Unexpected free wireless service for an hour means I’m not ready to publish the latest updates yet…because I was in the bush for three days and didn’t write them… I’m alive though. More to come soon.
Unexpected free wireless service for an hour means I’m not ready to publish the latest updates yet…because I was in the bush for three days and didn’t write them… I’m alive though. More to come soon.
We left the Delta the same way we had come in, via mokoros and speed boat. The first shower in three days felt awesome and was promptly celebrated with a beer or three before lunchtime. Finally it was shopping time (we never smelled better), stocking up on water and shower gel. Paying for these two items took me over 30 minutes. In that order: one cash register open only, long line. Line being partially moved to two other cashiers, one of them (mine) not ready to open the register yet – the other one on the phone. Me moving back to the original line. My shower gel not registered in the system. Price being investigated. None of the other lines moving in the meantime. Me paying for the water, ready to leave. Shower gel arriving with price afterward, me handing over more money. No change available… and all of this with the usual friendly but torpedo-snail speed. Just fascinating.
We have reached the campsite in Gweta now. Landscape has changed again – more desert like again. Plenty of donkeys again. And frogs. Tonight, for the second time a toad tried to climb into my tent. They like me. They don’t hop away. Photographic evidence of me kissing a frog exists now. Hey, I’m over 30, I will try almost anything…
The area here has plenty of baobab trees. The trees are probably the biggest (widest) and maybe oldest in the world. Thousands of years, plenty of people could hold hands around their stems. They look like they grow upside down and they and their fruits are very useful.
While in New York and other overly Irish cities in the world green puke leftovers from yesterday’s St. Patrick’s Day was being removed we were already looking at elephant poop the size of my luggage at 7am. The second bushwalk in the delta took us over 4 hours and we were rewarded with more elephants, zebras, giraffes, an annoyed turtoise (we wouldn’t leave it alone) and many beautiful and large birds such as vultures, fish eagles and storks. It was boiling hot at 7 already and it only got worse. Having said that the heat has not bothered me on this trip yet, partially because I probably acclimatised, also because it hasn’t been disgusting yet. The only reason it was noticeable now was because we couldn’t shower and in the afternoon there was very little shade in the camp. Also on the plus side, I have yet to get a sunburn. I don’t even spray extensively, yet I haven’t even been close to my usual lobster tan.
We saw all these animals because the guide simply traced them via their poop. Even when the deeds were not so fresh Keti could somehow make out what the latest hangout spot was and he was right every time.
I managed to read an entire book in the afternoon, a German bestseller named “Hummeldumm”. Silvia forced herself through it on a previous trip, and I had seen it in German bookstores throughout Africa. The book takes a young couple on an overland trip through Namibia with a bunch of annoying German stereotypical characters. It’s funny, but it is also very accurate as the author goes to the exact same places we went to in Namibia including the ‘big’ Helmeringhausen, and he has the same “so weird, so German” impressions about the country as I had. It’s a quick read – do it if you can.
For sunset we were once again in mokoros, this time we watched two hippos making decisions about how much water they were going to blow through their nostrils the next time they came up. Exciting stuff, especially with the knowledge in the back of your head that hippos are really aggressive animals who will attack and win – yet we were floating 15 meters away from them in longish nutshells with expensive cameras making fun about the sizes of their butts.
After dinner the local guides (both women and men by the way) sang for us. We had been prewarned with the words “they expect a performance from you guys in return, and please no ‘happy birthday’ again because the entire group can’t come up with something more original”. In two days preparation we had of course not come up with anything so my suggestion to do an africanized version of “Old Mc Donald had a farm” with local animals instead of farm animals was accepted and I dreaded it already. Luckily it all worked out in our favor. The guides’ performance was not only good (Africans can all sing it seems, and they enjoy it!) but also goofy (dances, lyrics) and interactive. They really enjoyed it, as did we. And our pathetic number would now not seem so inappropriate anymore.
I’m pretty sure the guides had no clue what was going on when our entire group of 24 people including the deaf old folks got up and impersonated zebras (“with a dazzle dazzle here and a dazzle dazzle there…”), elephants and giraffes (3 people forming the latter) but after a bunch of very puzzled looks they were certainly very good sports and later on they almost died of laughter. We quickly threw in the ‘hokey-pokey’ and everyone jumped up to participate, my guess is that it was not the first time they had done this – in fact I learned it from one of the guides…
Anyway, now that the ice was completely broken (until then we had kept fairly separately apart from on the walks and mokoro rides) the night was not supposed to end despite lack of light (campfire and moon only), abundance of annoying mosquitos and nothing but sand to sit on. So we played games…the type you play with 6 year olds at birthday parties, or later on in corporate jobs on tree hugging days to get to know your coworkers. It was great, and a long night. Also, the simpler the game, the better known internationally.
