Sunday, April 28, 2013

Okavango Delta and the close of our tour

After Chobe we headed to Maun and set off for 2 nights in the Okavango Delta by mokoro, which is a traditional dugout canoe with a poler standing in back pushing the boat through the narrow waterways. It is very relaxing except for occasionally getting smacked in the face with reeds. I actually fell asleep for the last 20 minutes. Unfortunately I have no photos of this on my phone because I took my nice camera and didn't want to have to protect too many electronic items from falling into the water. But I will post photos and videos later. There weren't all that many animals to see, but we did have a close encounter with a hippo on the way in, and there obviously were animals all around us because their poop was everywhere.

For 2 nights we had no facilities. We brought cooking items with us but all cooking was done on the fire. The toilet was a hole dug in the ground. The head poler told us if we filled it up he would dig another but it didn't get to that point; I think it's likely we had some backed up people on the return ride. :)

There was little to do but take nature walks, swim in a former hippo pool, read and sleep. No one in our group braved the pool but another group on the island was more adventuresome. The water was pretty nasty and my prissy Virgo nature can't stand getting muddy unless I'm at a spa. Between walks and sunset mokoro rides we napped and read a lot. It was very relaxing. Just when we were becoming bored out of our skulls we returned. Anastasia's new group and ours had been on the same path up to this point. Upon return we said our final goodbyes before they headed to Namibia and we headed toward South Africa.

Our next stop was Planet Baobab which seemed like an awesome place and had the awesomest pool of anywhere we have stopped. Unfortunately we arrived after 5 and left before 6 so there was no time to do anything other than set up camp, eat, shower, sleep, tear down, eat again, and leave. Well, you all know us--we did manage to squeeze in a few beers at the awesome bar. And Steve took a refreshing dip in the pool. When we went for a p.m. shower we were surprised to find the showers were completely open air and unlit. No lights whatsoever, only the mostly full moon to assist. That was the only bad thing about this place. So Steve and I ignored the gender segregation and set up all our headlamps and other lights in a shower on the ladies' side and took what felt like a candlelit shower, except less romantic. The water was hot but still it was cold outside. Also, because the lack of roof allowed leaves to fall into the shower, the drain backed up pretty bad and we had to get in and out quickly.

The next day we rushed to Camp Itumela in Palapye where due to the dropping temperatures no one opted to camp. If you want some amusement, check out the TripAdvisor review we are writing about this place that will be posted in about a week.

From here we set off on our final game drive in the Khama Rhino Sanctuary. It did not disappoint - we saw about 10 or 12 white rhinos! They are probably the most impressive animals I've seen in Africa so far. As a bonus we got to see some ostriches preening and dancing because it is mating season. We also saw some wildebeest which we hadn't seen previously. Returning back we had our last dinner and last drinks with the group. Well, the drinkers consisted of me Steve and one Dutch girl, Sunna, but the three of us did a farewell shot of Amarula mixed with Kahlua - Amarula is the Bailey's of Africa.

After another mostly sleepless night (again, check out that review when you get a chance) we got up at 4:30 to repack and head off on our final long drive to Johannesburg. It certainly has been an experience and the closer we get to the end the more I wish it could continue.

Pics: post-delta goodbyes, ready for our last game drive!, sunrise, our neighbors at our last camp, and ostriches!

*Also after seeing how kick ass I look in wire framed sunglasses I'm thinking I need to pursue a new career in law enforcement upon return :)

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Chobe

Upon arriving at our campsite we immediately upgraded to a room because Steve wanted some AC and a bed before heading into the Delta. I didn't complain. The room was comfortable and the nicest we had since Zanzibar. We relaxed the first night and chatted with another (drunk) African tour operator. Since the first part of our tour ended and the original group split up our new group is only 7. Steve and I are now the partiers of the group essentially because none of the Australians are joining us on the last leg. We even had an Italian couple join who turned out to be teetotalers. Surely this violates some Italian law or another.

