8 1/2 months through Africa and South America
Paddling a Makoro boat, and finally some time to do nothing!
15.01.2012 - 17.01.2012 30 °C
Botswana also lays claim to the Okavango Delta – the world’s largest inland swamp and certainly a place worthy of a few days of exploration. The delta is created by flood waters that occur during the wet season, creating huge waterways and thousands of islands. Amazingly, the islands in the delta all originally started off as termite mounds! The islands then grow due to other animals preying on the termite mounds (ant eaters etc) and then passing tree seeds and other bits and pieces when they go #2’s! The best way into the delta is by way of Mokoro, a traditional canoe which is polled or punted by a local guide. And while the experience is unique and close to 100% relaxing, it does come with a few drawbacks - namely needing to constantly shield your eyes from the numerous reeds the mokoro punches its way through, having to detour because of hippos or simply the possibility of capsizing (these boats are NARROW). But I’m getting ahead of myself – let’s start at the beginning.
Going into the Delta was an optional excursion; the chance to spend 2 nights on one of the many islands doing the ultimate type of bush camping. As much as I love our truck (home away from home that it is) leaving it for a few days is always a welcome occasion. On this particular excursion however, we had to take half of its contents with us anyway; tents, water, food, all cooking equipment, chairs etc. There are literally no permanent camps in the Delta and our budget style of trip meant we would do all our own cooking as well. No problem there – plenty of experience in that department recently. Of course we would not be on our own. Each Mokoro holds two passengers and their luggage, while the poler skilfully and effortlessly stands at the back with said pole. For the 9 of us doing the Delta, 5 polers are required just for us, + a few extra Mokoros for food, water, tents etc etc. Throw in a few local guides and camp helpers and we had 8 locals accompanying the 9 of us. Quite the convoy. Our poler was called ‘Eric’ – a man of few words but thankfully extremely good with the pole!
Back to polling in. While it was fun and relaxing – getting hit in the face with a reed was cool/manageable for about the first hour. After a further hour everyone was looking forward to getting on dry land. I was sitting behind Mike and I swear he was deliberately flinging back those reeds as they seemed to be hitting my face with uncanny accuracy and frequency but he claimed innocence. The scenery though was gorgeous and well worth a slippery slimy reed to the face. Blue sky, a maze of reed alleyways, white or purple water-lilles everywhere, the occasional low shrub in the distance, birds chirping, sun shining and 2 days of doing absolute nothing to look forward to. Did I mention that life is good?
Just in case the upload does something funny: there should be a home movie of the reeds here??
There was a bit of furious back-peddling going on at one stage on the way in. Our guides were as surprised as we were to find hippo’s blocking the path. Apparently you have to be very lucky to see hippo in the Delta so we must be extremely lucky to have seen them twice. Such luck wasn’t going to extend to seeing a leopard though however much we were mentally channelling/willing it to happen. There are still a few people in our group who are yet to see a leopard; their desire to tick off the BIG 5 becoming quite desperate.
Once we got to ‘camp’ there was the usual setting up process which we have all perfected. Tent up, sleeping matt inflated, tent swept, fire started, water boiled etc etc. But it was only mid-morning by the time all the domestic chores were done; our first ‘activity’ being a bush walk not scheduled until 5pm. Which meant we had the best part of ALL DAY to do nothing! Now I know I keep going on about this but when you have done pretty much back to back tours for weeks, actually months, time that hasn’t already been organised and pre-allocated is very precious. But in the delta there is blessedly very little to do: it’s too hot even for the locals to do anything between the hours of 10 and 4, too dangerous to go walking about on you own anyway (lions, leopards, hippos, elephants etc), no electricity, nothing but nature and whatever we brought in with us. So we played cards (for hours). Mum – I learnt a new version of our game Bennies which I think you will like. There was also a bit of reading, sitting around chatting, writing journals, swimming in a nearby shallow watering hole and sleeping going on as well.
We went on two guided walks; one on the island our camp was situated on, and another more distant one. We have definitely been privileged over the past couple of months with our wildlife spotting at various National Parks so I think no-one was particularly disappointed when the most exciting animals to be seen were an elephant, a tortoise, a warthog, some hippo’s and a few zebras. I certainly was happy just to be out and about, walking in the Delta and getting some exercise. By unspoken mutual agreement the Delta excursion became a short detox programme. Two days without alcohol wouldn’t kill us. Would it? Our group was divided into two smaller ones for these walks; the better to approach silently and without disruption to the animals. We learnt a few useful things along the way such as: which plants to use for contraception, which plants can be used to make beer and how to tell which way is west by looking at a termite mound. (FYI - the work conducted by termites overnight is still damp in the morning, so the east facing side (facing the sunrise) dries quicker than the west which creates a lean to the west).