That night I peed without regret. Behind my own tent this time, I was that tough. And I slept great afterwards.
The Okavango Delta is the world’s largest inland delta. It was once part of Lake Makgadikgadi which dried up about 10,000 years ago. The water is shallow and really pure as there is no industry here, we used it for cooking and the guides simply drank it. Speed boats took us to through the wider parts to a place where we met our local guides and transferred to mokoros.
Mokoros are long flat canoes which are moved via a very long wooden stick almost like a gondola in Venice. This was done by the local guides obviously. As two passengers fit into a mokoro (along with daypacks and food for three days) we had about 15 mokoros and an equal number of local guides (there were extra mokoros for the tents and the cooking stuff).
It took over an hour to reach our bushcamp and the ride to it was amazing. The water is maybe 4 ft deep only and that’s in deep parts, and the delta consists of high grass and huge waterlillies with tiny white frogs on them. We rode right through the grass which was higher than me in the seated position. Snakes zigzagged through the water. Totally cool.
Our bushcamp was a small area with trees around which we put up our tents and the much more basic tents of the guides. An area was cleared for a fire and another tent held the food and cooking utensils. A short walk away in the bushes someone dug a deep perfectly round hole which served as our toilet.
Basic rule: if the spade was still leaning against a specific tree the “bathroom” was not occupied. Once you had to go you had to grab the spade, toilet paper and hand sanitizer, and use all three when done. It actually worked really well and unlike an outhouse it did not smell as the results were always buried under new sand.
Until the late afternoon we just chilled, it was way too hot to do anything. There was a deep “pool” area nearby that we sat in with drinks, naturally. Other than that we sought shade. Luckily it wasn’t as buggy as expected. Later the guides took us in mokoros to another spot where we set out on a bushwalk. Beforehand we got a quick safety briefing; basically to follow their leads. Upon spotting elephants one should ideally stand in the direction of the wind so that the elephant can’t smell you, however if attacked by elephants one must indeed run away, and fast, as there’s virtually not much chance to survive a trampling. With rhinos, hippos and buffalos it’s best to find a tree to climb on and wait and hope for the best as all of them are mean and angry motherf@ckers. With lions and leopards just stand there and try not to shit yourself while hoping that the animals lose interest in you. We felt safe and careless with the guide until he began explaining all of this in a very low voice and the reality that we were inside wild animal territory, on foot nonetheless, finally kicked in. Even a 5ft skinny experienced delta guide from Botswana could not save me from a bad tempered giraffe on a good day. We’d better stay in that suggested single file in our small groups and shut up.
Walking through the bush was slightly exhausting and not quite as scenic as imagined. For once it was hot as balls but we were in long pants and sleeves to protect us from cuts, dirt, bugs and the sun. Also you had to look at the ground the entire time as there were ginormous holes dug up by aardvarks. Some were well hidden under grass and occasionally someone disappeared down to the hips in them. Our guide was on a mission for he had smelled elephants “about 1,5 km away”. We raced through the bushes and sure enough a few minutes later we spotted two giant elephants in the distance, sharing the same ground with us. At this point you are exhilirated to see these beautiful giants so close in an unenclosed space – and simultaneously terrified when you realize that they already saw you. We simply stopped, evidently we were in the right wind direction. After a few pictures the guide took us in a large circle around the elephant. We spotted two of the other small groups of people and suddenly the guide was getting a bit nervous and tried to calmly rush us back to the mokoros as ‘the elephant is a bit angry’. Not words you want to hear in the middle of nowhere. But we made it back untrampled.
My night was quite spectacular as well. No matter how much, little or late I drink I have to use the bathroom once a night, usually at exactly 3 am. The instructions at the camp for nightly businesses were the following: Don’t leave your tent. Although previous Gap groups have not had any issues in the past lions, baboons and hippos were known to walk through the campsites at night on occasion. I debated the use of a plastic bottle vs. uncomfortable sleep and cramps until another guide instructed us to always wake our tent mates for the walk to the facilities. That sounded better. Unfortunately (in this case) my tent mate is a sound sleeper and upon hearing this message flat out told me to not bother. To be honest I’m not sure how she or anyone else could help me fighting off a leopard while standing guard as I pee anyway. I had already decided that I would skip the hole if nature called and opt for the space right behind the tent regardless of 40 other people listening to me. So once 3 am rolled around and I was up as expected I listened for any movement for a good 15 minutes, convincing myself that all was good and that if I should be struck down by a big cat it would be a good story for my parents to tell anyone who asked and they could be proud that I died during two of the most relieving activities – vacationing and peeing. In Africa!
