Southern Africa: A Traveller’s Guide

Maybe that title is a little misleading. I’m really going to focus on Botswana and Zimbabwe, but honestly – “Botswana/Zimbabwe: Some Things I Wish I Knew Before I Went” is a lousy title, so there you have it. Literary liberty, for all!

I had a blast in Botswana and Zimbabwe. Are there things that I wish I had done differently? Ok, no. But there are things that I wish I had brought, or hadn’t, or things I wish I had known before I went.

I was in Botswana in December/January, what should be the rainy season, aka – summer. So temperatures soared during the day, and would cool off only a little at night.  We did a camping tour with Intrepid Travel, and their (general) packing guide said to bring a 3-season sleeping bag. Obviously, that was crazy talk, but I had no idea of how cool it might get at night. A silk sleeping bag liner and a fleece liner are sufficient for summer nights in Southern Africa in Botswana. We found when it was too hot, the silk liner didn’t stick to us, and if it got cooler in the early-hours of the morning, a fleece was enough to keep us warm.  Anything more was too much. (And I get cold easily! If it’s under 20C, I sleep under a blanket or two.)

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This was supposed to be enough water for 11 people.

As part of our camping trip,we went up the Boro river, in the Okavango Delta, to bush camp for two nights/three days. We were told to bring 5L of water each, plus fill our water bottles – giving everyone around 6 – 7L of water. Our guide brought an addition 40L of water, which was to be an ’emergency supply’. Somehow, 20L went missing (used in cooking, really, instead of treated river water), and with the temperatures reaching close to 45C every day…..we went through a lot of water. Bring more water than you think necessary  if going bush camping. In retrospect, 15L for the two of us would have been ideal. (Side note: We didn’t ended up dehydrated – our guide went to another camp to ‘borrow’ 10L, and we paid a poler to go down to the town to bring back 20 500mL bottles…..and some beer)

Something else that would have been useful was a light-weight long sleeved shirt – something to throw on to protect shoulders in particular from the sun, but didn’t add any weight or heat. One would have been sufficient, maybe two if I hadn’t been able to do laundry.  (As it was, we had an opportunity every couple of days to do laundry. With the temperature so high, and the air so dry, clothes dried out in an hour – and this is for hand-washed, hand-wrung shirts and undergarments.)

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Neutral clothing like this is ideal for safari walks

Neutral-coloured clothing – anything non-garish, no neons, no jewel colours, no loud patterns – are ideal for safaris, especially walking safaris.  They say ‘no blues, no yellows, no reds, no whites’ but what they mean is no colour that will stand out from the environment.  Sky blue is ok, dun yellow is ok, and a dusty rose/red is ok. Greys, khaki, pale colours….these are all fine.

On the clothing theme, long light-weight pants will be your best friend on a walk safari.  At least where we were, we ended up pushing through reeds or long grasses that were a little scratchy. Having something covering our legs was very helpful. If you have them (or want to buy them) convertible ‘zip’ pants that convert into shorts are even better.  Once you’re out of the grasses, you can switch to something cooler, and you’ve got a two-in-one piece of clothing – pants for a cool/wet day, shorts for a warm day.

The Fiancé bought a Panama hat (when we were in Panama) and has used it for all over our sunny trips ever since. However (as you can see in the photo above) it doesn’t really shade the back of his neck. He wishes he had brought a wide-brim hat to protect his face/neck from the sun.

It was sunny nearly the whole time we were on vacation (with the exception of one morning of rain). When we went swimming (either in hotel pools, or in the Boro river) the Fiancé put on his rash guard, and I…..didn’t because I had left it at home, thinking I didn’t need one more t-shirt. If I could back – I would bring one less t-shirt, and the rash guard instead. It would have been great at keeping my shoulders and back out of the sun, but dries quickly, a must have when you’re on road to a new town nearly every day.

