|Back to Chapter 26 - Egypt||
South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia
|On to Chapter 28 - Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Brazil, & Argentina|
The cost of our half hour transfers from the airport to the Backpacker's Ritz in Johannesburg was more than the cost of our accommodation. That will give some idea of the standard of accommodation. This was not a good start to our tour of South Africa, Botswana, and Zambia. It probably would have been fine if we were thirty years younger, but being in our middle fifties we had difficulty with our luggage on the numerous stairs. The main building had dormitory style rooms and a couple of twin share rooms. Down more stairs were several other twin share rooms. Eileen and I had one of these. Our small room had two reasonably comfy single beds, one small bedside table, a rickety little wardrobe, a few nice local paintings, two chairs to put our suitcases on as there wasn't enough floor space, and a light to which you had to hold a candle to see if it was on or off.
A shared bathroom was outside about 10m away. I had to stand on the seat to close the toilet door. The washbasin had a soap dispenser, but no way of drying hands. There were a couple of towels on the floor, presumably as mats. We did have a washbasin in our room, and Eileen could reach it from her bed by simply rolling to one side.
In the shower, the rose was nearly a metre directly above my head. There was one peg to hang your dirty clothes, clean clothes, and a towel on. There was only the floor on which to put soap, shampoo, and conditioner.
This was a big change from the hotels we had stayed in during the previous two weeks in Egypt.
However it was all clean, the staff were friendly, and the Spag Bol for dinner was plentiful and tasty. The bar cave was adequately stocked but we couldn't stay as the lack of ventilation meant that despite there being no one there smoking at the time, it reeked of stale cigarettes which started to set off Eileen's asthma.
They did allow me to put a cylinder containing the papyrus poster we had bought in Egypt in their locked storeroom in a locked cage until our return in two weeks. We did return for the poster, but we didn't stay at the Backpacker's. By then we had made arrangements to spend the last night of our month long holiday in a place that turned out to be one of the best motels we had ever stayed at.
The most noticeable thing we saw on the drive to the Backpacker's (never to include "Ritz" again) was the high walled fences around everything, with razor wire, barbed wire, or spikes on the top. From the Backpacker's I went for a walk down to the corner shopping centre. There was a sign at the entrance which said, "Important Notice. All persons entering on or using these premises for any purpose whatsoever, do so at their own risk, and will have no claim against the owners of the property, including its directors, officers, employees, or servants, for any damage to, or loss of property, or death, or injury of persons suffered on these premises from any cause whatsoever." During the trip we saw variations of this sign in many places.
Apparently the crime rate is reducing, and the police were pleased that the murder rate had dropped to only 17,000 last year. The most dangerous job in South Africa is to be part of the team driving money delivery trucks. Groups of usually former, but sometimes current, Zimbabwe or Mozambique military will ram the armoured truck with another bigger truck, blast the stricken vehicle open, kill the guards, and steal the contents. Similar tactics are used to hijack other trucks for their cargo but usually not so violently. I had a couple of wooden door chocks which I carry, and because the bottom of our room's door was nearly 30cm from the floor, I placed them one on top of the other and wedged the door closed for the night.
Next morning we were up for our 5am start. Our tour guide/driver from Acacia Small Group Tours was Wessel. At that time of the morning he was enthusiastically giving us information, getting us to fill in forms, and collecting the local payment. 'Us' included another couple from Sydney. We were to pick up another four people at various stages of the two weeks.
We had paid about half of our tour costs before leaving home, but the second instalment was to be paid in US$ cash to the guide for on-tour expenses. I didn't think to ask why, but it posed no problem as were aware of this before we left Australia.
Before we left Joburg our 14 seater vehicle broke down, so we had breakfast in McDonalds while another one was delivered to replace it. This was a rental and didn't have a towbar, which meant our camping trailer, which as well as carrying camping equipment also carried our larger luggage, had to be left behind for the moment. With only four passengers, putting the larger luggage in the back of the van was no problem, and we wouldn't need the camping equipment for another week anyway.
The air-con in Van Mk1 hadn't worked. The air-con in Van Mk2 did. This was not significant then as the weather in Joburg at that time of the morning was very pleasant. It would become more significant later.
|Us in front of The Three Rondavels|
|Blyde River Canyon|
Depending on your definition of "canyon", the Blyde River Canyon in the Drakensberg Mountains in the province of Mpumalanga is the third largest in the world after Grand Canyon in USA and Fish River Canyon in Namibia. It is the oldest however, and supports by far the lushest vegetation. The most famous features are the three huge rock spirals called The Three Rondavels that resemble the traditional African native huts. It was from God's Window in the canyon that the Kalahari bushman in "The Gods Must Be Crazy" threw the coke bottle over the edge of the world.
