Sunday, February 26, 2006

Okavango Delta to Chobe National Park, Botswana . . . "Dumela"

Our first adventure in Botswana was a mokoro trip into the Okavango Delta. A mokoro is a dug out canoe and we were told that it was the best way to explore the Delta so we booked a few days in a mokoro without hesitation. The hesitation (on my part at least) came later during the pre-trip briefing from camp management when we were informed that one of the activities on the trip would be to spend several hours walking in search of game.

Walking?? After days of viewing game in Etosha from the safety of the Toyota Tazz and carefully following the advice of signs in that park - "DO NOT LEAVE YOUR CAR" - I was a bit concerned to hear about this proposed "walk". Feigning interest to mask cowardice I tried to get some more details.

Me: So will there be crocodiles?

Manager: Yes. Definitely. That will be exciting for you. (Upon seeing my face, he continued . . .) They won't harm you. Just don't trail your hand in the water when you are in the mokoro. There is also a safe place for you to swim which the guide will show you.

Me: Excellent. Great. What about lions? Will we see lions?

Manager: Unfortunately because it is the wet season you probably won't see any lions on your walk but you might hear them at night. Just make sure that your tent is closed when you go to sleep and don't take any raw meat into your tent.

Me: (Thinking that surely I am raw meat to a lion, said instead . . .) Fantastic.

Manager: Oh and you might see some elephants. Again, when you are sleeping make sure the tent is closed and they will step over your tent as if it were a rock.

Me: (Thinking that I was more likely to be stepped on like a slug, tried to maintain my composure . . .) Can't wait. Thanks so much. (Demented smile).

[Note to self: Chance of me leaving the tent at night to go to the bathroom = zero]

The next morning we were off in the mokoro with our guide Sam who looked a bit thin for me - unlikely to be of much assistance in the event of a lion attack. However, he was very nice and informative and I found that by lunch time my nerves had calmed. While cooking his lunch over the fire Sam asked why tourists didn't cook with fire and used portable gas canisters instead. I flippantly answered that it was "probably because none of us could make a fire". The look of surprise from Sam was matched immediately by the look of horror from Phil who promptly informed us that he could certainly make a fire and reminded me under his breath that he "used to be a Boy Scout". Suitably chastened and appropriately impressed we started on our first walk.

Realising that I was accompanied by a guide (albeit a skinny one) and a Boy Scout, I was almost relaxed about the prospect of seeing animals. As it turned out we saw a couple of hippos and a few crocodiles from a reasonable distance and spent most of the walk looking at birds and plants.
After the walk we went for a swim or, more accurately, Phil went for a swim while I quizzed Sam about why this particular swimming area was free of crocodiles when others weren’t. His response, “Many people come here to swim”, was not the reassurance I was looking for. It was similar to his response when I had asked him earlier why the lions did not attack people walking: “Perhaps they are scared of the hunter”. It struck me that we were in the wilderness protected only by the animals-are-more-scared-of-you-than-you-are-of-them theory.

I was torn. On the one hand, of course he was right. He was the guide. He had mentioned that he survived three hippo attacks on his mokoro without a scratch and, as he lived in the area, his mere existence was proof at least that animals hadn't killed him. On the other hand, did he know how scared I was? There was no point stressing myself further with these useless thoughts so I put fear to one side and attempted to follow Phil’s lead and enjoy the trip.

Which I did.

In the end I had a great time in the Delta and saw more hippos, some baboons (one of which I thought was a lion but Sam said it was definitely a baboon), impala, a few more crocodiles and a giraffe. Despite my paranoia we found that the most dangerous creatures in the Delta were the mosquitoes. [Note to self: Get a grip.]

After we had finished with the Delta we took a bus north to Chobe National Park for some prime elephant spotting on game and boat drives. As it was out of season we were very lucky to see several elephants, hippos, quite a few crocodiles and other animals (all from the safety of the inside of a motor-powered vehicle).

And that was Botswana.

The next entry of a “Coward’s Journey from Cape Town to Cairo” is on Zambia and should be posted in about a week.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Epupa Falls to Windhoek, Namibia . . . “Moro”

From Opowu we decided to head further north up to Epupa Falls. The drive of just under 200km took us about 7 hours. A flat tyre held us up for a few hours and shortly after that the Tazz got stuck in the sand. However, we an interesting assortment of hitchhikers to keep us entertained and a lot of help from the locals so we couldn’t complain. The goat we hit on the way up would be the only one with a complaint. Although Phil claims that he “didn’t hit the goat . . . the goat hit him”. Luckily the goat lived to stagger off the road and will no doubt die much later in a more useful manner.

