Sunday, August 28, 2011

Camping- traversing the Kalahari into Namibia

Hugh: Growing up there were names of places that always seemed to have magic associated with them. The Serengeti and Zanzibar were clearly two of them and I made sure that our Africa trip was going to include them. Betsy planned this Botswana-Namibia portion and when I looked at the map I was excited that another magical name place was going to be included: the Kalahari. I took as much pleasure being "in the Kalahari" as actually physically being here. After the delta, we went on a drive that took us to the Ghanzi village area, where we went on a walk with a local indigenous tribe and a translator. This was a classic National Geographic moment. The Bushmen people were hardly dressed and made lots of awesome clicking sounds when they spoke. They walked us around, dug up several roots, and explained their medicinal properties, many of which had to do with with causing or preventing pregnancy. They pretended they were going to give us a lesson on making the click sound, and had each of us put in our mouths a seed that they had just pulled off a bush. About 20 seconds later the seed popped in our mouths, scaring each of us and giving them a great laugh. They then built a fire using the two sticks rubbing together method.

That cold night at the campsite we had our best stargazing yet. A fellow traveler, Neil, the British army medic, had his iPad with the star map on it and helped us identify several constellations including Scorpio, Sagittarius and the Southern Cross. The Milky Way was also more visible than I remember having ever seen it. The next day we drove across the border into Namibia and Hugh posed with Nicholas our Kenyan guide at the border sign, only because it says "Kalahari".

We had an overnight stay in Windhoek, the capital of Namibia, which long ago had been a colony of Germany. It is weird being in an African city where the street names are all "....strasse". We thought it was going to be good to sleep in a bed but our hostel room window was right next to the bar, and the bright lights and noise were not a good substitute for the jungle sounds of the previous few nights. We had dinner in a restaurant called Joe's which is an upscale place with an immense amount of decoration, a sort of African/tropical Rainforest Cafe. However, Joe's is known for their menu which includes many types of game. We took the opportunity and ordered the sampler plate- a large kebab with pieces of kudu (antelope), zebra, ostrich and giraffe. Next time we might skip the giraffe- we were feeling a little guilty eating it and it wasn't as tasty as the others. And despite Betsy's enthusiasm for the variety of local beers previously mentioned in this blog, Hugh has found them to be unremarkable, similar to his view on Singha, Star, and most of the other "national" beers of the other non-US, non-European countries he's visited. But, at Joe's, we were able to drink beer from Camelthorn, a Windhoek microbrewery, and it was tasty. Photography: We readily admit that we are not truly photography hobbyists. Previously, we would often forget to bring our camera important places or we'd bring it and not use it. When we went to India, we somehow set the camera on the lowest resolution possible, and so we can't even print a 4x6 photo from that trip. However, some of our friends bought us a cool new camera as a wedding present and we have been dedicated to trying how to use it. Each day we get a little bit better. We used the Intelligent mode for the first few weeks but as we have been unable to get some shots we wanted, we have been forced to read more of the manual to figure out how to use it. Plus, Paul and John, two Aussies on the trip with seriously huge lenses on their cameras, have been offering tutorials, guidance and encouragement. We are now occasionally changing things like the white balance, using the manual focus, etc. We even figured out how to change the format for videos so that we an upload and watch on the iPad. And, we check every few days to make sure that we are taking high resolution photos. Speaking of India, memories of that trip still affect us. Water quality in Africa has been fine everywhere we've been. However, I (Hugh) was often still using the Steripen to sterilize the water, even in our upscale Cape Town B&B. After a few days in each place, I relax and we drink from the tap and eat salads, vegetables, etc. All of the others in this camping group seem to be less worried than we are. However, we expect to not be so cavalier in Kenya and Tanzania.


Saturday, August 27, 2011

Okavango Delta

From Chobe NP, we headed southwest to the Okavango Delta, which is a maze of lagoons, waterways and little islands, created by the Okavango River spreading out across the flat desert land. The traditional mode of transportation, which is still used today, is the mokoro, a shallow canoe generally dug out from the trunk of the sausage tree (yes, that is the real name of the tree). However, some of our fellow travelers were in modern mokoros made of fiberglass. Imagine you are sitting in a canoe, low in the water, slowly gliding through small waterways, passing through beds of tall reeds, with no other sounds heard except for the wind blowing through the trees or the occasional bird flying overtop. Lily pads are seen scattered across the surface of the crystal, clear water. It is a sunny, warm day, you are completely relaxed, without a care in the world, except for the occasional spider that falls off the reeds and into your mokoro. It is complete tranquility. This is what it is like being a passenger in a mokoro, which is maneuvered by the poler (think of a gondolier). The poler stands at the back of the mokoro and uses a long pole (about 12 to 15 feet long) to steer and propel the mokoro. To be a poler takes skill and practice, and is typically a trade passed down through the family. The above is Betsy's opinion on the mokoro experience. Hugh's commentary differs a bit, as you'll read.