During that day's drive we saw zebra, cows, goats, sheep, giraffe (real ones) and giraffe, elephants, and lions (fake ones), impala, baboons, a lizard, and a snake. The road was usually fenced. Sometimes the fence was in really good condition. This meant there was a private game park on the other side. If the fence was about 3 metres high or more, with several strands of electric wire and insulators, it meant inside was big game. On the other side of these parks was open land as all the fences are being taken down to allow animals to have unlimited migration. This is only being done gradually as countries like Mozambique still are not on top of poaching. Everyone wants rhino at the moment. Only the horn is taken away and the carcass is left to the vultures, hyenas, and the rest of nature. There were about 200 taken in 2009. By October 2010, 300 had already been taken. One method being considered to stop the trade is to inject poison into the horn of every rhino and publicise it. Apparently this was successful once before when this was tried as someone died after ingesting product made from the horn. At least this year they have managed to put several of the ringleaders out of business. A private game park owner and two veterinarians were convicted, and a poacher was shot and killed.
The evening was spent at the Mopani Country Lodge in beautiful surroundings near Phalaborwa in the Transvaal. Our air-conditioned chalet was a self-contained apartment with a double bed in the bedroom with ensuite, as well as the lounge, dining, kitchen area, and a rear courtyard and front patio. Our group's meals in the restaurant were huge pieces of steak the size of an encyclopaedia volume cooked to our individual liking, with only a tablespoon of vegies, but a bowl of chips the size of a football. And there was dessert.
Before entering Kruger National Park we drove to the lookout above the massive Palabora copper mine. By now we were in vehicle Mk3, as Acacia had found a replacement for the rental van Mk2. The air-con in Mk3 worked.
What we had thought was a vehicle hitting our chalet early in the morning turned out to have been mining explosions. Mining must cease and the surroundings restored to nature in about 20 years by law. When mining is finished this will be the largest man made hole in the world.
Not too far away from here we reached the Oliphants River for a morning cruise which included a breakfast of Corn Flakes with milk and fruit, plus bacon, eggs, and toast. Lots of hippos in the water here, and some crocs, with giraffe, vervet monkeys, a water monitor, and lots of birds on the shore, but we didn't see any oliphants/elephants. In one place the water was so shallow we watched a croc walking along the bottom with its back only a few inches below the surface.
There are about 30 dams in the Oliphants River catchment area. Despite this there is enough water in the river to leave South Africa and cross into Mozambique becoming the Rio dos Elefantes, joining the Limpopo River and the Rio Changane before entering the Indian Ocean at Xai-Xai north of Maputo.
Kruger National Park is about 22,000 square kilometres of open land. When the private parks have their fences removed there will be about 30,000 square kilometres of open land altogether. The geography of southern Africa is very similar to many parts of Australia. The flora is also similar although thankfully we don't have vast expanses of vicious Camel Thorn which giraffe and goats seem to like to eat. The main difference is that Africa has more fauna that will eat you, or gore and trample you to death. If people get out of a vehicle in the park there are hefty fines. Apart from crocodiles we don't have much of a problem like that.
In a day and a half we saw elephant, rhino, giraffe, buffalo, zebra, lion, wildebeest, wart hog, cheetah, impala, sable antelope, crocodile, wild dog, eland, hippo, klipspringer, mongoose, tree squirrel, vervet monkey, waterbuck, caracal, kudu, steenbok, ostrich, and numerous other species of birds many of which also don't fly.
The only animal that we didn't see at least one within 50m of the road was lion. During a recent prolonged drought large water tanks were installed. Only elephants and giraffe could reach to drink from them but troughs were also built to allow smaller animals to drink. These are not refilled as natural water becomes replenished so as not to interfere with the natural migration.
|Panzi open vehicle|
|South African Sunset|
In the night we stayed just outside the park at Panzi Bush Camp. This was the first of the rest of our not so luxurious but acceptable trip accommodation.
Before dinner we travelled in an open vehicle to a small grandstand to watch the sun set over a waterhole. A few kudu turned up but the evening will be better remembered for the view, and the red wine to celebrate Eileen's birthday.
Glen, the owner, had checked to make sure there were no Black Mamba in our A-framed huts, and the mosquito nets kept the other pests away. Eileen and I enjoyed our showers in our indoor/outdoor ensuite before dinner. Bev, Glen's mum, cooked an excellent dinner, and breakfast next morning, and dinner next night.
At the Hoedspruit Endangered Species Centre Cheetah Project we noticed a photograph of a cheetah painted along the length of a South African Air Force plane. The reason behind this is that the Air Force had two male cheetah donated to them to keep on the nearby airstrip. The cheetah keep wart hog and impala etc off the runway. A cheetah can accelerate to 100kph in about 2.5 secs. That's faster than a Bugatti Veyron, a Ferrari Enzo, or a Grand Prix motorcycle. There may not be too many of them that feel that fast at the moment. There is a big renal disease problem that is effecting all the cats on the planet, including cheetah.
Cheetah are not the only animals at Hoedspruit. Of note are Wild Dogs. These are animals only a mother would love. They urinate and defacate on each other and their water supply. Consequently they stink.
