Friday, 11 June 2010

Hakuna Matata!

Day 18 Chobe River

Approximate Distance: 420 km
Estimated Travel Time: 6 hrs

Another day, another opportunity to see some game.  This time we head to Kasane, alongside the Chobe river.  The Chobe National Park itself has some of the biggest concentrations of game of anwhere in Africa, but because we've already done so many game drives on this trip, we're actually going to be taking a sunset cruise down the river.  There's method in this madness, as the river is of course where much of the park's wildlife goes to drink as the sun sets.  In addition, the park is particularly famed for its large numbers of elephant, its crocodiles and its bee-eater birds, all of which can be found down by the water.  Pretty soon after arrival at our campsite, after a short stop to pick up some more beer in Kasane, we head back out in the truck to meet up with our boat.

Well, perhaps boat is pushing it a little... this is basically a floating platform.  The Chobe river is wide, particularly at this time of the year, but it's also pretty sluggish as it makes its way towards the Zambesi and the sudden violence of the Victoria Falls, a few miles downstream from here.  Mind you, as the water is infested with crocodiles, I don't fancy falling in much.  Our campsite is partly underwater, and we've already been warned to be very, very careful of crocs as we walk about the place.... they have a nasty habit of grabbing you and then drowning you before eating you once you've softened up a little.  I've avoided becoming anything's dinner thus far on the trip, and it would be a shame to start now.

It's a short chug from the dock into the National Park itself, passing increasingly plush looking safari lodges as we go.  There's a fork in the river around a large island.  It's deserted of everything but birds at this time of year, but when the waters are lower, apparently this is teeming with life as the grazing animals like water buffalo swim across to take advantage of the lush greenery.  Already, the other side of the river is bustling with wildlife for us to look at.

The park is best known for its spectacular elephant population: with over 120,000 it has the highest elephant concentration of Africa. Apparently, most of them are probably part of the largest continuous surviving elephant population on Earth. Botswana is something of a conservation success story, and the elephant population here seems to have solidly built up since 1990, from a few thousand to their current numbers. The elephants living here are Kalahari elephants, the largest in size of all known elephant species. Yet they are characterized by rather brittle ivory and short tusks.We quickly see whole herds of elephant, often with young calves are drinking from the river.  I think I could watch elephants forever without getting bored.  They're amazing.... especially after I learned that an adult bull elephant can drink something like 200 litres of water in 4 minutes.  Actually, it's amazing there's any water in this river at all.

I also get my first glimpse of crocodiles.  These are only medium-sized, we're told, as apparently they get as big as 6m around here.  That sounds like an exaggeration to me, but even if they 'only' reach 4m, that's still a pretty damn big crocodile.  The medium-sized ones here look plenty big enough to take me out, that's for sure.  All they seem to do is sit on the edge of the river and sunbathe, but even then they have a malevolent look about them.  These things are prehistoric.  Literally.  Like sharks, they are largely unchanged since the time of the dinosaur because they are so well adapted for what they do.  That's quite a thought.  As we drift on by, one of them casually opens his mouth and shows us his teeth..... he has lots of teeth.  The baboon we see at the water's edge don't seem to mind the elephant, but there are none of the around the crocodiles.  I don't blame them at all.

We also get to see hippo.  We saw a hippo from a distance in the Okavango Delta, but here we get the chance to see them a lot closer.  Before the start of the boat trip, the guide warned us -- as guides always do -- that he couldn't guarantee that we would see anything as the animals don't perform on command for tourists.  Well, he was prepared to make one exception for us: he guaranteed us that we would see hippo.  It quickly becomes apparent why.  There are hippo everywhere.  In fact, in Chobe it appears that hippo are the new springbok.... they're pretty much everywhere you look.  Actually, truth be told, you don't really get to see much of a hippo when they're in the water.  They're big enough, but really you only get to see their butts and the tops of their heads as they spend as much time as they can in the water to keep their sensitive skin away from the sun.  At first glance, they don't seem to do much either except expel air from either end of their bodies and make a succession of loud grunting noises.  I suppose they don't want to expend too much energy.  They're vegetarians, and I shudder to think how much they must have to eat to keep their massive bulk moving.  No wonder they keep as still and as cool as they can.  Lucky for us, there are some babies here though, and they have such worries.  All they want to do is to play.  They chase each other and they have play fights and they generally put on a show for us.  It's enchanting... as my face clearly shows.  Well, take it from me: I was enchanted.