The view from the back of the mokoro

We spent the night on an island in the delta, only reached by mokoro. Despite being surrounded by water, the island was actually quite dry and most plants and trees were devoid of greenery. During our overnight stay in the delta we went on a few bush walks over two different islands, with the hope of seeing animals (elephant, hippo, giraffe). Let us just say that after three walks, the highlight was seeing part an elephant skeleton. While it was cool to see, it was a bit of a disappointment not to see one live animal. However, the delta is more known for it's beauty, and in all fairness, it is known that better game viewing is in the northern delta, and we were I the south. However, the mokoro experience, especially our outing at sunset, was so outstanding, that it easily made up for the lack of animals.

However, as we were approaching dry land at the end of our trip, there was an elephant drinking at the water's edge and it was kind enough to let us take it's picture.

The other way to truly appreciate the size and beauty of the delta is from the air. Flying over the delta was highly recommended to us and so we went. We were in a little 5-seater Cessna, and after having flown in small planes before with no problem, I almost laughed when the pilot pointed out the barf bags (or air sickness bags if you like) during our safety demo. The flight was 45 minutes and we flew about 500 feet above the ground. It was true - the flight was an incredible to see the delta, to appreciate its size and beauty and the interweaving of the waterways and small islands. And it was a great way to see animals!! We saw lots of elephants and some hippo and giraffe. We even saw elephants swimming again. This is when the flight became not so great for Betsy. Even though only 500 ft. up, you had to focus kinda hard to see the animals. That, in combo with the plane's banking turns at a downward angle, was enough to make Betsy really nauseous and not really loving the flight for the last 25 minutes. While she never had to use her bag, we got the report from our group members in another plane, that they had two people who definitely used theirs. Just before takeoff

Hugh's take on the mokoro/delta trip: Riding in the canoe was interesting and enjoyable, but it would have been better as a morning only, not a 2 day trip. We were worried about whether us or our stuff would get wet during the rides - our poler was good, but another poler fell off and our companions got soaked. I had been psyched to do this trip, but we only saw one hippo from quite a distance and one penny-sized frog on the way in, and then a couple of elephants on the way out. The camping part was lame. We were stuck on the island with nothing to do, as the island was devoid of interesting plant and animal life. As was the second island they took us to see. It might have been good had there been good stargazing, but the campsite had some tall trees that obscured most of the night sky. Note: My mother should stop reading at this point. The most exciting part of the island was when a fellow traveler went to use the "toilet" and a green mambo snake jumped into a tree about 2 meters from him. I didn't see the snake but of course, that meant I was petrified to go to the bathroom after that, so I usually took an escort and a big stick. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


Thursday, August 25, 2011

Camping: Chobe National Parka

We started a 2 week camping trip by meeting our group in Livingstone, Zambia. We are the only Americans, along with 4 Aussies, 4 Brits, 2 Canadian-Brits and one Irish, plus two Kenyans as guide and driver. Most of them thought it was funny that the two of us had stayed at the Fawlty Towers hostel, and started making a lot of jokes that we did not understand, since they were references to the British tv series of that name starring John Cleese which neither of us have ever watched. We crossed into Botswana by crossing the Zambezi River aboard a rickety old ferry. Once in Botswana, we were then supposed to each walk into a puddle of some sort of liquid which would, in theory, prevent the spread of foot and mouth disease, which we did. But as you looked at this half empty container of dirty water that did not have any scent of disinfectant associated with it, you really had to wonder how much disease prevention was actually happening here. In addition, many of the Africans crossing (particularly drivers of vehicles) did not even walk through the puddle, as there were very few officials monitoring the station. Here is our custom truck/bus vehicle at another in-country foot and mouth station.

This truck is our home for these two weeks. Inside we all have lockers/storage for stuff and there are 24 seats, but only 13 of us so we can spread out a bit. There is also a charging station inside the truck for us (for ipods, camera batteries, etc..) that is supposed to work but as this is Africa, the charging station works about half the time. One day when we asked the driver about it, he explained that it wasn't working because it was too cold. This was far from an acceptable answer for our engineer Hugh, and so with a little rewiring, we had electricity. It didn't make the driver very happy that Hugh h ad messed with HIS truck, but he is still nice to Hugh. The electricity was out a few days later again, probably because it was too hot. Our first stop was Chobe National Park. We did a morning game drive followed by a late afternoon river cruise. This day was also Betsy's birthday, and we both agreed it was an awesome way to spend a birthday. We saw our first water buffalos on the trip, plus lots of hippos and more.