That night was spent at Boma in the Bush near Polokwane, another pleasant lodge with the most amazing bar decorated indoors and out with fantastic artefacts. Once again we were given more delicious food than we could hope to eat. Most of our meals on tour were prepaid. The only regular exceptions were several lunches. But most towns, as well as having local eateries, had international fast food outlets and supermarkets that had food and drink westerners are used to. Despite this, once again because of the local bacteria that visitors are not used to, you can expect to have a day or two on tour with a funny tummy. In saying that, Eileen and I didn't have any problems, and we had ice in drinks, and cleaned our teeth and rinsed in tapwater everywhere. On several occasions after this we rinsed our mouths with mouthwash, and we always try to wash our hands or use an antibacterial gel before eating.
We had another fair drive before the border crossing into Botswana at the Limpopo River. With Wessel's help the bureaucracy on both sides was minimal. We were given Van Mk1 back with its engine repaired. However its non functioning air-con was not appreciated. Wessel told us that air-con was retro fitted to most of Acacia's vehicles and despite many attempts at repairs they rarely worked because the sand destroyed them. I didn't understand this as the conditions in Australia aren't that much different and it is a rare vehicle that doesn't have a working air conditioner. It was also supposed to have had its shock absorbers replaced. If it did they were the wrong type and the front of the van bumped and banged along on the worst bit of road in Botswana.
The road was actually being repaired, but there was no decent road base available so it was unlikely to last even when fixed. Apparently the attempt was made after a government meeting in the north of Botswana. The president had driven there and then called his transport minister.
"How are you getting here?"
"When was the last time you drove on that road?"
"Several years ago."
"Well don't bother coming. You're fired."
Botswana used to be a British colony until eventually achieving independence in 1966, and then in a mad stroke of luck discovered two of the richest diamond mines in the world. About 50km north of Nata we stopped at Elephant Sands Camp. Here's a handy hint. Before you use the toilet in the hut of a bush camp, make sure there is water to flush it.
Even when we were given a different hut with the plumbing actually connected we had to wait for the pumps to get the water up. We were in the desert now. Lots of sand, and lots of acacia. But from the bar we had half a dozen elephants less than 20m away drinking from the swimming pool. I tried and enjoyed St. Louis, the beer of Botswana. There were no fences around anything. Normally the elephants drink from a nearby waterhole, but as October is at the end of the dry season, the water was gone. Hence the swimming pool was their best source. The owners pump water to it, but won't bother with chlorine again until the rains come to fill the waterhole.
In the two weeks since Wessel's last tour a lot more elephants had visited. Just about every tree had been smashed as they stripped the bark to eat. They had also been responsible for breaking the plumbing to our first hut.
It is not unknown for leopards and lions to wander through the site. A male lion's mane is for protection. When fighting, one lion will try to rip the others throat. The mane helps prevent this. Seeing alpha male lions will both have manes it must be a long fight. Lions are not king of the jungle. They don't live in the jungle. They live in grassy savannah where they blend in with the light colours.
We were not far from Zimbabwe on our way to the Zambian border. Apparently at some stage there had been some terse words between President Khama of Botswana, who like his father before him, is fairly popular with his people, and President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, who isn't popular with any one. How can someone who takes farms from people who can farm, and gives them to his cronies who can't, be popular? Most of the country is starving and their currency isn't worth the paper it's printed on.
Anyway Mugabe said something like, "Listen here. Your father and I were old drinking buddies when you were just a snotty nosed little kid, so pull your head in."
To which President Khama is said to have replied with, "Well I've got a pretty well equipped little army over here that haven't had a chance to prove themselves yet. How about I send them over to your place and we'll see how they go?"
And that was the end of that.
Botswana does have a well equipped army and they are the best anti-poaching squad you will find. On the above mentioned road there are several lengths where it is maintained more than others, and wider. This is to land troop carrying aircraft so the soldiers can get to where the poachers are asap.
The border crossing at Kazungula, across the Zambezi River by ferry, is a nightmare for truck drivers who often have to wait a week and a half to cross. There are one, two, or three ferries depending on how many are actually functioning at any given time. They can usually only take one semi trailer or B-double at a time, with smaller vehicles filling up the spare spaces. We were lucky. We got on almost straight away. Driving on and off can also be a problem. The ferries drop their ramps down on the sand, dirt, and rock of the river bank. Anyone like us towing a trailer can leave it behind when it gets caught on things, including bits of bent reinforcing steel rod poking out in various places that can put rather nasty holes in tyres too.
A bridge has been discussed but as usual money and politics could drag on for years.
The Zambian officials can be difficult but once again with Wessel's help we had little problem. The golden rule of getting along with officials anywhere, but especially in places like Zambia, is to smile and chat and don't take any photos of anyone in uniform. Our biggest problem was standing around in the dusty heat, but it was only for an hour or so, so that wasn't too bad.
There were a few hawkers about but they weren't obnoxious and we bought stuff with money and traded pens and other stuff. Like in Indonesia, we were now millionaires again. 10 South African Rand, and 10 Botswana Pula were each equal to $1.50 or thereabouts, but 1000 Zambian Kwacha was worth about 20c. There were plenty of banks, working ATMs, and plenty of Bureaus de Exchange throughout the trip. The best rates were not at the borders, but in the towns. The staff were all honest and no one who checked was ever short changed anywhere. I mainly changed US dollars into the local currencies, but used a credit card for a couple of extra activities. Traveller's cheques were a bit of a pain for some people, which is why I never use them anymore. Our biggest money problem for the entire trip was that we had to juggle 7 different currencies; Aussie Dollars, US Dollars, UAE Dirhams, Egyptian Pounds, South African Rand, Botswana Pula, and Zambian Kwacha.
