A Travellerspoint blog

Madikhudu Island, The Okavango Delta, Botswana


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Madikhudu Island was a pleasant place to make camp for the night. (Although if you ask Crystal she would probably tell you that there was death lurking around every corner - Crystal has developed a "healthy" sense of fear of the African ecosystem since living here). We found a nice spot to camp, shaded by large trees and only a few meters from the water. There was a hippo pool not too far away from our camp, and we could hear them snorting and growling throughout the evening. We went for a series of hikes during our couple of days there. During this entire excursion we really had no idea what to expect. There was no discussion of itineraries or activities, we just went with the flow. So, the fact that we were to be hiking 15 km or so through the African Bush was a surprise to me. I'll admit, I was a bit scared. Even though we were on an island, the Delta is part of the Moremi Game Reserve which is very densely populated with wildlife. Most of the animals, including the big ones (elephants, lions, leopards, Rhino, Cheetah, etc.) can swim or walk over the narrow channels to follow food onto the islands. And, of course, there's lots of water, which the animals will predictably follow during the dry season. Before we left on our long hike Matthew carved a stake out of a limb from a nearby tree. He showed it to me and told me he would use it to stab predators that try to attack us. Then he laughed. I think he was joking, but I'm not sure.

As we set off on our walk through the African scrub brush all I could think of was the story that our South African friends had told us a few nights earlier while camping on the salt pans. There is a corridor through Kruger National Park, just north of Johannesburg, which is used by Zimbabwean refugees to flee their country and illegally enter South Africa. Kruger has a very healthy lion population and the lions have learned that this corridor is used by men. A group of five Zimbabweans came through the corridor on their way to Jo-Burgh to find work and were approached by a lion. They ran. One was attacked and killed and the remaining four escaped up a tree. Soon the rest of the pride emerged to partake in this meal. Realizing they had the other four men cornered, the lions stayed nearby and throughout the next few days picked them off one by one as they became hungry and needed meat. Eventually the park officials found the one sole survivor left in the tree. By that point he had gone completely out of his mind and was rambling incoherently.

But, being the fearless soldiers that we are, we proceeded onward stepping over aardvark and fox holes and dodging thorn acacias and wild sage bushes as we went along. Hiking through Botswana was very different than anywhere I had ever been before. There were very few large trees beyond the occasional Acacia tree or small Mopane forest. But the thorn acacias that grow on the ground carry very long and sharp thorns, and the leaves are prickly. It was easy to get caught up in them or to get them caught in the bottom of a shoe. In fact, they're so difficult to manipulate that the Angolan militias used to set up acacia barricades during the civil war to hold off opposition troops. This challenge was coupled with the long grasses and mounds of dirt left behind by termites, foxes and anteaters. Occasionally we would pass by fields of singed earth, when I asked him Matthew said that a fire could have been set accidentally or possibly by villagers who had been chased by elephants. Lighting a fire to a branch or bunch of leaves will deter them. I was suddenly disappointed that I hadn't brought a lighter along. But, of course, we did have Matthew's single carved spear to protect us.

In all seriousness, the walk was very enjoyable. It was far from the most beautiful or dramatic scenery we had seen- most of the landscape was brown and brittle - and we were all pretty subdued after a long few days of traveling, but there was something very special about seeing the African landscape up close. And it was a totally different experience then driving through it as we did while we were in Chobe. Even if for just a few hours we were very in tune with our surroundings. We came across a herd of Zebra and antelope and watched them as they grazed, realized we were there, checked us out, and moved on. On a couple of occasions we came across elephants grazing on the Mopane trees. We paid careful attention to the direction of the wind and to where we were standing so to remain unnoticed by the elephant. Even though we've probably seen over a 100 elephants since we've been here I still don't get tired of seeing them. It just blows my mind to think that with entire villages only a few km (or sometimes meters) away, these giant creatures are minding their own business foraging through the bush almost entirely unnoticed. On one particular occasion we approached an elephant that was downwind from us (elephants rely more on their sense of smell than eyesight). Matthew led us to the edge of a small forest and instructed us that we would be fine here, if the elephant charges we could just run into the trees and hide. We nodded our heads in agreement, "yes, we'll just run into the trees if we're chased by the elephant standing over there". Luckily, he was more scared of us then we were of him, and he immediately took off when he smelled us. I personally think he saw Steve and realized he had met his match.

After hiking for 5 or so hours with no lion attacks to speak of we headed back to our tents to have lunch and break camp. Last (the second poler) had thanked us for offering her food during our stay by cleaning all of our dishes and boiling water for us. Unfortunately we couldn't converse much with her as she spoke very little English, but she did seem to enjoy listening to us sing camp songs around the fire during the previous night (little did she know they were mostly national anthems, its been a while since we've camped) as well as our attempts to speak her language (i.e. rattling off the greetings and animal names we had learned from Crystal). Nonetheless, we managed to connect with her on whatever level we could and I think we were mutually grateful for it.

Posted by acarrico 04:45 Comments (7)

The Okavango Delta, Botswana


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We got up very early on Tuesday morning to leave for a 2-day trip to the Okavango Delta. The Okavango is the world's largest inland delta. Over 10,000 years ago it used to be encompassed by Lake Makgadikgadi (where we visited the salt pans a few nights before), but since the lake has dried up the delta is one of the few bodies of water that remains from that system. Today the waters of the delta empty directly into the sands of the Kalihari and are one of the few sources of water in what is otherwise a very arid region. Living within the delta is very difficult as the area floods frequently, causing some islands to disappear in a matter of days. Likewise, the extraordinarily fast rate of evaporation during the hot summer months (so fast, in fact, that the water levels are actually much lower during the wet season) leaves large salt deposits behind, making many areas incapable of supporting vegetation. Nonetheless, people have managed to survive and even thrive here. Those that do so live primarily off of the land by growing sorghum, foraging, hunting and fishing (apparently Tilapia is plentiful in the delta). And, more recently, tourism has been added to this list. Those villages that have recognized and accepted the opportunity to make money allow visitors to enter their land at a small fee. Many individuals within the villages also work as guides to escort tourists throughout the delta (thankfully as attempting to traverse the delta without a guide would be suicide).

