A Travellerspoint blog

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Background and Welcome

Mosi oa Tunya at last

P1190205.JPGEthiopian Airlines offered the most direct and route from Eastern Canada into the depths of Africa or more precisely into Victoria Falls. The overnight flight was long and uneventful albeit sleepless and ankle-swelling. The connection in Addis was not matching the expectations formed from the swanky new Boeing 878 and the passengers were lucky not being rained upon on the tarmac during transfer between planes and terminal. The runway sides were littered with old airplanes covered in layered African dust waiting for the heavy rains to clean them up and feed the rust so they teleport into another universe faster. Leaving them behind was a mixed feeling of relief and anxious anticipation of what is to follow at the other end of the Addis-Victoria Falls flight this time performed on vintage B737 shaking involuntarily during the rigors of take-off and landing. Most surprisingly, the Zimbabwean cash cow was spruced up beyond wildest expectations with a new Chinese-built airport, shiny on both sides of the facade.
P1190914.JPGOnce stepping into the banality of glass-and-steel combo the atmosphere began to give way to local peculiarities. The first thing that the newcomer could see on a quasi balcony over the immigration booths hall was the portrait of the “top guy”. Nobody was to have any doubt of who is in charge nowadays; these circumstances could not be more welcomed by the business people of all sorts. The tourists though were streamlined like cattle (with nothing to gain from this knowledge) on the stairs where they filled in their visa application forms so the beautiful new hall was free of clutter and shined in full glory. This spacious area was crossed by the visitors one by one and after very brief money-for-visa exchange with the official they proceeded to the land of natural wonders.
Just after these immigration's pleasantries, one of the new arrivals urged by overloaded bladder was offered the services of the pre-customs washroom. Met by a beaming-of-joy toilet janitor he went on to the urinal to leave the last vestiges of airplane drinks into the local drainage system – some sort of rite of passage. Quite relieved by the process he went on to the sink and discovered that a one-dollar bill was conspicuously placed between two water basins so the advertisement was not to be missed. The fresh-out-of the plane new comer tried to remember any other toll toilet demanding such amount for similar service and could not recollect any. Moreover, the suggested tip was with total contradiction with the notion of what Zimbabwe prices might be after years of TV depictions of the economic situation in the country for the last decade, at least.
Once the imaginary border was crossed a bunch of greeters from different hotels and freelance taxi drivers were the first locals to attract the attention. And attention was needed but the prearranged pick-up from the particular hotel was not there. After a consultation with the tourist booth official nearby, a phone call with the property was arranged. The representative of the “LODGE” had heard of this booking but did not know where their driver was!? Despite the rather hefty price of USD 30 for a 20km ride, there was nobody to claim it and naturally the freelancers filled the gap. Fortunately, the room was still on offer and the weary traveler went on to recoup the loss of sleep for the next eighteen hours or until the next morning.
P1190225.JPGThis introductory-to-Zimbabwe property was quite unique not only due to its welcoming technique. It was genuinely Zimbabwean (since the technique) as one could see that there were practically no white-skin guests to be seen. The breakfast was set up in the courtyard hence the cooks and the servers had to juggle between their food service duties and fending off the hungry flies. Well, outside dining is a compromise no matter how one looks at it! Since this was the high season and a steady stream of foreigners were besieging the town it was no surprise to discover that only one night stay was available at property number one (in terms of order). Fortunately, property number two, yet another lodge, was available for two nights in a row so one could do some tourist work and not just move between hotels as main preoccupation.

Posted by assenczo 10:38 Comments (0)