In Zimbabwe, (at the time we were there at least) they use the American dollar. Which is great for us because it’s easy to get in Canada.  We brought $500 each – a couple of $100 bills, $50 in $1 bills, and the rest in $20.  In hindsight, I wish we had brought $5 and $10 bills (in addition to the $1 bills) – very frequently we would pay a bill (in a restaurant, café, or shop) and they would have to go on a hunt for change. We burned through our $1 bills very quickly – if we had had $5, we could have kept the $1s in reserve for bottles of water, or tips.

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I…..got a little sunburned.

Given how little rain we had, more sunscreen and aloe vera lotion would really have hit the spot. We figured we would only need sunscreen for our arms, faces, and maybe feet, so how much could we possibly use? More than we brought, so we had to buy some in Nata. With the temperatures in the 40s (that’s Celsius) every day, we would often sweat off the sunscreen that we had just applied, so we would apply it again (and again, and again). And after our two-day bush camping experience in the Okavango Delta, I ended up with a sunburn on my shoulders, and upper arms. (Some of our tour mates ended up with massive burns on their legs from white-water rafting). Aloe vera lotion would have hit the spot on those burns.

While the roads in Botswana, and from Botswana to Vic Falls, are paved and fairly smooth, there are the occasional bumps or potholes. Or the driver needs to slow down because of cows (or elephants), or speed up to pass someone. A small-mouth water bottle is the best. We brought two wide-mouth bottles, and it took some concentration (or a break in driving) to adequately drink (and not get it down our fronts.)

IMG_0355One thing we brought that was incredibly useful was a small bottle opener. When we did our boat cruise on the Chobe (and when we had beers brought up the Boro in the Okavango Delta) it was the most sought after piece of equipment. (To be fair, one of the Swiss had a bottle opener on his Swiss Army Knife – but that was still only 2 bottle openers for 16 people). Not only does it come in handy – it’s a great way to get to meet your travelling companions! It adds no extra weight, and in my case it’s a key chain, so double useful. (As was the Swiss Army knife.)

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This solar panel ended up being less useful than expected

We brought a portable solar panel from Goal Zero. It turned out not to be as helpful as we thought it would be. In the Okavango Delta, it ended up being too hot – phones overheated while trying to charge, and that’s when they were in the shade. It ended up being dead weight. Every hotel lodge/campground we stayed at had electrical outlets for charging, and with the exception of the one night at the Khama Rhino Sanctuary, and the two nights in the  Okavango Delta, we were staying at hotel campgrounds. (The solar panel was far more helpful when I was in Mongolia.)

One piece of electronics that turned out to be worth it’s weight was a large battery with 3 USB ports (ours is a Uniden model). This was great when there was a line up for the electrical outlets – we could charge our phones up easily. When we upgraded to a hotel room, we could then charge the battery pack. It was by far more useful than the solar panel.

 

 

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Somalisa Camp and Hwange Park

After our Intrepid tour, we had a few free days before we had to fly home. We decided that we wanted to do a safari (I’d done a 4-day safari in Tanzania, but the Fiancé had never experienced one). We debated between Kruger Park in South Africa, and Hwange Park in Zimbabwe. Friends and family advocated for Kruger, as Zimbabwe gets some bad press, and they felt it might be more dangerous.

But I won out, an20160105_054621d we ended up booking a 3-night 4-day stay at Somalisa Camp, with fly-in/out transfers.

We flew out of Vic Falls on a Wednesday, on a 6-seat Cessna 206. The Fiancé got to ride in the co-pilots seat for the 45-minute flight. We landed on the dirt strip, and were greeted by our guide, Albert (who it turns out, used to be a pilot.) We waited for the plane to take off, before heading towards Somalisa.

About 10 minutes into our drive, we came across a mud hole, where a herd of elephants were, for lack of a better word, frolicking. It’s a sight to see, these massive animals rolling in mud, spraying themselves, and each other. As far as introductions go, this was a great way to start our stay.

20160105_134240At the camp, we were met by Dophas and Johannes, who would be our hosts for the three days that we were there. Each time we came back from a game drive, they would meet us with cool, damp towels (lemon-scented!) so we could wash off the dust, and cool down. Dophas gave us a quick orientation of the camp, explaining where everything was, and what times we could expect our meals, and game drives, before we headed to our room to freshen up and relax.