We were picked up by a small boat with a trolling motor off the dock directly at our lodge. It took us around an hour of winding through reeds and river channels before we arrived at the edge of the actual delta. During that time we were able to get acquainted with our new Norwegian friends, Meta and Henrietta, two middle aged women who were traveling through Africa in hopes of starting a business of arranging Norwegian guided tours into Botswana. Interestingly, Henrietta had lived in Botswana 18 years ago with her husband who was a doctor. Before meeting up with us she had visited the village where she used to live and work. She told us that when she showed up nearly half of the 60 women whom she had previously worked and lived with came out to greet her. Pretty amazing after nearly two decades of being away.

Before we were able to enter the delta to meet our guide we had to stop at the gateway to the village of Boro, whose land we would be visiting, to receive permission to enter. We were greeted by one of the village elders who controlled the flow of traffic on and off the village land. We had arranged for a visit through our lodge in Maun well before arriving to Botswana; however, apparently the arrangements were never made (not surprising, considering the condition of our hosts the previous night). For this reason, our driver and the elder went back and forth for nearly 20 minutes (speaking Tswana) before reaching an agreement to let us pass. We proceeded on to the next beach to be dropped off and to meet our guide. Once we arrived the woman controlling the assignment of guides was swarmed with people, nearly 15-20 prospective guides crowded around her, presumably to vie for the opportunity to make some money by escorting us. We soon met our guide Matthew and were off.

Those that live in or near the delta get around primarily using Makoro boats. These are long, thin wooden canoes that are carved out of the trees that grow in the delta. They are propelled along using a long wooden pole similar to how it is done by gondoliers in Venice (though substantially less fancy... and with hippos), with the poler standing in the back of the boat and propelling it along by pushing against the bottom of the river bed. This design allows the boats to traverse the shallow waters, reeds, and narrow channels of the delta that typical boats with oars and motors could not tolerate. The boats are quite thin and light, so we needed two to carry the four of us plus our food and camping equipment. The second boat was poled by Last, a middle aged woman who also lives in Boro and speaks little English. We loaded up our things and made our way through the delta following the narrow channels that have been carved out over the years of running water. My first impressions were of how unsteady the makoro felt. You'd be surprised at how fast it can go considering the mechanics involved in moving it. The boat that Corrie and I rode in was hand carved by our guide Matthew and, while it was entirely impressive that he had constructed it by hand, it was a bit gnarled and curved slightly to the left meaning the boat rocked anytime a slight move was made. As we drifted along, snapping through reeds and admiring the water lilies, all I could think about were the stories that Crystal had told us earlier about hippo vs. makoro attacks. Apparently, the hippo almost always comes out ahead. I started to plan my exit strategy, figuring that Matthew had the clear advantage but if I could at least swim faster than Corrie I would be safe (sorry Corrie ;) )

We poled along for about 2-3 hours before reaching our destination for the night, Madikhudu Island (Tortoise Island in English). This island is where the women in the village come to cut down reeds for their huts. It also supplies some of the trees that are used to make the makoros, although we were told that all the good trees had already been cut down and the villagers are having to go further and further into the delta to find materials. Once we arrived we unloaded our things, set up camp for the night, had lunch and rested. A few hours later Matthew offered to teach us how to pole the makoro, sounded like an interesting and fun thing to do. Corrie was given instructions on the shore and I headed out in a makoro with Matthew. I guess it wasn't surprising to find out that poling a makoro through the okavango delta is a lot harder than it looks. The boats wobble... a lot. Particularly when the person driving lacks balance and coordination. And Matthew, being the shy and stoic African that he is, gave minimal instruction... "and to the right, now use your strong... now to the left, use your strong...". I tried to tell him that because of my cushioned American life I have no 'strong', but he didn't seem to understand. He also was not amused when the wobbling brought me to my knees and I had to crawl through the makoro to grab the pole. I, on the other hand, thought it was hilarious. Finally I started to get the hang of it and managed to pole down the channel a little ways from the beach. Because it took me literally 20 minutes just to turn the boat around, I decided to try to make conversation. Matthew is 30, has lived his whole life in Boro, has many brothers and sisters (some of which also work as guides), his favorite animal is a lion, he does a pretty good elephant impression, and he has a small boy. He's not married and seemed very curious about the fact that I am 28 and also not married. He then told me we wants to marry a white woman. I tried to probe a bit further about this, 'why do you want to marry a white woman?'. But he just kept repeating "I want to marry a white". After he had repeated this 4-5 times I decided to find Corrie. Her Makoro was stuck in the reeds a bit further down the channel. Luckily, neither of us were eaten by hippos.

Posted by acarrico 04:40 Comments (2)

Maun, Botswana

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Maun was our next destination. We had a relatively uneventful drive from Gweta after our night on the pans. Luckily there were very few potholes and our only delay was stopping at a sanitation checkpoint on our way into Maun. I learned from our South African friends that beef is actually the largest export in Botswana, which is why there are sanitation checkpoints to prevent hoof and mouth disease when entering and leaving certain agricultural districts. At each of these points all passengers must get out of the car and place the soles of their shoes on a mat soaked in disinfectant. The car was driven through a pool of disinfectant to sanitize the tires and bottom. Generally these stops only took a few minutes, but in an around Chobe National Park we came across them every 100 km or so.

