Archive for September, 2013
The second half of our stay in Botswana had two parts – a tour to the Tsodilo Hills, west of Maun, and some time in Gaborone, the capital.
We decided to visit these because they came highly recommended in the guidebook. (Warning: this blog contains no animal photos, except for those painted on rocks.) To get there, we did a three-day camping tour, just the two of us with a single guide/driver. This involved driving at least 200 miles each way, and two nights camping. Fortunately the campsite had washing facilities and no wild animals roaming through at night!
The main attraction there is the rock art, some pictures painted by San people about 300 years ago, and some more recently by Bantu people. However, to our minds the hills themselves and their multi-coloured rock formations were even more impressive, and by far the most scenic area of Botswana that we’d seen.
There are three hills at Tsodilo, rising out of an otherwise flat countryside. With reference to legends about their origin, they are known as Male, Female and Child. While there we did three walks with a local guide. Following our arrival, we did part of the Lion trail, which took us to both the Male and Female hills.
The next morning we did the Rhino trail, which involved some steep climbing up the Female hill and then a circular walk back to ground level.
In the late afternoon we did the Cliff trail, with some more amazing rock formations as well as more paintings.
In between the latter two walks, we had several hours to kill at our campground while the sun was at its hottest. With nothing else to do, we were content to sit and read, but it made us realise the importance of shade as we sought refuge from the burning sun. There was little to be had, so we sheltered at first under the roof of the women’s toilet block; when that shade diminished, we moved inside the toilet block itself – despite being roofless, the building provided some shade, and as we were the only campers, there was no-one to object.
We also experienced, more strongly than ever before, the need for water in a hot, dry climate. We had taken large quantities of water (and other drinks) with us, but they were quickly consumed and we were gasping for more. Of course, there were no shops anywhere near – but fortunately the water from a local borehole proved safe to drink.
On our return from the Tsodilo Hills we spent one night at the Okavango River Lodge, with good food and views over the river. The next day we caught a bus at 6 am which took us to Gaborone after a long (ten hours) and boring journey – the landscape was flat, comprising nothing but dust and scrubby trees.
The hotel we’d chosen in Gaborone was very close to the bus station, enabling us to walk rather than take a taxi. That, we discovered, was about its only advantage. The reception staff were extremely unhelpful, at first denying that we had a reservation (this had been confirmed by email and phone) and then grudgingly agreeing to give us a room provided we paid cash. The promised wifi did not exist, except in a small business centre which was advertised as being open till 7, but was closed when we enquired at 4.30. And so on…..
We had booked two nights in Gaborone, so we could spend the intervening day exploring the capital of Botswana. We woke to find that the weather was cloudy, grey and miserable – our first day without a hint of the African sun. When we ventured outside, we found it was actually very cool – hard to believe that a few days earlier we had been struggling to find shelter from the fierce sun.
Our guidebook calls Gaborone ‘A Shopping Paradise’ – whoever wrote that could not have visited the city, because it is anything but. The so-called Main Mall is scruffy and depressing, as is the Africa Mall, both of which are described in the guidebook as ‘must see’. The ‘trendy restaurants and coffee shops’ did not exist. However, we did manage to find an internet café, and a smart hotel to have coffee. We admired the statue of Seretse Khama, the first president, and the parliament building (though it needed a lick of paint). We tried to visit the museum and art gallery, but it was shut.
In the afternoon we got a taxi to an out-of-town mall which (unlike those visited in the morning) was a genuine mall, quite big and smart. Our main reason for the outing was to climb a nearby hill, with supposedly great views, but we were totally unable to find the paths mentioned in the guidebook. We returned to the mall, but found that most of the shops closed at 3pm on Sunday. We consoled ourselves with a drink in an Irish pub before returning to our hotel.
Unfortunately we can’t recommend Gaborone as a tourist destination.
The next day we flew from Gaborone to Johannesburg. This was not because we wanted to visit the city, but because Jo’burg seems to be the unavoidable hub for all air traffic in southern Africa. We stayed overnight in a guesthouse close to the airport, because the following morning we were off to Madagascar!
On Wednesday 11th September we crossed the border from Zimbabwe to Botswana, the fourth African country on our trip. This was the quickest and easiest border crossing we have ever experienced – and it was free too! No expensive visas as in Zambia and Zimbabwe. However, not everything was wonderful in Botswana.
Our first destination was Kasane, just a few miles over the border. We stayed overnight in an attractive self-catering cottage.