Each day was similar in timings – Dophas would wake us up at 5, leaving coffee in our butler hatch, and breakfast was at 5:30. At 6, we would begin our game drive, and be back in camp by around 1 or 2, for lunch. At 4:30 we would meet for a snack, before heading out on an evening game drive at 5:00, ending with sundowners, before heading back to camp for around 7:30.  After that it was dinner, and drinks.

Somalisa had just finished renovations, and upgrading their camp. Their grand re-opening was set for the day that we were to leave, so the Fiancé and I joked that we were their soft opening. In fact, we were the only guests at the camp – making us feel more like royalty. In effect, we had a personal staff – personal hosts, personal guide, personal chef…not a bad way to end our tour!

20160108_091412Our game drives were well equipped. Our 4X4 carried two tents (just in case), a cooler of drinks (soft drinks, beer, wine, and water), and another case with snacks – we had everything from carrot and cucumber sticks, popcorn, cookies to grilled cheese, samosas, and pastry-wrapped sausages. We got a kick out of drinking a beer while driving through the park – it’s not often that one can do that!

20160106_100203Our first evening game drive was filled with animals.  Just as in Botswana, there were massive herds of impala and zebra, and elephants. At one point, the Fiancé counted over 100 elephants at the pans. We drove around the pan, watching baboons play, zebra mock-fight, and impala passively saunter. Albert informed us that if the impala are so relaxed, there are no cats in the vicinity. If there were, the impala would be standing at attention, all staring in the same direction. (We would get to test this theory on our third day.)

Hwange Park is a very dry, sandy place. To encourage the animals to stay, the water is pumped into the pans. There were the odd diesel pumps, but most had been upgraded to solar power. The drought is just as evident in Hwange as it was in the Okavango Delta – the grass had predominantly turned brown, and animal carcasses had basically mummified. (Not even the vultures would go near them.)

20160106_114955But the pans were, if not full, providing plenty of water to the animals. We drank our gin and tonics, and watched the animals drink, as the sun went down. Driving back to the camp, we were lucky enough to see an African Wild Cat make a kill. Our dinner was on the lower deck, just in front of the elephant drinking pool. The elephants were maybe 5 metres away – an incredible end to an incredible day.

On our second day, we drove out of camp and towards the pans where we had had our sundowners. This morning we saw jackals and bat-eared foxes, and Albert found lion tracks, which we followed. Unfortunately, the lions were hiding in the brush, so we headed back to camp, coming across some giraffe. 

20160106_132046That afternoon, we lounged by the pool (the camp provided sunscreen and towels), enjoying some downtime after the rush and bustle of our Intrepid tour. At 5, we headed back out for our evening game drive, this time finding monkeys and warthogs. (Each time we did a game drive, we saw new animals.) We ended with our sundowners again (Albert makes a mean G&T) before driving back to camp.

A few more staff had turned up in anticipation of the re-opening. Over drinks, I chatted with Denzel, while Ross taught Dophas how to play backgammon. Our chef, Sandy, came out and detailed the meal for the evening (steak!), before retiring back to the kitchen. The Fiancé and I got to eat on the lower deck again (I assume, if there had been more guests, it would have rotated)

IMG_0958After our unsuccessful search for lions the previous day, Albert asked us if we wanted to do a longer morning game drive, heading further afield, closer to Main Camp, where reports had come of lions in the previous days. We agreed, and we set off. We took a meandering route there, finding a Sable antelope, hippos, crocodiles, even a territory fight between some jackals and bat-eared foxes.  But no lions. We stopped for lunch overlooking a pan (watching the hippos wallow, and the birds flock) before we reluctantly decided to head back to camp.

And that’s when Albert yelled out “LIONS!” Sure enough – there was a male and two females walking through some bushes. Luckily, there was a road slightly closer, so we drove around and got a great view of the lions lounging under some bushes.   “Now that we’ve seen them, we’re going to see lots, just watch” Albert said as we drove away.

