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The Moremi Game Reserve

A few days of tracking with Brian Gibson

rain 68 °F

Our Cessna 260 lifted off from Tubu Tree and headed toward the south eastern corner of the Moremi game reserve. As we lifted from the airport and cleared our first tree line we looked down and saw a herd of 30 or more Elephants with babies in tow. It was a beautiful way start to the day and we wished we could have called in the sighting for others to enjoy. We were just on the ground moments before and couldn’t see or sense that these giants who were only steps away. From the air, it is amazing how much you can see. We took only 25 minutes to reach the Moremi area and were met at the landing strip by our guide, Brian Gibson who was highly recommended by Allison as a guy who was great for the boys. She was right. Brian is a South African, who hopes to soon have Botswana citizenship. He has a quick wit, a great laugh, knows and loves animals and birds, and he knows this area and its mammalian residents like the back of his hand, which is bandaged due to a recent cricket accident. We are instantly at ease and start finding out more about the area. This area looks and feels entirely different than Tubu Tree. It is flooded already and there is water everywhere. Roads that were accessible two weeks ago are now covered with water. The dry areas for animals are shrinking which is good for game viewing, but our range is a bit limited. There is deep grass everywhere and the Mopane Forest is thick with leaves. The area has received twice as much rain as it usually does, and it shows.

This camp is different than Tubu Tree. It is a real camp at a campsite that Brian has set up for us. It has a dining room, an open area for playing games, or lounging in hammock chairs, and we have two tents with ensuite bathrooms and bucket showers right next to each other. We are close enough to have the boys in one tent without worrying too much, but the rules are clear. Do not EVER go outside your tent at night under any circumstances. The first night will tell us why.

At 4:00 we headed out on our first game drive with Brian. Brian stopped and read the tracks and told us that Cape Buffalo, has just passed through the area and we will use the paths to find them. As we are moving down the paths, we can’t believe how thick the forest is. Brian tells us that we are going to have our work cut out to see animals these days because the grass is so high. The grass is easily 3 to 5 feet high and visibility is difficult. Within fifteen minutes of cruising, looking and stopping to read tracks, Carol stammers something that sounds like Brian or Lion or something. She is so excited that she can hardly get it out. 15 feet from the Land Cruiser is a Full Grown Male Lion, lying in the grass. I have no idea how Carol spotted the thing, but there it is. It is a great spot. We backed up and rolled close to it, and it rose up and walked underneath a bush, which hid it completely, which is more than unnerving. Imagine walking next to a bush and having a full grown lion leap out at you. It could happen. Simple as that. Brian told us that he does walking safaris in the summer, but not at this time of year, for this very reason.

We left the Lion there and began looking for the tracks of the rest of the pride and the Buffalo herd. We couldn’t find the pride, but we did see some tracks. Just then, the radio crackled and the camp called to tell us that two wild dogs, the most endangered predator, had just entered our camp. Brian asked if we would like to see these dogs, and off we went. We were tearing back to camp, on the same path, when we slid around a corner and slammed on the breaks. Right before us, just feet ahead of our vehicle, were four lion cubs, looking attentively at our car. Right behind them were four lionesses and a male Lion. They were spectacular. They were all just lounging around on the road, and waiting for the sun to go down, so they could begin their hunting. Ironically, a herd of Impala was off in the distance looking very nervous as the lionesses made deep and bellowing “hurroomph” sounds. The sound was so loud it could be heard 400 meters away where the impalas stood, and the lionesses weren’t even opening their mouths. Brian joked that the Lionesses looked sooo relaxed, just waiting for another fun evening, while the impalas looked like they were thinking “oh god, not another night…” especially after hearing that sound.

After the game drive which exceeded every expectation we had, heading the “start at zero” advice from our friend at Tubu Tree, we proceeded with a great dinner and a nice time around the fire. We bedded down for the night in our tents and the night came alive around us. Birds made beautiful sounds and wildebeest and other animals interrupted our sleep throughout the night, coming within feet of our tent. We heard the lioness bellowing their sound repeatedly from nearby, “Hurrrooomph” “Hurrrooomph.” The sounds of the Hyena could also be heard nearby, “Awwwwooooyaa”. We are staying in our tents tonight.

