Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Spring Break....Botswana and Victoria Falls

Such an incredible experience…one of the best of my life. I don't expect anyone to read all of this, but who knows, it might be worth it.

Day 1:
We woke up at 4:00 a.m to hop on the bus to Cape Town International, all incredibly exhausted but still really excited. Here we met our trip leaders (Dave, Jess, Leanne) who I had actually met before. They are all South African UCT students, all strict Christians, and truly amazing people. Once we got to Joburg we hopped on our overland trucks, what would become our home for the next 10 days or so.

The trucks were surprisingly nice…Ours (the “Elephant” Truck) had a ton of soft seats with wooden tables for eating and playing cards. We also met our last leader, Andrew, a student at Stellenbosch, as well as our cook and driver, Ramson and Isaiah, both from Zimbabwe. So we set off, driving through northern South Africa, through Pretoria, the capital, and by the time we reached the Botswana border it was dark. At our first campsite in Itumela dinner was waiting so we ate, had a couple drinks, and passes out in our sleeping bags clumped together on the floor. Side note: The Pula, Botswana’s currency is surprisingly strong, a lot stronger than the Rand. This is because Botswana is one of Africa’s success stories, with reasonable poverty levels but booming tourism and mining industries.

Day 2:
Lots and lots of driving after another ridiculously early wake up. Botswana is a beautiful country with no more than 2 million people, so we drove through empty landscapes with low-growing foliage, rolling green hills, and an occasional village dotting the landscape here and there. We stopped occasionally on the side of the road among cows and donkeys to eat lunch out of our truck. The sunset on these endless roads was absolutely stunning. The sky is just so grand out there because there is nothing at all to block your view. On this day when we arrived in Maun (the first civilization we had seen in hours) we stocked up on water for the delta and when we got to our campsite we had time to go swimming and relax a bit. We got a briefing about our time in the Okavango Delta, and a couple things stick out. This is one of the last untouched regions of Africa, and the animals here are about as wild as they come on the continent. I think everyone was more excited once we understood why this was such a huge part of the tip.

Day 3:
Another early wake up (I think we saw the sun rise and set every single day). As we drove to the entrance of the delta, I couldn’t believe how amazing welcoming the people were as we drove along on our obnoxious open safari truck. Every single person we passed waved eagerly, smiling warmly; kids ran out of their homes, women stopped while carrying huge boxes and bags on their heads, men gave us the thumbs up while sitting on chairs in the shade. I felt like I was getting sucked in immediately to this beautiful place. And while the village we passed were minimal, you somehow got the sense that this was all these people needed to be happy.

When we got to the entrance of the Okavango Delta, crowds of Botswanan people were waiting for us, mokoro boats all lined up in the water, children sitting with their mothers in the heat. We unloaded our supplies from the truck, and Will and I were approached by a middle-aged man who directed us toward one of the boats. Our guide. His name was Wileson (no idea how to actually spell it) and though he spoke little English, he was incredibly funny and friendly.

The traditional way to travel through the crevices of the Delta is to use the mokoro canoes, named after the tree they are made from. The boats are close to the water and you drive them by standing in the back, driving a long pole into the water and pushing along the riverbed. Wileson set up our mokoro for us, which meant that Will and I were able to lay back in the boat and relax, enjoying the African sun, dipping our hands in the cool water (though our guide was careful to warn us about snakes and crocodiles). We rode for about and hour and a half through the streams, pausing once to view a group of red lichi (spelling?) in the distance, a type of antelope, our first real animal viewing. We eventually set up camp, choosing a spot in the shade to set up our tent. One of the first things we noticed was an enormous hippo footprint located immediately next to the hole in the ground that was to be our toilet.