Our morning game drive ended up being close to 10 hours, so we opted out of an evening game drive. While lounged poolside, we had many visitors at the pan in front – zebras, kudus, impalas, a warthog, and of course the elephants. 

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Our last morning at the camp we slept in. Our flight time had changed several times the evening before, from 9:15 to 8:15, so we decided that we’d skip a long game drive. When we had breakfast, we were informed that our flight was finally settled at 9:50. So we did get a short game drive in. 

20160108_010134And of course, 5 minutes outside of camp….we saw a lioness and her cub. We followed them a little, but the cub was very skittish, so they quickly headed into the bush, so we started back. And of course….we saw another lioness and her cub. Albert took a look, and determined that the cub was actually one of Cecil’s sons. These lions were very relaxed, and flopped out in the shade right beside the track. We spent a few moments there, before driving a loop, and heading to the air strip to await our flight.

Lucky for us, a government official (The Minister of Tourism) was flying in for the re-opening. He was on a dual-engine King Air, with a pressurized cabin and comfortable, lounge-y seats. It was decided that rather than take the Cessna caravan back, we’d be taking the King Air. Our transfer back was half the time it took to get to Hwange – we were in the air for only 20 minutes before we landed at Vic Falls. From start to finish at Somalisa, we felt like we were getting a true luxury experience!

Beers up the Okavango

The fiancé and I decided a while back to go to Africa for our winter vacation.  We’re a little Central America’d out at the moment – after visiting Panama, Cuba and Guatemala within three years, we felt we needed a bit of change this year.

But we wanted something easy – something that was different, but that wouldn’t tax our abilities to travel around and see as much as we could.  We settled on doing a tour with Intrepid Travel, and after a bit of discussion (we knew we wanted to do Southern Africa, we just weren’t sure where exactly) we picked their Okavango Experience trip.  The dates were right, the price was right, and the length was right. 10 days, starting in Johannesburg, South Africa; through Botswana, and ending in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe.

Trip map

This tour is advertised as a ‘basix’ tour – essentially, it’s a camping tour where you are expected to pitch in by setting up/taking down your own tents, as well as helping with dishes after meals.  There was the option to upgrade to a room on occasion (when we were staying in towns, and if the hotels had rooms available) which I have to admit, we took advantage of.  Breakfasts and most dinners were included, lunches we were expected to self-cater for the most part – we would stop in a town, go to a grocery store, and stock up on lunch and snacks. Visa costs were not included, however our guide was there to help us navigate the land border crossings (which were surprisingly easy!)

We flew out of Ottawa on December 24, to Washington DC, and then on to Johannesburg, arriving early evening on December 25. Our starting point was the Sandton Holiday Inn – by far the fanciest Holiday Inn either of us had ever seen.  Chandeliers, a rooftop pool, swank chairs….I felt sure we were in the wrong spot (nope – it was right. We met our tour mates, guide and driver the next day in the hotel.)

The first day of an Intrepid Tour is always your own, with a group meeting in the evening. We spent the day on a city Hop-On Hop-Off tour – in addition to being tired and unfamiliar with the city, it was also Boxing Day and a lot of things (shops, museums and tourist site20151226_054018s) were closed, so it seemed like a good option. We got a great overview of the city, as well as a fantastic 2-hour tour of Soweto as an extension.

  We had a local tour guide of Soweto, which gave us a lot of insight into the township.  We started off driving by the stadium from the World Cup, then onto the cooling towers, that have been turning into a bungee jump (alas, we saw no jumpers).  Fans of ‘An Idiot Abroad’ will be familiar with the painted towers from season 2. After the cooling towers, we headed to the Hector Pieterson Memorial and museum. We were given a brief history of the Soweto Uprising, and what precipitated it. We continued on, visiting Nelson Mandela’s house, and Desmond Tutu’s house, before passing through Kliptown. Again, because it was Boxing Day, a lot of places were closed and we only got an outside look.  It was definitely a tour that I would recommend.