I jumped at the chance to sit in the front of the Makoro on the way back, and can therefore convincingly acknowledge Mike’s innocence in the reeds flinging backwards case. There are just as many reeds to contend with in the front as in the back as the boat negotiates the narrow alleyways and passageways, sometimes even forging new lanes as well. The feeling of utter relaxation didn’t last for long back at camp as everything we took into the Delta then had to be scrubbed clean and returned to its rightful place on the truck.
We had just enough time for said cleaning mission, and a quick shower (the first in 3 days) before heading off for the next thing. Free time was definitely over! Lol. We knew we had only seen a small section of the delta by boat, but everyone was wondering and trying to visualise just how big it really is. The chance to go on a scenic flight seemed like the right solution, and as the price was extremely reasonable we decided to splurge and go for it. I nabbed the shotgun position in a very small 5 seater planer and for 45 minutes had a front row seat as the pilot pointed out huge herds of elephants, hippos and even a crocodile basking in the sun. We were shown a map of our intended flight path before take-off and even by air we only say a small fraction of the Delta. It is without doubt MASSIVE.
So Okovanga Detla: big tick. Verdict: awesome.
10.12.2011 - 01.02.2012 37 °C
Most of you will already know that our mode of transport for the majority of the African leg of our trip has been an overland tour (with a company called Oasis Overland). With only days to go before we say goodbye to both truck and group we thought it was high time to explain and describe what the truck is, and who we have been on it with.
Firstly I should explain who, or actually what, Stiffler is. Stiffler is the big yellow overland truck that transports us everywhere. For those of you who don’t know where the name Stiffler comes from (not looking at anyone in particular Mum and Dad), he is actually a character with questionable morals and sexual habits from the “American Pie” movie series. Derek our tour leader decided on the name and it seems reasonably fitting, although perhaps we should have known better than to let Derek name the truck when we are talking about a man who likes to blast Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” on the trucks stereo when we arrive into a new camp site! Anyway back to the truck - Stiffler is custom built for super long excursions, and has multiple sections/compartments. The main section has side facing seating, rather than traditional front facing seats, and as a result is far more sociable – although the amount of social interaction does suffer sometimes due to significant levels of head nodding, especially if a long drive follows a heavy night. And although most of us are facing sideways, there have been no major cases of car/motion sickness which is pretty incredible, especially considering the state of some of the roads we have been driving on. There is a second compartment, towards the front of the truck in the main cabin which is raised slightly higher than the main section. This compartment has more seating of course, but also has “The Beach”. The beach is a small raised area with a mattress on it, and the roof of the truck can be removed so that the mattress is in direct sunlight…hence the nickname, although in fairness the beach doesn’t actually have any water – well only when it starts raining and we have to stop the truck so that the roof can be put back on again. Underneath the seats, we keep the luggage and the majority of the food supplies tol be consumed over the course of the tour. On the outside of the truck, there are compartments for all the tents, dinner stools, gas hobs and the numerous other pieces of cooking equipment.
So as you picture us hurtling around the African countryside in 5* like levels of comfort you should know one thing…one verrrrrry important thing. The Stiffler is NOT air conditioned – yes that’s right we are traveling through the African hot season in a non-air conditioned vehicle. When the truck is moving the breeze flows through the truck and is usually sufficient enough to keep us from passing out, although sometimes the breeze is so hot that it doesn’t actually cool us down at all! Often when we arrive at our destination we have to surgically remove ourselves from the seats due to sweaty bum/back syndrome!
So in terms of numbers, there are now only 10 of us on the tour as we sadly said goodbye to 4 of our beloved group in Victoria Falls, although there was one new joiner as well. Vic Falls was the last drop off/joining point so we will now stay as the same 10 until we reach the end of the trip in Cape Town. Quite a few of the group actually started the tour three weeks earlier than Keely and I by doing a 3 week Gorilla loop through Uganda and Rwanda, meaning their Africa tour of duty is 74 days in total! At one point though there were 17 of us, like at New Year’s.
There is a good mix of nationalities on the truck, with Aussie, England, Scotland, Canada and the US all being represented. In terms of gender there is a fairly even split between lads and ladies, and with regards to age, the youngest is 25 and the oldest 40.
