Saturday, 27 June 2009

It's a wild old world

This rain had turned things a little upside down, instead of the warm days and cold nights we'd been expecting we were getting cold days and warm(er) nights - much better for sleeping in the tent though!

We set off south the next day, following the Okavango river to enter Botswana. An amazingly efficient border post, we were in and out in fifteen minutes, definitely a record for this trip. There was only one room on each side that dealt with all the formalities. Maybe they should suggest this amazing system to some of the countries further north? The Angola - Namibia border was the first time we'd seen computers at a border post since Morocco, they did have a couple of old typewriters at the Gabon exit post however.

So, Botswana. A more African Africa than Namibia was. There was actually a bit of a North South divide in Namibia. There is a fence with control posts to get through separating the huge cattle ranches in the south with the subsistence farms in the north to prevent the spread of disease. Once we'd got north of this fence in Namibia we lost a lot of the western world. Back to mud and timber huts with thatched roofs, people herding livestock down the sides of the road and a bit more of an African feel to the country. This carried on into Botswana, I've never seen so much livestock on a road as the one heading south from the border.

First stop, Tsodilo hills. These are an ancient sacred site with rock paintings, and pretty much the only four hills in Botswana, about 350m high. It must be one of the worlds flattest countries. 85% of the country is dominated by the flat expanse of the Kalahari Desert. It took us thirty minutes or so to travel along the 40km track from the main road. We found Alistair and Bosse sitting at the end of it eating their lunch, the guys we'd met in the Polo in Namibia. They'd got this far in 1.5 hours, but had decided they could not make the last 3km to the hills and would have to turn round again.

We went for a walk that afternoon with James, our guide, to visit the paintings and learn about the hills. The San people believed these hills were the point of creation so they were of great importance. Paintings dated from about 3000 years ago and were mainly of wildlife, most amusingly I thought, there was one painting of a penguin. People must have travelled up from Southern Namibia where penguins exist.

We crossed paths with the Botswanan military on our walk, being the only hills in Botswana it's where they come to do their training. Usually the African military are to be avoided, but all these guys seemed very friendly, one of them stopping to take a photo of us.

The next plan was to visit the Okavango Delta. Most rivers disappear into a lake, the sea, or another river. The Okavango is a river with a difference, flowing into the Kalahari Desert and disappearing into the sand and the air. In the process it creates the worlds largest inland delta bringing water and nutrients to millions of people and animals in this arid country.

We decided to take what looked to be the most interesting route down through the delta - down the east side cutting through the Moremi reserve. This involved heading north again back towards the Namibian border to get the ferry across the river. While waiting for the ferry I asked a couple of people how much it cost receiving blank looks. We drove onto the ferry anyway, and I asked the guy behind us, a local guy, how much it cost. "It's free, a service for the people". The thought of an African government actually trying to provide a free service for its population hadn't even crossed my mind! Onto the road the other side, we headed down to Seronga, to Mbiroba camp to arrange a boat trip into the delta the following day.

We set off with Tom, our "poler" (the person who powers the boat using a pole). He'd been doing this for eleven years and was an impeccable guide, naming plants, animals and even birds from their calls. The boats used are called Mokoros, basically a flat bottomed canoe. We were sitting very low to the water, gliding along silently through the reeds of the delta. Very peaceful. The thought that the area was crawling with hippos, crocodiles and elephants kept us on the lookout.

We arrived at an island where we would do a walk, I assumed this would just be a little potter round a small island. "Now this is where your game walk begins" Tom said. I saw the immediate horror on Hannah's face in realising what we were about to do, walking and animals do not mix well in her books! He then went on with a safety briefing, kind of like the ones you get in an aeroplane but without the fancy arm waving - what to do it charged by a buffalo (lie down), how to avoid getting charged by elephants (make sure you're down wind of them) and other dangers. We set off, within a few metres we stopped to analyse two piles of dung. One was elephant, the other hippo, the two most dangerous animals on the planet. The difference being that hippos only eat grass where as elephants dung contains sticks and twigs. We carried on with the walk, spotting baboons, warthog and impala, but none of the African classics. A couple of hours later back at the boat, and Hannah amazed that we had survived we set off again to find a spot for lunch and then slid back home through the reeds.