It's a fantastic cruise.  To top it all off, on the drive back to the campsite, we see a herd of elephant crossing the road in the town centre.  Our driver follows them down a lane, and we get to see them silently disappearing down to the river and along the bank.  It's a magical moment.

Day 19-20 Livingstone, Zambia

Approximate Distance: 100 km
Estimated Travel Time: 3 hrs

We get up early in the morning to try to beat the rush at the ferry to cross the Zambezi River.  The Zambezi is the border between four countries: Botswana, Zambia, Namibia and Zimbabwe.  We will use the ferry to leave Botswana for Zambia and to continue on to Livingstone. Apparently you can spend hours and hours here, and it's all pretty chaotic.  On the way in, we drive past an enormous queue of lorries waiting for their turn to cross, and the area around the ferry is alive with the people who have to cross this river every day of their lives to go to work.  It's not exactly what you would call a slick operation, but after a short delay, we make it across safely enough and brave Zambian border control.  African borders have been nowhere near as difficult as I thought they might be, but there's usually a few forms that we have to fill in before we get a new stamp in our passports.  In Zambia, they ask that we pay them fifty US dollars in cash.  In return, they don't even ask us to fill out anything and we can quickly get on our way.  It seems that money and a bolshy guide go a long way to combat the red tape of most African bureaucracy

From the border, it's a short ride into Livingstone, home of the mighty Victoria Falls.  As the falls form a natural border with Zimbabwe, the town is awash with migrants from the economic disaster just across the river.  There are people here who will try and get you to buy a one trillion dollar note from them as a curiosity item so they can feed their families.  We're told that all the traders here will happily barter for items that we might consider rubbish or useless.  One guy on our trip part-exchanges an empty coke can for some nick-nacks in a shop, and items like dirty socks and t-shirts and knackered old trainers are highly prized items (although I'm not quite naive enough to believe that DJ Tash's old Nike Air trainers are going to an orphan as the guy she's bartering with is keen to try and tell her....)

We're here to end our trip with a bang, taking part in a few activities to get the blood pumping before we go home.  This, apparently, is an adrenaline capital, and some of the activities on offer here are things like bungee jumping, gorge swings, rafting and all that kind of jazz.

Oh, and the falls of course.

We go straight to the Falls as soon as we arrive.  They're awesome.

The Victoria Falls waterfalls occur in a country that is perfectly flat. From its source on the borders of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Zambezi River meanders for 1300 km across the wooded plateau of Zambia, eroding for itself a shallow valley on its mild descent to the site of the falls. The river eventually found a weak spot on the lower lip of the surface over which it passed, and forced a passage which was steadily deepened into an exit gorge.  During the last half million years the river has scoured out eight of these cracks across its bed. The Victoria falls occur where the river is 1688m wide, presents the spectacle of an average maximum of 550 million liters of water a minute tumbling over the lip of the trench in five main falls, the Devil’s Cataract, Main falls, Horseshoe Falls, Rainbow falls and the Eastern Cataract. The highest of these is Rainbow falls, on an average 108 m high. A peak flood sees 750 million liters of water in one minute hurtling over the falls.As I've mentioned, the water is pretty high at the moment, so there's quite a lot of water flying about.  The locals call the Falls Mosi-oa-Tunya, the smoke that thunders, and it's not hard to see why.  You can see the falls from miles away as a pillar of "smoke" rises straight up into the cloudless sky.  Close up, it's even more impressive.  It's also pretty wet.

 [photo courtesy of Tash]

Actually, it's so wet that we almost can't see anything.  Almost.  It's totally worth the $20 park fee though, and I'm astonished when some South African guys at the gates ask me if it's worth the money.  It's Victoria Falls!  It's one of the natural wonders of the world.  How can you be in Livingstone and even contemplate not going to see them?  By the time we get back to the truck, we're all absolutely soaked to the skin.  It's awesome.  It's not just the falls around here though.... there are also marauding packs of baboon who will threaten and rob anyone who goes too close to them, as Jess demonstrates below.