That afternoon we went on a boat trip on the Chobe River, rather different from the ‘booze cruise’ we did on the Zambesi. There was some confusion about which boat was being used, and we ended upon a small, cramped and not very comfortable one. Although we’d been told to take drinks for ‘sundowners’, there was in fact no opportunity to have them. The consolation however was that we were able to see lots of animals at close quarters, including crocodiles, elephants, hippos, giraffes and buffalos.
From Kasane to Maun
Our next destination was the town of Maun which is about 200 miles south-west of Kasane as the crow flies. However, there is no direct road between the two, suitable for ordinary vehicles. Travel by bus therefore involves going from Kasane to Nata, and then from Nata back to Maun, which is a huge detour. We didn’t fancy hiring a 4WD, and therefore surfed the Net to find out if there was any kind of public transport making the direct journey.
We discovered that there is a tour called the Botswana Adventurer which leaves Kasane every Thursday. It is a one-week round trip, but we were told we could join the tour and leave it when it reached Maun. So that is what we did. This time we were a group of seven, including a Dutch couple on honeymoon, and an Australian family: father even older than us (!), with daughter and her boyfriend.
We did not enjoy this trip very much. We assumed that it would be similar to the camping trips we’d done in Namibia, but this proved not to be the case. To begin with, the ‘roads’ were far worse – in fact, they were not roads at all, just sandy tracks with many rocks and bumps. And we did the whole journey in an open safari vehicle, which meant we spent almost all day jolting violently and lurching wildly from side to side.
If the days were bad, the nights were worse. We do not mind camping – in the right circumstances we positively enjoy it. But this (we discovered, having had no prior warning) was ‘wilderness camping’, i.e. no facilities at all, except those erected by the tour guide and his assistant. Moreover, there was nothing at all to stop wild animals entering the camp. We were given a briefing about this on the first night: how you must flash a torch around when visiting the temporary toilet, and how to distinguish dangerous and non-dangerous animals by the colour of their eyes! We may be wimps, but this scared us – especially one night when we lay in our tent listening to lions roaring not far away.
There were positive aspects of the trip though. Travelling through the Chobe National Park and the Moremi Game Reserve, we did see a lot of animals. By this stage we were quite blasé about elephants, hippos and zebras, but we had not previously seen lions, and we saw several on this trip, including a lioness with two young cubs. Another highlight was finding a leopard in a tree, very close to our vehicle.
The final day and night of the trip were (for us) much better than the rest. We camped a few miles outside Maun at a campground which did have facilities – including a bar. And we visited the Okavango Delta, a famous wetland area, where you glide through the reeds in a mokoro, a kind of canoe which seats two people and is propelled by a ‘poler’ (not at all unlike punting in Cambridge). It was a much smother and more pleasant experience than travelling by road!
We had a clear day in Maun, to explore the town and catch up with some ‘business’ (such as getting our washing done). The town itself was disappointing – lots of shops, but not much else. The campground where we were still staying (albeit in a chalet) did not have wifi, and we were keen to check recent emails and put up a blog. So we took a taxi into town and headed for an internet café that we’d spotted.
Unfortunately, it transpired that there was a town-wide power cut, so all the computers were idle. And we were told that the power was likely to be off at least until 4pm, which was frustrating, to say the least. However, after some searching we found an internet café with a generator, so all was well – except that after 30 minutes, their power failed! Fortunately, it returned later, so we were able to have a longer session in the afternoon. And we found a posh hotel with a restaurant in an attractive garden, where we were able to eat, drink and fill in the time between other activities. So perhaps Maun was not so bad after all.
After our two Namibian camping trips, it was time to shift locations – halfway across the continent to Victoria Falls.
From Windhoek we took an overnight bus to Livingstone in Zambia, along the Caprivi Strip, a narrow corridor of Namibian territory to the east of the rest of the country. The scheduled journey time was 21 hours, but in fact it took more than 22 hours to reach our destination, including 1½ hours at the border crossing from Namibia to Zambia.
The Zambian side
Victoria Falls is on the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Our first two nights in the area were spent in the town of Livingstone, a few miles from the falls. We stayed in a simple and basic guesthouse, with very friendly and helpful staff, close to the town centre.
We had a full day to visit the Mosi-oa-Tunya (Smoke that Thunders) National Park. Victoria Falls comprises several different waterfalls, and the guidebooks recommend visiting at the end of the dry season (August-October); in the wet season there is so much water and steam that you cannot distinguish the individual falls, or even get close enough to take photos without being drenched.
