Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Leopard in a tree, goat on a roof, zebra in a hotel

This day can really be broken into 3 distinct chunks: our last game drive, the most interesting border crossing ever, and discovering Livingstone.

Trip notes 10 Jun:  Up at 5am for game drive. Freaking COLD and windy!!  Nice guide, good drive. Boring at first since animals were all asleep. Saw two leopards toward the end of the trek so it was a good drive overall. 

The game drive through Chobe was a far cry better than the one we had at Makgadikgadi a few days prior, even though we were in an open air vehicle.  The downside to traveling to Africa in the off-season (winter) is that our early morning game drive started out very cold and very dark.  There were the three of us plus one German lady and one Aussie guy.  (I swear, Aussies were everywhere this trip!!)  The Aussie guy is a musician, so we had some common ground as far as small talk goes.

On the game drive we saw the usual suspects: hippos, elephants, crocodiles, giraffes, impalas, kudu but this time we were joined by baboons, jackals and even a leopard!  The baboons were definitely the highlight for me because there was a very playful baby in the group.  We would get much closer to baboons the next day during our 2nd most interesting border crossing ever.  Enjoy some pictures from the game drive.

Boop!  Igotyounose!
Hi, I'm a giraffe
Jackals and a kudu

What are you looking at?
Me & C trying to stay warm!

Left for Zambia at 10.30. Took an open air safari car abt 20 minutes to the river. Transferred to a dinky boat for a few minutes' ride to Zambia. In the middle of the river, the boat driver stops so we can take pictures of no man's land. (Bot/Nam/Zim/Zam) 

I am very thankful for the planning that SAM & C put into this trip.  Otherwise, we would probably still be waiting to cross the Zambian border!  Upon leaving the lodge, we got in the same open air vehicle we had just used for our safari.  The driver informed us it would be a 15-20 minute ride to the Zambian border and after we crossed the river, 'someone' would be there to pick us up.  Yeah, I'm full of confidence!

Our hosts in Maun told us that semi trucks can spend upwards of two weeks in line to cross into Zambia.  We were about to find out why.  Turns out that there is no bridge over the Kazungula river and the ferry can only hold one semi at a time.  On our way to the banks of the Kazungula river, we passed dozens of trucks waiting in line.  To get around this time constraint, a few enterprising businessmen have taken some 'fishing boats' and turned them into passenger ferries.  I use the term 'fishing boat' lightly.  Our boat had 9 plastic chairs (like the kind found in any middle school band hall or church rec room) bolted to the deck.  The three of us were joined by a lady traveling solo and with the 4 of us and all our bags, that's all that would fit on the dodgy boat of certain doom.  So we started to cross the river, which is bigger than I anticipated.

A new country: Botnamzimzam!
The river crossing skirts four countries.  We had already been processed out of Botswana but had not checked into Zambia yet.  We were in the middle of no man's land between Botswana, Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia yet in none of those countries.  We were like Schroedinger's travelers; it's not until we reach land again would we know what country we were in.  Our captain stopped in the middle of the river so we could take pictures.  We stepped off the dodgy boat of certain doom, went through immigration and were then officially in Zambia.  We met up with Steve, the taxi driver our next host had arranged to bring us into Livingstone.  An hour, $120 and one goat sighting later, we were in Livingstone.
Yes, the goat is strapped down.
Headed to the Royal Livingstone Hotel for drinks. AMAZING place!  Very high end, colonial, manicured. Drinks were nice and cheaper than we anticipated. Booked in dinner for Mon night.

C was traveling with a Lonely Planet guide book that recommended a great place for drinks.  We pulled up to the Royal Livingstone Hotel and were astonished by the luxury digs.  Now we know why we couldn't afford to stay there.  Thankfully, there was no dress code and we were able to enjoy a happy hour at the top of Victoria Falls.  SAM had something blue to drink while C and I opted for a drink called, "I Presume".  Bonus points if you get the reference!  During our conversation with the bar staff, we learned that the Royal Livingstone Hotel is home to four giraffes and eleven zebras.  They have their very own zebras!? Why yes, indeed.

Mmm...hotel grass.

Doorman for RLH took us to the Zam-side park entrance to Vic Falls. Paid $10pp to enter: doorman saved us 50%.  Walked around Vic Falls until 5p.  Taxi back to town, ate dinner at Zambezi Cafe. Good pizza, beef stew and peri peri chicken + garlic bread. Bill was $32.  Back to hotel by 7, tucked in for the night at 8.30. Long day again but are sleeping in tomorrow!