 [photo courtesy of Jess]

I saw a guy stupid enough to pull out and start eating an apple in front of a baboon, and it's on him almost immediately.  It's all he can do to throw the thing away before he gets into real trouble.  Baby Max at one point finds himself surrounded by a troop who demand he hand them over everything he is carrying, and then proceed to try and open his camcorder case (they can't) and drink his anti-bacterial handwash.  Mmmm.  Tasty.  All filmed by an amused Max on his camcorder..... You don't mess with a baboon.

Next up: booze cruise.

They prefer to call it a sunset cruise, but you pay $40 (or something) and then get as much booze as you can drink and as much food as you can eat.  It doesn't take a genius to work out what happens next.  This is basically the start of the long farewell, and no one on the truck wants to miss out. We quickly take control of the bar, because that's the kind of classy people that we are, and Elbie cracks out a few bottles of fizz.... and no glasses.

It's a fun evening, with a beautiful sunset on the Zambezi not going entirely unnoticed amidst the carnage.  I definitely don't get my money's worth in terms of booze, sticking to a couple of bottles of beer, but I do get to be endlessly entertained by my companions..... whether it's C. drinking far more than she usually would simply because fizz is her weakness, DJ Tash getting all friendly and chatty with everyone as she got drunker or all of the "Titanic" impersonations on the prow of the ship.  Pretty much everyone is three sheets to the wind by the time we get back to the campsite at about 6pm.  We head to the disco, where an enthusiastic game of whisky slap is kicked off.  Not familiar with it?  It's a game where you pair up, take a shot of whisky and your partner slaps you full in the face.  Sounds good, huh?  All the rage in New York, Jane tells us......

  [photo courtesy of Tash]

I actually end up going to bed at about 8pm as I'm not really much of a dancer and I'm not really in the mood, but I think everyone is basically done by about 10pm.  We've had so many early morning starts that our ability to sit up late has basically been broken.  Besides, most of us have a pretty full day of activities planned for the next day.

I'm going lion walking, for a start.....

It's all part of a rehabilitation programme.  They think that lion populations in Africa have plummeted something like 90% in the last thirty years.  This is simply a result of human expansion into their domains, but it's such an iconic animal for Africa and for many of the cultures here that this can't be allowed to continue and these beautiful animals need help if they are to survive.  The programme operating here takes lions born in captivity and puts them through a four step programme.  Step one sees the young lions being educated in the bush by being taken for walks with humans standing in as the senior members of their pride.  Step two sees the human contact being slowly withdrawn and the lions being put into a safe environment that's not less than 500 acres and is safe and full of game.  Here they are able to fine tune their hunting skills and to start to live as "wild" lions.  Step three sees these lions forming prides, breeding and having cubs.  These cubs are effectively wild, and step four sees the introduction of these second generation lions, usually as part of a full pride, back into the African wilderness.

The programme hasn't been going for long in Zambia, and they've only got as far as step two, but this approach seems to have worked elsewhere in Africa and they're hopeful it will work here too.  The walk we will be doing is part of step one, and after a safety briefing about how to behave around them lions, we're introduced to three beautiful ten month old lions, two sisters and their brother.  In lots of ways, they're very much like their domestic cousins.  We're not allowed to have anything that dangles off us.... well, if you've ever played with a cat, then you'll know why not.  For the same reason, we're only to approach them from behind, and we are given a stick.... not to hit the lions with, but to use as a way of distracting them.  They may only be playing, but a whack from a playful lion could do some pretty serious damage and you have to give them respect.  We're told to keep an eye on them at all times, to be aware where they are, and if they look like they are stalking us (what our guide calls their "naughty look"), then we are to point the stick at them and to tell them "NO" in a firm voice.  I've seen plenty of lions on this trip, but nothing prepares me for my first close-up glimpse of these beautiful creatures.  They're magnificent.  They have huge paws, golden eyes and are simply stunning.  They're also clearly quite lazy -- just like a cat -- and are a little reluctant to go for a walk just because we want to walk with them.  They want to laze around and to play with each other, and frankly I'd be happy to watch them, but the guides get them moving and we set off into the bush.

