Spring Break African style
Over the past 10 days, I have been on my African spring break, which consisted of a 10 day trip from Johannesburg to Victoria Falls. Here is my experience:
My trip started very early on Thursday morning, as our 25 person group flew to Johannesburg. Upon arrival, we were greeted by our driver (Arnold) and chef (Albert) for the week as well as our large overland truck that became our home away from home. It wasn’t long before we had set out towards the Botswanan border, hoping to cross and reach our first campsite before nightfall.
My first foreign border-crossing went smoothly, although of course it was quite the experiencee. In the past, the only time I have crossed a border on foot/car was between Canada and the States. It’s taken very seriously, sometimes cars are searched for hours.
However, as one would expect, the borders between African countries are different. Vehicles are rarely checked. I got my passport stamped by a man at the S’African border…walked a few hundred meters…and got it stamped by a man at the Botswana border. No questions, rarely any talking. It honestly seemed like it was just a tedious, administrative process rather than a matter of national security.
After about 5 hours of driving we arrived at our first campsite. We had all been told to bring a sleeping bag, and that we’d be sleeping in tents for the week at local campsites. When I heard this, I pictured very bare sites…basically large patches of dirt to pitch a tent. No running water. No security. I had braced myself for the worst.
Boy was I pleasantly surprised. We pulled into our first campite, through a 10 foot gate, surveyed by 3 security guards. The campsite we were assigned to had a lovely campfire pit, and was located near 4 beautiful outdoor showers, sinks, toilets, etc. All having running water, and even hot water for the showers. To be honest, the bathroom situation at every campsite we stayed at was nicer than that at my flat. I was excited.
In addition, I was expecting food to be very basic…cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, pasta for dinner. Again, SO pleasantly surprised. Our first night’s dinner consisted of red meat, porage, sweet potatoes, a salad, gravy, and a chocolate for dessert. Who knew all of that could be made on 2 burners attached to the side of our truck.
The tradition of beautiful campsites and delicious food continued for the next 10 days.
The second day of our trip was a day of traveling, where we basically drove the entire length of Botswana to arrive at our campsite just outside the Okavango delta. We stopped in a Botswanan town, called Maun, to buy water and snacks along the way, but it was entirely uneventful. That night we had a briefing about our trip in the Delta and went to bed.
If you have ever seen the TV series “Plant Earth” there is a section featuring the Okavango Delta. It is located in the North-Western corner of Botswana and has been labeled the last untouched piece of wilderness in the world. Not only is it nearly inaccessible to humans, but is known to be home to hundreds of kinds of wildlife. More importantly, the animals who live in the delta have been protected from large amounts of human interaction, so their lifestyles and actions are as native and wild as it comes.
This is where I spent 3 days.
On Day 3 we awoke very early, and loaded our limited gear onto an open-back safari truck that would take us to the closest bank of the delta. Now there are 3 transportation options to reach the middle of the delta: Motor boat, ferry, or mokoro. A mokoro is a hollowed out wooden boat that is carved from the trunk of a sausage tree. It looks very similar to a gondola, with a poller on the back to move smoothly through the water, however it is much shallower, with the edge of the boat gliding just inches above the surface of the water.
We were split into pairs, one pair per boat, and taken in to the island that would be our home for the next 2 days. It was about a 3 hour mokoro ride, in the hot Botwanan sun. In addition, although you are surrounded by water, you are warned not to dip a hand or toe into it in case a hungry crocodile may be swimming nearby. I spent the 3 hours taking pictures of my groupmates, sleeping, and trying to get a tan. All the while trying not to tip the mokoro.
We stayed on an island called Chiefs Island. It is the biggest in the delta, and is home to a majority of the wildlife. After arriving, we set up our tents and just relaxed…waiting for the sun to dip and the temperature to lower to below 80. Once it did we set out on our first walking safari of the visit.