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Hector Pieterson Memorial

Back at the hotel, we met the rest of our tour mates – 2 couples from Switzerland, a couple from New Zealand, and a lot of Aussies (ok, so only 8, but it seemed like a lot). First meetings are always so awkward – not knowing anything about anyone, and everyone standing around uncomfortably….it would take a few days (as well as $120USD, a mokoro, 20 bottles of water and a lot of beer) for everyone to gel.

20151227_044455We set off bright and way too early the next day – we were on the road by 4:30 am, as we had an 11-ish hour drive to get to the Khama Rhino Sanctuary in Botswana. We stopped around 8:30 for breakfast at a truck stop, getting coffee at a Wimpy’s (think Burger King/McDonald’s/Harvey’s) before hitting the road again. Just before the South Africa/Botswana border, we stopped to stock up on lunch and snack foods for the next few days.

The border was quick and easy – we lined up all together, had our passports collected, stamped, and then passed back at the South African border, before we drove to the Botswana side to repeat the exercise. After that it was smooth driving to the Rhino Sanctuary.

 

We arrived around 4 pm, and immediately headed off on a game drive (well, drives, as we were split into two groups of 8), while our guide and driver went to the campsite to set up our tents. In the Sanctuary, we saw a lot of white rhinos, impala, springbok, zebras, wildebeest, a few giraffes, and even a waterbuck. The Sanctuary has mostly white rhino, but they also have a few black rhinos (although we were unfortunate and didn’t see any.)

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Suckling young rhino

Seeing as it was summer in Botswana, we got to see babies – everywhere the eye could see babies!  Baby impala, baby rhinos…those a some big babies.  Our driver was very knowledgeable about the animals, and every time we stopped, he would turn off the vehicle, turn around and tell us about their lifespans, their markings, and their habits. The one caution is that the game drive starts at reception, but ends at the campsite – so if you want anything from the small store (souvenirs, cold drinks) get it before you head off.

20151227_183346The campsite at the sanctuary was great – there was a tap with running water, a fire pit, and lots of shade. The comfort station was a short walk away, and soap and toilet paper were provided. (The toilets, and shower stalls, were very clean and well maintained.) We were given a warning to always check outside the tent before we left it – mostly for snakes, but also scorpions. We were also warned that the area we were camped in was the area that the black rhinos liked, so to be careful of any large and new “rocks” that may be in our path as we went to the comfort station at night.

The next day we were up early (but not as early) for the drive to Maun, and the Okavango delta. We spent one night in Maun, before heading, via mokoro (the traditional dugout canoe) into the delta. The two nights that we spent in the delta proved to be the bonding experience that we all needed.

The day before we left to go into the Delta, we were given some time to shop for snacks, and drinks, in Maun. We were told to buy 5L each of water, and any additional drinks (alcoholic, or non) that we might like for the trip.  Only…the bottle stores (or beer/liquor stores) were all closed. Not really a problem, just…it might have been nice to have a few beers around the fire at night. We all bought our water, filled our water bottles (The Fiancé/ and I had 12 litres total) and headed to the small village where we were starting our bush camp experience.

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Off we set, 2 people per mokoro, with a ‘poler’ at the back. We headed 2 hours into the delta, and set up camp on what is usually an island, but currently isn’t because of the drought affecting the area. The drought also meant that the polers had to manouver the mokoros around the sandbars that had cropped up in the river.  The water was incredibly shallow in places, and even though the mokoros don’t sit heavy in the water, they still got stuck upon occasion. Once at our campsite, we had lots of trees providing shade, and a small swimming area in the river just to the right of the campsite.  We got ourselves set up, had lunch, and then…..changed into swimsuits (well, I changed into a swimsuit top and yoga pants, because I couldn’t find my bikini bottoms the first day), and hit the water, because it was 43C and really, really, really hot.