We stop a couple of times so that we can stroke them.  We approach them carefully from behind, distract them with a stick if they look like turning round... and we pet them.  Their fur is slightly rougher than you'd expect, but nothing can explain the feeling I get when I touch these magnificent animals, especially when they start to play with the stick in my hand in almost exactly the same way as my cat plays the same game in my garden at home.  It's a magical, magical morning.

There's a video too.... do watch it so you can see these beautiful animals for yourself.  It wasn't an especially cheap morning, but it was worth every penny.  This is how the charity funds its work, and I'm more than happy to have contributed.

Lots of other people are busy throwing themselves off gorges and other adrenaline-y type activities, but I'm done.  We head back to the campsite, treat ourselves to a massage in the spa next door and generally relax and get ready for our last dinner with the guys we've spent so much time with over the last three weeks.  It's actually quite emotional.

C. and Jane have been working hard on an awards ceremony, and nobody in the team leaves without getting a personalised prize that sums up the impression that they've made on the party.  C. gets the David Attenborough award for her ability to spot and identify a bird at 100m and I get the Perrier Award for keeping everyone (well, Jane...) amused by reciting old and obscure comedy sketches on command.   The biggest awards of the night are reserved for our guide, Elbie, and our driver, Barry.  If we are the party, then these guys have been the life and soul of the party, and it's the least we can do to hand them over a couple of bottles of booze with their awards and their tips.

It's been an incredible tour and I'm so sorry to be leaving these guys.

Day 21 Depart Livingstone, Zambia

The long goodbye continues as we pack up our tents the next morning and get ready for our lunchtime flight out Livingstone airport.  It's actually quite emotional as people start to pack their stuff up and get ready to leave.  Many of us are flying home, some are staying in Livingstone, and several people are heading back to South Africa.  DJ Tash and Gums, those happy occupants of tent number 509, are teaming up together to catch a bus up to Malawi..... although as they are collectively known as Team Fu*k Up, I imagine that's going to turn out to be quite a ride.

We say our goodbyes and head to the airport to start our long journey home.  The parting is softened by the fact that we get to spend most of the day hanging around with Sina, the very aptly-nicknamed Dark Horse, who has flights at nearly the same times as us and has the same long layover in Johannesburg.  She's cool and lovely and it's been a pleasure spending time with her and with the rest of the gang over the last three weeks.

We've seen a lot of overland trucks as we've travelled through Africa.  I'm fairly sure that the companies that operate them are all pretty similar and that there are good trucks and bad trucks in every company.  What I think has marked our trip out is that we've had the happy good fortune to have two brilliant guys leading our trip in Barry and Elbie, and we've also found ourselves in the middle of a group of people who seem to be able to get along without cliques and who genuinely seem to enjoy each other's company.  I'm going to miss them.... so much so, that I break the rule of a lifetime and actually sign up to Facebook when I get home so that I can more easily stay in touch with them.

What an amazing trip.
What a beautiful, amazing, vibrant place Africa is.

 [photo courtesy of Jess]

We liked Africa so much, we made a t-shirt to commemorate the trip.  The map of all 5,250km of our route is pretty cool, but the front is even better: a tribute to both Jane's leopard and to Barry our driver and his pipe.

On the arm?  The catchphrase of the trip: WE ARE THE PARTY!
(Another tribute to Barry a.k.a. Chuck Norris is the Zambian copper bracelets that many of us buy at Victoria Falls.... Barry has been impressing us all tour with his bangle that opens beer bottles, and this is where we can get them.  A beer opening bracelet.  Does it get any better than that?  Barry, you're a legend and I salute you.....)

How can I possibly end the story of this incredible trip?  Why, with a picture of a statue of Nelson Mandela made entirely of beads that I saw in Johannesburg airport of course.... 

Africa... you were awesome.  I will be back.

1 comment:

  1. Sounds like you had an amazing time - I've loved following it all.