The next morning was an early game drive in Chobe and an evening boat cruise.  Upon entering the park at 6 a.m. we immediately got to watch three hyaenas taking off with the remnants of a warthog. Close behind was the female lion whose kill they had stolen! Dramatic start! The rest of the drive was not nearly as eventful. Our guide gave us some excuse about the animals being "wild" or something like that. Sheesh! If you want a bigger tip just say so.

We did get to see warthogs (living ones too), buffalo,  hippos, crocodiles, lots of birds, jackals, and another 4 female lions. Oh, and a bunch of big cat snacks too - i.e. impala, waterbuck, and kudu. We did not get to see any of the thousands of elephants that Chobe is famous for because it was too cold and they were hiding. At least according to our guide. But I ask you - where does an elephant hide? Steve and I are now convinced that male lions and leopards are completely fictional creatures.

We napped until our evening boat cruise down the Chobe River. This time we got to see lots of elephants eating, frolicking, swimming, and doing all manner of cute elephant things. We also got to see hippos grazing in the water and in case you were wondering, it looks EXACTLY like Hungry Hungry Hippos.

We were treated to another spectacular Southern African sunset and then we headed back to camp to drink Windhoek beer on tap and watch VH1 classic on the bar TV. Tuesday is another early rise and long drive to Maun where we will sleep over before heading out for our Okavango Delta mokoro adventure!

Photos: Chobe River in the morning (Namibia is on the other side!), big boy, lions resting in the shade, elephants in the river, fantastic Chobe sunset, and our packing list for the mokoro trip.

Victoria Falls

On Friday we had a  very long drive with few stops except for bathroom breaks. We actually got a rest stop pay toilet this time before Lusaka and I wish I had taken my camera in. For the bargain price of 2 kwacha you got a clean western style toilet in a club atmosphere - blue lights and piped in music as you waited. I think they even had soap and hand dryers which have been largely nonexistent in Africa.

We made it to Victoria Falls in the early evening and got a bed for 2 nights. The fan sounded like a helicopter all night long but it was nice to have our own shower and get some laundry done. We went out for a farewell dinner and then headed to a backpacker lodge for a beverage. The scene was a bit hectic (and young) for Steve and Anastasia and me so we headed back to the lodge to retire early.Other (younger and crazier) members of our group had a much better time out and remained unaccounted for as of breakfast the following morning.

It was recommended that we do "activities" on Saturday because entrance to the falls would be paid for us on Sunday. But we are not adrenaline junkies so no bungee jumping, and I am fearful that the various animal encounters on offer are probably not in the best interests of the animals, so we went to Victoria Falls anyway. It was amazing and completely lived up to my childhood expectations. We got completely drenched, but it was worth it.

On Sunday we returned to the falls with the group and I was glad we had gone the day prior. Although it was not as wet, the position of the sun in the morning reflected off of the mist creating an awful glare that completely obscured the falls in places. We also bid farewell to Anastasia Sunday morning, but not fully as our tours will mostly mirror each other for another couple days and we will see each other again before finally heading off in different directions.

After a couple hours at the falls, we continued on into Botswana to stay for 2 nights in Kasane just outside Chobe park.

Pictures: Steve and I in front of the statue of Livingstone who "discovered" the falls, Vic Falls before it got too wet and I put my phone away, and sunset at Thebe River Safaris looking out on the Chobe River.

Friday, April 26, 2013

What is an overland tour?

If you are reading my blog you are probably a friend or relative and therefore American and you may have never heard about overland tours. We had seen a few on offer through the big tour companies but didn't really completely understand how it worked. They exist in other places too but in Africa overlanding is a huge part of the tourism industry and almost a right of passage especially for young travellers visiting the continent for the first time. It's also the only way most people will get to see Africa if they are too scared to go it alone and aren't made of money.