We arrived in Maun around 1 or 2 in the afternoon. Maun is a bustling little town that used to be characterized as the sort of "wild west" because it is in a fairly remote location (the vast majority of the population in Botswana lives in the eastern part of the country, near Gabarone). Now it is used by the locals as a place to by petrol, supplies, and to sell goods in the markets. To tourists it is a place to stop over for a few nights to visit the Moremi National Park and the Okavango Delta, which is what we were planning to do during the next few days. For this reason, there are lots of lodges and backpacker accommodations, and a few restaurants and shopping centers. It felt very modern. If I had been dropped there with no knowledge of where I was I would have guessed I was in any number of small nondescript American or Canadian towns. But, of course, the donkey carts, goats grazing the highways and impala crossing signs would be a clue that you were somewhere else.

We headed directly to our lodge, the Old Bridge Backpackers which was set a few km outside of town off a dirt path. The place seemed very nice and chill. It was set on the bank of the Thamakalane River and we were greeted by a number of interesting people relaxing in the outdoor bar or hanging around on the hammocks and picnic tables overlooking the river. The accommodations were large Meru tents holding a double bed and a couple of small tables, as well as communal outdoor toilets and showers enclosed with reed walls. We met the lodge-owner David, who I had corresponded with over e-mail, and then Corrie and Crystal went to return the car to the airport while Steve and I stayed behind to have a few drinks at the bar. It became pretty obvious after the first five minutes that the bar hosted a rather interesting cross-section of people. Most of the crowd were local whites whose families had settled in Botswana when it was a British colony. And they had no pretensions. In fact, the first conversation we struck up with David and the guy sitting next to us was regarding the mens urinals in a local bar and the various contortions that were required to use it. This was followed by a series of obscenities shouted at the television to challenge Roger Federer's manhood (The Wimbledon was playing while we were there). It didn't take long to realize that everyone around us was hammered. It was 3pm. Corrie and Crystal got a dose of this as well when Martin, co-owner of the lodge, picked them up at the airport with a full glass of whiskey on the rocks. Apparently that wasn't enough, as he made stopover at another bar on the way home to buy everyone another round of drinks. A friendly people, the Botswanan.

After a much needed shower to wash off the film of salt that had accumulated during the previous days, we managed to grab dinner in the lodge bar. This was despite being interrupted multiple times by dogs, drunk men, and one rather protracted fight over the custody of a child. Their charm was beginning to wear off. At that point we snuk away to a different picnic table shaded by trees to find a little privacy. They eventually found us again, but we managed to enjoy most of our meal in peace. I was pretty bummed. Out of all the places we were staying, for some reason, I was most excited about this one. When I was making the arrangements it was the cheapest, friendliest and least discovered place I had found. I thought I had found a jewel. Apparently there is a reason it wasn't listed in guide books and websites. We went to bed early that night to prepare for a two day trip into the Okavango Delta. For the last week we had fallen asleep to the sounds of birds, hippos, and rushing water. This time we fell asleep to the sound of David having a fist fight with a customer. I think I prefer hippos.

Posted by acarrico 04:33 Comments (2)

Ntwetwe Salt Pans, Gweta Botswana


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We woke up early on the 5th to drive ourselves about 350 km southwest to the very small town of Gweta. We hadn't originally planned on stopping here, but it is on the way from Kasane to Maun (our next big stop), and there are huge expanses of salt pans where an ancient lake used to sit, so we decided to stop for the night and take a camping trip to the pans.

When I inquired about this route before we got to Africa, I read over and over that the roads were great and you could make the trip easily in 3-4 hours with a 2-wheel drive. However, when we told the folks from the lodge and our friends from Zimbabwe about our plans to drive ourselves they seemed a bit concerned and one even laughed at us. Still, we were told if we allowed 4 hours to get there we would be laughing. Not so exactly. The drive took us close to 7 hours in our little Toyota Yarrus. We were delayed for multiple reasons: giraffe, ostriches, and countless cattle, goats and donkeys crossing the roads, an overturned produce truck in the middle of the road, multiple sanitation check points where we were required to get out of the car and walk across a sanitation pad, but mostly potholes. About 30-40 minutes in the potholes started and were pretty manageable, at which point I thought out loud, "oh these guys were exaggerating"... famous last words. About 20-30 km on they began to cover the road, sometimes nearly a foot deep and stretching across both lanes. Likewise, the road was badly damaged where the shoulders would normally be, meaning there wasn't much room to maneuver. Corrie and I (the two drivers) spent about 150km in 1st and 2nd gears to prevent bottoming out and ripping apart our tires. We did, in fact, get a flat tire but were lucky that full size spares are the norm here (for obvious reasons) and we changed it and were bouncing along the road again in 25 minutes.

Finally we made it to Gweta about an hour and a half late to meet our guide for our trip out to the pans. We all felt pretty bad considering there was another couple joining us on this trip and we had kept them waiting as well. However, Franz and Bea (a young afrikaaner couple from Cape Town) turned out to be very cool and understanding about the situation. After quickly packing up overnight bags we jumped into the back of an open air jeep and set off on the 40km ride through the bush to get to the pans. On our way we passed through the village of Gweta. This was a very interesting little town, with a strange mix of typical village dwellings of mud and grass huts, and newer concrete developments. It wasn't uncommon to come across a donkey cart and Nissan waiting in line at the same stop sign. And as has been common when passing through any southern African villages, we received waves and smiles from nearly ever man, women and child (especially the children) that we passed.