The walking safari’s consist of 6-7 people in a group, with 2 guides. The guides conveniently were the same natives who polled us into the delta. They stayed at our campsite with us and during the hot parts of the days the women would teach us how to weave, and the men carved necklaces for us. They were wonderfully welcoming, and open to questions about their lifestyle and the delta.
But, back to the safari.
During our first evening safari, we encounter 2 of the most common animals on the Delta: the Wildebeest and Zebra. Just about a 10 minute walk from our camp there was a herd of each animal, just grazing in an open field. IN addition, the wildebeest were having a sort of funeral for one of their kind who had died of natural causes.
We were lucky enough to approach the carcass after the herd had left. Its size and still-warm body sent shivers down my spine.
The next morning was started bright and early, 5:30am. We set out on our 4 hour morning walking safari hoping that we would be as lucky as we had been the night before.
We were even luckier.
During the course of the first 3 hours, we saw elephants, zebra, more wildebeest (not unusual considering they stay close to the zebra for protection), springbokke, and herds of giraffes. Finally, we walked through what is called an “elephant graveyard” sprinkled with the thousands of bones just found inside one dead elephant.
(Above: our guide Jack)
It was almost shocking to be able to turn the corner and see such an amount of animals. Of course, they weren’t ever together, and tended to disappear once they noticed us, however it was a humbling experience. Most humans, if not all, see themselves as a dominant species. We are the smartest, most evolved, industrial….etc.
None of that seems to matter when you are yards away from a giraffe trying to protect its young. As I mentioned before, the animals on the delta have experienced little to none human interaction…therefore they are afraid of us, and are willing to do what it takes to protect themselves and their herd.
Luckily, we kept a good distance away…however, just being in the presence of such magnificent animals offers an alternative perspective on what it means to be “dominant”
Our final night in the delta was one of culture exchange. We were offered a performance from the natives who we shared our camp with. (Or rather, the natives who were willing to share their home with us). They taught us a series of native songs about the animals, in languages that I never even knew existed. Also, my safari guide had carved me a necklace resembling a zebra hoof print. Nothing could ever match how much that necklace means to me.
In the morning we took the mokoros out of the delta, said goodbye to our new friends, and continued on our path towards Zambia.
We spent the next night at a campsite near Chobe National park, which is located in North-Eastern Botswana, near the Zambian border. After setting up our tents, we headed out on a sunset cruise on the Chobe river which travels inside the park.
This cruise was an odd combination of American culture an African wilderness. Because I was traveling with a group of American college students, the feel of the cruise was one of a party, with a “lets get drunk” mentality. And of course, that’s what they did.
In contrast, the wilderness that surrounded the “party” was completely African, as we witness hippos playing in the water, crocodiles sunning on the shore, and an African elephant wading through the river to the opposite side.
This trip could not have been any more different from the delta. The animals had clearly had large amounts of human interaction, not even offering us a glance as we pulled up in our large boats. They continued in their usual ways as people yelled, partied, and took thousands of pictures from feet away.
My emotions were split while on the cruise. On one hand, the blossoming photographer in me was appreciating the incredible pictures I could get from such a short distance. However, the animal lover that I have always been was worried about the animal’s safety and privacy. What gave us the right to completely alter their natural way of living?
In the end, the photographer won….mainly because I wasn’t allowed to drive the boat away from the animals. Here’s a few examples of what we saw….
In the morning of day 6 we took a game drive through Chobe National Park, which was the biggest natural high I have ever experienced. Not only did we see the typical animals we had seen in the Delta and on the river, but we were extremely lucky to see 2 lions in their natural land.
At one point our truck had stopped to take pictures of the 40+ elephants that were drinking from the river in the distance. After about 45 seconds, we noticed that there was also a lion laying quietly in the bush just to the left of our truck. She looked absolutely stunning as she watched us watch her. Her ears twitched with every whisper from our vehicle, as well as with every other animal that was within listening distance.