The next day we headed out with expectations already exceeded and we didn’t expect much more having hit the lion lottery the night before. We were going to be joined this day by a guide from the Africa Adventure company who actually grew up in Zimbabwe, Andre Steinberg. After a morning game drive and a few Giraffe and Zebra, we picked up Andre who dialed us into some Lion and Buffalo from his flight in. We took an afternoon break to let the heat subside, and we enjoyed a very brief and refreshing thunderstorm. After the thunderstorm we took our first bucket showers. It’s an experience to take your entire shower in one bucket of warm water, but the challenge was quite fun and the shower felt great. Afterward, we headed out on our afternoon game drive. The Lions that Andre saw were actually right next to the landing strip, so it was pretty easy to find them. There was big male Lion and a few females, all of which we had seen before, but the cubs were off in the bush somewhere. These Lions were following the herd of 150 or so cape buffalo that were passing through the thicket. We had spent some time with the lions, so off we went to find the buffalo. We found them in a deep thicket and we could barely get a glimpse of them. It was just the front ranks of the herd while the others trailed behind. Soon after we spotted them, they seemed to just disappear. Imagine 150 2,000lb cows instantly disappearing from view. They blend in so well with the thick greenery, they just dissolve into the background. Either that or David Blaine must be traveling with them. That evening, after enjoying our little sundowner with Andre and Brian, we sat around the fire, told stories, and watched electrical storms flash in the distance against a deep purple sky. We heard the low rumble of thunder and the low hurrrooomph of lionesses, and you could almost hear impalas stiffen nervously as the sun faded into the horizon. The night went black and we finished dinner to the night sounds once again.

The next day we had a fabulous time dodging a lightning storm that we saw moving quickly toward us across the delta. We sat in our Land Cruiser and took a few photographs from behind a Hippo Pool at the lightning as it crashed into the delta in the distance. It became apparent that this was going to be a big storm and we were going to have a tough time avoiding it. Brian thought the best thing to do was to outrun it for a bit and try to get to some shelter. Camp was out of the question being quite a few kms away, but there was a shelter by the third bridge, and we just might make it. We sped along at around 40kmph across some incredibly rough and already drenched roads, racing the lightning and rain. As we passed over the rickety stick bridge, the wind broadsided us as did a 10 degree drop in temperature. And the rain came. We made our way into an old bathroom that is shared in the busy season by many campers. Today it sits empty and we were lucky that the bars in front were left unlocked. We stayed for almost an hour as the rain poured down, chatting about things that would make us forget we were in a dark bathroom. The rain lightened up and Brian thought we should leave before the next broadside came. We made it back to the camp, laughing about the new speed record we set getting to the 3rd bridge. It was apparent that the camp got blasted as well. Water had seeped into the dining area, blowing sideways and we were expecting to see something blown over, but all was intact. We ate dinner and hung out telling stories and then made out way tour tents, falling asleep to the sound of rain on their plastic roof tops.

It had rained all night, and was still raining when we woke, so the next morning was a bit “iffy”. As the rain began to lighten up, we set out for the permanent water ways of the delta. Brian had hired a boat and we were to travel up the delta for a few hours, stopping for a picnic and then returning. Brian said that rainy days and the main channels of the delta weren’t great for wildlife spotting, but we’d see some great scenery. On our way, Brian spotted some Lion Tracks in the wet sand. We had all heard a lion last night, and Brian thought this was the one we had heard. He knew it was a male by sight, and this track confirmed his hunch about the sound last night. He told us it was a male over breakfast. These tracks were very fresh, because the rain had washed all the tracks from the night before, and these sat atop the rain drops. At one point Brian got out of the car and found an Elephant track with the lion track on top of it, and a leopard track going the other way. I only know this, because Brian and Andre were schooling us in tracking and to watch Brian track this lion was really something. We raced down roads with Brian looking down at the sand from the car every so often, and saying “yep, this way”. We turned left, right, left, then a right again. We stopped looked at tracks and then went on again, when we ran headlong into a full grown beautiful adult male Lion about 10 feet from the Land Cruiser. We watched it for a while and then followed it for a few km as it marked its territory on the bushes that ran along the road. The lion lay down and rested. We congratulated Brian on his tracking, and he brushed it off saying it was easy. You see the grass is wet and lions don’t want to walk on wet grass, so he was sticking to the roads. Very easy. Errrrrr…. maybe for Brian not for any of us. Another safari vehicle showed up and we left” our” lion for the others as we headed for the delta.

Boating on the permanent water way in the delta was as beautiful as Brian said it would be. The scenery was awe inspiring. Tall grasses rose from the root beer brown water for as far as you could see, leaving narrow paths for boats to traverse, opening to larger channels and pools every so often. Maroula trees and small islands of land seemed to draw close toward the boat as we made our way down the snaking water ways, only to recede toward the horizon as we motored our way around another bend. In one of the wider channels we encountered a hippo and Brian and John got very serious - very quickly. You don’t want to encounter hippos. They can flip boats and often do. We slowed, and then sped up and the Hippo could be seen sliding underneath the boat as we passed. Disaster averted. We took photographs of the landscape and of fabulous birds, and we stopped for our delicious lunch. On the way back, we encountered a few more hippos without incident and passed some elephants that grazed along the edge of the water way and a few others that enjoyed the water, playing and washing themselves as we passed nearby. These Elephant encounters had been the best of our trip thus far. Elephants are working their way into our hearts and becoming a family favorite.