Once we arrived at the last camp before the pans, we switched over to smaller quad bikes which allowed us to drive directly on the pans while inflicting minimal harm to the ground. We had to double-up, so Steve and I took a bike together (after mentioning in passing in the jeep that we both liked to drive fast). Before we set off our guide handed each of us a colorful cloth turban which are commonly worn in the Kalihari to protects our heads from the wind and salt. After an amusing few minutes of learning how to tie a turban, we set off. The ride was exhilarating. Steve drove the first leg, and it took a few minutes to get oriented to the bike, but once he did he was a damn race car driver. With the wind, the speed, the vast expanses of land, and the setting sun it made for an incredibly intense moment. We both screamed... a lot. For the first few km we drove through low scrub brush, sand, and small salt deposits, passing large palm trees that lied on what used to be the shore of the lake over 10,000 years ago. We eventually came over a ridge and onto the larger pans which was an endless flat expanse of land, covered in a dried salted crust that held little vegetation beyond the occasional small island of scrub brush. Once we stopped it stretched as far as the eye could see in all directions, almost completely flat, white and barren. I imagine this will be the closest I will ever come to standing on the moon.

The ntwetwe pan is part of a much large salt deposit system, the makgadikgadi pans, which is the largest salt flat complex in the world. Due to the natural migration of rivers and water systems, as well as irrigation by humans, the water supplies to this area were cut off and the evaporating lake left behind this magnificent expanse of salt deposits. This is also the site of the largest zebra migration in the world, although, unfortunately, we did not see any while we were there (although I was a little relieved, as where zebra go the lions follow). Being in a completely foreign landscape (yet again) there was a good amount of time devoted to marveling at the cracked, salty ground and the fiery red and orange sunset. We then proceeded to wash the salt off of our clothes and skin (which we were all covered in) and set to the business of making up our beds for the night. Our guide started a fire and began cooking a meal for us. We were lucky that in his previous job he had been trained as a chef at a nearby lodge, so that night we dined on steak, grilled butternut squash, potatoes, mealie meal pan bread, and fruit soaked in cinnamon... much better camp food than I'm used to. We then drank wine and made conversation with our new South African friends, discussing African politics, American barbeque, and the other cultural differences that become so amusing while traveling.

That night we slept out under the stars, without tents, in bed rolls that were surprisingly warm and comfy considering it dipped down near freezing that night. Considering that was the first night I've ever slept completely out in the open, in addition to the fact that we were sleeping in the middle of nowhere with not even a shrub or tree to provide cover, I found it pretty exhilarating. I woke up a few times in the middle of the night and poked my little head out from under the covers to be met with a rush of cold air and a million twinkling stars. It made me smile. The next morning we started up the fire again and enjoyed coffee and muffins while watching the sun rise. Once we were warm and our bellies were full we packed up our things and jumped back on the bikes to drive back to the main camp. On our way out, we spotted hyena and lion tracks in the sand nearby... a curious feeling to be sleeping in the same "bedroom" as one of man's few natural predators.

Posted by acarrico 02:40 Comments (2)

Chobe National Park, Botswana (Part II)


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After a great day in the park we returned to our lodge to have dinner, which the lodge had prepared for us- squash soup, maize meal, spinach, stewed impala meat, and lemon mirange pie. Quite a feast, despite the fact that the impala tasted like putrid meat soaked in cheap beer (though Corrie loved it...).

The next morning we left the lodge around 6am to go back into the park with Leonard. Early morning in the winter is not a good time to see most of the more common animals (elephant, giraffe, hippo, etc.), but its also the best time to see lion. This time we didn't have much luck. We heard that a male lion was seen walking around the area, and we spent some time tracking his footprints in the sand, although we were never able to find him. Regardless, getting one last peak at the park, and learning about the park and animals from Leonard was worth waking up that early in the morning, and its not often you can spend sunrise tracking lions through africa...

We spent some time bumming around Kasane that afternoon, and taking care of the vehicle rental which we would drive to Maun the next day. Later that day we took a boat cruise through the park on the Chobe river. Our friends at the lodge had booked this cruise for us, but did so through a different, much larger lodge, directly in the center of Kasane. Arriving there left us all in a bit of a daze. We had spent the past week in some very remote parts of Zambia, Namibia, and Botswana, interacting almost exclusively with each other and black africans from very modest backgrounds and far different cultures from our own. Stepping into the Chobe Chilwero lodge we were met with hundreds of rich white tourists buzzing around the different souvenier shops, cafes, and white-linen restauarnts that surrounded the courtyard of the lodge. While the lodge was certainly nice, it was decked out head to toe in faux-african art, fake foliage, and homages to the colonial british explorers. I think seeing this poor attempt at recreating "the african experience" right in the middle of africa felt a little overwhelming and sad to all of us. But so it goes, where tourist go the tourist industry will follow and I'm sure these 'luxury-lodges' will become more plentiful as time goes on.

Regardless, the boat cruise was pleasant and relaxing, despite the fact that it was huge and overpacked with tourists. However, it did provide us with a different perspective of the park, and the animals that spend their time in the water (hippos, crocks, birds). We also caught a number of elephants "swimming" from one shore of the river to the other to graze on the greener grasses of the opposite bank. It was quite a site seeing just the tip of the forehead and top of the snout of this massive beast sticking out of the water as he made his way across. He seemed quite proud of himself when he met his buddy on the other side. When the two made their way back later in the evening, they were running, splashing and playing in the water as they headed back across. Couldn't help but smile.

That night we were invited to attend a braai (barbecue) with the lodge owners and their friends who were visiting from Zimbabwe. The food (prepared over an open fire) was excellent. We had ribs, chicken, steak, multiple salads, and crepes for dessert. We also had a chance to meet some new friends, Phil, Jana, and Clive, who live outside of Harare and run a safari operator in the parks in Zimbabwe. Obviously, given how desparate the situation has been in Zim, we were very interested to hear about their experiences. Jana mentioned that a few weeks ago she paid around 25 billion zimbabwean dollars for a carton of milk, and soon they would be trillionaires with the level of inflation. Although they said they are generally safe, despite being followed and intimidated multiple times in Harare before the election, they believe that Mugabe's administration will give way to civil war once they have taken all they can from the country and its people, and leave a power vacuume behind. Considering that this was the day America celebrates its independence, I felt pretty luck to be returning to a stable country where nearly all of my basic needs are met.