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Alas, the water was no cooler than the air, so it felt like taking a very warm bath (a warm, silty, mud covered bottom bath) with several near strangers.  Occasionally we’d get a wave of cooler water around our feet, but it was overwhelming weirdly warm water. One of the Swiss guys had a small ball that he pulled out, so we played catch, drawing in a few of the polers, and helping to break the ice.

“Wouldn’t it be nice to have a cold beer right about now?” We started joking.  “The polers could make some serious cash if they just poled by all the campsites with a cooler of beer!” And we all laughed, and thought nothing else of it.  

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Several of us wanted to learn how to pole the mokoro, so one of the polers took us out, one-by-one, to teach us how.  The hardest part is the balance – unlike stand-up paddle boarding, you’re at the back of the mokoro. Your feet are in a T formation, with the back foot being the top of the T.  You slide the pole into the water nearly touching (or touching) the mokoro beside you, and push back. If you need to turn, you ‘sweep’ the mokoro in an arc in the water – a clockwise arc turns you right, and a counter clockwise arc turns you left.  It’s tricky maintaining your balance while you pole – you’re shifting your weight around to move the pole back to your side for another push.

20151230_002545That evening, around 5, we had a short game walk, seeing impala, elephants, zebras and a giraffe nearby. We were split into three groups, and our guides led us out and onto a large plain, telling us to walk single file (so as not to scare the animals). The three groups headed in different directions, although we all still ended up in the same spots, just not packed all together.  Close to sunset, we started back. We had gone a fair distance from camp, so as we walked it got a little darker, a little darker, a litttttle darker….and then we heard it.  A roar.  A roar that wasn’t that far away.  We all froze, mid-step, and stared.  At each other, at the dark trees around us, at the guide.  “An elephant” he said.  (And after hearing a lot of elephants, yes, yes it was.  Only at the time it did NOT sound like an elephant).  Finally, just as the sun was setting, we arrived back in camp for dinner. The next morning we had a longer game walk (about 6 hours, and thankfully with no terrifying animal noises), and saw (in addition to the previously listed animals) a warthog, many more giraffes, baboons, wildebeest and even hippos! As we headed back to camp, our guides (we had two for the second walk) stopped, spoke in the local language, and then led us back in the direction that we had come from. We pushed through reeds (it’s a very sad state of climate when you can visually tell that what you are walking should be water, but is instead not.) and came upon a largish pond.  Wallowing in the middle were three hippos. Well worth the u-turn to see!

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Elephants on our walking tour

Back in camp, it was announced that we were running out of water – somehow about 20L of water had gone missing. Our guide had brought an extra 40L as a back up, but somehow half of it had disappeared.  He announced that he was going to try another camp a little farther down the river, to see if they had any water they could give us.  (They had fewer tourists, but had brought the same amount of water.) He set off with one of the polers, and we changed into swimsuits to hit the river. And again the joking start – “Wouldn’t it be great to have a beer?” Only it didn’t stay a joke.  The Fiancé told one of the polers that they could make some serious money by bringing beer into the delta, and the polers went with it! One of the polers offered to go back to town (remember – we were 2 hours from the nearest town) for beer.  We just needed to give him a list.

So the Fiancé approached me to ask everyone what they wanted, make a list, and figure out the money. We decided we’d pay for everything up front, and have everyone else pay us back later. 4 hours later, the polers arrived back in camp with our beer (as well as 20 bottles of water, and some soft drinks that had been requested) and the ice was broken – everyone opened their beer, joked around, and the mood was set for the rest of the tour.  (I should note about this – we gave the polers a hefty tip for the time and effort, and bought them some soft drinks as well.  And not a single person argued about the cost of the drinks, or the tip that given)

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Red Lechwe that we saw while heading back to town

 

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Group photo from the co-pilot’s seat

Back in Maun on December 31, most of the tour group opted to do the scenic flight over the Okavango Delta. We were split into two groups of 7, and boarded our airplanes for a 45 minute tour. I can’t say I was impressed with our pilot – he had two stall warnings on takeoff, but I guess to be fair – it was obnoxiously hot that day. Flying over the Delta really brought home how bad the drought in Southern Africa is. Dried up river beds, sand bars in the rivers that hadn’t dried up, brown grasses…and we were there in the rainy season. I’m was sitting in the co-pilot’s seat, and all I could see out the window was brown.  (The other side of the plane apparently got some greener views, but they were few and far between.)