We arose the next morning to a light rain and short schedule with Brian. We would depart at 10:00 for the Kalahari Desert on a charter flight. After packing and eating, we made our way out of camp for one last goodbye game drive with Brian at about 8:00am. While were driving, the crew would pack up the camp site to make way for the next campers. Within those two hours, we saw a heard of Cape Buffalo, a few friendly elephants, and we came within few feet of an elephant, that had just exited the water. This elephant didn’t like us so close, but he was nearly blocking the road and we passed as silently as possible. This male bull turned quickly to face off with us as we passed, and chased us just a little bit to ensure we weren’t coming back. It was actually quite unnerving, having a giant bull elephant that close and that unhappy. We made it to the airport shortly thereafter and had a quick coffee and a sad goodbye while we waited for our plane. Brian was an awesome guide and the experience he provided us was absolutely top notch, exceeding our wildest expectations, even when the weather wasn’t cooperating.
Thanks for a great four days Brian. We really missed you at our other camps. Griffin is ready to come and work on your farm as soon as he’s in High School, so start negotiating now

Posted by Blakei 06:23 Archived in Botswana Tagged family_travel Comments (2)

The Okavango Delta, Botswana

Tubu Tree Private Concession

sunny 70 °F

The Okavango Delta is located in the northern most regions of Botswana and is the only place on earth where rivers dump into a flood plain, without any exit. The Okavango river and a few others, pour into this Delta and convert savannah and grassland into seasonal marsh lands for thousands of square miles. These seasonal changes in the Okavango Delta provides one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world with forests, grasslands, seasonal marshes, and permanent waterways all accounted for. The delta is technically in the Kalahari basin, sharing the same sand that exists in the most arid areas of the Kalahari. Rains from Angola fill up the river, which floods the delta and then the Kalahari sand simply absorbs it. An endless variety of animal and bird life exist here, and it is because of this uniqueness that we chose Botswana as our primary safari destination. We chose three different areas within the Okavango delta based on recommendations from Allison Nolting at the Africa Adventure Company. She has two boys the same ages as Parker and Griffin and she laid out an itinerary and guides that would be perfect for them. The first place we safari’d was a privately owned concession, while the second and third were within the Moremi game reserve, a national park within Botswana. Each area was unique for its environment and animals.

Tubu Tree
We took a 70km drive to the Botswana border from Victoria Falls and crossed the border with little hassle. There was no Visa fee for entering Botswana for Americans. Compared to Zimbabwe at $30 and Zambia $130, we welcomed the bargain. Woohoo! We drove a short distance to the Kasane airport and boarded our chartered flight to our first camp in the Delta. The plane was a Cessna 260 which barely held all four of us, the pilot and our few bags. We would be on this plane for 1½ hours, traveling over Botswana for 150 or so miles. As we flew over Botswana, warn paths, like spokes in a wheel, led to full watering holes which we could easily see 3,000 feet below us. Elephants showering themselves in the middle of watering holes looked like the last cocoa crispies in your cereal bowl of faux chocolate milk. As we grew closer to the Delta, the grasslands appeared to be reflecting sunlight, providing a clue to how wet this environment becomes when the floods flow. We dropped to 500 feet for the last 20 or so miles. Scores of elephants, giraffe, zebras and other animals could be seen from the air, and it felt a little like dropping into Jurassic Park. Could this all be real? It didn’t seem so.

We landed at a remote dirt air strip and were met by Johnny, our guide for the next three days. He drove us over sand paths and through tall grass, for a half hour to the Tubu Tree camp, where we were met by the entire staff who were belting out a beautiful African welcome song. We met Demi and Bono, the managers, who informed us that our rooms were ready, but we couldn’t walk there at the moment, because an Elephant was blocking the way. Yeah right, we gaffed. They weren’t kidding. An adult male elephant was standing on the path to our room. He eventually moved away, and we split into our rooms. Carol with Griffin, Blake with Parker. This whole elephant business is repeated with Hyenas and Leopards at night, and we weren’t to walk the long paths from room to room at night under any circumstances – without our guide. Check out the photo if you think I’m joshing. That’s a bull elephant outside the window of our tent.

Tent is kind of an understated way of saying “nicest rooms we’ve stayed in on our trip”. Technically, these are tents, but they are tents with hardwood floors elevated 8 feet off the ground, with indoor and outdoor showers, a sink, hot running water, lights, beautiful bedding, a desk, coffee, and a gorgeous elevated balcony. All the conveniences of a great hotel are here. There is a fully stocked bar, a library room, a dining room, a curio shop, and a little pool for cooling off. We are pinching ourselves. It is hard for any of us to believe that an elephant is standing at the window at our 5 star tent, eating the trees. This must have been planned for our arrival? Oh, did I forget to mention the Baboons who were climbing all over the tent as well? Not to mention that a few Impala, and snakes made appearances on the way.