We carried on along our road following day, with the road steadily deteriorating. We eventually came to water flowing across the road and three huge pools stretching 100 metres or so. After a quick examination, we successfully drove through these pools, only to reach the next village where we were informed by one of the locals that the road beyond was impassable. Due to the exceptional rains earlier in the year there was an abnormal amount of water in the delta at the moment. We turned round heading back towards the ferry to find a huge queue of cars - it seemed that the ferry had broken down. Now we couldn't get off either end of the road! Never having much luck with ferries on this continent we sat and waited, watching an otter, then wondering why the locals seemed determined to hit it with rocks. Fortunately it escaped safely. After a couple of hours we got across the river, bush camping that night before heading on to Maun the following day.

This proved to be a much more successful route south, although the discovery at one of the many veterinary control points that we were trying to carry sausages around the country without a permit led to a spontaneous picnic, whipping out the stove and cooking up sausage butties, much to the amusement of passing drivers.

Maun is a funny little town, it just seems to be crawling with overland vehicles restocking for their next mission. We went to a campsite recommended in the Lonely Planet as a quiet campsite, I think the book was a little out of date as it was now the place where all the young and trendies of Maun hang out for the weekend. They were enjoying the unusual amount of water in the delta, waterskiing, fishing and just pottering around on boats, as well as attempting to drink the campsite bar dry.

We did the thing to be done in Maun the following morning, refueling and refooding. We decided against the track up to Kasane as it went through a couple of marsh areas, and with the abnormal water levels didn't want to risk having to turn round again. We decided to head on towards the Makgadikgadi pans instead. We reached Gweta, the area all looked quite flooded, it appeared they'd had a lot of rain recently. We started heading south on gravel, that turned to sand, that turned to mud. With the road getting worse and the sun setting we decided to pull off the track and camp for the night. Testing the ground it was dryish sand so we drove off, as soon as we were off the track the car went through the sand and into the hidden mud below grinding to a halt. We tried brute force to get out but that didn't work so we started the now familiar process of digging, jacking and sand ladders. We also noticed the rear left tyre rapidly deflating, not ideal. Everything in place and the sun now set we tried getting out again, moving the car a couple of metres back towards the track but stopping just short of firm ground. We decided to just put up the tent and sort it in the morning. Jacking up the rear right wheel to stick a sand ladder underneath to prevent it sinking more in the night and level the car for sleeping, we heard the dreaded tssssssss - the jack had torn the tyre valve, so now both rear tyres were flat - time to ignore it for now, and eat and sleep instead!

The following morning we reassessed the situation, the car wasn't too badly stuck. A little more digging and jacking to be done. We managed to get some air into both the rear tyres to prevent them from being damaged further and reversed out. We fixed the puncture and headed back towards Gweta giving up on the pans idea - if this area was anything to go by they'd be flooded anyway. We left the fixing of the valve to the professionals in Gweta, removing the tyre from the rim was something I'd only do if I absolutely had to, far too much work!

We'd later find out this was the first time it had rained in Botswana in June for 88 years. Maybe we should offer our services to other drought stricken parts of the world?

Leaving the tyre repair shop in Gweta, we headed towards Nata. Barely 15 minutes had gone by before once again we heard a now familiar sound, tssssss thud thud thud - yet another puncture! This was our first self-repaired puncture from Ghana that we didn't trust 100% that had failed, so we switched tyres again and got on our way.

Wildlife in Botswana has been amazing, in most of Africa it's mainly in the parks, but in Botswana we'd seen all sorts just at the side of the road including giraffe and elephants. Driving north towards Kasane we were lucky enough to spot two lions in the road. As we approached they walked off, although we could still see them just a few metres from us, watching us watching them. When we moved the car to try to get a better look at them they'd move to try to get a better look at us. After five minutes or so of staring at each other they decided we were no longer interesting and disappeared off into the forest.

We stopped at Pandamatenga that night. The following morning I happened to notice that Stanley's front right suspension spring had snapped. Fortunately the break was near the top and the way it had collapsed and lodged itself it place meant we'd lost a few centimetres of clearance but other than that it was working fine. Seeing as it was only an hour to Kasane we decided to carry on and see what they said when we got there.

We arrived at Kasane and went straight to Chobe Motors. They got on the case of trying to track down new springs for us, eventually telling us to return the following day for a quote. The next day, after another hour or so waiting they eventually managed to get hold of parts and prices from South Africa. We'd have to wait till the following Friday before they'd receive them for fitting, eight days away. Glad the car was still in a useable state we started to make ourselves at home in Kasane. Fortunately there are a few things to do in the area. It's the main entrance to the Chobe National Park for a start.