So in addition to us punters, there are Derek and Charles, the tour leader and truck driver respectively. Sadly Nathan, our original driver had to leave the tour in Vic Falls due to a debilitating back problem that rendered him completely unable to drive the truck. So Oasis managed to find Charles, a Zimbabwean who normally drives for another overland provider. Charles is a good sort, especially as he wears a kiwi league jersey (world cup winning too should I add???) from time to time. Derek, our tour leader is from Dublin, and his accent has been the source of much amusement for most of us. Whenever Derek says the number 3, which is of course pronounced as “tree” in Irish, the entire group shouts out “tree” in silly pixie/leprechaun type voices. It’s hilarious!
Bud sadly we must say goodbye to the Stiffler at the Namibian border as due to recently introduced legislation in South Africa, we aren’t allowed to overland through the country in a vehicle registered outside of SA. So in a couple of days we change into a more traditional bus, meaning we will no longer be cooking for ourselves and more importantly, will no longer be tenting as it’s hostels/hotels for the last week of the trip.
Chobe and Tsedilo National Parks: Elephants and Bush Camping
11.01.2012 - 14.01.2012 30 °C
Botswana was never on the list of places we wanted to visit; I knew very little about the country and even less about what to see there. I did the least amount of research for this part of our trip (Mike did none) so we both crossed the border with practically zero knowledge and no expectations. But FYI – Botswana is awesome!
Our first activity was a river-boat wildlife cruise within the Chobe National Park, made all the more enjoyable for it being free of charge. Well already paid for by our (compulsory) local payment at the start of the trip. After a bush camp and a couple of long drive days to get to Botswana we were all a bit knackered and wanted to do nothing more taxing than a dip in the pool followed by a bit of time to do nothing (a rarity on this trip). But the river cruise was one the few ‘included’ activities so on principle alone felt obliged to jump aboard. As it turned out I was extremely happy with that decision; it was awesome. At first we thought cool! – Some chill out time on the boat perhaps, a few drinks and/or snacks, watch the world go by. If we spot some wildlife then happy days; an added bonus really. Most of the other people on the boat were taking the wildlife spotting quite seriously with our guides pointing out numerous animals and plants along the way, but most of us were just enjoying the late afternoon sunshine and spectacular scenery. Think grassy swamp-like islands, shallow wide waterways and water-lilies dotted at the edges. Why wouldn’t you want to spend the afternoon soaking up the landscape? It was nice to be enjoying a National Park in a different way to the usual game drive/back of a jeep/bumpy roads. Chobe is famed for its elephant population and we didn’t have to venture far before we saw them for ourselves. Even though we had seen plenty of elephants thus far on the trip all cameras were clicking away furiously when one decided to swim across one of the waterways right in front of our boat – totally amazing. We also saw tons of hippo’s, both in the water and on the banks doing what they do best – munching grass. One took a particular dislike to the boat; perhaps we got too close, but I did learn that when hippos charge it’s similar to a diving dolphin albeit definitely not as graceful. And they can move fast when they want to. I also learnt that crocodiles hang out with their mouths open as a way to cool down. Fascinating stuff.
After Chobe we headed into more forested areas in Botswana for another bush camp, this one inside Tsedilo National Park. Bush camps just seem to be getting better and better, I’m guessing because as we move south there are fewer and fewer mosquito’s/flies/biting insects etc. and more manageable humidity. A few nights recently have even been a bit chilly; relatively speaking though. Plus we make pretty good hot chocolates with marshmallows and the African equivalent of Baileys in the evenings. Camping in Tsedilo was made special by the walking we were able to do in the hills to see cave paintings and an expedition that me and two others did the following morning to watch the sunrise. By the time the three of us got back to camp someone had already put the kettle on, and Mike had taken down our tent so happy days.
The cave paintings at Tsedilo are definitely impressive; 4500 images over 400 sites. In the one afternoon we could spend there we saw a mere fraction of these but enough to get the general idea. Images of wild animals are most common but also human figures and geometric designs. The Ncaekhoe people painted in red and the Bantu people in white – both used their fingers as brushes and mixed their ‘paint’ with charcoal, fat, blood, urine and egg-white. Today the entire region is hugely important to the local people; some fetch water from the ancestral well for religious rituals while local hunters use specific spots to perform hunting rituals. Whatever the purpose, as the sign at the gate says: it is a place of peace, refuge and spiritual fulfilment. The squirrels are pretty cute too.
Spectacular Victoria Falls and white water rafting the Zambezi Rive
07.01.2012 - 10.01.2012 30 °C
(Keely typing ….)