Posted by acarrico 06:37 Comments (2)

Chobe National Park, Botswana (Part I)


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After arriving in Kasane we made our way to our lodge, The Yawning Hippo. It was about 10 km outside of town, and not more than a km from the border crossing into Zambia. On our way there we passed a long line of semis parked on the highway waiting to get across the border into Zambia. Because of where Botswana is situated, Kasane is the only point where Botswana shares a border with Zambia, and the two are divided by the Zambezi river. To enter Zambia the semis must board a small ferry one or two at a time, depending on space. This, in addition to the paperwork and customs requirements, makes it very slow going. We were told by multiple people that the average semi waits 2-3 weeks to get across.

We were pleasantly surprised when we arrived at our lodge. It was much, much cheaper than almost anything you can find in the area, but also very nice. It is owned by a South African couple who have been living in Botswana for over 20 years. The lodge consists of a couple of small cottages, and about 10-12 meru tents (large canvas tents) with beds inside and an eclosed but open-air bathroom/shower. There wasn't much to it, but it was situated in a beautiful setting along a river channel, shaded by orange and lemon trees, and was also very clean. Although, staying in a tent and showering in the open air (mostly in the evening and morning) meant it was freezing cold, so we spent a lot of the time sipping tea, coffee, and hot chocolate trying to warm up.

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We had booked a game drive into Chobe National Park during our first full day there. Chobe is one of southern Africa's most diverse national parks, and has one of the highest concentrations of wildlife on the continent. It is situated on the border of the kalihari dessert, alongside the Chobe and Zambezi river fronts, which also include an area of floodplains. Away from the water it is very arid, the ground covered mostly in sand and scrub brush, near the water it was more lush with many green islands throughout the area. Winter is the dry season in southern africa, which means the animals stay close to these water ways during the heat of the day to drink, and return to the bush to graze and stay protected during the night time.

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Our guide was a Botswana native named Leonard, and it became very clear that he has a deep knowledge of and respect for the park and local wildlife. He has been guiding for over 18 years, and now is a free-lance guide and contracts with the lodges to take guests into the park. We rode in the back of an open air pickup truck that had been rigged with two levels of tiered benches and a canvas cover to block the sun. It was extrememly cold when we left in the morning (around 40 F) but warmed up quickly around 10-11 in the morning. Upon entering the park we were almost immediately greeted by impala and guinea fowl. We pointed, squeeked and snapped pictures, at which point Leonard turned around as said "oh my god, this is your first time!?" Why- becauase we saw about a thousand guinea fowl and impala over the course of the day. They quickly lost their charm...

It was driving a little more into Chobe that we saw what was probably the first true panaramic view of the African landscape that we had seen thus far. We crossed a ridgeline and spread out before us was the river, the vast planes and rolling hills, Baobab and Acacia trees speckled across the horizon as far as you could see. It could have been taken right out of the movies, and it was even more stunning that I could have imagined. We also saw some of our first wildlife, hippos coming out of the water to sun themselves, elephants grazing, giraffe nibbling on trees, kudu, antelope, crocodiles, and many many birds (see Corrie for a full report of the flora and fauna). All were well in the distance, but it became clear what a diverse ecology that Africa hosts, and everything is so large, exotic and dramatic.

As we moved in a little further we came upon a herd of elephant (about 15-20) emerging from the bush. A couple of bulls, many females with babies struggling to keep up. Leonard pointed them out to us, and then turned around to drive up a hill. At the top he parked, led us a few meters to the edge of the hill and told us to wait while he "stepped behind the bush" to relieve himself. A few minutes later the herd of elephants emerged over the next hill up on their way to the water to drink. They were still a little ways away from us, but we were all speechless. We've seen countless wild elephants since we've been here, but I still never get tired of seeing them, and seeing them in the wild is a totally unique experience compared to the ones you see staring blankly ahead at the zoo. Absolutely mesmerizing. I wish you all could have been there.

A few hours later Leonard took us down to the beach were we met another herd of about 15-20 elephants drinking from the water and grazing on the nearby trees. At this point they became a bit curious and nearly surrounded our vehicle walking within a few feet of the truck. The sounds, smells, and sites were just incredible. Also a bit nerve racking considering that elephants kill many people in africa ever year, usually due to car crashes as they cross the roads, but also due to elephants charging to protect their young. The elephants in Chobe are very used to the vehicles in the park, but a person who leave the vehicle is more vulnerable because they seem more threatening. Even still, as we approached the elephants the mothers stepped between our vehicle and their babies to protect them, which was quite endearing. Another bull elephant standing about 3 feet from the truck noticed us moving and making noise in the vehicle and began to flap his ears, snort, and made a charging motion which he abruptly halted. We all flinched, especially Steve who was closest to the elephant (and was also suffering from multiple nights worth of insomnia). We consider this Steve's second confrontation with an animal (the baboon being his first) and, based on Leonard's analysis of the situation - "Oh, I think the boy is wanting to run", we're calling it elephant =1, Steve =0.