Victoria versus Kasane

Thrills of more than one kind

830792b0-2c9d-11e9-916a-2b0c987347a9.jpgVisiting the Victoria Falls was, is and probably will be a whole-day affair. The entrance ticket for foreign visitors was 30USD (on the Zimbabwe side and 20USD on the Zambia section) and one might as well make a good use of it. Luckily, the falls area is very long – the Falls are stretching for almost 2km and two thirds of it is located on the Zimbabwean side; the visitor could march one way in the morning and return in the afternoon. Except for the distance another consideration could be the fact that there are different angles in variety of light conditions to justify long walks along the precipice. The unfortunate thing of this elongated and narrow set-up is the fact that it was impossible to take a broad view of the falls and a truly panoramic picture. Moreover, the gorge where the water falls is so narrow that all of the mist cannot dissipate quickly and depending on the wind conditions the view was blocked partially or almost completely. Morning and afternoon brought different lighting and different crowds as well. The early part of the day was popular with white tourist groups while the later part is preferred by the blacks – conceivably local (from African countries) admirers.
Going on to Chobe National Park, Botswana, was a must considering it is the next point of interest in the area. Being only about 90km away from Victoria Falls does not make it simple to reach in terms of logistics. Despite the fact that there was a bus connection, the passengers on this Zimbabwe-Namibia international bus line were not allowed to disembark. What was left on the options list were taxis and private or group transfers. This unfortunate state of affairs was no coincidence as the trip latter would reveal. There are hardly any vehicles moving along the rather-good highway. The only explanation might be that any self-respecting Zimbabwe or Botswana person (in their right mind) would not go to the other country’s respective natural wonders unless they were paid to do so. The meager traffic consisted only of trucks, presumably shipping goods to the tourist centers and capitals of the interior.
Once this realization had sunk in, one had to get out quickly and secure transport. The most natural way was to find it locally instead of booking from overseas. The main drag in Victoria Falls had a “Tourist Bureau” that might have suggested it was a government office but it was not. They offered a price very difficult to beat if more than one person used the service. The “official” himself did not necessarily have to drive. They appeared to have a network of the willing to do the job. If the driver had performed well it became quite natural to receive the commission for the trip back.
Kasane was the border town of Botswana that played the role of Chobe national Park service center. This was the place where the vast number of lodgings are and all the trimmings that come with them – gas stations, fast food, pharmacies, tourist agencies and so on. It was divided roughly in two halves with a border going along the “President Avenue” with all the luxury accommodation on side of the Chobe River and the rest on the opposite side. For the best local experience, the Chiloto guest house was no pushover. It was located in the “rougher” part of town with real neighbors left, front and center. The guest house had en-suite and shared bathroom facilities and a knack for booking activities through their vast network. Prices were compatible to the ones downtown and way better than anything booked overseas.
16968950-2c9e-11e9-916a-2b0c987347a9.jpgThe thrill of being in Kasane started to materialize in the moment the visitor stepped into a boat and went for a sundown cruise. The multitude of boats of all shapes and sizes floats down to the prairie island where significant number of grazers went to satisfy their hunger. Buffalo, elephants, hippos, antelopes – they were all there for the tourists to immortalise in their photos before they had died of “unnatural” causes.
The overland portion of the park was best seen in the morning with chances to watch the elusive leopard and huge array of its prey. If something had been missed during boat cruising this was the moment to make up for it. Depending on the strength of the zoo gene of the travelers they might have attended this natural stage more than once and thus increased the chance of seeing real drama along the banks of this slow-moving African river.
Kasane was in the very north-east corner of Botswana. It was well-separated from the rest of the country by sizable steppe-like countryside and less-than-perfect roads. The option of renting a car was present and appealing but the novice had to be aware that this was not a piece of cake. There were internationally recognizable outlets but the chances were that they were “licensees”, meaning they had bought the rights to the famous brand names but did not live up to the expectations of quality related to them. Well, despite all the reservations, a foreigner might as well have rented a vehicle so first-hand experience was gained and everlasting memories obtained.

Posted by assenczo 06:33 Archived in Botswana Comments (0)