After relaxing for a couple hours, we were separated and led by Bostwanan guides on sunset game walks. Our guide, T-man, and his guide in training, OT, were absolutely incredible, calm, content-looking people from a nearby village. The first game walk was an experience in itself because I had no idea what to expect. We walked single file out into the brush, keeping quiet, secretly hoping that there would be animals everywhere we looked. But we were to be disappointed on this first walk; we did see a small leopard frog, a buzzing beehive, a ton of elephant, giraffe, and hippo tracks and droppings, and some hippos very, very far in the distance. The sunset, though, was stunning as it crept beyond the African horizon. I think it was a wake up call that we didn’t see much of anything on this first walk. As I said earlier, this really was the wild. Animals are always on the move, and tracking them down takes an enormous amount of skill and luck. Falling asleep to the chorus of sounds that constitute the Delta night is something that I will miss for the rest of my life.

Day 4:
Another ridiculously early wake up, though by this point I was starting to enjoy waking up with the sun, feeling refreshed and eager. We set out again with T-man for a much longer walk, and again saw absolutely nothing for at least an hour. Compounding our irritation was the fact that we had to take off our shoes and trudge across a cold, muddy stream. Just when were starting to accept that we might not see anything in the Delta at all, our guides spotted a wildebeest in the distance. We were incredibly excited to see SOMETHING, even though it was very far away and trotted off as soon as it realized it was being watched. We continued on with our hopes renewed, stumbling upon a bunch of elephant and buffalo bones. Just when we were again doubting our chances, our guides pointed in the distance, above a few trees. There was a giraffe! We couldn’t believe it. I will never forget how much my heart pounded at this point. We crept toward it, and as it noticed us stalking it, it began to move away. So we cut it off, and as we snuck around a grove of trees, we stumbled upon an unbelievable scene. An entire herd of giraffes was gathered together, females and males and babies, about 9 of them, and behind them were about 75 zebras! Our excitement was infectious, and we saw our guides smiling and laughing with us, happy that we were happy. I will never forget the image of giraffes running right in front of me, the herd of zebras right behind them.

So we started to head back, spotting a few more zebras, some warthogs, and another wildebeest. At this point I was satisfied with the walk, definitely not expecting anything more. However, all sudden I noticed OT pointing, hearing “elephant.” I couldn’t believe it. As we crept closer to a huge grove of trees, we saw a spot of gray moving slowly through the trees. It was a lone male elephant!! We wanted to get a little closer but our guides informed us that these creatures were incredibly dangerous, could smell us from a mile away, so we moved away feeling so lucky and so alive. On the way back a giraffe followed us, peeking curiously over the trees. We were out for about four and a half hours, and though we were exhausted, there was just something unspeakably special about tracking animals down in the wild, where things are untouched and preserved.

We had an incredibly relaxing day after that, relaxing in the sun, taking dips in the cool Delta water, watching our guides weave bracelets and baskets out of reeds. I even tried out driving the mokoro boats, which was SO difficult. That evening we went on a sunset mokoro cruise. Our guides were starting to show their wilder sides, which was hilarious. Wileson was showing us some of his tricks…one of them was really amazing. He would push the pole strongly and quickly against the bottom and then stand on one foot with his other leg wrapped around the pole. He was truly a mokoro master. This sunset, like the 100 others we saw, was just as breathtaking as the rest.

When we got back I traded one of my old shirts for a little mokoro boats that T-man carved, something to remind me of him and my time there. That night we sat around the fire and our guides entertained us, singing and dancing, forcing us to join in. Wileson surprised us when he emerged from the dark during one of the songs, moving and shaking in ways I have never seen before, mimicking a spear hunt. After they were done we were expected to respond, so while the made fun of us, pretending to take pictures with water bottles, we sang ‘Where the Watermelons Grow’ and did some terrible pop renditions. It was an amazing day, and I really loved having the chance to talk to T-man a little bit; despite the language barrier, I could tell that he was such a wise, wonderful person. I again went to bed to the sounds of frogs, crickets, and hyenas howling, feeling absolutely content.

Day 5:
Another early wake up and another short game walk. We saw some more hippos in the distance and another sunrise, which by this time we were coming to expect. We then packed up camp and had another relaxing mokoro ride back to the entrance of the Delta, saying goodbye to out guides. We drove a lot this day, and the time was broken up by random elephant sightings on the side of road. The other truck got a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, and were advised to stay inside the truck because the sun was setting and that meant lions would be on the prowl. We got to our campsite late at night and were informed that elephants and lions had been walking through the site the night before. Falling asleep was a bit more difficult that night.