I was ready. I slid out of the tent. I debated whether I should pee behind my own tent or the one next to us. I wondered if my neighbors could see me through their open window flap and chose the back of their tent. I pulled down my pants…and then panic set in because I couldn’t hear any other sounds than myself. I imagined eyes looking at me from a bush and I made sure I peed in record time. It was a miserable experience. I dove back into the tent and I did not calm down for another 10 minutes or so. Finally I lay awake for another hour, listening to the sounds and at this point hoping I would hear something – how cool would that be?! It was quiet.
In the morning we got a demonstration of basic survival skills by the bushmen that had been dancing for us the night before. The entire group minus the kid dressed in the same loincloths walked us into the bush and started digging out roots and plants with their sticks along the way. Each plant has a number of functions, anything from curing indigestion to fertility treatments for childless couples. One teensy looking fern thing had the most massive bulpy root I’ve ever seen. It’s fibrous red meat is used as an insect repellent and also protects against sun. Another root is so spongy that you can use it as a water receptacle. The bushmen drink from it in dryer times and wash themselves with it as well.
The old man was giving a demonstration with a plant that was only partially translated but the bushmen were completely dying of laughter during it. Supposedly it treats headaches – in specific situations we guessed.
There are not many bushmen left in the Kalahari desert but the government tries to protect them (not sure how). The tradition dies out because kids go to school these days or alcohol was introduced to the tribe. Our little group was again very keen on cigarettes after they showed us how to make fire sans a zippo.
The old man from the night before turned out to be “around 60” – they don’t know their ages but this guy has not drawn on his pension fund according to the interpreter. The very old lady who did not cover her upper body however had done so, which makes her around 80. The younger folk could have been any age between 17 and 35 and all of them very so much smaller than we were.
On the way to Maun, Botswana’s tourist capital, we already passed a lot of random donkeys on the street. They were everywhere and often they slowed down traffic considerably. The other thing we noticed was how the landscape changed – super green again, much larger plants and bushes, and the weather was hot and humid all of a sudden. Certainly no more rain clouds to be seen, not that had actually been a problem previously – it had always rained for short periods only and usually when we were in tents or on the truck.
Maun is the 5th biggest city in Botswana, it started out as a small village and is growing so fast that the city can’t keep up from the look of it. We stopped at a busy strip with supermarkets, shops and internet cafes where we got ready for our three day bush excursion later. The people here were very friendly, everyone smiled or said hello – different from Namibia where people were just indifferent. In general people are not interested in us and I’ve never felt unsafe anywhere. Even on obvious tourist markets (they sell the same stuff everywhere, supposedly it all comes from Zambia) the vendors are not overly pushy and they will back off when you show no interest whatsoever.
While a bunch of people took a flight over the Okavango Delta I had a traditional cafe latte and a piece of coconut cake at a German pub (talk about clashes in taste). There were 6 of us at the table and a local lady simply decided to join us when I was in the bathroom. When I got back and saw her in the free seat I assumed that the guys had asked her over but she turned out to be a beggar of some sort. I asked her how she’s doing and the answer was “Very well, my friend, thank you. But then again…not really, in other ways…” and I stopped asking right there knowing she would tell me her lifestory or ask for money next. She actually ended up at everyone’s t able that afternoon but nobody from the pub made an effort to chase her away.
Last night we had dinner at Joe’s Bierhaus in Windhoek, one of these places that are full of more or less original bar clutter and then some (bikes hanging from the ceiling, stuffed animals, Jaegermeister bottles everywhere etc), have mediocre food and a really slow service. It wasn’t bad, just not quite as good as it ought to be. As mentioned before I had the wild game platter with crocodile, kudu, zebra and ostrich and aside from the crocodile I could have not told that meat apart from each other. All very tasty though, but no specific flavor I would recognize.
The service was typical African – bored but not necessarily unfriendly waitresses who moved in the speed of snails, more staff than appropriate, however nobody interested in the actual or obvious needs of their guests. One thing I always find fascinating is how napkins seem to be a rarity here and of poor quality. Since we had mussels as a starter I asked for more napkins but never received them even though I was clearly struggling with dirty hands and sauces, and the two other people I asked within the course of 10 minutes all just said “of course” and then snailwalked back to the spot where they stood talking to other staff.
If you want a drink it is always better to go to the bar yourself as nobody will bother to ask if you want one with your meal or if they can sell you a refill.