The managers explained a pretty hard core schedule for us. Each day we would take two game drives. We would take an early morning game drive, rising at 5:30am and heading out at 6:30. We would head out again at 4:30pm for the evening drive. Animals are much more active at these times. That evening, we took our first game drive in the 10 passenger land rover. We drove a few meters from the camp, and began seeing all kinds of game. We couldn’t believe how much was here, and it furthered the “Could this be real?” feeling of the whole place.

We experienced some incredible animal spotting. We saw from the Land Rover in no real order Elephants, Hippos, Impalas, Wart Hogs, Ostrich, Kudu, Wildebeest, Banded Mongoose, African Python, Giraffe, Zebra, Steenbok, Red Lechwe, Bat Eared Fox, Brown Hyena, and the Leopard and… the incredible Leopard Tortoise. We also saw a huge and beautiful assortment of birds. We saw all of these things at Tubu Tree in our first two days of game viewing. We have ten more to days to go at two different camps in the Okavango and one more camp in the Kalahari.
You could rattle through the list above by visiting a zoo, but seeing these animals in the wild, in their own environment is breathtaking, and you feel privileged that the animals let you watch them. We saw a full grown bull elephant running across a field shaking his head to warn us not to come any closer. We saw a mother leopard stalking a wart hog and we watched the chase that ensued. We saw a juvenile leopard climb a tree and rest. We watched a male leopard walk toward us and come within 4 feet of our Land Rover as he passed, barely giving us a thought. It seems that animals think you are one big and harmless animal when you’re in the Land Rover. Don’t step out though. As soon as you step on the grass, their pray drive kicks in and you are just another meal or intruder to them. We hit the jackpot at Tubu Tree seeing more Leopards than anyone expected, and we were told by a woman who runs a UK safari company staying at camp, to keep our expectations low for the rest of the trip. “Start at zero at every location” she told us. That is probably very good advice.

Johnny was an excellent tracker and he would look at tracks in the sand, listen to the birds, and say in the coolest Botswanan accent, “a leopard is this way”, and he was usually right. After he sensed we had seen enough of a particular animal or had a watched a scene long enough, he would say “oookaaayyyy.. “and off we would drive to the next spotting. Johnny would drive the Land Rover in some unbelievably harry situations and pull out of it without an issue. I couldn’t believe what these Land Rovers can do. They go anywhere and over anything. My respect for Land Rover is forever changed. Johnny would turn the vehicle off anytime we asked a question, or when he wanted to point something out and we would all listen to the sounds of the delta, and look over the expanse of plains rolling into islands of jungle. He’d fire the car up and you wouldn’t even hear the starter motor. We would have a “sundowner” each evening, which was a drink with cheese and crackers overlooking a watering hole, or perhaps the savannah. The evening game drives were so peaceful – as the sun usually dipped behind storm clouds on the horizon.

The meals at Tubu Tree were prepared by an excellent chef and were so good and abundant that you had to decide what you wouldn’t eat – sorta’ like a cruise ship. If we ate everything we were served, breakfast, brunch, afternoon tea and cakes, and an incredible dinner, we would have weighed more than the Land Rover. If you are going to Safari in Botswana, Tubu Tree is an excellent choice.

The evening before we departed, the same bull elephant that greeted us kept Carol and Griffin up all night as he ripped tree bark off a tree next to their tent, trying to get to the tasty inner bark that is packed with vitamins. It was a fitting farewell to this amazing place

Posted by Blakei 05:45 Archived in Botswana Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Victoria Falls

Your safari starts here...

sunny 75 °F

We visited Victoria Falls on the advice of our safari organizer, Allison Nolting and the African Adventure Company. We did so reluctantly because we really wanted to visit the Okavango Delta in Botswana, not Zimbabwe, but Allison proved persuasive, and we left Joburg to Victoria on a 737 on Saturday, March 8th. We noticed that we weren’t flying over farms, but bush; real African bush, unlike anything we had seen in Kenya or Ghana. As we prepared for our landing on a strip of cement that looked barely large enough to land a Cessna 172, we noticed a seam in the ground where smoke rose and then evaporated as it stretched skyward. What we were seeing was the spray of the falls being blown into the air. They were visible from 20km away.

We obtained our visas quickly and cleared customs, meeting Esther. Esther was our local tour guide and she was a kick. Esther is about 65 and actually retired as a tour guide. Today, whe will only work for the Africa Adventure Company. A tribute to Allison me thinks. We climbed aboard a bus with some other travelers, and headed for out hotel “The Victoria Falls Hotel”. Esther had a relaxed and confident style as she educated the bus about “Vic Falls” and the National Park in which it resides. We saw baboons on the road as we entered the little city of Victoria Falls and Esther made sure that we knew that the entire area was a game park and there would be animals roaming freely throughout the area. Be careful she said. These animals are wild!