Day 6:
More driving through nothingness, more random elephants on the side of the road. We stocked up on wine in Maun again before driving to Chobe National Park, where we would be going on a sunset cruise down the river. The cruise was just amazing…speeding down the enormous Chobe River, we spotted a ton of impalas, a whole herd of elephants, babies and all, drinking and playing along the riverside, hippos poking their heads out along the shore, a baby crocodile, fish eagles, and more. It was so surreal.

I couldn’t really comprehend what I was seeing…partly because the wine was starting to get to be and partly because I never in my life expected to see an entire herd of elephants right in front of me. The park does have the highest concentration of elephants in the world, but I guess I never expected our luck to be so good.

Day 7:
Another early wake up and a morning game drive through Chobe National Park, where we saw warthogs, lion tracks (sadly this is all we saw of them), more impalas. It was really entertaining to see the European tourists driving by with their matching outfits, ridiculous and unnecessary safari hats, big boots. I don’t understand why people visiting Africa feel like they need to sport full on camouflage, as if the entire continent is full of animals on the prowl, with no civilization.

We again packed up camp and drove to the Zambia border, where we had to cross the Zambezi River by ferry. I bought a 100 trillion dollar note from Zimbabwe while we were waiting, sad and ironic but a good souvenir none the less.

After more waiting and driving we finally arrived at our last campsite, and hurried onto the bus to see Victoria Falls, one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World.

I cannot possible express the majesty and beauty of these falls. They are truly a work of God. Pictures just cannot do them justice. You can hear the mighty road of them from hundreds of yards away, can see the mist spraying up from miles away. I was utterly awestruck when I first laid eyes upon them, simultaneously soaking them in and not comprehending what was before me.

The water just flows off the cliffs, roaring and crashing and spraying into the river below, which has carved a magnificent canyon into the landscape. We got absolutely soaked; there was one bridge that crosses right in front of it that is continuously being sprayed by the falls, so you feel like it is downpoaring every 5 minutes or so. The sunset over the falls, which are at this time in full flood, is something that will stay with me forever.

Day 8:
At Vic Falls you have the option of doing a number of random activities, all insanely overpriced. There is rafting (not available at this time of year) cruises, bungee jumping, lion encounters, helicopter rides, and more. It’s a tourist’s paradise. I settled on bungee jumping, something I never had the urge to do before I came to Africa, but yet something that I felt I HAD to do once I saw the Falls and the bridge over the gorge where you leap from. While a lot of people were abseiling, a few of us relaxed by the pool alongside the Zambezi, sipping on Zambian beer, watching monkeys play in the trees. The Zambian currency is difficult to deal with. With a less stable economy, more typical of Africa, I was required to pay 10,000 Kwacha for a beer.

We were to bungee in the afternoon, and as it got closer I got more and more nervous. We took a taxi to the Zambia border, walking by baboons in the street. The bungee is actually in noman’s land, on the bridge that connects Zambia to Zimbabwe. It is the third highest in the world, the highest over water. When we arrived at the registration building, there was another group waiting there to jump. Watching the videos of people jumping (and one guy chickening out) did nothing to ease my nerves. The rest of this was really a blur. I remember walking out along the bridge, looking down at the roaring waters below feeling the mist of the falls stinging my face. There was a crowd lined up along the railings to watch this insane activity. Suddenly I found myself sitting on the side of the bridge, getting strapped in, being heckled by the bungee workers.

How are you? they ask.
Good, and you? I respond.
Great, because I’m not the one about to jump off a bridge, they laugh.
After they filmed me sending a ‘message’ to my family, I stepped up to the edge.