By the time we got to Epupa we were looking forward to a dip in the river and perhaps putting a foot on the river bank of Angola - just a short swim away. On arrival we were told that there was a fairly high population of crocodiles in the river. Luckily we were armed with excellent advice from our travel guide:

Your best line of defence is to stab the crocodile in its eyes with anything sharp that you have. Alternatively, if you can lift up its tongue and let water into its lungs whilst underwater, then a crocodile will start to drown and will release its prey.”

Realising we weren't carrying any sharp objects and not wanting to rely on the lifting-of-the-tongue method - we decided not to swim. Instead we visited the falls, which were very impressive after the recent rains.

I must admit that by the time we got to Epupa I was a bit fed up with camping. That night I got up in an outraged mood to complain to camp management about a light that had been shining into our tent for hours, preventing me from sleeping. Before I stormed out Phil kindly informed me that the light was, in fact, beyond management control. Damn that full moon.

Leaving Epupa Phil told me that the next stop was "the Big 5". Concerned that we were going to pop in to the offices of the top five law firms in Namibia, I was relieved to find that "the Big 5" is game-park-speak for five animals: the lion, elephant, rhino, leopard and buffalo. We went looking for them and other lesser creatures at Etosha National Park, a game park in the north of Namibia. Dry season is the best time to view game in Etosha so as it was wet season we were very lucky to see four of the five. Damn those elusive leopards.

Leaving the animals we went south to see some petrified trees. These are not trees in fear of the axe, they are trees that apparently froze during the ice age somewhere farther north in Africa and when the ice melted they floated down stream and (for a reason explained to me but that I have now completely forgotten) became petrified into rock. So, essentially we saw rocks that look like logs. Exciting stuff.

After dealing with three flat tyres in less than 12 hours, we then went to visit some stone age painting and engravings which were pretty interesting. The last one is famously called 'The White Lady" although it is actually a painting of a black man. The confusion was the fault of a know-it-all European archeologist.

And that was the end of Namibia. We tearfully said goodbye to the Tazz in Windhoek. Next stop Botswana. Next entry in a week or so.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Sossusvlei to Opuwo, Namibia . . . "Moro"

I imagined we would be spending a few weeks in Namibia travelling from luxury lodge to lodge in the comfort and safety of a 4-wheel drive.

I was wrong.

Phil, on the phone to the car hire company, ended the conversation with: "I don't need a 4 wheel drive, just give me your cheapest car". So, we set off to explore the country (known for its notoriously bad roads) in a trusty Toyota Tazz. I soon a realised that our budget had also priced us right out of the luxury lodge market. We stopped torturing ourselves reading descriptions of "spacious chalets overlooking the desert plain, all with their own deck, plunge pool and jacuzzi" and attempted to work up some excitement over descriptions such as "this dusty and uninspiring camp ground is somewhat redeemed by the clean ablution blocks and lively bar".

Despite failing to meet my travel and accommodation expectations, Namibia itself - the people and the country - did not let us down.

We started our tour with a trip to Sossusvlei and saw some amazing sand dunes. The desert experience continued as our Tazz managed to carry us along some particularly rocky roads, over the Tropic of Capricorn and up to the Skeleton Coast. The trip took us past a colony of seals and, much to Phil's delight, an area known to be good for gem hunting. The reported find of an aquamarine was enough for Phil to insist that we spend a few hours in the midday heat searching for a stone for my engagement ring. Not the romantic ring shopping that I had imagined but Phil had an air of desperation about him and was not to be refused. Tragically, we were unsuccessful and made our way up Skeleton Coast warned by frequent road signs announcing "SAND!" in case we had not noticed the miles of dunes to our near right.

Skeleton Coast was so named because (prior to GPS and modern methods of communication) shipwrecks were common along the coast. Any survivors of such wrecks washed up and found themselves with the Atlantic Ocean on one side and desert on the other. In 1860 a man left a message on some slate found much later:

"I am proceeding to a river sixty miles north, and should anyone find this and follow me, God will help him."

No one knows who wrote it or what became of him . . . but we followed him up the coast anyway. Not really with a fear of death but, in the Tazz, with a definite fear of being stranded for days after a breakdown or a couple of flat tyres. It was a low/no traffic area. However, as I had insisted on us packing over 20 litres of drinking water we were fairly relaxed.