A word of warning about US Dollars. Because many early US notes were easily counterfeited, many places in many countries will not accept pre 2006 dated notes. When you buy your US Dollars have a look at the date on them and make sure they have 2006 or newer printed on them. The president's head should be large. Older notes with smaller president's heads are not accepted in many countries. If you have to order them from a bank etc, ask them to make sure they only give you new notes. Also many places in many countries will not accept notes not in pristine condition, so make sure you only accept clean untorn notes in your change as well as from banks.
We drove through the town of Livingstone and on to the Victoria Falls. Here the Zambezi River drops about 100m to the bottom of a chasm that is about 1700m long and 100m wide. The surrounding land in all directions is flat for hundreds of kilometres. The chasm is an eroded limestone crack in the basalt. When the water reaches the bottom, both ends flow to the middle called The Boiling Pot, and then continues downstream in a series of gorges.
We were there at the end of the dry season, but in mid April an average of 625million litres of water flow over the edge every minute creating the largest sheet of falling water in the world. This produces a spray 400m, and sometimes twice that much, into the air, and is visible up to 50km away. No wonder it was called the Smoke that Thunders.
Up until about 10 years ago Zimbabwe was by the far the most popular country to visit the Victoria Falls from. There are plenty of luxury hotels and the infrastructure is good. You can walk to the falls from town along well marked paths and the view is certainly the best from this side because you can stand opposite the falls and see them head on. But, the political situation in Zimbabwe has meant that tourists are opting to visit the falls from the Zambian side. In 2006, hotel occupancy on the Zimbabwean side hovered at around 30%, while the Zambian side was at near-capacity.
We stayed two nights at the Ngolide Lodge in Livingstone. While not the flashest, our room was clean and comfortable and air-conditioned. Our week's worth of laundry was done cheaply and promptly, as in, straight away. The Zambian Mosi beer was cheap, cold, and delicious, as was the Indian cuisine in the restaurant.
Visiting the falls from Zambia has some advantages, namely the tickets to enter the park are cheaper and accommodation in the town of Livingstone is also traditionally less expensive. You can see the falls from above as well as below and the surrounding forested areas are more pristine. You can even swim in a natural pool right before the edge of the upper falls. As a town, Livingstone is an interesting place. It used to be the capital of Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia) and its streets are still lined with Victorian-era colonial buildings. Eileen and I took a sunset walk downtown, and felt safe among the locals even when all the other tourists seemed to have disappeared.
We had a whole day to ourselves, and while there are numerous activities like bungee jumping, kayaking, jet boating, and white water rafting, we opted for a helicopter flight. I recommend this to everyone, and spend the extra to take the longer flight. This was the highlight of our holiday. Not only did we get a great view of the falls and the river upstream, but we went below the level of the rim and flew through the twisting gorges downstream, sometimes aiming at the end wall of the canyon and at the last minute rising over the rim to drop down the other side into the next gorge. We could have flown in an ultralight but no cameras are allowed for this.
I also went to visit the centre for the African Lion and Environmental Research Trust (ALERT) which is dedicated to the conservation and management of lions. In the last 30 years there has been a reduction of 80-90% in the African lion population. This is mainly due to the increase in human habitation, illegal hunting, snaring, and poaching, and disease.
|Petting a 1 year old|
|Walking with Lions|
There are several stages to rehabilitating lions. In stage 1, lions as young as six weeks and up to twelve months are taken on walks with humans (like me) to build their confidence in the bush and allow their natural hunting instincts to develop. The handlers (and tourists) walk in front, as this is where the mature lions of a pride would be. There are no leashes. Control is with a stick. Not to hit the lions. But to point at a lion that may be getting a bit toey and say in a firm voice, "No."
Unless the handlers whistled and called the lions they would mainly just lie lazily on the ground as they are all fed before their daily interaction with the tourists. While they were in a lying position we were allowed to approach and stroke them along their flanks, but definitely nowhere near their head. The lions must be approached from behind. Apparently they get more agitated if approached from head on. If they stirred during this petting we were told to scrape the stick on the ground near their head. This distracts them and they usually gaze vaguely at the stick and flop back down again. If the lion did seem perturbed, we were to stand and point with the stick, and above all, don't run. There is nothing more a kitty cat likes to do than chase something and swat it down, and these fellows have massive paws.
Stage 2, sans tourists, is to let them loose in a 500 acre paddock. They get plenty of game to hunt, and they stay in this stage until they are socially stable within the pride, and self sustaining.
In stage 3 they are released into a larger but still managed eco system where they have competitors like hyena. The lions will give birth to new cubs in a wild environment with a natural pride social system and no human contact.
