. It was a bit put on for our benefit – many of the Kalahari bushmen no longer wear this costume, favoring instead western-type clothing. And many of them now supplement their diet with supermarket goods, but some hearty souls are trying to keep the traditions alive.

After it had grown dark, we were to meet at the main lodge where our accommodated friends were staying so we could walk to a fire dance ceremony together. It was pitch black and we brought our head torches for guidance. The dance was incredible to watch. Approximately twenty men and women danced to songs played on reed or wooden instruments, songs with names like “The Hunt” and “Rain.” They would slowly move in a circle and then it would increase in speed, but their movements were generally always the same. At some point, we became aware that Paola was there and she was NOT happy. Apparently, she had been left behind at the lodge and had to struggle to find her way in the dark to the bonfire. She was not only angry with her guides, but also with every one of us, and she was not shy about letting us know. She refused to speak to any of us for the next couple of days. In truth, I felt bad for her. She didn’t speak English well and she was trying to navigate between lots of different accents. We tried to apologize, yet she was having none of it.

John, who was never to be taken seriously, had a joke about everything. It was charming at first, although it became clear that he needed a purpose so we assigned him to watch out for Paola to make sure she wasn’t to get lost again. We were also hoping it would help him stick to our time schedule. When we were intended to depart at 7:00am, for example, knowing that we would have an 8 hour drive (or more!) ahead of us and the rest of us were ready and sitting in the truck, John would casually stroll up several minutes late and tell us he had forgotten his hat or his book and needed to go back to get it. It was beginning to feel like we were herding cats – wet and wild desert cats, but cats nevertheless.

I’m pretty sure this is me examining some poo and trying to identify the wildlife. Photo by Liz