IMG_0205We celebrated New Year’s Eve with a buffet dinner, music, and some dancing (or so I’m told – we ended up going to bed early, as we had to be up at 6 am the next day.) Then it was off to Nata, a short 4-hour drive away.

IMG_0248In Nata, we did a game drive through a bird sanctuary located on the salt pans.  Unfortunately, evidence of the drought was in full force and there was not a single flamingo or pelican to be seen (nor was there any water).  We did see a few birds (ostrich, a secretary bird and a few migratory birds) but it was mostly empty, brown, sandy savannah. We did see on lone wildebeest, and a scrub hare, but that was it for mammals. The tour ended with sundowners on Makgadikgadi salt pan – a vast, empty salt pan. Our group had by this time gotten into a groove, so there were some goofy photos, some artistic photos, laughs and groans as we posed with the sunset backdrop.

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From Nata we drove to Kasane, located at the junction of 4 countries – Botswana, Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Kasane is a large tourist destination, as it’s close to Chobe Park, a good base for those who want to do a sunset river cruise or a game drive. Organized for us was a sunset cruise, but there was also an optional game drive of Chobe, which the Fiancé and I opted out – knowing that we were going to be doing a lot of drives in Hwange in a few days, we thought we’d use the time to relax by the pool at the hotel. At 3:30, those of us who opted out were driven down to the docks for our river cruise, where we promptly claimed the shaded side of theIMG_0336 boat for our tour mates, who joined us a few minutes later. We had our coolers of beer, and our cameras ready to go.  Almost immediately, we saw a hippo, and then young male elephants mock-fighting on the riverbank. The cruise lasted a couple of hours, and we ended up seeing lots of elephants, hippos (and tiny hippo babies!), buffalo, and the odd crocodile.  By sunset, our group had rearranged the chairs into a circle, and we were chatting away.

The next day we left before 6 to conquer the Zimbabwe border bright and early – before any of the other tour buses got there. The border is open 6 am to 6 pm, and we got there juuuuust as they were swinging open the gate. To our (sticker) shock, the KAZA visa – a multi-entry visa that (we thought) was good for Zambia and Zimbabwe, was no longer available.  So instead of spending $50 each, we had to pay $75 each, for a single-entry visa for Zimbabwe. (A double-entry visa is not possible for Canadians.)

(Side note:  This proved to be extra expensive for us: $75/each for the first Zimbabwe visa, $20/each for a day visa to Zambia to go to Devil’s Pool, $75/each for the second Zimbabwe visa.  A total of $170 EACH in visa fees.  Ouch.)

20160103_105718Our tour ended in Victoria Falls, with the last activity being a walk through the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zim side.  (Entrance is $30USD.) We were given the option of going whenever we wanted, our guide would either accompany us to the gate and pay, or we could submit a receipt to him for reimbursement. We choose to go the morning we arrived, and walked through the Park, stopping at all the viewpoints to see the falls.  It was so wet, that at times we couldn’t decide if it was spray from the falls, or if it was raining. But given the heat – and it was hot – we quickly dried off as we moved away from the main falls (aptly called ‘Main Falls’).  As we walked along, past Livingstone Island (and Devil’s Pool), the water started drying up – Horseshoe Falls and Rainbow Falls were both nearly dry, with only small trickles of water cascading over the edge.

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Eastern Cataract

Main Falls is still dramatic, with massive amounts of water falling the 108m to the river at the floor of the canyon.  We got a close up look the next day, when we walked over the border to Zambia, to visit Devil’s Pool.