When old enough, the cubs born in stage 3 will be released into the great wilderness of Africa, with all the skills and human avoidance behaviour of any wild born cub.
|Loading up with Contraband|
We were now back in Van Mk3 with working air-conditioning. As we waited to catch the ferry going back into Botswana we noticed many dug-out canoes unloading goods off the ferries and into their canoes before they landed on Zambian soil. We were told they did this and disappeared into the Zambian bush to avoid paying import duties. The police officer with a gun seemed more concerned in preventing certain probably Zambian citizens catching the ferry over to Botswana than stopping the free-booters.
That afternoon we had another cruise. This time near Kasane along the Chobe River into Chobe National Park with Thebe River Safaris. So, armed with cameras, binoculars, and beer and nibbles we meandered past riverside resorts and houses until the game spotting began in earnest again. We saw baboons, giraffe, crocs, elephants, hippos, buffalo, and once again many species of birds. In fact one of our guide books listed about 60 types of animals we might see in Southern Africa, and over 200 types of birds.
In the very early morning we did an open 4wd safari into Chobe. We saw impala, kudu, crocs, hippos, elephant, sable antelope, wildebeest, buffalo, wart hog, and birds like the usual blue helmeted guinea fowl, fish eagle, herons, kori bustard, bateleur, roller, secretary bird, hornbill, and unfortunately this time vultures picking at an elephant carcass.
But the most impressive was the lions. There were three walking parallel to our track and less than 100m from us for about a kilometre. Then they walked to within 20m of us and started to look agitated. We thought they were closing in on some game and hoped it wasn't us. Then another three lions walked across the track just in front of us and joined the first three. They had a bit of a play and a lie down and then all got up and walked into the bush. Wow! You don't see that every day!
|Here is a tribute to the Honey Badger courtesy of YouTube user "ChickenandSushi"|
By now the only one of the big five, and the only animal of any significance we still had on our hope-to-see list, was a leopard. Then we heard about the honey badger, the most vicious, tenacious, and fearless animal in the world. They look a bit like a skunk cracked out on PCP.
The Honey Badger has no natural predators. This is kind of impressive, since three-foot-long creatures generally don't last long in environments featuring leopards, lions, cheetahs, black mamba snakes, and other savannah beasts, but there you have it. It helps that this thing doesn't screw around when it gets pissed off. The Sir Didymus of wildlife is known to go after anything, anytime, anywhere, and has been known to attack buffalo, humans, wildebeest, jackals, monitor lizards, wild boars, and even lions and cheetahs. If the creature is too huge for the badger to straight-up eviscerate with its inch-and-a-half long claws or its razor-sharp teeth, the Ratel still knows how to go for the weak spot - the testicles.
That's right, folks, this thing has been documented as killing male lions and buffalo by running underneath them and tearing off their scrotums from which they usually bleed to death. It takes a pretty voracious animal to routinely eat poisonous snakes, spiders, and scorpions, but the Ratel just does. He also loves honey (which is where the Honey Badger gets his name) and bee larvae, but his method of getting to them is just as hardcore as he is. He just jams his face into a beehive, and starts eating the baby bees and honey while a bunch of crazed bees stab him in the face with their stingers. He doesn't register pain, fear, or any emotion other than anger, and doesn't even seem to notice the hundreds of stab-wounds he's getting all over his hide. It helps that he's heavily armored, with skin that's a quarter of an inch thick, making him somewhat immune to the puny stingers.
The thick skin is also loose enough that if another creature bites the Ratel, he can still turn around, with the attacker still chomping down, and reposition himself to better bite faces or shred testicles. He's so tough that the South African army actually named their heavily-armored Infantry Fighting Vehicle after this voracious predator. Thank goodness we didn't come across one!
We were back to basic accommodation again but we had no idea just how basic our accommodation was about to get. From the Sitatunga Camp near Maun, we piled ourselves and all the camping gear in to an open 4wd Mercedes truck with huge tyres. We then bashed our way through Camel Thorn and thick sand that plumed and drifted over the passengers, except when we forded creeks and sand causeways. We were in the Okavango Delta.
After two hours of this we found ourselves beside what was obviously a serious swamp. There before us was our water transport. Mokoros. Two person dug-out canoes. Dug out from Sausage trees. Well actually they were three person canoes. Our propulsion was a person standing at the back and using a pole like on a gondola. The polers were local natives from the villages nearby.
There was chopped grass in the bottom of the mokoros. Then our camp mattresses were folded to give us a seat with a backrest. Our reduced luggage was piled behind those, along with the five litre water bottles per person we were advised to take.
|Okavango Delta camping|
Our group was now seven including Wessel. Several mokoros were available for our camping equipment and ourselves. There was no marina, in fact, no dock of any description, in fact, no structure of any description. Eileen waded ankle deep in muddy water to get in our mokoro. I got in and sat behind her. Our poler stood behind me and we were off. About twenty seconds later we sank. Water was coming in over the gunwales.
Carlos, our poler, decided we should abandon ship. We waded back to shore and tried to find a solution to our dilemma. The solution was to find a bigger boat. This accomplished we set off again with three or four inches of freeboard. Unfortunately for Carlos this bigger boat ran aground a lot more often in the shallows. Eileen and I had to reach out beside us and grab a hand full of grass and help by pulling us through where we could. Other times we had to get out until we got to deeper channels through the swamp. Also a bigger boat meant a longer boat. The channels through the reeds and grasses were very narrow and twisty in places, sometimes so much that we had to do two and three point turns to get this longer mokoro around the bends.