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The remainder of the day was spent winding through the park, looking for animals, tracking their footprints in the sand, and looking for signs of where they had been and where they were going. There were hundreds, and almost all were within 20-50 feet of the truck: warthog, giraffes, hippos, kudu, springbock, sable, buffalo, crocodiles, baboons, vervet monkeys, etc. However, the highlight of the day was seeing a female lion hunting warthog. All of the big cats are very difficult to see as they are very shy, rare, and primarily nocturnal. Although, towards the end of the day we passed another truck which said they had just spotted a lioness. Leonard worked very hard, watching the behavior of the impala and looking for tracks to find out where she would go. Most of the other trucks raced ahead to the perimeter of the area where they thought she woudl re-emerge from the bush, while Leonard took is to a totally different spot and said we would wait here. About ten minutes later the lion walked out of the bush, directly in front of our truck, and down towards the water to follow her warthogs. She was beautiful, muscular and sleek. We watched her as she stalked her warthogs, slinking close to the ground. We followed her for about an hour, until she reached an open area where she would be unable to attack. From here she would wait for hours until her prey made mistake and came close to her where she could grab them. We could see that she was still producing milk for her cubs, which were likely hidden away in the bush, which explained why she was hunting during the day. A real treat!!

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Posted by acarrico 09:09 Comments (3)

Headed to Botswana


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After arriving back in Katima Mulilo, cramped in Number 1's combi, we began the task of finding a ride to Kasane, Botswana. The Caprivi strip of Namibia, where Katima is located, is at an intersection of Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe - so we did not have far to travel as the crow flies. About 2-3 hours.

We found the "hike-point" just on the edge of town and were immediately swarmed with offers from combis and taxis to take us to Kasane. The whole situation was very uncomfortable as there were about 5-10 black africans also waiting for rides, many of which were older, carrying large loads or babies on their backs. White people, especially women, attract a lot of attention here, which was very surprising to me considering the toll that white settlers have had on this region and Africa in general. And this situation in particular had nothing to do with money, as few white people travel this way in Africa, and the ones who do almost never pay any more than the blacks.

We eventually bargained with "Mr. Cool", as he calls himself, to take us to Kasane for 50 Namibian dollars (9 USD per person). Although, because he wanted to wait until his combi was full we opted for a nother driver who was ready to leave then. The ride was relatively comfortable. Crystal, Steve and I snuggled up in the back seat, and Corrie sat in the middle on the floor on a pile of blankets. It wasn't until we were about 1.5 hours in that I realized some poor sap had been stuck holding in his lap a large basket that I had purchased in Katima. I aplogized to him, but he seemed not to be bothered by it.

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It took us only a short time to cross the Ngoma Bridge border crossing to enter Botswana, and had no problems here. We arrived in Kasane around 2pm that afternoon. Botswana is a very wealthy country by African standards. In fact, it has the highest per capita GDP on the continent. The major industries here are diamonds and tourism, and the fact that tourism is important shows. The lodges here range from anywhere from $20 USD per person per night to over $1000, with the majority falling on the high end of that spectrum.

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There wasn't much to Kasane itself- mostly dirt sidewalks, run-down buildings, tin-roofed houses, and the occassional very clean/modern looking shopping center that was flooded with white tourists. However, the buzz of prop-planes, rows of safari-agencies, and trucks filled with white people dressed head to toe in green and kacki (and yes, the occasional pith-helmet) was enough to tee you off to what this town is all about. However, there was still a wildness about it that makes Africa so unique... the crowds of people wearing bright head scarves and shetanges (african cloth skirts), the fact that we had to stop the combi on the highway to allow zebra and again later elephant to cross the road, the warthog we saw running down the street while standing in front of a very modern grocery store that sells any "western" commodity you could want. These are the times when we look at each other and, for a moment, wonder where in the hell we are.

Posted by acarrico 01:05 Comments (1)

Checking in...

Hello from Windhoek!

Sorry its been such a long time. This is the first time we've had access to the internet since we arrived in Kasane. I have a lot to catch up on, but just wanted to take a moment to let everyone know that we're safe and healthy, and the trip has continued to get better and better.

Will try to catch up on our travels while we're in Windhoek (the capital of Namibia) and Swakopmund (a modern town on the atlantic coast of Namibia) over the next few days.

Its been fun for all of us to get your comments, so keep them coming!

Miss you all!

Posted by acarrico 01:01 Comments (0)

Sesheke, Namibia (Crystal's Village)


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We arrived in Sesheke after about a 2-hour Combi ride with Number 1. In typical Caprivian hospitality, he dropped us off at Crystal's door front, which involved whipping through the village and dodging mud huts and livestock. Made me a little nervous considering the village is covered in sand and we were riding in a packed minivan with a trailer attached to the back.

Sesheke is a lovely little village of about 1000 people. It actually is more of a community than a village, which is comprised of many small villages made up of extended family. There is one gravel road in the middle, and dirt paths that come off of the main road. Within the village there is about 1 foot of sand. The houses are mud huts. The homes are square with mud walls, wood supports, and bunches of long grass layered on top to create a roof. The nicer homes are surrounded with grass fences to make a courtyard. Cooking huts are usually separate, as are storage huts that are raised off the ground to protect the contents from snakes and rats. Being so different from everything I am used to, It was absolutely fascinating to me.

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We dropped our things and took a walk around the village. Because the sun was setting, we didn't have much time, but we were able to get a feel for Crystal's home and her newfound friends. At this time, the children were in a break from school, and the people were returning from the town and from their fields for supper. It gets quite cold at night, and most people were returning to their huts. We encountered many women carrying loads on their heads and babies on their back. The women here are incredibly strong and I have been endlessly impressed at how much they take on, and how little they complain (at least in my presence). Of course, the townspeople were, again, very interested in the white strangers who were roaming their village. The children were especially interested in us, but were too shy to come up to us unless Crystal introduced us. They all had big smiles on their faces and were eager to see their pictures on my digital camera when I happened to take one. We did seek out a small boy who is quite poor to give him a soccer ball that Steve brought over as a gift from Canada. He was too bashful to say much about it, but you could tell how excited he was by his smile and the twinkle in his eye. The ball he was currently playing with was tattered, flat, and missing its outer layers. It was a priceless moment.