We arrived at our hotel and it was beautiful. The Victoria Falls Hotel is 103 years old and was named after Queen Victoria as were the falls. The hotel is perhaps an overly gracious tribute to English colonialist history, with warn photographs of a 1947 visit from Queen Elizabeth (as a teenager), dukes, duchesses, the King and then Queen, and the entire royal entourage. Sharing the wall space are politically incorrect animal trophies that are stunning, but harken back to a time when the word safari meant you were taking shots with a gun and not a camera. Even with that, the hotel was beautiful and splendorous and we were privileged to have the best view of the falls possible from the hotel Grounds.

After checking in, we went immediately to the pool to play around and have snack. The pool was square and fountain clad in the old school style that you might see at Hearst Castle. There were cabanas, tables, a beautiful lawn, and people getting massaged in their loungers. We ordered snacks and they were brought by African waiters clad in the black pants, white dinner jackets and bow ties we saw in the 1947 photographs. It was classic. The food was delivered, and as I looked over to Carol to ask a question, I almost choked, as I waved my arms and tried to sputter “look out”! A pretty large and lean Vervet Monkey was taking a swipe at her shoulder, trying to get some of her food. We shooed him away, when a nice guy who had been staying at the hotel a few days set us straight, about the “monkey thing” . We were a bit more careful from then on, noticing that baboons and monkeys were all around us in the trees.

The next morning we went on an elephant back safari with a company called “Wild Horizons”. We had heard about elephant back safaris and were predisposed to it believing it was cruel to have elephants toting around people on their back. It turns out that elephants are quite comfortable with this arrangement, and better yet, the reserve we visited for this safari actually adopts abandoned or orphaned elephants, and raises funds to protect elephants from poaching, which is a big problem in Zimbabwe (folks are poaching for ivory). The reserve was quite large at 30,000 hectares and the property has no fence, allowing the elephants to roam freely when they’re not on safari, and allowing other wild animals to enter the land to be viewed. We really enjoyed the one hour tour and were surprised by what a comfortable ride the elephants were. Our guide, Francis, was a very knowledgeable young man, and controlled our elephant (Jake) gently, but firmly. We really didn’t expect to see any animals excepting the elephants we road, but we were pleasantly surprised to see 24 wild Giraffe with 10 accompanying zebra, and we even saw a Crocodile making its way across a large watering hole to snatch a water buck drinking on the shore. We were stunned actually. We had seen Giraffe, Zebra, Baboons, Vervit Monkeys, Elephants, and a crocodile within 24 hours of landing at the airport and we hadn’t even come to Vic Falls for Safari.

That afternoon Esther met us at the hotel and took us to see and experience the Victoria Falls. Victoria Falls, or the “smoke that thunders” as the locals have called it over the years, is one of the 7 natural wonders of the world. This is why we came here. Esther took time explaining Zimbabwe geography and geology, and then told us about the Falls. If any of you have heard the “Dr. Livingston, I presume?” line over the years, this is where it happened. Livingston actually discovered the falls and named it for Queen Victoria. A larger statue of Livingston watches over the falls from a nice vantage point. Victoria Falls is hard to describe. In fact, it is hard to see. The mist is so thick, you can’t see the entire falls from any one point. You can see the devils Cataract, a small and speedy fall about the size of B ridal Veil Falls in Yosemite. You can see Livingston Island. You can see the main falls, which are larger than Niagra, but you can’t see it all at once. The mist is simply that thick. It was about 80 degrees outside, but we actually had to wear rain jackets. Why? The mist is so thick, it would fall from the sky like sudden and torrential rain. There would be no warning, just a drenching. We were looking at the falls with a peaceful mist all around us then wham! The sky seemed to open. Esther is an old hand at this and laughed as we got our first unexpected drenching – which she shared by the way. How does she stay excited about this place after doing this for 20 years, just stare at the falls, and there’s your answer. You could visit every day and watch the power of this water pouring over the edge.