Travel is overland (as you might expect) in a custom made rig. Passengers (about 24 max depending on the truck and outfit) sit in back in bus like seats but you won't mistake this vehicle for a bus once it gets going. The ride is exactly what you would expect out of riding in the back of a freight truck over some of the worst roads in the world. There is storage for cooking equipment and tents on the bottom and lockers to hold personal belongings and bags in the back. Things break on the trucks frequently. We are on our second truck now. The first actually had reclining seats that gradually broke one by one during the first part of our journey. That part of the tour was much fuller - 17 people as opposed to 7 for the second part - and everyone inevitably ended up in one of the bouncy broken seats at least once every couple days. This truck has stationary seats and fewer of us so overall it's more comfortable, but the compressor blew on the freezer so keeping food fresh is a challenge.

The crew cooks us three meals a day generally and we take turns helping prep and doing the dishes. Every day we go somewhere new we have to set up camp. The food is fine but repetitive and very heavy in meat and oil. Because of the long distances we often pack up before the sun comes up and we often have to put up tents at night in the dark. It feels like a great luxury when we get to stay somewhere for more than one day. On consecutive travel days it can often feel like all we are doing is driving, setting or striking camp, and eating.

None of this is a huge problem because I have experience with such camping trips but the gear is not the best or easiest to deal with and it can be frustrating to have no control over the itinerary or meals. Frequently Steve and I (and others) would have much preferred to just eat something along the way and save some time, but the guides usually insist on pulling onto the side of the road and setting up a full lunch spread which reduces the time we have for any other stops we might make.

The camps we stay at vary wildly. All have some form of accommodation besides camping, but it's often very primitive and very expensive compared to what you would get for less money in other parts of the world. Some of the tent spaces are grassy comfy and spacious. Others are sandy pits with one tent on top of another. Some bathrooms are clean and well tended to. Others are filthy with only a trickle of lukewarm water for a shower. And pricing is not reflective of what you get. The owners of these places are often former overland operators themselves and when you meet them they don't always seem on the up and up (or concerned about the quality of their product). As Anastasia put it - they seem like they are on the lam. The camps always have a bar and sometimes offer great prices on beers. Some have been incredibly scenic and well tended-to, such as Wildlife Park just outside South Luangwa. I would stay there again in a heartbeat. But when you are traveling with an overland tour you are limited to camps with facilities for the trucks. Even if it says you will stay in a city on your itinerary you will be outside town with nary a hope of finding transport into town to get a meal or catch a feel of the place.

The advantage of overlanding is that you get access to places that might otherwise be prohibitively expensive to access. For example, on this trip in addition to South Luangwa, we got to do game drives  in Chobe, Khama Rhino sanctuary, and Mikumi Parks and we got to visit Lake Malawi and spend 3 days taking mokoro rides and camping in the Okavango Delta. All wonderful. The downsides are that you get a fairly superficial view of the places where you are traveling, it's not a very comfortable way to travel by any stretch of the imagination, and the long rides and repetitive meals and constant setting up and tearing down grow tiresome. The group aspect could be a pro or a con. You can met a lot of interesting people from different places, you can get stuck on a truck where no one speaks your language, you can end up on a truck with a spring break feel, or some combination of the above. As with anything else in life some people are nice and some people suck.

We have learned that if you are considering trying it out, you are probably better off starting with the Cape Town to Victoria Falls route; there is a reason why it is the beaten path. East and Central Africa are best saved for after you have gotten your feet wet. We dove right into Tanzania not fully realizing the sweltering heat, cratered roads, long drives, and trickles of warm water that pass for showers we had in store. But now we do and as wonderful as it has been, we're not sure we would do another overland tour. But at least now we have an insight into overland tours and the alternatives.

Other suggestions for wanna be overlanders:

- If you are camping take a very warm sleeping bag and a light sleep sack because you will probably experience a variety of climates.

- Take plenty of things to amuse yourself on the long drives to avoid annoying the hell out of your tour mates.

- Take twice as much hand sanitizer, baby wipes, and tissue/toilet paper as you think you will need because toilet paper, soap, and hand towels are all exceedingly rare.