Salt desert in the steppe


Due south of Kasane was a road in pretty good condition, with solitary pot-holes ready to burst the car’s tires at the lawful speed of 120km/h. Or, conversely, one could slow down, save the trouble and see quite a bit of wildlife peacefully cohabitating with the practically non-existent traffic. The elephants were most likely to be seen and not only because of their size. Ostriches, giraffes and antelopes were fair game too. All of this due to the fact that the road passed though areas designated as parks and thus saved from human encroachment.
Nata was the first urban area of any size along the way and a major crossroads. It combined the traffic north-south between Kasane and the capital Gaborone with the east-west flow from the second-biggest town of Francis (town) to the tourist Mecca of Maun. Nata could be attractive for non-transport reasons too. It was located on the banks of a river with the same name where pelicans liked to fish. The process was rehearsed and involved many individuals flapping their wings to produce a sound mimicking the ocean surf while cornering poor fish into the shallows. Full-moon yellow light added romantic je-ne-sais-qui about it and completed the picture.
The village of Gweta was roughly half-way between the important Nata crossroads and the capital of the Okavango delta – Maun. It was not much of an attraction on its own but in combination with the salt pans it became huge magnate for the inquisitive people of this planet. Luckily, it is the home of Gweta Lodge, which had amongst other facilities its own camp and the ability to organize once-in-a-lifetime slumber party in the middle of the salt dessert. The price was steep and availability precarious since there was a requirement of at least four people joining in order to make it viable financially. One option was to travel in a group and book unanimously; another one was to be patient, lucky and adventurous enough while waiting for the luck of the draw to pair you with certain strangers in order to be able to visit one of the strangest places in the world.
It was not Bonneville or Uyuni kind of environment but very similar and distinctly unique at the same time. The “pan” was bordering the savannah land which in turn had been allowed in by the bush country. Most of those lands were commercially exploited by the local ranchers but when the salt pan appeared nothing was able to exist and surreality began. The horizon was unlimited; and the Sun alternated with the Moon to illuminate this barren land of the extreme. No wildlife was present here where the food chain had been completely broken with the exception of some winged vultures aiming at human leftovers.
The party started with a solemn departure from the Gweta lodge around three o’clock in the afternoon. The distance from the lodge to the pan was about 35km but it took quite a while to cover it since the roads were sand-made and there were frequent stops with educational incline, not to mention the thrill of being stuck in the sand for a moment or two to add some extra spice to the experience. Variety of flora was being examined and explained by well-informed driver-cum-tour guide. Some of the knowledge had been accumulated for ages going back to the nomadic existence of the locals that had been denied to them in the recent past. After the bush gave way to the savannah the whiteness of the salt pan started to immerge on the horizon. Major stop before the salt pan camp was attributed to local clowns, called Meerkats that spurred mixed feelings amongst the visitors. These small furry animals were very reminiscent of squirrels and indeed competed for space with the local ground squirrels but had different markings and nose shape. Admittedly, they were better off looked at on TV screen where the reference points are nonexistent and the imagination of the viewer goes wild.
The Meerkats (or more accurately just mere cats) put aside it was time to proceed on foot to the camp and soak in the last moments of the setting sun. The staff of two charged ahead and started the preparation of the furniture setup and meals. On offer was three-course dinner, under full moon in this case, accompanied by bring-your-own liquor with corkage fee waived. The beds were laid out directly on the salt ground. They reminded of a cross between a mattress and sleeping bag zipped in a tent material. The night was very cool and the bedding provided reliable defences against cold-based sleepless nights.
The morning was another spectacle all together with the sun gradually making its way onto the stage. Photos of the metamorphosis that the morning went through were great testament of the “communion with Nature” that this trip represented, albeit staged for the foreigners.
The morning brought about the ablutions ritual followed by breakfast which happened to be quite sumptuous considering the circumstances. After a while the consumption was over, the equipment packed and the guests of honour ready to embark on the journey home. Except, the super-duper safari jeep was unresponsive to the urges of the driver. As if to imitate the locally-prevalent donkey crowd it would not budge despite the whips of the starter and the pushing and shoving of the passengers. An idea was floated, namely to leave the testy machinery to its demise in the salt and employ the services of real donkeys in Troika formation (Botswana style) but despite its flattering overtones the concept was discarded by the guide and his local sidekick. The Boss kept insisting on technology and eventually managed to contact civilization and help came but from unexpected quarters. The lodge meerkat-only tour had arrived in the vicinity and was alerted to the dire circumstances the local embodiment of Scott (of the South Pole blunder) was in.

Posted by assenczo 06:36 Archived in Botswana Comments (0)

