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.
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 sites) 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.
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.
We 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.)
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.
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
That 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!
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)
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.)
We 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.
In 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.
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 the 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.)
Our 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.
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.
We 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.
There 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.
The 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.)
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.
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.
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.