- Start working out your thigh muscles because you will be using a lot of "bush toilets".

Pics: pausing on the side of the highway for lunch, the truck during a bush toilet stop, and everyone on board.

Friday, April 19, 2013

South Luangwa Game Drives

We did morning and evening drives our second day in camp. In the evening we had a tracker with a lamp assisting in spotting animals. The truck was exactly like the cars on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland. We saw: impalas, kudu, waterbucks, giraffes, elephants, lions, genets, water buffalo, a civet, a porcupine, hippos, crocodiles, tons of baboons (the campsite was also lousy with them), but no leopards.

That night the hippos weren't as active but there was a very loud pack of lions in the area. We didn't see any of them though they woke almost everyone.

The Rest of Zambia

The next three days consisted of nothing more than long drives on bad roads and shorter drives on awful roads. We visited a village and got the song and dance show, which was fun, and then they took us to a textile factory where items are made for a very high end export market. Nothing of any quality stays here and most of the "traditional" textiles they wear are imported and made in China.

The camps have also been nothing special and usually right off the main highway. The long drives and constant toiling to set up and take down camp combined with no stops of interest has worn on us. Vic Falls ahead! I'll probably be there before I get an chance to post any of this.

Picture: our nonstop scenery for the last 3 days - bush and livestock.

Lilongwe and into Zambia

Lilongwe was uneventful. Long drive on horrible roads then a tour of a wildlife sanctuary, which was kind of cool but mostly just a zoo. Then one hour to look around town. Unfortunately they dropped us at a mall. We camped out at another one of those outskirts of town camps that reminds me of a KOA - which is to say nothing special or interesting.

The next day we crossed the border and stopped in a dusty little border town where we discovered that money would be difficult to come by for us. None of the ATMs would work for us. We ended the day at Wildlife Camp which was by far the nicest campsite we have seen to date. It had a gorgeous view of the Luangwa River right outside our tent flap. The next day we had two game drives to look forward to. We retired to the scenic bar with a view of the banks of the river and took particular note of all the tracks coming up from the river directly towards the camp. As the sun went down, the hippos emerged for their nightly grazing. They were coming closer and closer to the camp as we retired.

Sure enough at 2:30 am we were awoken by very loud grazing right next to our tent. The hippo closest even nuzzled the side of our tent as s/he was sniffing around. I had to pee but decided I could make it through another couple hours until we had to get ready for our game drive!

Pictures below: successful bush toilet break, sketchy bridge we crossed in Malawi on the way to Lilongwe, male circumcision campaign in Zambia (to reduce HIV transmission rates), and not just any chips but SUPA chips!

The Kande Beach Boys

Leaving Chitimba we headed to Kande Beach, another stop on Lake Malawi. On the way we stopped at a coffee shop selling fair trade Malawi coffee. The smallest bag they had was half a kilo so we couldn't get any unfortunately.

At the beach we upgraded to a bungalow with an en suite bathroom for the 2 nights - a little bit of luxury for $40 a night. We took a tour of the local village, which seemed like mostly an opportunity to fleece the tourists. They took us to a school and a hospital that were both highly suspect. The school had notes from a meeting held 8 years ago on the wall and the hospital had no patients. Both had directors who were the sharpest dressed men I have seen in Africa so far. They both wanted donations of course.

We were followed around the whole time by young men trying to sell us carvings and paintings, also known as the beach boys. Steve and I were both easy marks (though I'm sure he will claim it, was just me) and we spent a bunch of money on crap we didn't really intend to buy. Oh well. They were slick. They separated us and chatted us up about all manner of things before telling us how they needed money for university even though it is mid April and we were far from any colleges. Then came the sales pitch for the picture or carving and of course the up sell. Sheesh! Hopeful they at least gave some of the money to their mamas before spending the rest on getting high ;) Pot is all over Malawi and they tried to sell me some of that too.