In the afternoon we had lunch at a cafe inside a mall and again the service was so slow that I decided to go window shopping before my food arrived. When I got back I had a chicken panini in front of me and a person in my group was eating the roasted vegetable wrap I ordered and drowned my salad in vinegar. Evidently the waitress had insisted that the order was correct and she was now apologizing for the mistake, promising to bring me the second half of the wrap that had already been consumed after we switched plates again. Well, it never came, I got a bunch of apologies and when the bill came everything was on there as well, but when I asked for the rest of my meal the waitress responded that she thought “it was alright” because I had waved off her constant apologies as it was getting comical. What got me though was that she never offered to amend the bill either. I wound up paying in full for half a wrap and some soaked salad I didn’t enjoy and leaving with no time to get something else. These sort of situations happen occasionally and you have to be ready to accept them at face value as there will rarely be a courtesy alternative offer. You order fish and get chicken – tough for you if you’re hungry or in a rush, better eat what you get.
Back in our fancy hotel without the bathroom light or internet connection we had another drink at the empty bar. A slimy Indian dude tried to pick me and another girl up with the throwaway line “if you’re interested, 150 Namibian dollars for the two of you” as he walked out. He must have known that he had no chance as we were making fun of him the entire time and completely ignored him once some of our other guys had shown up. Still, the entire bar heard it including the bartender and the boss who were both offended for us. It was pretty comical, I hadn’t even registered it until everyone started talking about it.
We didn’t see much of Windhoek because the hotel was a bit further out and we only had 4 hours between arrival and dinner. I used it to wash my clothes and use the very fancy gym. I know!!!!
Anyway, what I saw out of the truck window was a fairly compact city with street names in 3 languages depending on street corner, i.e. every name is different and there seems to be no method at all. Plenty of German signs of course, beer ads everywhere. Huge malls as well…people must love their shopping. There is also an open deck tourist bus tour you can do, and evidently the Windhoek sun is brutal – as witnessed by our latest tour member who has festering blisters on his face and arms from really bad sunburns acquired on the bus yesterday. This guy looks like a freak show – not great for first impressions. He’s obviously very nice, and I just discovered that he lives in the same street in London now where I used to live when I first moved there.
Today we crossed the border into Botswana. As always we were warned that border crossing can take hours but again we were lucky and it took only a few minutes. I didn’t need a visa for Botswana (or Namibia) but both countries require you to fill out long immigration forms. The border offices are always very plain. Announcements are posted on walls, often in poor English but with many official stamps, often in poor quality Xerox copies, and often with notes and comments from bored people standing in line on them. Aside from not being allowed to take pictures the border crossings seem to have no rules. People walk in without shoes or shirts, cut lines, talk on the phone, eat or step out of the line repeatedly. It’s the polar opposite from an immigration line at a US airport where a frown can already get you in trouble.
Every border crossing has its fair share of HIV prevention campaigns. Free condoms are available at the toilets and sometimes even at the counter.
We are now at a very remote campground in Ghanzi, about 2 hours from the border. Here my tentmate and I “upgraded” from the tent into a basic straw hut. We will sleep under mosquito nets tonight as the huts are basically open.
The showers and toilets have no doors here, they are also in straw cubes and you can “lock” them with a simple chain that signifies that you are inside. It’s probably GAP’s way of easing us into the bushcamping in two days where we will have a shovel instead of a toilet flush, and no running water for showers.
Dinner was a traditional Botswana beef meal with cinnamon butternut squash, red beets, roasted veggies and pap. At 8 pm we sat around the campfire and saw a dance performance from the local bushmen. Four women sat around the campfire and provided the beats via clapping and humming and three men dressed only in loincloths and shells around their ankles were dancing around them and the fire in a circle.
The songs were very basic hums and moaning sounds, quite spooky really, and they sounded a bit like a record that gets played backwards. All songs had a meaning, some were healing songs for sick people, others lullabies, others entertaining songs about animals. I couldn’t make out any words really, when the language was spoken it sounded totally different and also had some of the clicking sounds. The three dancers were of three different generations, the oldest was probably around 60, and the youngest maybe 10. Neither of them had an ounce of body fat on them, the dance seemed pretty strenuous with all the stomping of their feet and bending over at an angle.
After the performance the men danced/stomped over to our smokers in the group to bum cigarettes. It took a while to understand that however.
We had a bit of rain again today. The delta will be full of bugs. We met another group on the campground and their tour guide is currently suffering through malaria. I can only hope that the Lariam works as I get bitten through my mosquito proof clothes despite tons of 100% Deet. In Zambia you can buy malaria testing kits in the pharmacy and I will stock up on that as well.