Another hour and a half later we were at our island home for the next two days. We waded ashore and inspected our campsite. The only sign that humans had ever been here before was that there was enough cleared space amongst the trees to set up eight tents. One for the provisions, one for Wessel, one each for Eileen and I, the couple from Sydney, and two young blokes from Tasmania, and the rest for the polers. Of the other couple from the UK who had joined us on tour, David had succumbed to Botswana belly, and they remained in Maun for this adventure. I wish we had too.
|Okavango Delta camp|
|Okavango Delta camp|
I was helping unpack some stuff when Wessel came up to Eileen and offered her a green squishy lumpy thing.
She asked, "What's this?"
"It's a tent", he replied.
Eileen handed it right back to him. He did get the message and started to set it up before I arrived to take over.
The campsite appeared to be a hippo and elephant toilet. Our toilet was a hole in the ground. The shovel that one of the polers used to dig the hole was then to be used for after we had done our business, so we could scoop a half shovel of dirt back into the hole. The shovel and a roll of toilet paper were left at the start of the short walk to the hole. If the shovel and toilet paper were not at the first tree, the toilet was occupied. There was not even a kerosene tin for a pedestal with a seat on top. This was a squat job, but my knees were not up to this so it became a kneel job. If anyone needed to go in the night, the plan was to check around outside the tent with a torch for eyes or shapes before getting out ourselves. Stumbling into a hippo on our way to the loo could mean we might not need to continue to the hole.
The polers started a fire in the middle of the campsite for cooking food, boiling water, and keeping the fauna at bay. Everyone retired to their tents to read a book or sleep. After five minutes of that Eileen and I decided it was too hot and we would go for a swim. We waded out to our mokoro again and Carlos poled us about 50m to another bank with about 500mm water depth. The bottom was still muddy and there was some weak vine like vegetation until we walked and swam out a bit from the edge, but once clear of the shore the water was clear and cool. Now all we had to do was keep an eye out for hippos and crocs.
That evening Carlos took us on a one hour guided tour. We spent a fascinating five minutes watching him tear dry elephant dung apart to show and explain to us what the elephant had been eating. We followed several more paths where Carlos often had to collect more elephant dung to create stepping stones for us to walk on where the trail got a bit too swampy. Until we got to a small lake we had only seen birds, and the holes where aardvarks had been digging for food. Now we saw hippos. Their lake was connected to our swimming hole, but about half a kilometer away. We hoped the vegetation stopped them visiting us. We didn't see any crocs, but that didn't mean there weren't any.
Wessel cooked on the fire, and after the guests and he had eaten, the polers got the leftovers. There was plenty, and Wessel's bush cooking skills were excellent.
Next morning we were to go on a four hour early morning walk. I said I wasn't going. Upon awakening Eileen said that as we had come this far she was going to go. I thought, "What the heck", and decided to go too.
After ten minutes we were faced with a mokoro ride across more swamp. The big mokoro wasn't there. Eileen and I both said, "No", and went back to camp. We lay in our tent and read until the others returned. They hadn't seen much, and were pretty worn out from the rugged terrain. They agreed we had done the right thing.
As the day got hotter we braved the possibility of hippos and crocs and went for another swim. This time Eileen and I took the mokoro ourselves, but instead of poling it we paddled it like a surfboard. That evening we went for a mokoro tour but only saw some elephant in the distance.
In the morning we cheerfully packed everything up and mokoroed and trucked back to Sitatunga Camp. A shower was a blessing until Eileen touched the water pipe. She got a fairly serious electric shock. The taps were insulated stop cocks so we hadn't realized the potential danger. The huts obviously had an electrical earthing problem in the sand. It is a good idea when ever you need to touch anything that may be electrified, especially when your hands are wet, or you are standing on a moist surface, to touch the tap, power switch, or in this case water pipe, with the back of your hand or knuckles, even just as a test. You will still get a shock, but instead of having your hand clamped to the live object it will be thrust away or you will be able to pull it away quickly.
We were driven out to Maun International Airport where we were divided into two lots of four passengers and boarded two Cessna 206s, the work horses for bush pilots, for our extra activity; a flight over the delta. It cost about $80 and was well worth it to fly at 600 feet above the flood plain for 45 minutes.
During dinner that evening I noticed that a stubby of beer was 15Pula or about $2.25. They also had Captain Morgan rum and coke in a stubby for 18Pula or about $2.70. Compare that to about $7 back home.
In the morning we played let's feed ants to the antlions. These small larvae make sand pits and lay in the bottom with only their jaws protruding. When an ant wanders into the pit it cannot easily climb out without cascading itself and loose sand back to the bottom. The antlion helps by flinging sand upwards which undermines the bottom of the pit and helps to bring the sides and the ant back to the bottom.
Then it was on the road again to Khama Rhino Sanctuary near Serowe, still in Botswana. Unfortunately the air-con in Van Mk3 now gave up with the temperature in the mid to high 30° C.