Leaving the Skeleton Coast gates, cheerily decorated with a skull and cross bones, we headed further north to an area of Namibia dominated by the Himba people. The Himba women cover themselves in (not much more than) body paint made from red ochre. Our first contact with the Himba was a Himba woman hitchhiker we picked up. She was the first of many hitchhikers including a guy from the US (Shay) who travelled with us for a few days. With no public transport in the area, people either hitch or walk. [Note: When making decisions on whom to offer a ride - keep in mind that red ochre body paint stains car upholstery.]

Our first Himba hitchhiker was extremely attractive, as Phil commented repeatedly. We soon found out that she was not the only one, the Himba women seemed to be particularly good looking. So, I was very flattered when the chief of a Himba village we visited offered to buy me from Phil for 20 to 30 cows. I hear that is a pretty good price. Phil is still considering it.

Possibly inspired by the beauty of the Himba women, Phil decided to get his hair cut at the local barber in Opuwo. He was able to choose from one of twelve styles depicted in drawings displayed on the wall. None of the men in the pictures had hair like Phil's. Unfazed by his absence of afro Phil chose style number six. The barber was talented and certainly tried his best, but Phil emerged looking like a cross between Tintin and a neo-Nazi. Perhaps that is why he is having so many "difficulties" getting our photos loaded onto the website . . . perhaps not.

The rest of Namibia to follow in a few days.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Malealea to Semonkong, Lesotho . . . “Give me sweets”

We caught the 6am bus out of Sethlabathebe to the nearest border post at Qacha’s Nek, armed with elaborate excuses as to why we had been in the country illegally for 3 days. We were mentally prepared for separate interrogation, jail time, the threat of deportation, and the need for bribery (in that order). We were almost deflated when the biggest concern of the border official was where to find the tourist pamphlets to give us after she had stamped our passports- without question- despite our stammering and highly suspicious explanations.

Now legally in Lesotho we were able to relax for a night at Malealea lodge. A lovely place to stay apart from the company of one of the guests who felt the need to tell us that Africa was “going to hell” because “they were forcing the whites to leave”. This guy, visiting from South Africa, was (lucky Africa) staying put and not going to Australia "like all his friends". In South Africa he “managed people” because that was the “colonial way”. In Australia his friends “have to do all the work themselves[!] . . . they have to "milk their own f*&king cows” [accompanied by a look of horror]. We were equally horrified . . .

It seemed like an opportune moment to go for a hike to the gorge nearby. We were soon joined by a small population of children requesting that we give them sweets. When they saw they were not getting anywhere only the persistent continued. A 4 year old with an entrepreneurial spirit changed his approach and demanded: “give me money or I will beat you.” I offered myself up for a beating but he fled, equally panicked that I had called his bluff and that his appalled elder sister was going to beat him for delivering the threat.

Safely back at the lodge we decided to leave Malealea the next day for a three day pony trek to Semonkong lodge. I am not quite sure why they call it a pony trek because we were introduced by our guide to two very large horses the next morning. My first 24 hours went something like this: rode horse up and down narrow rocky mountain ridges; stifled screams while trying not to think about falling off; repeated the mantra ‘trust the horse trust the horse’ constantly; stopped at a village in the afternoon; walked to waterfall; back to village; cooked dinner; slept at village; dreamt about falling off the horse; woke at 5am; quizzed guide (again) about whether anyone had ever fallen off a horse on the trek (answer still wholly unsatisfactory- “just the Chinese”); remained unconvinced that my nationality would make me less likely to fall off the horse.

Days 2 and 3 more or less followed the pattern of the first day, but for two incidents. On day 2 during the walk to the second waterfall, I fell off a cliff. I have been known to exaggerate, but this time I really fell and it was really a cliff. Somehow I stopped myself tumbling down the cliff face by (gracefully) grabbing on to a bush on the way down. Not satisfied with one fall, on day 3 I came off the horse. [Note to self: Never trust the horse.] When it started bucking I was more panicked about my feet getting stuck in the stirrups than anything else. When the horse finally threw me I flew through the air with a strange sense of elation thinking – I’m free. I’m free. Elation over when I hit the ground. Again, no serious injuries. [Note to self: (1) Banana peel incident on the last day in London was definitely an omen, am now accident prone. (2) Cancel skydiving.]