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My impression is that many of the families live very well here in Sesheke. They do not have much, and the work of farming, raising animals, collecting water, etc. is very difficult work, but they have close-knit families and communities, the culture is very communal, the people work together and play together, they live a relatively peaceful life, and are in one of the most beautiful places in all of Africa. On the other hand, diseases such as HIV/Aids is rampant, almost 80% in some small villages, and the risk of other diseases such as malaria and cholera is also high. Alcoholism is also very bad, and many of the men will spend all their earnings on alcohol while their children and wives are going hungry. This is also a big reason for the spread of AIDS, because the men have affairs with many women and then infect their wives at home. So, in the end, experiencing this village and meeting the people left me feeling both envious and privileged. Either way, I was incredibly luck to be there, as there are very few westerners, and white people in general, who have the opportunity to see this side of African life.

After walking we returned home and made dinner, which consisted of chicken, pringles, and jelly beans... hm. And then played a few rounds of cards over candlelight. We then took some time to view the clear dessert sky. I have never seen so many stars - being in an area with no obstructions, pollution, or clouds meant perfect viewing conditions and we were able to see the southern cross, parts of the milky way, and about 10 - 15 shooting stars because of it. Simply wonderful. I slept great that night, falling to sleep to the sound of drumming, women cooking, babies crying, and the occasional cow bell jingling in the fields nearby. Very special.

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The next morning we met Number 1 on the main road before the sun rose to get a ride back to Katima. From there we will try to arrange for a ride to Kasane, Botswana where we will visit the national parks and attempt to see some of the African wildlife!

More to come!

Posted by acarrico 02:47 Comments (3)

The Caprivi Strip, Namibia


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Ku Cwani! Hello from Sesheke, Namibia!

I absolutely love Namibia. Its going to be hard to get me to come home ;)

We arrived in Katima Mulilo, which is the closest town to the Zambian border post, and about 2 hours from Crystal's village. Its sort of the economic center of this part of the Caprivi area, where many Caprivian villagers come to shop, sell goods, check internet, use the bank, etc. Its a very modern looking town, with very "western- looking" grocery stores, clothes shops, banks, etc. We shopped for groceries and then headed to the market to buy souvenirs at a community-run craft shop and take in lunch.
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There are many food stands surrounding the markets where you can sit in outdoor tables under a covered area and be served a very good and very cheap meal. We had buhobe (maize-meal), tapi (tiger fish) and muloho (boiled spinach). The buhobe is a very thick and dense mashed corn meal that looks like mashed potatoes (but thicker). You eat by mashing the buhobe in a ball with your hands and then using it to scoop up the fish and vegetables. Although it is very different by my standards, it was absolutely excellent. Definitely the best thing we've eaten so far. It cost around $17 Namibian dollars total, or around 25 cents per person... hard to beat!
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After taking care of business in Katima we headed to the "hike-point" to catch our ride to Sesheke which is the small village where Crystal lives. She had arranged for us in advance a ride with a combi driver to Sesheke, who calls himself "Number 1". We waited for him for about 1-2 hours, during which I managed to sit on an ant farm, expose my backpack to an ant infestation, and amuse the locals as I was scrambling to remove them from my clothes and skin... At least I was able to entertain everyone. Crystal has many friends in Katima as well as Sesheke, so we were constantly being greeted. The people are extremely friendly, and interested in us as there are not many white people who travel in these parts, particularly who use the local combis. When greeting a Caprivian, it is customary to use the Silozi word for good day or good afternoon, clap your hands once or twice, bow slightly and shake hands. To shake hands you first shake normally (i.e. how you or I would), then grasp the thumb, then return to normal. Greetings are very important, and the locals are very surprised and excited when you greet them as they are not used to white people knowing how or making the effort.
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Our ride was very amusing. Number 1 is very friendly and joked with us constantly. He and Crystal have become good friends since we has lived here. He is married with 3 children, and he hopes to have 10 so that maybe one or two will be "clever" and bring him much wealth. The combi is about the size of a mini-van. Corrie and I squished in the middle seat with two other, and Steve and Crystal sat up front. About 4 others + children squeezed in the back. The men in the back were very interested in us, and upon finding out we were American wanted to hear all about Barack Obama. Obama is enormously popular here and we haven't met a single person who doesn't know who he is, and who does not go on to tell you how inspiring he is. They all tell us the same thing- that he will bring resolution to the black and white people, that he will bring peace to America, and that he will show the world that a black man can lead a white country just as the white man can. This is been incredibly powerful, and I am even more terrified than ever what it will mean if Obama loses in the fall. Many people here seem to think that maybe he has already won since he beat Clinton, and it is clear they will be devastated if he does end up losing.

We also discuss affirmative action, which is being introduced to Namibia. Again, the people are very polite, friendly, and intelligent. Despite having little access to schooling and information by our standards, they can discuss at length world politics, international policy, sports, American politics, and any other issues. Some clear cultural differences also came up. The man I talked to believed that affirmative action was a very good thing, because the Namibian government needs women, he said women bring peace and contribute important qualities to the government. However, he was concerned that they would soon expect for the men to cook, and that would not be possible.

Posted by acarrico 02:16 Comments (0)

The Road to Namibia


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Halo from Namibia!

Access to internet has been rare, so I'm just now getting a chance to catch up on my experiences so far.

After viewing Victoria Falls we headed back to our hostel, The Fawlty Towers, to rest and prepare for our journey to Namibia the next morning. Because we had a long way to travel, we needed to begin early the next morning. There are multiple options for budget travel here. The most common and practical way is to arrange for rides with taxis, who will sometimes drive long distances between cities and across borders, or in a combi (small van or mini-bus). We had arranged for a taxi driver to take us to the border crossing to Namibia, but this morning he did not show up. However, we were able to find another taxi while waiting to agreed to drive us the 3-4 hours to Katima.