When we first saw this view, we thought it was unusual that one adult was taking care of 5 little ones which could not have all been hers, almost like a hippo day care. Then we noticed that the clumps of mud in front of them were actually 20+ hippos. Betsy and I are not "birders", which means we miss out on a lot since many of the places we are going are supposed to be excellent for bird viewing. However, we do occasionally notice, especially when one visits us at lunch.

Our river cruise was on the Chobe, the border between Botswana and Namibia. This part of the park particularly had a lot of elephants, crocs and hippos. Not sure if you can see the elephants at the top of the hippo photo.

This bird's feathers separate when wet so you can see right through.

The highlight of the boat cruise was watching elephants swim!!! It was so cool to watch a group of elephants cross a river while using their trunks as a snorkel.

We also a few giraffe, looking for their next tree to munch on.

I guess water buffalo aren't too afraid of crocodiles.

The end of another great day

As a side note: there are some word choice differences among English speaking countries. For instance, where we have visited so far when there is space available for lease in a building, they post a sign that says "TO LET". Not that unusual, but my mind seems to think the letter "I" belongs in the blank space. We also have these differences in daily life with the group. For example, the Aussie word for cooler is "eskie", which Betsy knew but Hugh did not. With the Australians being the largest number, many of their words win out, which is fine, and fun, for us.


Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Livingstone, Zambia

While visiting the falls, we stayed in the city of Livingstone. The highlight was trying different types of African cuisine in the restaurants a couple nights. The staple food all over southern Africa is boiled maize meal, and as expected, has a different name in each country. In South Africa it's called pap, in Zambia it's nshima, and we are told it's called sadza, in Namibia. Not sure about Botswana yet. It is white, semi-firm, and pretty bland tasting. At first glance, I thought it was instant mashed potatoes. But it is quite filling and when eaten with meat or chicken, and some type of accompanying sauce, it is actually tasty and goes well with the meal (so says Betsy, Hugh disagrees). As a food item that is relatively cheap to make, filling when eaten, and able to be made in large quantities, say for your whole village, it makes a lot of sense why this food is such a staple throughout southern Africa. Along with nshima, the other meals we tried in Zambia were grilled crocodile, a type of chicken stew with tomatoes and onions, and a dish made with a type of chard/leafy green. The grill is called the braai over pretty much all of southern Africa, which most restaurant menus typically offering items from the braai. The waitress honestly admitted to us that of all the dishes, crocodile is more often ordered by tourists than local Africans. We were not courageous enough to try the local favorite, caterpillars. We've also learned that baby marrow, while sounding meaty and maybe not appetizing, is just zucchini. While in Cape Town, we had really enjoyed the township tour we took, seeing the other side of Cape Town and learning how life is outside the tourist spots. Therefore, we quickly signed up for a biking tour that explored a township/village just outside of Livingstone. The tour included stops at the village's school, a senior citizen home and a typical local african market. Overall the tour was a bit disappointing to us, but the highlight speaking to the head teacher of the school. The school has students ages 6 to 14. One big challenge the school has is getting kids to come to school. The teacher mentioned two students stopped coming because they were pregnant, some girls dropped out because they were married, a few more because they were suffering from TB, secondary to being HIV positive, and some had to work to help make money for the family. Unfortunately, we get the impression that this is a common reality in schools across southern Africa. Overcrowded classrooms due to not enough physical classrooms, are also a problem (a lack of all resources, truthfully) but this seems manageable as long as the kids come to school. When we visited, it was not a normal school session, but an extra session for kids who had not done well.

You may not be able to see the blackboard, but the kids must be getting a decent education - they were doing math in base 5. Apparently, they don't teach that kind of math in Ohio, as Betsy didn't even know what that meant. Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Livingstone, Zambia