We were nevertheless rather disappointed to find that some falls visible from the Zambia side had relatively little water. But we could look along towards the Main Falls opposite Zimbabwe and get some spectacular views of the gorge which winds below. We walked down to the riverside at the so-called Boiling Pot, where the Zambezi flows through the narrowest part of the gorge. From here you get great views of the Victoria Falls Bridge, and can watch the bungee jumpers flinging themselves into space. On the way back up we encountered several baboons, including mothers with small babies.
The Zimbabwean side
We were transferred across the impressive Victoria Falls Bridge to the Zimbabwean side, and checked in to the Victoria Falls Hotel, a grandiose and over-priced relic of the empire. We decided to splurge because we understood it to be the only hotel within walking distance of the falls, but discovered this was not the case. We found another, nicer and cheaper, nearby hotel to have drinks and an evening meal.
We also booked an evening ‘sundowner’ cruise on the Zambezi river, with snacks and unlimited drinks included. Our boat had 13 passengers, including an American couple and several Australians. It transpired that the Americans and one Aussie couple were on honeymoon, so there were more drinks to celebrate. We then started talking about how long the rest of us had been married. And as the sun set and the alcohol kicked in each couple began to tell stories of their weddings, including the more disastrous elements.
The next day, we went to see the falls from the Zimbabwean side; the sights (of several waterfalls, from 16 different viewpoints) were much more impressive than those we’d seen in Zambia. The water going over the falls turns some of the vegetation by the gorge into a virtual ‘rain forest’. We could watch thrill-seekers on the other side leaping and swimming into pools right on the brink of the cataract. Late in the afternoon, from the west end of the gorge, we could see a rainbow in the spray which arched over the falls, making an excellent photographic subject.
In the evening we went to a buffet dinner which included an African dance show, with some men dressed in amazing costumes. The next day we were off again, heading for Botswana.
After our southern tour, we arrived back in Windhoek on Thursday 29th August, and checked into the same hotel. We spent the afternoon trying to catch up with various things on the laptop, but as the wifi was very slow, we did not get far, and were not able to put up our last blog. In the evening we had dinner at Joe’s Beerhouse, with five others from our southern trip.
Next day we set off on our second camping tour of Namibia. This time there were only six of us: ourselves, two German girls who had also been on the southern tour and a couple of Dutch women. Ian had the dubious honour of being the only man, apart from the driver/guide and his assistant.
The tour followed the same pattern as the southern tour. Once again we spent a lot of time driving between places of interest. And once again the evenings and nights were mostly very cold. Getting undressed was unthinkable. On the first night Sandie was wearing five layers of clothes, two pairs of socks and a woolie hat; she had a blanket on top of her sleeping bag but was still frozen. She wished she had stuck to her general rule of camping only in warm places such as Florida and the south of France!
Our first destination was the Okonjima Game Reserve. Our afternoon game drive was supposed to start at 3, but owing to various hiccups did not begin until 4.30. This did not leave us much time before sunset, but we were able to see several cheetahs, as well as a leopard eating raw meat specially placed in a tree for the entertainment (?) of the tourists.
Next we were off to Etosha National Park, the biggest in Namibia. Near our first campground was a waterhole where we were able to observe three elephants at close quarters. Later we went on a drive and spotted lots of animals, including gnus, zebras, giraffes and hyenas. The climax came when we visited a waterhole at sunset, and saw a large herd of elephants (approximately 50, we estimated, including babies) coming to drink.
We spent the whole of the next day in Etosha, and saw many more animals. We stopped at several waterholes. At one we saw a herd of elephants wallowing in mud; at a second there was one elephant surrounded by many other animals; and at a third we saw a rhino posing beautifully to create a perfect reflection.
Places of interest
After leaving Etosha we headed south again, by an indirect route that enabled us to visit several places of interest. The first was a small village inhabited by Himba tribespeople from the north of Namibia. A guide showed us round and explained the Himba customs – such as knocking out the three lower front teeth of young people when they reach their teenage years. The Himba women paint themselves with red ochre and use it to decorate their hair. They formed a circle while we were there, and did a ‘hard sell’ of souvenirs.
The next day we drove through some wonderful scenery, crossing the Grootberg Pass. We visited Twyfelfontein, said to be one of the largest collections of rock art in Africa. The engravings of animals were interesting, although we were even more impressed by the landscape in which they were set.
Our last two campgrounds were very basic in terms of facilities, but in attractive settings, surrounded by lots of fascinating rock formations. As we arrived early both days and had time to spare, we were able to walk around and take plenty of photos. And the nights were thankfully not nearly as cold as at the other places we had stayed.