Everyone had been looking forward to our stop in Victoria Falls; the prospect of 3 stationary days, and some much sought after free time. No driving, lots of drinking and a multitude of extreme activities for the adrenaline junkie in us all. Enthusiasm evaporated instantly on arrival by the announcement of a compulsory “truck clean” by our tour leader. We all thought he was joking. He wasn’t. So for the next two hours, under the baking hot African sun we washed (in hot water) every damn knife, pot, pan, mug, plate etc plus mopped floors, dusted cushions, wiped out lockers, scrubbed chilli bins and sorted food cupboards. The truck did look mighty clean afterwards. After the domestic chores were done we were given a presentation on all the activities available in the Vic falls area, complete with DVD footage, brochures and of course a price list. For the next hour or so Mike and I with the rest of our group, discussed, budgeted and planned our upcoming days, making sure everyone got to do what they wanted, with whom, and on which day. For us this would be white water rafting down the Zambezi on day 1, watching Hussein (crazy Bangladeshi Scotsman) bungy jump on day 2 followed by Victoria Falls and a gorge swing for Mike on day 3. When we crossed the border into Zimbabwe we obtained a single entry visa, having already decided to visit the falls from just the Zimbabwean side and not also the Zambian side. Those going over to Zambia did so on day 2 so Mike and I found ourselves by the pool with a drink in hand and not much else going on.
I jumped at the chance to go white water rafting. There had been some rumours flying around from other trucks and travellers on the road that the river was closed due to dangerously high water levels. To be told we could go rafting after all pretty much sealed the deal. Hearing the river was closed made us all want to go even more; something about wanting what you can’t have?? Only the lower half of the Zambezi was open; rapids 11-23 which provide some 3+ to 4+ grade areas – sufficiently dangerous for a novice rafter like me. 5 minutes before our pick up was due to leave, 2 of our fellow rafters were still in bed; having been up partying till the small hours – which probably wasn’t going to work out well for the rest of us as we had opted to do the self-paddle ‘team work required’ variety of rafting. The walk down to the gorge was both strenuous and pretty dangerous, made all the more difficult by our inappropriate footwear and loaded with lifejacket, helmet and paddle. Our guide ‘Meme’ put us through the drills: forward paddle, backward paddle, get down, jump out and hard paddle etc. We did these a few times for safety and then for the video man to capture us in all our choreographed and smiling glory. Mike was at the front on the right hand side, I was at the back on the left hand side. The first rapid was easy enough: slightly scary, good fun, everyone in sync (kind of) and a wave or two for the photographer running down the bank. Second rapid all hell broke loose. Meme asked us if we wanted the easy or hard way down: the boys shout ‘hard’ in unison. I wasn’t too sure but why not? What could go wrong! I’m not entirely sure what happened but when Meme yelled “get down, get down” I got down as fast as possible, both hands around the rope, paddle in one hand, head down. Luckily I managed to take one decent breath before my side of the raft lifted up and came crashing back down again upside down. Amazingly I also managed to stay holding onto the rope and my paddle. Next thing I know Meme is yelling “calm down calm down” which I think I needed to hear, gasping for breath and trying to keep my shorts from falling down as I was. A quick flip of the boat and we were all hauled back in. Now I know you’re not meant to capsize but it was awesome fun. Exciting, refreshing and hilarious. A couple of the paddles were MIA so I ended up without one being in the back as we approached the next set of rapids. The time taken to get everyone back on board must have had some serious consequences for how we were positioned going into those rapids as that wasn’t quite so fun. Again the boat capsized as soon as we hit the rapid, my side of the boat getting thrown into the air. This time though there were arms and legs everywhere, fingers slipping through the rope, paddles everywhere. Going through the next rapid while stuck under the boat wasn’t too fun, nor was gasping for breath for what seemed like minutes as we were hauled through the rapids. I could hear Meme yelling “hold on, hold on hold on” for all he was worth way before I could see him above the waves, spray and foam. The rest of the morning was pretty uneventful – some of the best moments actually spent swimming alongside the boat in the calmer stretches of river in-between rapids. As it turned out, ours was the only boat that capsized. If we had thought about it (? at all) we probably wouldn’t have had all the heavy people on the same side of the boat in the first place. Bit silly really, but such good fun and can’t wait to do it again. The walk out of the gorge was just as bad as the walk in – straight up carrying paddle, jacket and helmet. I felt a bit sorry for the two lads who were sporting killer hangovers – it had been a tough day for them what with all the paddling, swimming and then hiking but self-inflicted so we were laughing at them also.
Mike needs to be the one to describe his gorge swing, as I choose to watch the whole thing from the safety and comfort of a viewing platform. I managed to capture Mike’s jump on video and his triumphant holler at the end is pretty awesome. I wasn’t in the least bit tempted to fling myself off a cliff or a bridge or any other number of high places.