Me and SAM at the top of Victoria Falls, Zambia

Victoria Falls is best experienced from both the Zambian and Zimbabwean sides.  We had just enough time before sunset to enjoy the Zambian side.  We also managed to make a friend in our cab driver, a nice kid by the name of Collings.  Before he dropped us at the B&B for the night, we arranged for him to be our driver the next day.  He was thankful for the work.  After our experience at happy hour, it was a reminder that we were in a developing nation.

Tomorrow brings a day trip to Zimbabwe, walking with lions, the world's best mojito, and a magnificent walk alongside Victoria Falls.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Day 6

Trip notes 9 June - Slept in until 7!!!  Brekky was nice.  Said goodbyes to GC staff.  Flew to Chobe today via Khwai and Kmara.  Took about 2 hours.  Parts of the flight were rough.  9-seater plane. Two bush landings, fertilized a tree.

I never thought I would be so happy about sleeping in until 7 while on vacation.  Our flight to the next camp was around 9.30, so we didn't get a chance to do any excursions that morning.  We had a very nice breakfast and said our good-byes to the staff.

Then it was time to get back in the bush plane.  The pictures below are from the flight.  You can see the airstrip, a view of the delta from the air, and the plane we flew in.  We had two stops between us and Chobe Lodge; one to drop off a couple at Khwai and the other to pick up a couple at Kmara.  The couple that we picked up just happened to be Australian!  We came across more Aussies than Americans on this trip.

The airstrip at Gunn's Camp
A view of the delta

C & Me outside our plane

Arrived Chobe around noon. Checked in with the world, everyone still there. Only 2 e-mails for me; 200+ for SAM.  C & I went shopping at the grocery store. Bought cereal, milk, snacks for the road trip to Livingstone. 90 pula for the groceries. (US$10) Man in front of us could not pay for his groceries, so C gave him her change. (abt 10 pula)

Returned to CSL for boat ride. More touristy than Gunn's but still nice. Loud Aussies on the boat with us. Saw hippos, elephants, impalas and crocs. Got a good pic of two hippos yawning. SAM got some other good shots. 

Chobe Lodge is the main lodge where the tourists go, so it was much bigger and better appointed than the other places we had stayed.  Having modern conveniences was nice but we were only there for one night so I tried to pretend they weren't there.  We booked a 3-hour sunset cruise and got some good pictures of more animals.  I call this the "Yawning Animal Brigade".  Crocs yawn to regulate body temperature and hippos yawn to establish dominance.  You learn something new every day!

Then we saw two elephants up on a hill from the river.  One elephant was no longer alive and the second elephant was keeping guard to chase away scavengers.  It was fairly graphic and it was then I discovered that I much prefer my circle of life in Disney form.

We got to see some more elephants along the river bank, and from the angle of SAM's picture, they looked like Siamese elephants.

Yawning yawning hippo!
Yawning croc
Siamese elephants?
Sunset on the river

My dad would be disappointed in me if I didn't take this opportunity to mention a skit from Mama's Family in which Tim Conway forgot his lines and improvised a skit about seeing Siamese elephants at the circus.  If you've never seen it, it's a hoot!  (skip to the 0:50 mark to forward through the first round of audience laughter)

Then we went back to our room for some wine and then enjoyed a buffet dinner.  The buffet had a lot of local delicacies and different types of game meat.  We ate a traditional lamb roast, as well as some kudu and warthog.  (Yes, we really did eat Tuna Kata this time.) Both were gamey (obviously) but the experience was good.

During dinner we were treated to a show put on by a couple dozen dancers in traditional attire.  I managed to get some of the audio on my iPod but no pictures since we didn't take our camera to dinner.

It was an early night because we knew the next morning would be an early start.  We booked a game drive starting at 6am.  But more on that tomorrow PLUS the most interesting border crossing I have ever done!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Delta Digest - days 4 & 5

I'm going to recap the last two days in the delta as one entry.

Trip notes 7 June:  Woke at 0630 to juice & tea from housekeeping. Could not leave for brekky due to two warthogs nearby on Christina & Astrid's porch. Guide told us later they're not dangerous. Still, it has tusks and can run, so better safe than sorry. 