The end of the tour
On the penultimate day of our northern tour, we headed for the coast. En route the weather and the scenery changed dramatically. Although the nights in Namibia had been cold, the days had been consistently hot, with deep blue skies and bright sun. On this journey the sun disappeared and the sky changed from dark blue to pale grey. The landscape became totally flat, barren and desolate, with off-white sand that almost matched she sky. It was hard to believe that we were in the same country.
We made two stops on the so-called ‘skeleton coast’. The first was at Cape Cross, to see the large colony of Cape fur seals. It was impressive to see hundreds of seals, and the Atlantic waves crashing against the rocks; however, we tended to take some photos and then hurry back to the bus, because the weather was so cold. Later we stopped close to a shipwreck (one of many along this coast) for lunch.
We stayed overnight (in a guesthouse, not a campground) in the town of Swakopmund, reportedly Namibia’s premier seaside resort, but with few tourists in the early spring. We walked around the town, taking photos of the German colonial architecture and the waves threatening to soak those brave enough to walk out on the jetty. In the evening we had dinner as a group, our last meal together as the Dutch women were staying in the town, rather than returning to Windhoek as we did the next day.
We began our next adventure in Namibia, flying into Windhoek via Johannesburg, with two nights there before starting a camping tour of the country. It was actually two separate tours, a week in the south, followed by a week in the north.
Windhoek is a small city, surrounded by largely barren land. We discovered this when we ventured out from the city centre and in no time seemed to be out in the wilds. By contrast, the centre is quite westernised, with a number of modern shopping malls and countless coffee shops. We also found a couple of smart restaurants, with good food and service, but very reasonable prices.
While exploring Windhoek we saw the Gibeon meteorites (remnants of a 15-ton iron meteorite which broke up and landed in the desert) displayed on stands in one of the malls, and the old railway station with its collection of bygone rolling stock on show outside. We visited the Zoo Park, where we were entertained by a group of schoolchildren from the south putting on a dancing display. We also explored the pleasantly laid-out gardens of the parliament building, and viewed the Christuskirche which dominates the city.
Southern Camping Tour
On the southern tour we were accompanied by three Germans, three Italians and a South African, all much younger than ourselves. Most of the accommodation was in tents which we erected ourselves (sometimes with help), though we did have one night in a hotel in Luderitz. The main downside of camping is that the Namibian desert can get very cold at night!
Our first two nights were at a camp at Sossusvlei, near the impressive sand dunes of the Namib desert. On the way down there we stopped at the Namibian Carnivore Conservation Centre, where we were taken to see a pair of semi-wild cheetahs, slobbed out under a bush.
The following morning we were up early, to view the sunrise from the top of a dune – although not everyone made it to the top. Later we visited a place called Deadvlei, where a depression has filled with a white deposit, with a large number of dead trees dotted about. It was picturesque in an eerie kind of way. In the afternoon we walked through Sesriem Gorge, and scrambled over some rocks to see a pool of permanent water at the end of the canyon. Finally that day we climbed another dune to see the sunset!
Namibia is big – very big. And very empty. We appreciated that the next day when we drove for hundreds of miles, mostly on dirt roads, to our next destination – Luderitz, on the Atlantic coast. This is an old German settlement, with a number of brightly painted houses dating from the 1900s. Nearby is the ghost town of Kolmanskop, where they used to mine diamonds, but now it’s partly covered in sand.
Fish River Canyon
Our next major stop was in the Fish River area, to see the canyon, allegedly the second biggest in the world. We spent the night at the Canyon Roadhouse campsite, with part of the evening patronising their fascinating bar. This is packed with old cars and number plates from all over the world.
The following morning we visited the canyon, and walked along the rim from one viewpoint to the next. It is certainly impressive, though in such places it’s hard to get an idea of the scale. Unfortunately, we were unable to walk down into the canyon and had to be content with a brief view from the edge.
Fossils and Quiver Trees
Further north and west we were shown a hillside near our camp where dozens of mesosaurus fossils were found. Mesosaurus was one of the first reptiles, about 280 million years old. Some of the fossils were still in place, showing amazing details of the creatures’ structure.
Nearby was another hillside covered in piles of dolerite rocks and quiver trees. Quiver trees are actually a type of aloe, and can grow to a large size and great age. The combination of rocks and trees formed a very photogenic spectacle as the sun set.
Our final stop was on the edge of the Kalahari desert, at a game lodge called Bagatelle. We spent a few hours relaxing by their small (but very cold) pool, along with their tame springbok and a large fluffy cat. In the morning we did a game drive over the red dunes, and saw many examples of the local wildlife – springbok, gnu, oryx, kudu, giraffe, meerkats and vultures.
After that it was back on the road north to Windhoek, crossing the Tropic of Capricorn on the way, with a stop for a group photo.