I think the photos of Victoria Falls say it all. It’s the kind of place that makes me wish I paid more attention in English when creative writing was being taught, the better to describe the scene. We were soaked to the bone within minutes but just check out that rainbow – simply stunning. We walked along a serene boardwalk, the sound of water crashing below getting louder all the time. By the time you get to the end of the path, all fences and barriers are gone. Slippery wet and slimy rocks are all that are between you and the sheer cliff face. We were again wearing inappropriate footwear so extreme care was taken to get the photos we got. The spray coming up from the falls was immense and we were obviously really concerned about ruining the camera but it seems to have held up well. No lasting damage anyway. Gilly (hopefully you will recall his lion photos from a previous blog?) took a panoramic photo of Mike and me so we will post that up just as soon as we receive it from him. The day was a bit overcast so the rainbows came and went with the sun; we were even rewarded with a few double rainbows. It was hard to prise ourselves away from the sight and head back to camp – the falls are just so pretty and I am now very much looking forward to checking out Iguacu in a few months’ time.
As awesome as our 3 days in Vic Falls was, at the end we were forced to say good-bye to 4 of our fellow truck buddies. We had picked up a few people along the way since Nairobi and now only 10 will go the distance to Cape Town.
That closes the chapter on Zimbabwe. After Vic Falls we crossed over into Botswana; first stop Chobe National Park, second stop Okovanga Delta.
P.S. In case you’re wondering the video of us capsizing is pretty funny, but we couldn’t tell who was who on it.
(Mike typing ....) Gorge Swing
So as Keely mentioned, I decided that I, along with most of the group, would try my hand at free-falling off the side of the Zambezi gorge. The gorge swing is similar to a base jump, but instead of using a parachute you are strapped into a harness that swings you out over the river once you’ve completed the freefall section of the jump. It isn’t quite as intense as a bungy as you only freefall once instead of bouncing, and you don’t jump head first either, but nevertheless it’s still a fairly nerve wracking thing to do. Due to the scheduling of water rafting and various other activities, it transpired that the gorge swing was to be held on our last day in Vic Falls – this didn’t turn out to be such a good thing as it meant we had lots of time to dwell on it before hand! What made it even worse was that a couple of other people from the group ended up doing the jump on the first day and subsequently described, on multiple occasions, how terrifying it was! So after a fair bit of anxiety and with most of the group saying “Why the F*&K did we sign up for this?!” the big day finally arrived and we were transported from the campsite to the Zambezi. Two of the group had a zip line and flying fox to do before the gorge swing, so they completed those whilst the rest of us got more and more tense! Eventually it was time for the big jump – I was fourth in line so had to watch three other people go through the motions first – the whole time thinking to myself “Its only 3-4 seconds of freefall, how bad can it be”? All those that went before me managed to get up on the platform and go straight off without requiring coaxing from the staff so I was determined to do the same. So after being harnessed up, I was summoned to the platform, and I don’t mind admitting that I was quite nervous at this particular moment in time. The guide connected my harness to the swing line and told me that he would count down from 5 and that I was to jump out from the platform once he’d finished his count down. With my heart in my mouth, and feeling the substantial tug of the harness and swing line, I inched out to the edge of the platform, having just enough time to look down at the river 110m below! 110 metres doesn’t seem that far until your standing on the edge of a cliff staring straight down! After a couple of queasy seconds, and another safety check (some of you may have seen that the Vic Falls bungy snapped during a girls jump which was only a few days before we turned up), the guide started the ominous countdown. At this point you are completely strapped in so you really have no choice but to jump anyway which is actually a good thing. So anyway the count of 1 rolled around and without any hesitation I was off! I didn’t jump out quite as far as I probably should have, but I put that down to being fairly preoccupied with the drop below. The sensation of the drop itself was incredible – everyone before me had commented on this as well, but the feeling of the wind against your face was amazing. The freefall only lasted about 3 – 4 seconds (77m), but by the time you reach the bottom of the freefall you are travelling at approx 120kph. It all happens so quickly, and before you know it the swing has kicked in and you’re flying horizontally across the river. Upon reaching the end of the swing, and enjoying an epic buzz, I let out my victory scream of Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahooooooooooooo! Once the swing had finished, they winched me back up the cliff face to be greeted with high fives, slaps on the back, and big smiles all round. So having whet my appetite for extreme adrenaline activities, the next chapter will be skydiving in Namibia – BRING IT ON!!!