The next day was an “activity day”. Victoria Falls is the adventure capital of Africa, just like Queenstown is to New Zealand. There seem to be a guhzillion extreme activities that you can choose if you’re feeling the need for adrenaline. Parker and I were hankering for some adrenaline, so he chose a 450 meter zip line over the Zambezi river Gorge, I chose to Bungee Jump off of the Victoria Falls bridge, and Griffin chose the Zambizi river tour later that evening, preferring to see more animals. Mom chose to chill out and take the river tour that night. At 9:00am Parker and I headed over to the Wild Horizons adventure area, that featured a sky swing, an abseil, a flying fox, and a zip line. The Zip Line “launch platform” is on a cliff hovering 100 meters above the Zambezi river, and the cable extends from this platform to the other side of the canyon 450 meters away. Parker had strapped into a climbing harness and now dangled underneath. “Three – Two – One” and away he went, shooting down the wire at a speed better than 100kmph all the way across the river. After reaching the other side, parker started sliding back to the low point in the wire that hovered about 50 meters above the river. Parker hung there for 5 minutes or so while a local slid down the line to tow him back to the “launch platform”. Parker loved it. It was a thrill and unbelievably beautiful. Yes, I tried it too, and it was a rush. From here, legs still shaking, Parker and I walked to the Zambia border crossing at the Victoria Falls Bridge. We had to get our passports stamped just to make the bungee jump. We walked between semi trucks that were lined up for 1km just to clear customs unto Zambia. We arrived, I weighed in, and we proceeded to the jump platform in the middle of the bridge perched 120 meters above the Zambezi. The folks at the platform strapped me up, gave me some tips, walked me to the edge, and then yelled five, four, three, two, one “Bungee!” I leapt out, looking at the horizon, in a nice little swan dive. As gravity pulled me down toward the river, I could feel spray in my face from the falls and I could see the river approaching. With my arms outstretched, I free fell for four second before the Bungee stretched to stop me from going in the water. I felt like I was flying. After the bungee stretched to it’s end, I was whipped back toward the bridge, where I bounced and dangled until someone hooked me up to a cable that pulled me back up. I was pumped. This was one of the biggest adrenalin rushes I’ve ever had. I did buy the pictures and the video. Turns out that watching the video was actually scarier than the jump itself.

The Zambezi River Cruise was amazingly beautiful. We left at at 4:00 from the hotel and didn’t get to the boat until 4:30. All drinks were free and there were a group of French Tourists on board already taking advantage of this . We met their guide, a young man named Waldo who as an absolute blast, spoke perfect English and French along with the local language and dialects. We talked a great deal about the local political climate and other things. We cruised the River above the falls until sunset and drank in some of the most beautiful sunsets you can imagine. Better than this, we spotted a bunch of Hippos and hung out with them, watching Moms and babies keeping cool in the flowing river. We saw gorgeous birds and a crocodile or two as well. We were told that we might see hippos, but don’t expect much. Our expectations were exceeded, and we floated only 20 feet or so from the big river horses. What a terrific way top end our stay at Victoria Falls.

Victoria Falls, as beautiful as it is, is unfortunately a fantasy island in the middle of a sea of thorny issues. Zimbabwe, it seems is in deep trouble. The inflation rate is 26,000 (yes thousand) percent. Unemployment hovers around 75%. The currency is worthless, (which we saw in our $1billionZD check for dinner) and the locals are paid in this worthless stuff. People are starving in Zimbabwe and the few folks who are working, are taking care of their extended families and sometimes friends. We talked to one man who had 15 people staying in his house. They were all broke, and many were starving before the were taken in. We heard from many people how one man, Robert Mugabe, has single handedly ruined the country. The once strong and respected leader has let the country collapse into a malaise. Yet there is a strong sense of hope. Elections will take place in the beginning of April and everyone we talked with was wishing that Robert Mugabe steps aside, so the country can start anew. Folks who haven’t ever voted, are voting. The Zimbabweans we talked with felt strongly that if the election doesn’t unseat Mugabe, there will be a forcible removal. In either case, folks felt it would be another 10 years before Zimbabwe will return to the position it enjoyed only ten years ago as a prosperous, stable and respected African Nation. With that said, the people at Victoria Falls were optimistic about the future and they would want you to come, visit and enjoy one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But…. please, pay in American Dollars.

Posted by Blakei 11:45 Archived in Zimbabwe Tagged family_travel Comments (1)


We weren’t prepared for what we found...

sunny 73 °F

Carol had arranged a Safari in Botswana through the Africa Adventure Company. They had prepared a fantastic itinerary for us that began with Victoria Falls. It turns out that the only way we could fly into Victoria falls from Accra, was to fly through Johannesburg. We didn’t want to miss out on the city, so we stayed 2 nights to get sense for what Joburg (as the locals call it) was all about. We had heard what a tough and dangerous city it is. We had heard about muggings, car-jackings, a generally high crime rate, and we had even heard of cars armed with flame throwing undercarriages to thwart would be car-jackers. We weren’t prepared for what we found. Johannesburg is a modern and beautiful city that rivals any of the big cities to which we had traveled; Fantastic residential areas, a real downtown, modern shopping malls, wonderful weather, great people, beautiful scenery, first-rate golf courses, and an actual bargain compared with the US dollar. It is true that there are areas in Joburg that you want to steer clear of, just like any big city in the US, but overall, we thought the city was awesome and we wished we had a chance to spend a few more days here.