My body was fighting me at every step. You aren’t going to do this, you can do this, you are going to die, this is so high those waters are so rough and they will feel like cement when you slam into them. Then they count down from five and I leap with my arms outstretched. I feel myself, my stomach flying around inside of me, the wind and the mist and the incredible acceleration of my body and the water below and suddenly there is a scream coming from deep within my soul and I am twisting and accelerating and then somehow I an being flung back up toward the bridge and there is a rainbow in the mist and my heart and head are pounding because the blood is rushing to my head and my arms are flinging uncontrollably and then I am speeding back down toward the gushing river and there are tears in my eyes and I bounce and spin and my mind is a whirlwind and I can only feel the wind and the mist and I think I am shaking because this is the most incredible exhilarating things I have ever done in my life. Suddenly I am upside down and a man is swinging about me, bobbing up and down, and he catches me and his name if Frank from Zim and he holds me and we ride back up to the bridge. When my feet touch the metal of the bridge I am shaking and breathing so heavy, and I can’t believe I just did that.

When I got back to the top, it was impossible to explain what just happened, except saying it was ‘awesome.’ There is no other way to describe it. Andrew and I, pumped up from the adrenaline, waited around again and did a bridge swing, which consists of an absolute freefall down down down into the canyon until you reach the bottom and swing, hanging and spinning there with the gorge and river and mist all around you.

It was unexplainably, exhilaratingly incredible. That night we hung out at the bar, everyone sharing stories about bungeeing, gorge swings, helicopter rides, lion walks. Sleep did not come easy.

Day 9:
A bunch of us took a taxi to the Zimbabwe border, where we were to walk to an enormous market. When we arrived, I noticed the baboons around me, eyeing us suspiciously. I had heard stories about baboons, how vicious and aggressive and nasty they are, but never really thought much of it. We were walking, about seven of us, and suddenly an enormous hairy baboon is in the middle of us, clawing at Tracey and grabbing Laura’s bag, and then he sees the delicious apple I am eating and leaps on my, clawing at me, pushing me, reaching for the apple. I panick, because this thing is gargantuan and so creepily human, and I push him back, freak out, and kick my apple far far away. He stalks after it, and a huge crowd of people laugh and laugh.

This is one moment that makes me think: Where the HELL am I??

Moving beyond the baboon encounter, we bought a visa to enter Zimbabwe, one of the poorest countries in Africa and thus the world. The walk to the market was hot and uneventful. It didn’t feel like the Zimbabwe I was expecting. When we finally arrived at the market, we were overwhelmed at how huge it was. It was really unsettling and uncomfortable because people are aggressive and eager and will not leave you alone until you look at their shop. I was unprepared for it all. The only thing that made me realize where we were was when I asked one guy why he was working on Easter and he laughed and said, “We have no money, man.”

I tried to take my time, and was able to barter a couple old shirts and socks, beers, apples, little bags of chips, some pain medication, my chapstick, pens, a little bit of cash (Rand, mostly), ripped boxer shorts, for an assortment of souvenirs. It’s amazing how valuable some items were that we take for granted. These people don’t have access to a lot of things, so apples and socks were almost more valuable than money. I got some presents for my family, and I got a little baboon to commemorate the ‘attack.’ This was another whirlwind, and after losing the whole group I came with, I found one kid Owen and walked back to find a cab.

That night we relaxed and watched the sunset over the river, had a dance party, celebrated an amazing trip, though expensive, changed my life.

Day 10:
Early wake up, (as a side note, I will miss Andrew’s hilarious wake ups, dotted with fake enthusiasm and hilarious comments like ‘I just saw a leopard riding on a buffalo! Get up!) a long long day of traveling, a welcome return to Mowbray. There are little moments hear and there that will stay inside of me all my life. It was an expensive trip, but it was so worth it. It was all worth it, and though I was a tourist, I feel so lucky to have seen and experienced things that most will never have the chance to.

I will miss those African sunsets more than anything else.


  1. Jamie!!! This posts makes me miss my time in Botswana! I agree that the sunsets are the most beautiful and stunning I have ever seen and I do miss them. But we also miss you back here at the McKeen Center and can't wait to see you again in the fall! - Jess

  2. wow jamie, that was epic!
    makes me intensely jealous but also very excited for you, sounds like you really took advantage of what there was to offer!!!!!!!
    keep writing!

  3. casey i miss youuuuuuuuuuuuuuu