My heart has never raced like it did looking into the eyes of that wild lion (below).
The final days of our wonderful journey were spent at Victoria Falls, Zambia. One of the 7 natural wonders of the world. We had many options of activities to do throughout our 2 full days there. I chose to spend a full day water rafting, half-day walking with lions, and half-day in Zimbabwe at the markets.
Water rafting wasn’t my first choice in activity, because I really hate swimming. However, almost our entire group was going, so I though I would join in and hope to have fun.
I had a blast!
We started out having to hike down the side of Victoria Falls, in order to reach the Zambizi river that we would be rafting. However, once we actually reached the bank of the river, we were still about 10 feet above the level of the water.
I turned to my friends, and we all were clearly wondering the same thing….How do we get to our raft, 10 feet below, without drowning in the rapids that we’d be jumping into? Well…the guides didn’t think the rapids were a problem, and one by one they basically pushed us off the edge of the cliff into the water.
As I hit the surface, I felt my body be completely washed down stream by the strong current. For the 5 seconds I was under, I honestly felt like I was drowning….however I knew that my life jacket would bring me back to the surface. Before I knew it, a hand reached down, grabbed my jacket, and lifted me into my raft. The whole process took about 10 seconds, and I honestly still don’t really know how I happened to end up in the correct raft without dying.
The rest of the day continued on the in that fashion: I fell out of the boat, and somehow was rescued into another one. Our raft flipped and within seconds I was being grabbed by a kayaker. In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter how it worked, just as long as it kept working.
The funniest part of the river rafting, was that the river was the border between Zambia and Zimbabwe. Every time we pulled our raft over to pee, gather a lost member, etc. we would switch countries. By the time we stopped for lunch I was so confused that I turned to Naomi and asked “Which country are we in?”
Surprisingly, the second day in Vic Falls, was even better than the first. In the morning I got to do the activity I was most excited for: the Lion Encounter.
We were picked up at our campsite and brought to a nearby reserve where we spent nearly an hour walking with wild lions. Although it sounds dangerous, that lions that are used are part of a special program. Here they have experienced the minimal amount of human interaction needed to establish a human-over-lion hierarchy. The handlers that they have worked with are clearly the dominant species on the walk, therefore the lions will not attack anything (or anyone) if the handler doesn’t allow it.
Throughout the hour, I got to get wonderful photos of the lions, as well as walk holding a lions tail. Finally, when the lions got bored and laid down, the handlers would let us pet them and get our picture taken.
Honestly, it was the most terrifying thing I’ve done in a long time, but again extremely humbling. Looking into the amber eyes of those beasts, beasts that could kill you without trying, is something that will teach you the meaning respect.
Finally, the last half-day of our trip I crossed the border into Zimbabwe and tried my best as bartering with the locals. Honestly I think I did pretty well! For example, I bought a lion’s tooth for 2 tampons, an empty water bottle, a cloth headband, and 20 Rand (about $2.50).
How’s that for a deal?
Many of men didn’t even know what a tampon was for, but they were eager to trade anything for it. I also realized that simple things, such as pens and pencils, were like gold when it came to trading at the Zim markets. If you ever find yourself heading in that direction, bring ANYTHING you don’t mind giving away….the saying “one man’s junk is another’s treasure” has never been more true.
Our trip came to a close as we flew from Livingstong, Zambia back to Johanesburg, and finally Cape Town.
When I first arrived in Cape Town, I remember thinking that it was a step down. Less technology, industry, etc. However, after spending a week in rural Botwana and Zambia, Cape Town felt like a huge step up.
More than anything, I was happy to be back and using a currency that I was farmiliar with. I know that doesn’t sound too odd, but it is, considering in Zim and Zambia the most common currency used was the US dollar. Ha, after 2 months of being in S’Africa, I can’t even remember how to spend my own currency!
10 days. 4 countries. 2000 pictures. 1 Trip of a lifetime.
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