Is that you, Tuna kata?
The rule in the camp is that you are not allowed outside of your tent while it's dark outside.  This was for our own safety because of all the animals.  Once housekeeping brings the tea & juice, that means it's safe to be outside.  Sometime between 0630 and 0700 we started hearing animals/rustling/fighting  noises.  C came over to our tent while SAM ventured outside to see what was going on.  Two warthogs were having a turf war on the porch of the next tent down.  Now being raised in the suburbs, I'm not all that comfortable around wild animals.  My close encounter with wildlife was limited to a possum getting into our garage when I was about 8 years old.  My dad did a catch & release at the neighborhood park.  I enjoy nature from afar, so being in the wilds of the Okavango Delta is way outside of my comfort zone.  C and I stayed in the tent because we didn't want to get run down by an angry warthog.

The upside of having a schedule at the camp was that if the 5 of us failed to turn up for breakfast on time, someone would notice.  Sure enough, around 0800, a guide came to our tents to see what was going on.  We pointed out the warthog and the guide probably wanted to laugh at us.  Turns out that warthogs have very poor eyesight and pose very little danger to people.  You learn something new every day!
I'm an eagle in a tree
Painted reed frog
Those of you familiar with my travel blogs written in the past few years will remember there are two Universal Truths when Jen travels:  I will always get blisters on my feet and I will always get sick somewhere along the line.  Today I was not dealing with blisters on my feet.  Christina, Astrid, C and SAM geared up for a bush walk while I stayed behind to rest.  The above pictures are some of the animals they encountered along the way.  (If you need a better view, click the picture and it will enlarge.)

That afternoon the 5 of us went on another sunset boat ride and enjoyed some wine.  Then we had another wonderful dinner with the good company of our fellow travelers.  It did seem to feel that in most of the places we went in Africa, we were the only Americans.

Great dinner atmosphere
Trip notes 8 June - Bush walk and boat ride. Out all day. Picnic lunch good. Saw a big ass crocodile. Guides would quiz us on where camp was. C & I were tied 2-2. Got back to camp around 3.30, went for mokoro ride through the weeds. Good dinner again.

We had another warthog sighting on the way to breakfast but felt much better about it.  The warthog was further away and we now knew that it didn't pose a threat to us.  Since I had been sick the previous day and since Christina & Astrid were leaving us that morning, our guide treated us 3 to a longer bush walk, picnic lunch and a boat ride in place of two separate excursions.

The bush walk was very informative.  We saw several herd of impalas, followed some other animal tracks and got to play in an old elephant bath.  When it came time for lunch, we were surprised to see our guides pull a picnic table & chairs out of the boat.  It beat sitting on a picnic blanket!  Lunch was wonderful, even if it meant we traded our made-to-order omlettes back in camp.

After lunch we got back in the boat for a big tour of the delta.  Along the way, we came along a group of 3 boats that had gotten lost.  They were looking for a particular fishing spot and got turned around.  It's pretty easy to get lost in the delta unless you really know your way around.  Our guides asked if we could see the island where we had just picnicked and I was the only one who spotted it correctly.  During the course of the afternoon, our guides would periodically stop the boat and say, "OK, where's camp?" and pretend to be lost.  C and I both guessed correctly twice.  Yes, it's that easy to get turned around in the delta!

This was the afternoon where we also spotted a few hippos and a huge crocodile.  SAM and C missed out on the croc because it was on my side of the boat.  The guide and I estimate that the thing was at least 12 feet long.  I'm very glad the boat kept going; that thing was ugly and mean looking!

On our way back to camp, we were speeding along a straightaway in the channel when we hear a big trumpeting sound from an elephant.  Kenny stopped the boat and we saw a solitary elephant on a small island near the channel.  The advantage to being in a smallish boat in the delta is that Kenny could navigate very close to the animals when we came across them.  We really loved our guides because when it hit the point that C and I felt that we were close enough to the elephant, Kenny stopped the boat.  (It was a nice change of pace from the guide who was more concerned about his truck than us!)  We got back to camp around 3.30, just as the other groups were leaving for their afternoon excursions.  SAM and I were treated to an extra mokoro ride, since I didn't have one the day before.

Our trumpeting elephant
A mokoro through the grass

Mokoro rides are interesting.  It's a canoe that is propelled by the guide who stands in the back of the boat with a long stick.  Instead of paddling the water, you push against the ground with the stick.  (The delta is not that deep.)  It would be a good way to get some exercise!  This mokoro ride was different than the one SAM had the previous morning because we went literally through the grass.  There were a lot of bugs and I couldn't really see where I was going but it was one of those experiences that you have to have when you visit the delta.

 We got back to camp and had another lovely dinner.  Our tents had no electricity, so everyone in camp had to share one power strip in the bar area to charge electronics.  It was quite a sight to see iPods, Kindles and cell phones being charged when you're almost totally off the grid.