Victoria Falls - Part II/ Cruise

While it is the Zambezi River that creates the powerful falls, upstream from the falls, the Zambezi River is a quiet, slow moving river, with its riverbanks filled with wildlife, such as hippos, elephants and crocodiles. One of the best ways to experience the Zambezi is on a sunset cruise. Now you can do the sunset cruise as a "booze cruise", but we decided to take it down a notch and just take the standard cruise (Our agent looked at us and thought we'd prefer the more sedate one, whereas the other person booking was recommended to the party boat. We were not sure if this was an insult or compliment.) Even though we decided to skip the booze cruise, we were quite excited to find out drinks on the boat were still unlimited. Some say the more drinks you have, the more amazing the animals seem. But despite making good use of the open bar, we know the animals we saw would have looked good even without the cocktails. Speaking of drinks, one thing we've always enjoyed when traveling, is trying each country's own beer. In South Africa, the most popular and best tasting (in our opinion) was Castle. In Zambia, the beer was Mosi. This is our favorite so far. We weren't in Zimbabwe long enough to try their beer, Zambezi. And as this blog is being written from Botswana, we've also tried their beer called Lion. The word on the street is that Namibia, with a strong German influence in its culture, has the best beer in Southern Africa. On our cruise, we saw our first hippos since being in Africa. Hippos spend all day in the water and then come onto land to sleep. So sunset is the perfect time to see them be a bit active, but some still were floating and swimming near shore. Somehow this huge grey animal with short legs is just really cute, especially as it waddles around. But as we saw, if provoked by another, a hippo can make move pretty fast when it needs to. We also saw a number of crocodiles, elephants and some pretty birds.


Victoria Falls

After our brief snow shower while changing planes in Johannesburg (or Jo'burg if you're a local), we were very happy to arrive in sunny, warm Livingstone, Zambia, the home of Victoria Falls. The falls are formed as the "mighty" Zambezi river, which runs along the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, drops into the gigantic Batoka gorge. They are considered one of the seven natural wonders of the world, and we absolutely agree! They were beautiful and really something to see. The falls are spread over an area about a km wide, and the gorge is narrow, so you can't get a photo of the whole thing, or even half, unless you are above them.

To quote Lonely Planet, when one comes to visit the falls, you have the option to "Zim or Zam", meaning you can see the falls from the Zimbabwe side or the Zambia side. It was recommended to see both sides, so that's what we decided to do. Now of course this would be easy to do if the two countries "shared" access to the falls and made it an open border just at the falls. But that is just not the way things work in Africa, and therefore we took the recommendation from our guide books that you simply have a taxi drop you at the Zambia border, walk over to Zimbabwe and see the falls. Sounds straightforward enough, yet as we walked along a kind of desolate road and didn't see any other tourists, we became a bit nervous that maybe this wasn't as easy as people said. And we just didn't think we had made a wrong turn, as this was the only road around, with no turn-offs. But once we saw some other tourists who were walking back to Zambia, we were reassured that "yep, it's just s few more km's to the border and then into the park". In regards to whether it was a problem to get into each country, the answer is no. Both countries were MORE than happy to take our money for visa fees and park entrance fees to see the falls (after leaving Zambia for 3 hours, we had to pay the $50 visa fee again when we returned). Our first day we saw the falls from the Zimbabwe side and the second day from Zambia. We loved seeing it from both sides.

Victoria Falls is so powerful that it is constantly creating a fine mist of water as the falls crash upon the rocks below. The amazing result of this is that a rainbow is almost always present at certain points of the falls, depending on the sun. And if you were wondering, you can see a different rainbow on both the Zimbabwe and Zambia side.

There is a bridge over the lower Zambezi built 100 years ago that is an impressive place to see the gorge. Halfway across is the border between the 2 countries, and there is a station that is a popular place for bungee jumping. (We passed.)

Upstream of the falls, the Zambezi is quite a slow river and that also includes the area directly above the falls. If you are adventurous enough, and brave enough, you can walk across the Zambezi, right at the edge of the falls, in order to get some amazing views you wouldn't see otherwise. The only brave one in our group of two was Hugh. Happy to show you his impressive pictures below, as proof that he stood at the edge of the falls, and made it back safely. Hugh may look happy and appear that he is enjoying his view from the edge, but if you ask him, he'll say he had to fight instinct to make his hand stop gripping the rock he was sitting on in order to look more relaxed for his pictures. I am so glad he had a good time and I am so glad I waited on shore, safely enjoying the view from land.

Zambia had a few amazing overlooks and a cool walking bridge to view the falls, but more of the actual falls are located in Zimbabwe, including the tallest waterfall, and so that makes probably makes Zimbabwe the winner overall. But if you come visit, we would recommend Zim and Zam. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Location:Wedged between Zambia and Zimbabwe

Monday, August 15, 2011

Leaving South Africa

Flying to Livingstone, Zambia from Port Elizabeth: we change planes in Johannesburg. The weather is not good, and both of us are looking forward to the upcoming respite from the cold, wet weather. Before we go, South Africa decides to send us off with a fond farewell. A bus takes us from the terminal to the runway, from which we walk outside on to our plane. The cold rain is getting worse. It hails just as we leave the bus. Then, while sitting on the plane, the rain is now mixed with snow. The dark patches under the plane in front of us is not shadow; it is pavement. The rest of the ground is covered in snow/hail. Excellent.