We had the rest of the day at leisure to do whatever activities we wanted. The wind was high though and the water choppy so there were no snorkeling trips or boating expeditions to be had. So we got some local women to wash our dirty clothes and drank some beers at the bar. Carlsberg is actually a local brew here. They have a brewery in Malawi, so beer was just $1 a bottle even at the tourist camp. The camp catered to overland tours. We pretty much had the place to ourselves the first night but they had space for at least 5 or 6 trucks at one time. I'll bet the place is wild during the high season. On our second night we were joined by a shiny new Intrepid/Geckos truck and we looked jealously on.  But as one of my fellow campers pointed out, it won't look so nice after a couple trips across Africa!

That evening we had paid for some locals to to roast a whole pig for us for dinner. It was a little gruesome but incredibly tasty. Steve and I made an early night of it after dinner and got plenty of sleep for an early start off to the capital city Lilongwe the next morning.

Chitimba Beach Lake Malawi

Even arriving after dark it was still hot and humid as we set up the tent and I was sure I was going to melt. It was hot enough that Steve and I nearly killed each other for the 8th or 9th time in 3 days - love you honey) and we both started feeling awful again to the point where we didn't even want to eat dinner. But like has happened so many times since we arrived in Africa, we relaxed, let it go, eventually accepted we could not change anything, cooled down, and felt better. Much better, actually. After dinner we ended up joining our fellow campers for a beer at the beach campfire and the evening ended on a high note. Besides, we made the decision to upgrade to a room at the next stop and the concept of a roof over our heads that we didn't have to put up and take down (quite possibly in the rain) for 2 days got out spirits up quite a bit. I actually slept soundly for the first time so far on this trip.

We have had a chance to get to know our fellow campers on this trip and have become friends already with several of them. You spend so much time together that not getting along is really not an option unless you want to be miserable for the entire trip. But anyone who undertakes such a journey is bound to be easy going and interesting.

But of course things change in an instant and it again started pouring down rain and we were again hurriedly packing up filthy wet tents and steaming in the truck. Oh well. On to a room of our own!

First game drive, Iringa, and into Malawi

Before leaving, we had an opportunity to do our first game drive. Mikumi is not known as one of the better parks for game viewing, but we got to see giraffes, elephants, zebra, impalas, warthogs water buffalo, hippos, gazelles, a crocodile, and many impressive bird species. Not bad! After the drive we got back on the road to Iringa.

Our camp for the night was a charming place with lots of space to pitch your tent. The facilities were African "long drop" toilets (read: pit toilets) but they were spotless and didn't smell. My father would have appreciated this campground with his weird pit toilet obsession I remember from my youth when he used to purposely seek out the most primitive campgrounds he could on our road trips. We had a Masai dinner at a lovely atmospheric cafe they had set up--traditional African style thatched huts lit solely by hurricane lamps. They even made a cake for both Steve and Anastasia. We ambled off to bed.

Unfortunately disaster struck twice that night--first when dinner did not agree with us in a violent manner (thank you Dr. Kodani for sending us off with plenty of Cipro) and second when it started raining at 4 a.m. I know because I was at the toilet for the third time that night when it started. We had to leave early that morning and the rain got harder as we packed up all our wet gear and then our wet selves. Taking off I  the damp heat with all the windows up I felt I was steaming like a Chinese bun.

Our second day was our longest driving day--they estimated 10 to 11 hours but I think it was over 12 when all was said and done. We passed through heat and cold in and out of the rain and I started to feel awful. The weather changes, the stomach issues, my lack of sleep, and dehydration all caught up with me. Steve wanted to take me to the doctor. A few hours, some time laying down as best I could, and a liter or so of water and I was back to my normal self and in high spirits.

Unfortunately it took too long to cross the borders and navigate the awful Tanzanian roads and we didn't get to our next camp until after dark. Setting up in the dark again!

Pictures: Steve and I in front of the Mikumi park entrance on our morning game drive, a giraffe hanging out, and a common sight all along our drive--loads of sunflowers planted everywhere!