Tomorrow brings a bush flight (or three) to the bustling metropolis of Kasane!

Friday, June 29, 2012

A bit of luxury in the Delta

Sitting in the bush plane

Trip notes 6 June

Woke early for 8.10 flight to Gunn's Camp. Nice flight; SAM sat in co-pilot chair. 

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"The best laid plans of mice and men often go astray"

Trip notes 5 June
Aka: "Why Jen will never be on 'Amazing Race'."

Picked up at ass-crack of dawn for trip to see meerkats and the Makgadgadi (?) salt pans.  Saw wildebeests, giraffes, zebras, elephants & hippos. Got done around 2, then...

I'm having to do some creative editing with my notes so as not to interrupt the narrative too much.  Our day started around 6am for a planned drive at the Makgadikgadi Pans.  Note the word, "planned".  We anticipated seeing the world's largest salt pans and we were hoping to spot some  meerkats as well.  Due to a communication error between our tour company and the hired driver, we were taken to the Makgadikgadi National Reserve for a game drive instead.  The reserve was a 2.5 hour drive from Maun, so we were going to be gone all day.

Did you know that zebras have red hair?  Or at least that's how it looked in the sun.  We saw a lot of different animals on the game drive: wildebeests, giraffes, zebras, elephants and hippos.  You'll excuse me if I don't post a lot of pictures here.  I assume most of you have been to a zoo or at the very least have seen pictures of these animals before.  This entry really isn't about the animals.

...then SAM talked Guide into taking us to the Nxai pans.  (pronounced: "nigh") Guide says they were "just down the road". Got to Nxai Pans Nat'l Park checkpoint at pans around 2.45. Drove about 15 minutes toward the pans, then the car started to overheat. SAM helped Guide put water in but it didn't stay in. Turned around and got about 1k back before engine started smoking. Guide was more concerned about his truck than our safety.  Have no idea how far from the checkpoint we actually are.  Estimated 10ks, based on the driving time & conditions. C and I start praying.

So those of you who know me best know that I'm not overly religious.  Still, that didn't stop me from sending a psychic SOS to the Man Upstairs!  I wouldn't have been so worried if it weren't for the fact that the sun sets around 5.30pm.  It is winter, after all.  If we needed to hike it back to the checkpoint, we needed to leave ourselves plenty of time to do it.  Our guide's cell phone was dead.  He also had a satellite phone but the battery was corroded and it obviously was inoperative.  You know what he did not have?  Coolant, a spare tire, a survival kit, or even extra water!  Call me crazy but if your job is driving out in the bush, hours away from civilization, wouldn't you make sure you at least had some extra water and basic car supplies on hand?  But I digress...

Thank goodness C had a Blackberry!  The service was spotty but she managed to get an e-mail off to the B&B owners stating our plight.  If we weren't back by nightfall, they were to send help.

Engine cooled enough for us to get another k closer to checkpoint.  Checking boot laces, getting ready to walk.  

So why is this subtitled, "Why Jen will never be in 'Amazing Race'."?  I'm a very analytical person and like to plan things.  If things don't go to plan, I tend to wig-out internally while trying very hard to keep a cool outer appearance.  I had been wigging out internally since we realized the guide's sat phone was melted and we had no effective means of communication.  Worse yet, we deviated from the plan, no one knows we're here and in the Australian bush we're told over and over again: STAY WITH YOUR CAR and yet we're about to walk 6 miles in the next 90 minutes before the sun sets.  

Yup.  We're boned.

Then we hear an engine.  Plane?  No, car!!  Enter Mike the Good Samaritan. Caught a ride with Mike to the checkpoint. SAM & C talk to guard and ask him to fetch Guide. I stay in car and thank Mike.  He says, "no worries"... hey, that phrase sounds familiar...

Of all the game reserves in all of Botswana, Mike was in ours.  Call it a sign, call it a miracle, call it a flugelhorn if you want but all I know is that this story could have had a very different ending very quickly.  The situation now is that we're at the National Park Checkpoint where there's an actual building, electricity and telephone.  The plan is to wait for the support vehicle to arrive from Maun, then hopefully make it to the B&B by 10pm.   (Remember, we are about 2 hours outside of town at this point!) I ask if he's Aussie.  He is, from Perth!!  I tell Mike that we live in the NT and ask I'd by chance, if he is he going to Maun. He said yes. I offer to pay for his petrol if he will give us a lift. He says we can ride with him but he will not take any money. Mike says we were still 30-40 minutes away from the pans where the car broke down.