We were wondering if de-icing the wing was necessary, but apparently, not part of the procedure. (view of the wing thru the window)

Only slightly delayed we take off with lots of turbulence. The children on board are laughing with each jolt as if this is just another roller coaster. A fire was built in our lodge at Kwantu every night but the chimney didn't work that well, allowing extra smoke to enter the lodge. Now, in Zambia, we realize that our clothes smell like we have been visiting smoky bars. Upon arrival in Zambia, the sun was shining and the airplane doors opened allowing the warm air in. This is more like the Africa we were expecting. Of course, we will see what Botswana has to offer. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Kwantu - predators

Kwantu has released a male lion and female lion in the main part of the reserve, and they now have two cubs with them. They are apparently very good hunters and enjoy the variety of cuisine offerings. While the rangers would like them to eat the wildebeest, warthogs and the plentiful antelope species, of which the blessbok herd is a bit larger than desired, they have been eating everything including the (expensive) giraffes and a rhino cub. We did not have the opportunity to see either of the wild lions, but a couple of times while chopping trees, we were reminded to pay attention to anything unusual, as there was no fence between us and them. Kwantu also has large enclosures where they are raising and breeding the large cats with intentions of returning some to the wild. We got to visit them while they were just chilling and another time when they were being fed. The cheetah wasn't feeling very friendly since we were not feeding him at the moment

The fence doesn't feel tall enough or strong enough when a cheetah snarls, bares its teeth and pounces at you. The white lions look very cool- they are not albinos but

A lot of the young lions are related to Zulu, the male released into the wild. Just before sunset, he comes near the cages and "talks" to them, and they talk back. We really enjoyed hearing all the roaring and grunting, which you can hear from quite a distance. This is something I will miss most about Kwantu.

Occasionally, a cow at a nearby farm will pass away, and will become a meal for the lions. Some of the lady lions during feeding time:

I have some more photos of the big cats feeding, but will save them to show you in person, as the they are a bit gruesome, and not sure how many blog viewers are squeamish. They also have some tigers which they are breeding and raising as if they will be released into the wild, but that will not be in Africa since they are not native there.

They do not have any babies right now but there were some juveniles, and we were able to go play with them. The tiger below, Bangles is ~6 months old.

She maybe cute, but her claws and teeth are sharp even when being playful (Hugh has plenty of scratches and cuts as evidence).

Of course, the vet thinks she can discipline her with a stern wave of the finger and a loud "No" like it is one of her domestic patients.

But Bangles isn't kept alone. Ares doesn't like to play with us, but is a good friend to Bangles.

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Kwantu - wildlife

Kwantu has been fun. We've been told that the main reserve is 60,000 hectares but neither of us remembers what a hectare is. Most of the volunteers here are from the British isles, there are some other Europeans and an Aussie, with us as the only Americans. A significant portion of the staff is from Zimbabwe, which seems unusual to us, but apparently they are a significant immigrant population in SA. Of course, that means people have strong opinions about Mugabe, and other regional issues are more important here than in our daily lives in the US. We have been busy here. The rain has slowed us down a little as it makes some outdoor activities harder. Walking in the wilderness along steep muddy inclines is more challenging...

Driving in a Land Rover also has potential problems...

But we have seen a lot of cool wildlife, such as giraffe, zebra, blesbok, springbok...


...wildebeest, and much more.

We also had a chance to visit a local school. Some of the money that we pay helps Kwantu prepare lunch once/week to feed children nearby. As volunteers, we go and help serve the lunch, as well as play with the children. They are so happy to see us and interact with us, and borrowing our sunglasses, cameras, etc. is a big kick for them.

Speaking with the head teacher, we learned that the school had a total of 70 students spanning grades 1-9, and four teachers. Even though supplies, teachers, and resources were limited, they were doing the best they can, as in most things in Africa. The kids tended to drop out as they advanced. Under the apartheid government, a school like this was forced to teach the Afrikaans language. Now, the country has 11 official languages, and when asked if Afrikaans is still in the curriculum, the teacher, without any hesitation, said "No, what's the point?" Since we are on the topic, I personally think any language with click sounds in it is pretty cool, which among others, characterizes the Zulu and Xhosa languages spoken here. On a separate topic, while South Africa may be a wildlife rich country, they sure are lacking in garbage cans and napkins. Either that, or there is some sort of weird American obsession to wipe our hands while eating, and having a place to throw out dental floss and used tissues. - Posted using BlogPress from my iPad