IMG_0476We hurried back to the camp after we walk along the falls, to be picked up by Lion Encounter.  We drove about 20 minutes out of Vic Falls, and to their concession, where we got to walk with lions.  The lions are about 2 years old, and have been raised by volunteers, so they are accustomed to humans. There are a few rules to remember – don’t wear anything that dangles, don’t get down on the ground, and don’t touch their heads. The lions, while used to humans, are still wild, and are still cats. They will play with anything that dangles, lies on the ground, or will try to grab a hand that is close their head. We were given walking sticks – again, just the sheer size of the lions means that if they want to play, you don’t want to use your hand to admonish them. You use the stick, because if part of that goes missing, no one needs to be rushed to a hospital.

IMG_0435There were 6 of us on the tour (3 couples) and each person got a chance to walk with the lion. Typically, one person would go first, their partner would join, then the first person would drop back, and their partner would get a chance to walk alone with the lion. When the lions laid down, we were given the opportunity to rub their bellies (very coarse, rough fur! Not at all like a house cat or a dog) before they were up again and walking. During the walk, there are two guides, a videographer, and a guard (you are in the wild, and there are buffalo and elephants….) so safety is as assured as it can be.  After our walk, we visited some older lions (and had our hands licked!) before heading back, and watching our video.

20160104_060120The next day, we walked over the border to Zambia (paying $20USD for a day visa) to visit Devil’s Pool.  Devil’s Pool is a naturally formed pool in the basalt rock of Livingstone Island, on the edge of Main Falls. The rocks create an area with minimal current during the dry season, allowing brave souls (like yours truly) to splash around at death’s edge. (Please read that with dramatic overtones).  Usually, this is only feasible from September to December/early January. People are picked up at the Royal Livingstone Hotel, and taken by boat over to Livingstone Island, and are then given a brief tour of the Eastern Cataract.  Then, they slip into the water, swim diagonally against the current, and across to the rocks surrounding Devil’s Pool.  (The diagonal swim is so that as you swim across the current, and it pushes you down, you don’t go sweeping over the edge. You are delivered instead to Devil’s Pool.)20160104_061546

While the Fiancé and I wore water shoes we needn’t have worried, the rocks aren’t that sharp…..but they are that warm.  Because of the current, algae doesn’t have time to grow, so it’s not slippery either. We clambered across the rocks, and were instructed to slip into Devil’s Pool.  (When the water is running very low, you can jump in).  There is a “lifeguard” who is there as an added precaution – he sits closer to the edge, allaying your fears that you’re about to go over, and holds you when you lie on the rock ledge (the Armchair). There is another guide who takes pictures with your camera, and then leans over the waterfall to get a dramatic video of the water crashing over the edge.

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Each person gets a go and sitting on the armchair, and lying over the edge (or close to it, in my case) before the next person is ushered in, and you swim off to the side (not the rushing current side). After everyone’s photos are done, you rock scramble back to the river, swim back to the island, and sit down for food (while waiting for the adrenaline to wear off.) The morning tours include a snack, the lunch time tour has a three course meal, and the afternoon tour has tea. We were there for lunch, so we started with a gazpacho, followed by chicken and beer, roast veggies, steamed veggies, and couscous, before ending with a fruit cup for dessert. After our meal, we took the boat back to the hotel, and then walked back across the border (paying another $75 each in visa fees) before grabbing a cab to hotel.

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Group photo from Nata

Our group had slowly broken apart over the two days in Vic Falls. Some people left early on for other adventures, some had an extra day to play before heading home, and a few were even continuing on with Intrepid for the trip back to Johannesburg (through Zimbabwe this time). Those of us that were left got together for dinner that evening, pulling in a few of the new people who had joined up for the tour back to Jo’burg, at the hotel restaurant. We started off with two tables, added a few more chairs, realized we had too many people, added another table…until we had 5 tables, and nearly 20 people sitting around, eating, drinking and having a good time. We ordered our meals, and those of us with crocodile, impala and warthog meat, shared it as it came out, passing bits of meat down to those who wanted to try something different, laughing and talking. As it got later, and people started leaving for bed, hugs and promises of places to stay made the rounds, until only a few of us were left.