The start of our overland journey

We celebrated Anastasia's birthday with a cake on the evening of the 8th and then we hand washed as many of our sweaty clothes as possible. The following morning  was the start of the second part of our journey and possibly the most challenging.

We met our guide Muza in the morning and after filling in the preliminary paperwork took a taxi to meet our truck. Our truck was already filled with some grumpy-looking people. The tour was quite full so we squeezed in as best we could trying not to step on toes. First impression of the truck--hot.

We cruised out of Dar and to Mikumi park. At the end of a very long driving day we drove through the park to get to our camp for the night and were greeted by herds of elephants and giraffes - one even wandered across the road! Amazing! We forgot about the long hot drive for a second.

We arrived at our camp for the night and set up for the first time (for us; most of the others had been on tour for a week or more already and were old hands at it). The humidity took it out of us. The tent was boiling hot and the small space where we pitched our tents was close enough to the highway that I was awoken by trucks every half hour all night. It was a challenging start to our trip.

We laughed, we cried, it was better than Cats.

Pictures below: bday cake (black forest!), dirty noisy Dar on our way out of town, our home for the next 20 days (the truck, 2 pics), our first elephant spotting, and Steve unimpressed--"when can I transfer to the Four Seasons?"

Sorry about the radio silence

Those of you who know about the type of tour we signed up for probably knew that internet would be a luxury and WiFi incredibly scarce once our tour started. Such has been the case and when we have a connection it is often painfully slow! Today is our first chance to post since we left the hotel in Dar. I have written many posts already and if all goes well I will post them in chronological order tonight.

Thanks for reading! Hope you find the entries interesting.

Sarah

Monday, April 8, 2013

Pausing in Dar

We left Zanzibar today for an overnight in Dar es Salaam before our tour commences early tomorrow morning. We took a little tiny plane that seated 13 - including the copilot's seat which was up for grabs. The flight was eventful but hot. There is no time to cool down a plane on a 20 minute flight from one hellishly hot place to another. Steve discovered after buckling his seat belt that the earlier flight had been much more eventful as the prior occupant of his seat had emptied his or her stomach all over the seat belt.

Dar is a huge crazy third world city. I didn't take any pictures while in transit to the hotel but I know Anastasia did so check out her instagram feed and she might post some (akpenelope). If I had any thoughts of going out I quickly abandoned them on seeing what a huge and hectic place this is. I think my guidebook was deficient in communicating distances here. Everything is very spread out.  I have no idea where to start. I think it would take a few days to get your bearings here and we are leaving early tomorrow morning, so why bother. Better to rest up and prep for the journey ahead. And try to get the puke off of Steve's clothes so he doesn't have to pack them up with his clean clothes!

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Stonetown, Spice and everything nice

Today was a transfer day to Stone town with a Spice tour en route. We saw all the spices like ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, and clove that once made this place the major world spice exporter, but that they now mostly grow for tourists. We ate lots of delicious local fruit and bought ridiculously marked up tea and soap. We then headed into town for a tour of the historic part of town containing the remnants of the period of Arabic rule. Also the birthplace of Freddie Mercury.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Nungwi Day 2

Today we went snorkeling. It turned into quite an adventure. We set off on the seafari from nearby with thunderstorms in the distance, just like we have had since our arrival.  Then we sailed straight into the storm and were pounded by rain and rough waters for at least half an hour (though it seemed like hours). The crew was kind enough to put up a tarp to partially shelter us but it was no match for the rain.

When we arrived at our first snorkeling spot it had mostly cleared up. We saw lots of fish and some coral but the reef is in bad shape. Our second spot was similar but the tide was a force to be reckoned with.

When we had enough battling with the waves, we landed on a remote beach and had a delicious barbeque prepared for us. By this time the clouds had cleared. It was fantastic and much needed because Steve and I had not managed to get breakfast and were feeling a bit ill. The food did the trick and we felt human again. On the ride back we passed right by our hotel so they pulled the boat up to the beach for us and let us jump out :)