Spectacular wetlands of Okavango

Crown jewel of Kalahari

Gweta was located in less than 200km west of the Okavango delta - the complete opposite of the salt dessert. These wetlands were fed by rivers coming from the Angolan highlands that spread out in the dry areas of northern Botswana until they disappeared into the sands and salt pans. The area was huge and clear comprehension of the scale could be provided by the thrilling scenic flights staged from the Maun airport. First though, one had to establish himself and find proper accommodation. The Old Bridge Backpackers seemed to operate alongside the classical confines of backpacker hostel – affordable accommodation and travel expertise. Except, here the guests were housed in bedded tents with solid roofs and open concept gables; hence the term glamping - the wonderful pretence of camping with full array of frills including own roofless bathroom and duvet-covered mattress-laid real bed. The location was ideal, on the banks of a river, with easy access to the east-west axis giving car renters ability to navigate freely taking care only of the potholes in the roads.
The hotel/camp generated probably more income through its tours rather than its rooms. They offered wide range of safari drives, boat rides and even stuck their noses into the flight business. Of course, the establishment was a partner into greater collaboration but the revenue was undeniable; and how wonderful – the guests had somebody helping with vested interest in their well-being.
One of the signature activities of Old Bridge Backpackers was the combo of boat and mokoro ride. The original single-piece wooden boat of the delta dwellers was employed in the tourism business (albeit in its modern fibreglass form) via a poler’s union that regulated the access and profits. Mokoro’s point of departure was further into the delta, naturally, so the camp had its own boat and guide to take the willing folks there and show off some of the natural beauty of the region along the way. There were frequent stops to point out creatures that were not easily visible to the untrained eye. Small birds, lizards and other animals were often well-camouflaged and easy to miss.
The mokoro poler station was approximately an hour away from the starting point. It buzzed with activity in the morning when most of the paying customers congregated for their day trips. Some of the mokoro runs were purely cargo related, just like in the olden days, supplying local communities or near-by luxurious lodges. The mokoro driver was no stranger – he or she had to be a member of the union, had to be educated about the flora and fauna of the delta and speak English. The price of his services was hidden into the bigger trip package but this did not stop him from asking for a tip in a very telling manner: “Tips are allowed, sir!” Even though the poler had certain time frame to operate in and he should not have been back at the starting point before the arranged time if he were not to be sanctioned by the union/cooperative for skimping his work, this in fact was the case but the desire for tips was unwavering.
With these administrative troubles aside, the trip into the delta was something else. The low point of observation, the immensity of the water-flooded area, the close proximity to giant hippos, the walking on the ground in search of wildlife and its traces was a unique experience that would be difficult to forget.
Another must-do activity in the delta was the scenic flight over it. There was no other way of grasping the extent of this natural phenomenon. And this fact was well-known by the local airlines that jump in to supply the demand. There were several small operators all well represented at the Maun airport. In the busy season it became luck of the draw to get on an airplane if it had not been prearranged. Naturally, pre-booked things are not spontaneous and who wants to kill the spontaneity for the sake of security anyway? Well, there were folks doing just that. The trick for the minute percentage of the other type was to be persistent and opportunity was going to arise since these little planes were on a very tight margin of profit and every seat had to be taken in order the flight to make sense financially. So, if a group had booked in advance but they did not have the exact number of people for the particular aircraft they had to pay for the empty seats too. The adventurous types could bud in and save the suckers from unnecessary expense and this way everybody was happy – the non-related customers and the airline.
Once the details had been worked out, the bill paid and the security control passed there were the small Cessna planes waiting on the tarmac for the customers to pick and choose their seats. The seat of the second pilot was available for grabs. It was unique in its position to allow for picture taking sideways and straight ahead. The afternoon flights presented a better picture with slanted sunrays for improved contrast and this was the time that offered the “second pilot” the best viewing position since according to the flight path this was the side with its “back” towards the sun!
When the six-seater Cessna became air born, an amazing scene revealed itself to the passengers. The delta fauna played with four to five colours in an infinite number of combinations and shades. Channels of blue water plyed the greenery of the slower moving water that bordered the ochre land dotted by the white termite hills and so on. Animals were visible despite the 150-meter-or-so height of the flight and some of the hippos seemed to dodge the plane by submerging into the pools. Naturally, these large herbivores and their neighbours, the elephants were the easiest to spot due to their size. If the pilot felt adventurous on this day of your lifetime, he might have “dipped” the plane into one of the river “beds” for an extra thrill to be matched only by some Hollywood productions.
The plane ride was roughly an hour long which allowed the passengers to fly over practically half the area covered by the delta. This was enough time to obtain a very good impression of the geographical phenomenon of meandering channels amongst sprawling flood plain. People with deficient vestibular apparatus had enough time to enjoy it and also avoid throwing up their guts as a result of the frequent drops in altitude despite the seemingly perfect weather. By the time this problem might have come to the fore the plane would have been landing. This flying bird was equipped with puke bags except for the “second pilot” seat since he was not supposed to vomit anyway.
In the case of a round-trip ticket from the continent of origin, the delta explorers would have had to retrace their steps back to the entry point, most probably Victoria Falls, and again go though the infinite savannah shrub of Botswana watching for wildlife along the route and pray for more potholes forming on the pavement slowing down the traffic and maybe blow up a tire to be able stop and take the scenery in fully and forever.

Posted by assenczo 13:57 Comments (0)

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