Rolling in from the airport, we found ourselves being whisked along on an 8 lane freeway that rivals anything in the states, and we unfortunately ran into traffic that jam-packed every lane. Getting off the freeways to make better time is an expertise most professional drivers have, and ours did this with aplomb, making sure to drive through an idyllic residential area. We drove by stately manors, the golf course where Gary Player earned his badge, and we even drove by Nelson Mandela’s house that was quite tasteful and featured armed guards on the fence perimeters. This was akin to Beverly Hills of South Africa, with about a 70% price discount. We arrived at our hotel (the Park Hyatt) and were pleased to find it was situated within a shopping area with great restaurants and all the modern conveniences we lacked in Accra. Yes, I said conveniences.

The boys hadn’t been to a skate park in a long time, and we had found (via the web) that there was a great one in a nearby Joburg suburb. We hired a driver, and went to the park at the “Monte Casino” which is a hotel, casino, and boardwalk mall that looks like a direct rip off of the Ceasar’s Palace in Las Vegas, replacing the roman theme with a slightly more modern Italy. Faux blue skies adorned the ceiling of the mall area, and the shops were bustling. The skate park was a cool and clean indoor facility, and the staff and the skaters were all very nice. The boys skated for 3 hours after doing some school work and both had a great time as they burned off weeks of steam, in non skate-friendly Accra.

The only serious thing on our agenda while in Joburg was to tour the Apartheid Museum, which was across town from our hotel. We drove through the downtown area and headed toward Soweto. The museum was in the Gold Casino area, and it was part of a large complex that includes a theme park, a casino, and a hotel. Seems there are only two major casinos in the Joburg area, and we hit both of them in the same day. The museum was an incredible experience and gave all of us an education about the history of South African apartheid, how the concept evolved and how horrible it was for anyone who wasn’t a blanc (white). It was mind blowing to see firsthand how a government passed laws mandating segregation. It was equally mind blowing to watch a video of the leader of South Africa introducing the new laws, and calling apartheid “a good neighbor law”. There were individual stories of how apartheid affected Blacks, Indians, and Asians, (basically non whites). It was heart breaking.

There were documented stories of killings instrumented by the government, ridding the country of anti-apartheid demonstrators. It was quite amazing to all of us that a minority government could have held back the vast black majority for so long, and equally astounding was that the apartheid was reversed without a major war. Many people died in the struggle to rid South Africa of apartheid, but there was no civil war. You have to applaud any government that is willing to open the scars of a broken policy, and bear ownership for so many wrong deeds, so many deaths, and so much wrongheadedness. The only other example I can think of is the Holocaust museum and the Jewish Memorial in Berlin. We talked as a family and agreed that the American government could take note and think about doing something similar around the subject of slavery or the American Indian.

Posted by Blakei 11:13 Archived in South Africa Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Ghana revisited

Axim, the Cape Coast, and a long goodbye to Accra

sunny 85 °F

We returned to Accra from the Masai Mara and Nairobi without a strict agenda. After Nairobi, Accra seemed different to us now. Contrasted against the blue sky of Nairobi, the Harmattan seemed less like an interesting and unique Saharan phenomenon and more like stifling smog, simply making Accra feel dusty and a little dirty. The city didn’t feel big anymore. Nairobi had huge skyscrapers and a “real” downtown. Accra just sprawls at 1, 2, or maybe 10 stories at the most, and you always wonder where downtown is. Things that once seemed quaint now seemed a little a bit backward; open sewers, dirt streets, power and water that is as unpredictable as your local weatherman, the traffic, hawkers and beggars at every major intersection. Yes, the thrill of the Africa Cup of Nations had passed, and we were just expats in Accra now. Our lens had changed. What hadn’t changed was our love for the people of Accra and our appreciation of how these people take it all in stride. And our appreciation for Anna and Freddy’s ability to adapt as if they were locals, had bloomed into awe. Whether it’s calling the guy to fix the washer “again”, or getting a truck to actually FILL the water tank on a Sunday afternoon, or turning the generator on at 11:000pm to get the air conditioners to work. They too, take it all in stride.

We had a few chances to visit some Ghanian beaches during those last two weeks as well, which is also part of the “expat in Ghana” experience. One was just west of Accra and one was about 5 hours away near the Ivory Coast border. While we visited these places, we discovered a secret that no one in Ghana wants you to know. The beaches are insanely good. There is great surf for boarding, boogie boarding, and body surfing. The sand is clean and it is relatively critter free. Honestly, there were more bugs and dangerous reptiles in Australia than there were at Ghanian beaches. The people at the beaches are super friendly, and laid. The food is great and the lodging is a great value.