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On our way out of town, our driver stopped to buy petrol from some guys hanging by the side of the road who filled up the car with a funnel and a milk jug of fuel. The fuel here is more expensive than what can be bought in Namibia, so there is a strong black market for goods such as this. Just a little glimpse of how goods are bought and sold in Zambia, where illegal trading is the norm for many local residents. A bit further down the road we were stopped at a check point, which are pretty routine when entering and leaving larger towns and cities in Africa (I think because of illegal immigration or smuggling?). In Zamibia, the police are known for being some of the most corrupt in southern africa, and it is commonplace to bribe officers at the checkpoints and border posts so that they allow you to pass. In this particular case, the officer said that we could not pass because our driver's vehicle was the wrong color to transport passengers. It took about an hour for our driver to negotiate a bribe that the officer would accept but would allow our driver to still make a profit from the trip. Finally we made it through and were on our way.

One of the most interesting parts of the trip this far has been talking with the drivers and local people that we have met. In most cases, the drivers have been shy at first, but quick to open up when we attempt to start conversation. This particular driver, a young male named Likhali, was born and raised in Zambia. He told us he was engaged to be married this September, and he and his fiance had just taken in his brothers 3 small children to raise because their mother had died and the father was unable to care for them. He was clearly very intelligent and fiercely proud of being Zambian. He talked to us at length about his dream to begin a small tourist business where he can show tourists the "real Zambia" - the women, elderly, villages, farmers, poverty, HIV/Aids, culture, etc. - rather than shuttling them around from national park to national park. For a moment I felt very privileged to be seeing Africa on a budget, where I have a chance to interact, at least a small bit, with the people, and to travel like they do (at least in to a small extent).

We arrived at the border to Namibia around 2pm that afternoon. Crossing the border was not at all difficult, although we definitely stood out as we were the only white people amongst crowds of black Africans carrying babies on their backs loads of luggage, and many women carrying bags and produce on their heads. As we drove into town the children running along the roads were shouting "makuwa! makuwa!" which means, "white people! white people!".

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After receiving our exit stamps from Zamibia we walked the short ways to the Namibian post and stood in line to enter Namibia...

Posted by acarrico 01:33 Comments (0)

Livingstone, Zambia

70 °F
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Mbuti! Hello from Zambia.

Unfortunately I'll have to make this short, as there about 10 people waiting for this computer. We made it safely to Johannesburg after about a 45 minute delay coming out of Paris. Not bad for a 10 hour flight. We stayed that night in Benoni, a small town about 20 km outside of Jo-Burg, so we really didn't even see the city. The next morning we caught a quick flight to Livingstone, Zambia to meet Crystal and begin our trip.

I'll fill in the details of Livingstone later...

Today we visited Victoria Falls. It was simply spectacular. Impossible to put into words. We first hiked around to catch some panoramic views of the falls, then down to the bottom of the canyon to a point called the "Boiling Pot" at the bottom of the falls. Here we were basically within yelling distance from the Zimbabwe border, and looked up huge canyons to see the top of the falls which was entirely covered with mist. The force of the water coming off the falls created a powerful whirlpool that looked, well, daunting.

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After hiking back up and taking in an improvised lunch of bread, cheese and apples, we headed to the top of the falls. There is a trail that takes you along the opposite ridge line of the easter cataract. It is absolutely impossible to put into words how beautiful... its by far the grandest piece of nature I've ever witnessed. Imagine 5-6 niagara's stacked side by side and then the same on the opposite side. Then double the amount of water flowing over... that might, perhaps, come close. Just walking near it left us completely drenched head to toe. Stupendous!

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Afterwards we headed to the other side, behind the falls. Baboons are indigenous to this area, and they live in the upper part of the falls area. Curious creatures. They're very familiar with humans, and are not at all afraid to investigate and loot what looks interesting. One came up to us and took a plastic bag that had Steve's camera in it. He took it away, untied the bag, and looked inside and began weeding through. The most bizarre thing I've ever seen. Crystal and Corre started frantically searching for stones to through at it, and in a moment of desperation Steve decided it best to impersonate an alpha male baboon. It worked, he ran off and left the camera. Steve was quite pleased with himself, and we're all so proud. A moment not to be forgotten, I would pay $10 -or 300,000 Zambian Kwatcha- to have that on film...
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Have to go for now, more to come later.

Posted by acarrico 08:22 Comments (7)

Half-way there

overcast
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Bonjour!

Just arrived in Paris on a 2-hour layover before continuing on to Johannesburg. So far so good. We were a bit delayed in getting into JFK to catch our flight to Paris, which caused us a lot of anxiety. We ended up running with bags and all through the very busy JFK ariport, having to exit the domestic terminal, run across the parking garage, go back through security in the international terminal, and proceed on to our gate. Luckily we made it about 30 minutes before our flight was supposed to take off (which is cutting it pretty close for an international flight). In the end the flight was delayed, meaning we were right on time for the boarding call. Good karma so far!

Flight to Paris was fine. I was able to get some good sleep and enjoy relatively good food for an airplane. Although I will say, the idea of stepping off a 7-hour trans-atlantic and right back on a 10-hour flight to South Africa seems daunting at this moment. But I trust it will be worth it by the time we're stepping on African soil.

Signing off for now to go track down the lovely smell of fresh bread that is floating through the terminal. Ah Paris! Wish I could stay with you a bit longer...

Posted by acarrico 07:19 Comments (3)

Welcome to Africa

I've tried many times, and failed just as often, to keep a journal while traveling. So I thought maybe a travel blog would be a better way to document my experiences, while also giving my family and friends another reason to procrastinate at work, and, most importantly, let my mother know that I'm still alive. So - to my nearest and dearest - I hope you enjoy this little experiment as I make my way through Africa. Enjoy!

Posted by acarrico 14:34 Comments (4)

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