We'd spent our first couple of nights camping in Kubu Lodge. On our second morning while clearing up the tent, a bit of a clatter indicated the arrival of campsite raiders. A vervet monkey was sitting with the remnants of our loaf of bread in its hands, and another with a banana skin it had stolen from the dashboard. The games now began. I was trying to clear away breakfast to keep the monkeys at bay. As soon as I'd chase a monkey from the table another would sneak round behind me and be hanging from the tailgate with its hand in the kitchen or climbing in the door of the car. Amusing for the first 10 seconds or so!

After a day of chores we opted for a change of scenery and went to stay in Chobe Safari Lodge, a stunning hotel and not a bad campsite either right on the river. Our pitch was on the edge of the park, the park fence was only a couple of metres from the car! The warnings in the hotel about elephants wandering the premises at night suggested the fence wasn't very effective. The site was not too surprisingly overrun with animals, warthogs wandering between the tents, more vervet monkeys, monitor lizards, and amusingly we had a troop of fifty or so banded mongooses (collective noun for mongooses anyone?) charging down the path next to us. That combined with the warnings about elephants, hippos and crocodiles roaming around makes it feel like quite a wild campsite!

The next morning we went into Chobe National Park, it's a huge park that runs along the banks of the Chobe River. Chobe is known for its massive herds of elephants, apparently the highest concentration in the world, and they were certainly in evidence. Hundreds and hundreds of them along the waterfront. It's a beautiful park, all very natural and unspoilt. All the roads are still just dirt tracks, and other than that it's fairly untouched by human hands. There was a wide variety of life, mainly impala, with other classics such as giraffe, zebra and fish eagles. We also had a few unexpected, such as several species of mongoose, a honey badger and lots of hippos out of the water during the day.

We were camping in the park that night, as the sun was setting we started heading to the site. Lots of life in the road and we soon reached our first serious road block, a huge bull elephant just standing in the road. We stopped the engine about thirty metres from the elephant and waited. He started walking towards us. It's said that with elephant you will always get a warning that they're getting upset before they do anything serious, such as ear flapping, trumpeting or a mock charge, so we figured we'd just wait and see what happened. Appearing totally relaxed, just eating and throwing dust over himself, stopping occasionally to have a look at us he kept approaching, and approaching. He eventually walked past us almost touching the side of the car. All we could see were his hips through the window. After a couple more four legged road blocks we eventually reached our camp. A beautiful site, right on the river and exceptionally basic, just a toilet block. However, Hannah believed it was lacking something fundamental for the middle of a national park - a fence. We arrived at our site with the vervet monkeys waiting for us and a couple of elephants a little further down the bank. As we set up camp we could hear shouts of "Oi, get out" as a troop of baboons made its way from pitch to pitch stealing what they could. Fortunately (for us) the occupants of the site next to us had their tent up and weren't back yet, so this kept the baboons busy trying to work out how to get into the tent (I did occasionally do the right thing and chase them off). We tucked into some delicious fillet steak, £4.10 per kilo, we love beef prices in Botswana! We slept that night with a good racket outside from all the animals wandering around, having no clue what was making most of the noises we heard.

The next morning was very quiet in the park, we decided all the animals must have had a heavy Saturday night as there was hardly anything around. We left the park on the western side of the riverfront section and tried to track down somewhere to camp but there were no camp sites in the area so we headed back to Kasane on the transit road to relax while waiting for car parts.

Those of you who have been following us closely may have noticed that we're slightly off course, there is a reason for this. Due to the weakness of the pound we decided we'd have to cut the trip short and are therefore skipping out Kenya and Tanzania. The new route plan is to cut across from Namibia, through Botswana, Zambia and Malawi to Mozambique, then head south through Swaziland, South Africa and Lesotho to eventually ship from a port in South Africa.


Blogger Richard said...

You paint a picture of a Chobe we just loved 34 years ago - the elephants in the loo block, a herd of buffalo passing through, those pesky vervets that stole your mum's bread from the pot whilst still baking on the fire, and catching large bream from the river bank (or rather those huge trees to stay out of reach of the crocs) whilst watching the slow meanderings of the elephants - all simply magic!
Talk about us being envious.
Marvelous things these iPhones - have been reading you blog whilst moored in Newtown Creek, Isle of Wight, on our journey home.

2 July 2009 at 20:07  
Anonymous Kath said...

Oh, lovely, lovely Botswana!! Too late to ask you to give it our love, but your post bought back some fantasic memories - including sundowners at the Chobe Safari Lodge, spotting the ellies and hippos in and around the river.
Kath, David & kids

15 July 2009 at 14:27  

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