Our favorite beach was in Axim, about 30km from the Ivory Coast Border, where we spent 4 days at the Axim beach resort. We could hear the sound of border gunfire from the local militia as they squared off against the Ivory Coast Army, and we did see the amphibious tanks rolling. Just kidding. Except the part about the amphibious tanks. But seriously, the Axim resort had nice little villas, a couple of nice bars and restaurants, and a great little zip line which the kids (and me) loved. They had wonderful tide pools and a great boogie boarding / body surfing beach that was to die for. We really enjoyed it. Anna and Freddy love this place and they reserved a family villa that had three separate rooms, and a common living area with a gorgeous view. We had some wonderful evening storms while we there which made the view all the more enjoyable. Still, this is Africa, and you simply have to change your expectations about many things, and just let go. When your food will arrive, whether you will have power or hot water, whether your beer will be cold or warm is all up for grabs. Set your western resort expectations aside. This is Africa.

Something that folks rave about when they come to Axim is the trip to the stilt village. We drove within a few km of the Ivory Coast border into a little coastal town Beyin which is the launch point for the stilt village called Nzulezo. We parked the cars near the beach and we couldn’t help but notice a killer sand bar break that was producing super long lefts. Maria Sweasey, you would have been in heaven. It was only about three feet, and as with most of Ghana, the waves went unclaimed, set after set. In and the tour office we met the men that would “pole” us. We were also told that the “elder” of the village would give us the history of the village for a donation of one bottle of local gin – I kid you not. We bought the gin. From here we walked into what feels like a Bayou and climbed into Canoes. Francis and Felix, our two pole-men/tour guides, pushed the boats along with their poles and we rowed when it was deep enough. We made our way through jungle and onto a large and broad river. After a few km or so of paddling, we pulled up to the stilt village. The village was not what we expected. I expected grass and bamboo huts and few signs of western influence. Wrong! First, we were greeted by the bar owner/landing party who was ready to set up beers and sodas for us. I bought a round. We cooled off as much as you can in 85 degree, 95% humidity. From here we walked with Felix and Francis to meet the “elder”. We walked through the village and it was incredibly dirty and it was evident that the people of the village were simply tired of having visitors. They’d rather we not be there. We arrived in the area where the elder would visit with us, and as we expected, he appeared to be hammered, having polished off his last donation. We listened to the history of the village and it was settled by Malis that were fleeing tribal warfare. Here, they were untouchable, and here they had a windless environment versus living on the other side of the village where the farms existed. This trip was fun, but the real fun was in rowing the canoes and seeing the landscape. The village felt a bit like a sideshow to the real event.

On the way home the kids and Carol visited the Cape Coast Castle. I had gone home with Fred a day earlier, in dire need of antibiotics, having ingested something very wrong. The Cape Coast Castle is ominous. That is an understatement. You see, the Cape Coast Castle was built by the Portuguese in the 1500s to hold and transport slaves off to the rest of the world. 12 million slaves passed through this Castle on the way to Brazil, Spain, Portugal, Britain and the America to name a few. 8 million of those slaves died either in the Castle or crossing the water. There were 3 holding cells, each the size of a living room that would hold 150 women. No light. No toilets. Little water. Women stayed in there for months before being transported in a weakened state, only being let out so they could be examined to see who would be cleaned and strengthened so governor could rape them. The men were treated equally badly and there was even a cell that existed simply to starve insubordinate slaves to death. One room called the point of no return was the last room a slave entered before they were loaded on a ship for transport. Here they might see a family member one last time as they were boarded on ships headed to different places. A man might go to Brazil (the most common destination) and his brother to America. If either made it to their destination, which only 33% did. The Cape Coast Castle is an ominous example of man’s inhumanity to man and should be experienced by all visitors to Ghana.

The one thing about Ghanian beaches that we found tough to deal with was driving through one poor village after another to reach a beach that we intended to use as our playground. These people use the beach and the ocean for their subsistence. They may fish in the ocean, they may gather rocks or shells on the beaches. It really hurt our hearts to see hungry people in every town, and folks wearing clothes that they had on for weeks without washing. The real expats who have been here for a long time see through all of it, and don’t notice, but for our family it was really hard to see. We were reminded by expats that these people love their way of life and are happy. Living to our standard wouldn’t make them any more so. We were reminded that only 70 years ago, these areas looked as they did 700 years ago and that what we were seeing was progress and evolution. The advent of cell phones and power is changing many of these lives for the better, and you can see it, albeit inch by inch.

A fitting sendoff to our visit in Ghana was some freaky behavior in the power grid. Ghana power was suffering fits and starts and power out then on then out then on. Freddy and Anna’s generator was failing as well adding to the scene. When we got to the airport, we saw lightning on the horizon, and understood. The airport lost power three times and the Windows ™ start up screen appeared on every monitor in the place. We made our way to the plane and bid Accra and Ghana farewell with a heavy sigh (we’ll miss our family and friends) and perhaps just the slightest feeling of relief.

Posted by Blakei 08:16 Archived in Ghana Tagged family_travel Comments (3)

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