Because of the decreasing numbers of many species of wild animals, many sanctuaries are set up to specialize in the breeding, care, and management of them. This one was for white and black rhino. We had seen a white rhino right beside the road in Kruger, but this time we hoped to see the more rare black rhino. We didn't, but we saw several whites, although none as close as the one in Kruger. Here was also the first I had heard the term, a "tower of giraffe". Someone somewhere had mentioned a "memorial of elephants", but no one else had ever heard that one.
Our last night as a group was at Camp Itumela, Palapye. Our room was cramped with three single beds, but at least we had pavers to the front door instead of sand. The dinner was excellent again and the younger ones partied on while we more mature travelers went to bed at the usual 8 or 9 o'clock. And apparently just as well or I could have ended up with a Zambuca Tattoo on my backside. A shot glass of zambuca is lit, and when hot enough the rim is thrust onto available skin.
After nearly a month in Egypt and southern Africa, paying to go to the loo finally got the better of me. Next day we stopped at a shopping centre to buy some snacks for lunch. Both Eileen and I wanted to go to the toilet. We followed all the signs but couldn't find them. Eventually we asked a shopkeeper who sent us to an obscure area outside the complex. By now we were in a hurry but there at the entrance was a lady asking for 1Rand each to use the toilet. In exasperation I said, "No", and we both brushed past and into the respective WCs. I was first back out and the lady had a go at me. I couldn't be bothered discussing it with her and rather rudely, which I now regret, I told her all our money was in the bus on the other side of the car park. I know it seems strange to most westerners to have to pay to use a public toilet, but someone has to pay to keep them clean.
|Avant Garde Lodge|
|Avant Garde Lodge|
Our border crossing back into South Africa was painless, as was the collection of our papyrus poster from the Backpacker's 'Ritz'. I politely informed them we had booked alternative accommodation, and we drove to the Avant Garde Lodge, just 10 minutes from O.R. Tambo International Airport. This is one of the best motels I have ever stayed at, ever, and perfect for the last night of a busy holiday. Check their website http://www.avantgardelodge.co.za. The room, the gardens, the restaurant, the big screen in the spacious bar area, the managers, the staff, and a late check-out until 8pm, were just great. And it was only about $100 including two breakfasts.
Armand also organized a tour of Soweto for me. Pieter turned up in a fairly new Toyota Avanza van and we made our way across Johannesburg to the city that was so involved with race riots and the end of Apartheid. My first surprise was how close to Johannesburg it was. One second we were in Johannesburg, and the next we were passing a sign that said, "Welcome to Soweto".
The second surprise was to see that it is not entirely slums. In fact while there are no white people in the population of about one million, there are billionaires living in the more affluent areas. There are separate areas where the middle class live, and then there are areas of squatter slums. No matter where you look there are no security fences and no razor wire. People walk the streets carefree. There is very little crime in Soweto. Local tribal law takes care of that.
The largest hospital in the Southern Hemisphere is in Soweto. We drove passed it on the way to the Hector Pieterson Museum. The museum commemorates the beginning of the end of Apartheid. Soweto came to the world's attention on June 16, 1976 when mass protests erupted over the government's policy to enforce education in the Afrikaans language which most of the local blacks couldn't speak. Police opened fire in Orlando West on 10,000 students marching from Naledi High School to Orlando Stadium, The rioting continued and 23 people, including two white people, died on the first day in Soweto. The first to be killed was Hector Pieterson, who was 12 years old, when the police began to open fire on the students. The impact of the Soweto protests reverberated through the country and across the world.
Along Vilakazi Street we passed the homes of Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu. Desmond Tutu still owns his house and often stays there on visits to Johannesburg. Vilakazi Street is the only street in the world to have housed two Nobel Prize winners.
Winnie Mandela owns a house close by and still lives there. Nelson Mandela's current wife is in the Guinness Book of Records as the only person to have married two presidents. She was formerly married to the president of Mozambique.
Pieter then drove me to a squatter slum where I received more surprises. Pieter said he was the only tour guide to take people into the squatter slums, and most white people were too afraid to go there anyway. The first impression was of a corrugated iron shanty town with uneven dirt streets where a small stream of dirty water flowed. Then I realized that all of the people were reasonably well dressed, happy and smiling, and looking well fed and healthy. There were no beggars in sight, but on reflection as I write this I realize there was probably very rarely anyone to beg from.
The closest I came to seeing begging was by a white South African at a service station two weeks earlier. We had pulled into a car park to the side of the service station. As I got out I was approached by a man who looked a bit disheveled, and said that he was homeless and hungry and could I give him some money for food. Not being familiar with the social scene I immediately had my doubts, and instead of giving him money I offered to buy him a burger. He agreed to this so we went and ordered breakfasts and I ordered an extra burger. He had followed us around to the Wimpy entrance but wouldn't (or couldn't) come in so Eileen took the burger out to him. When I finished my meal I went outside for a look around and he was still there. He came and thanked me and told me that he was a qualified electrician but that since the 1994 elections all the electrical jobs were given to blacks.
|Soweto Squatter Camp|
Pieter introduced me to Xolanie, the young black man who was to be my guide. Firstly he took me into his shanty home. Inside was a single room with a double bed where three women would sleep. The men slept on mattresses on the floor. There was a small two seater lounge chair, a TV, and a refrigerator. The wood combustion stove wasn't used any more except to support the paraffin stove they actually used. Everything was clean and tidy.