We all agree this is the best course of action.  It doesn't dawn on anyone that we are about to get into a car with a complete stranger.  (In retrospect...duh!...that's how a lot of ABC After-School Specials started.)  Just knowing he's an Aussie put my mind at ease immediately.  Don't ask me why.  Mike turned out to be a real stand-up bloke was entertained by our story of how our day unfolded.  He is in the mining industry and in Botswana to set up a new base of operations for his company.  It was his day off and he just happened to be in the Nxai Pans. 

I guess it's safe now to tell everyone's moms that his car didn't have seat belts in the back. 

I confess to C that in a situation like what we were just in, I have the tendency to freeze.  C has traveled enough that she knows exactly what to do to survive.  I feel good about the remainder of the trip, seeing as how this is just Day Two.

Get to Maun around 5.15. Mike refuses dinner & bar shout and drops us off at Nando's. Good on ya, Mike!  I give him my mobile # and e-mail and say if he's ever in the NT  he should call and we'll cook him dinner. We were lucky today.  Very, VERY lucky.

Stopped for booze, got to B&B by 6.30 after cabbie stopped for gas.  Found out later Guide was rescued a few hours later and got home okay.  Long day!! Burning trash or bush fire in area. Don't feel good. Hope to get more than 4 hrs sleep tonight.  Early flight to Gunn's in the AM. I predict a nap.

Yes, even after the day we had, we stopped for a bottle of Jack.  They're called 'priorities', people!

Tomorrow's installment:  It can only get better from here and boy does it ever!


Wednesday, June 27, 2012

More adventure!

Okay, so Blogger has changed a few things since I last logged in...6+ months ago!

A lot has happened in those months.  I got a new job (which you won't find me talking a lot about on here, mainly because it's boring!) went back to Dallas for a month, and went on an around-the-world trip with my darling Secret Agent Man.  This trip was different because we were traveling with a friend we'd made in Cambodia the year before.  You'll see her referred to as "C" from here on out. 

So that's where this blog picks up again.  I was very diligent about making notes every day about what happened and now I've decided to revive the blog and elaborate on my chintzy notes.  Without further adieu, away we go to Africa!

June 1-3:  Travel Days - Got turned around in Jo'burg airport during int'l transfer. Worked to our advantage, no line at PP control & bags were waiting for us. Too old for back-to-back red-eye flights. Felt sick the first night in Maun.  I blame the travel.  Dinner @ Discovery B&B was good. 
Yes, it took us the better part of two days to get to Botswana.  Dallas-London-Johannesburg-Maun.  There's some frequent flyer miles for ya'!  The Dallas-London flight was rough, London-Jo'burg had 100 empty seats, so I was able to take a 3-seat row to myself and lay down for most of the 10 hours.  If only I had been able to sleep...  Jo'burg to Maun was okay.  I was just so tired by the time we got to the B&B that I crashed for 3 hours and still managed to get a decent night's sleep afterward.  The three of us had previously agreed that there would be no set wake-up call the next day and we would use that day to bop around Maun.

June 4:  Maun is like Alice. Dusty, windy, & dry but at least they have a Nando's. (and a copycat) Stopped for a break at Barcelo's for a cold drink & internet break. Walked around Maun for a while. Saw all of town we needed to see. Ate lunch at Kalahari Kafe. Had honey mustard chicken crepes , SAM had a mocha, C had a cappuccino. Coffee reviews were good. SAM haggled with the taxi driver and negotiated 40 pula for the trip back. Added another 10 when we got out b/c Discovery is 10k out of town.

So the first full day in Africa was honestly, a bit of a let-down for me.  I spent two days in transit and after all that travel time, end up in a place that looks EXACTLY LIKE HOME?!?!?  No, not exactly like Alice but very close.  Maun has more grocery stores.  And traffic lights.  And a freaking NANDO'S!  Seriously?  There's a Nando's in Maun, Botswana but not Alice Springs?  For some reason, SAM and I both find this amusing.  

On the way back to camp, we see a bunch of goats going to town on some bushes.  Again, for some reason, this was amusing.  I'm blaming the jet lag.
 Another funny sign we see is for a fast-food restaurant.  At least we think it's a fast-food restaurant.  Could very well be for a brothel and with that mental image, I'll leave that alone.  We return to the B&B for the night, along the banks of the beautiful Thamalakane River.

More later.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


So I've been offline for a while because it seemed easier to keep up with everyone via other social media outlets. I thought I would resurrect the blog for times when I have a bit more on my mind than 140 characters.

Watch this space.