Next we went to the pub. It was another sheet iron construction of indeterminate size where I tried the locally brewed beer. It was drinkable and reminded me of Fijian kava.
I saw where the water was collected from several community taps. There is no running water in the buildings. I am not sure where the electricity came from to power the TVs and refrigerators. There was a row of porta-loos for toilets just outside the entrance to the area. They were all locked. The keys were with certain people who handed them out as required. This must have been a problem for any urgent requirements, especially at night. They were locked because they were close to a shopping complex just outside the shanty town. Shoppers used to come to use the toilets and often left them in an unclean state; hence the locks.
Then we went to the school where I was shown a classroom, the library, and the administration building. I thanked Xolanie and gave him a donation.
Pieter then drove me back to the motel, but not before I convinced him I would like to see downtown Johannesburg. He wasn't keen to go there. This is somewhere where white people usually no longer venture. It is the highest crime district in the city. After the 1994 elections and the end of Apartheid, the blacks were allowed into the CBD. All of the white businesses and residents moved out and the place became, and still is, a ghetto, with car-jackings, muggings, robberies, and murders commonplace.
Back at the Avant Garde Lodge, because our flight was not until 1020pm, we took advantage of the 8pm late check-out and the restaurant again, before getting a taxi to the airport in readiness for 22 hours on an aeroplane crossing multiple date lines. While waiting I read a city newspaper. Most of the front page was taken with the following:
Apparently a police officer had a motorist pulled over and asked for a 700Rand bribe. What he didn't realize was that the motorist was recording the conversation. Later the motorist took the tape into the police anti-corruption squad and played it to them. The anti-corruption squad asked the motorist how much he wanted to keep quiet. He asked for 10,000Rand. The anti-corruption squad called the bribing police officer and told him to go to an ATM and get the money. He couldn't get the full amount so the anti-corruption squad had to chip in. Apparently this is just one example of the bribery which is rife throughout South Africa. Another is the traffic police who set up speed traps for the benefit of their own pockets. Motorists, especially tourists, can't be bothered going through the defence process, and just pay on the spot.
Jet lag at the start of a holiday never seems to affect us; only at the end. For the next week at home we slept at the oddest hours and would sit up completely awake at ridiculous hours like 1 and 2am. On the first night I fell asleep in front of the TV, which is not unusual, but when I woke up I had no idea in which hotel I was or in which country I was.
All accommodation apart from the Backpacker's Ritz was prepaid as part of the tour. Almost all the time it was twin share. Only a couple of times did we get a double bed. Drinks were cheap. Food where we had to buy the occasional lunch was cheap. Breakfasts and dinners were in restaurants of the various camps and lodges, and were always plentiful, varied, and tasty.
We would have liked a few more days off to relax and contemplate. In two weeks we really only had the one at Victoria Falls. We got sick of rising, eating, and packing to be on the road by 7am, and we were sick of dragging our suitcases through sand to get to and from chalets/huts. We had packed for Egypt too where we knew we would be eating in restaurants in hotels. I had two pairs of good trousers, two good shirts, and a pair of good shoes that were superfluous in southern Africa. I also had a jacket that was recommended for early morning game drives that never saw the outside of the suitcase. My suitcase was a largish duffel bag with wheels. I carried my Dell Mini 9" laptop, Eileen's small camera and my video camera along with charging cables and power adaptors, our medication and some toiletries, and all our travel documents, in a laptop case. When doing game drives and walks I carried Eileen's camera and a pair of binoculars in their pouches on my belt, and carried my video camera in my hand. We had hats and sunglasses. When we went to the island in the Okavango I just took swimming togs and a change of underwear, shorts, a shirt, sunscreen, and insect repellent, in a silk backpack that folded away to the size of a spectacle case when not in use. On my belt I added a Tek towel rolled up in its carry bag. Eileen had one not too big suitcase with wheels and her large handbag. She had a string bag to put her delta clothes or snack shopping in. We rinsed or washed our clothes nightly and hung them to dry on anything available and a 5m length of thin nylon rope we carry. In October they dried quickly.
For the entire tour Wessel only wore shorts, T-shirts, and thongs; but he didn't go on the game walks with us where more substantial shoes and long trousers for the Camel Thorn were essential.
To do this tour again I would take no smart casual clothes, and take a pair of solid walking sandals instead of the good shoes. My joggers were fine for bush walks. I just prefer sandals. My crocs (the shoes, not the reptiles) were useless in sand because they fill up through the holes in the front and it doesn't get out. They would also have been useless if I stepped on Camel Thorn on a game walk. For all other footwear purposes they are ideal. They are very comfy to wear in aeroplanes. If they did get wet and dirty I just took them into the shower with me and when dried I used them as slippers.
|Back to Chapter 26 - Egypt|