Sunday November 15
As I write, I am in Cape Town at the start of a great adventure. I’m driving the route of our incredible new tour, ‘Africa’s Southern Soul’, an epic journey of 3200 miles across Southern Africa, covering four different countries and a diverse range of landscapes and vistas, cultures and customs, wildlife and heritage. From Cape Town to Victoria Falls – or vice versa for those on the southbound route – we’ll see every mile of this journey, not from the air, but by travelling overland – by truck! By truck?! Yes, you read it correctly!
During a period of just over three weeks, we’ll be traversing terrain from the west coast of South Africa, all around Namibia, to the heart of Botswana, eventually crossing the border into Zimbabwe, in a truck customised especially for Saga with comfortable seats and AC. It’s even painted in Saga blue! This time, however, I’m undertaking the journey in double time in a slightly smaller 4×4 vehicle along with one of the truck drivers, Stevie, who will kindly deliver me all the way to Zimbabwe.
As we set off from Cape Town – where our customers will first stay for a couple of days – I discover that Stevie is an exuberant and garrulous individual as well as a man of many talents. By the time we reach the outskirts of the city I’ve learnt that he’s written a bush cookery book, invents things, writes songs, plays the guitar and sings like Joe Cocker. Our guests are certain to be entertained!
We stop at Table View and look across the sea to Robben Island, back towards Cape Town and its famous mountain. Yesterday’s blue skies have disappeared and the tablecloth is very much covering the mountain, but the way the grey sky contrasts with the white sands means it’s a super photo opportunity all the same.
Our first stop is at the Khwa Ttu San Education Centre, where we learn about the culture of the San people, the first inhabitants of Africa. It is not only interesting to hear about them but also to hear them! Their language incorporates a series of ‘clicks’, which sound beautifully musical and are impossible for us to replicate! We’ll hear more about the San people in Namibia where they are most prolific.
After a splendid lunch of bobotie – a traditional Cape Malay dish, a bit like a sweet, spicy shepherds pie – we continue to our first overnight stop, Clanwilliam Lodge. We receive a warm welcome from barman Caspar who is keen to serve us the local wine from nearby Klawer. The Sauvignon blanc is chilled to perfection and bursts with flavour. I query the price.
“Caspar, is this R70 (£4) per glass? I thought the prices would be cheaper here than in Cape Town?”
“No miss, that’s the price for the whole bottle.”
Hmmmm. Perhaps we’ll have another…
Monday November 16
Today is a long drive, but it’s interesting and dramatic all the same. By this stage on the tour our guests will have got to know one another and will enjoy chatting away and asking questions of our tour manager as they traverse Namaquland. This is an area which blooms with a riot of colours during July and August but for now the land is covered in scrubby bush called Karoobos. This is perfect grazing land for the sheep farming for which the region is renowned. The landscape stretches on and on, the roads are good and straight, and there are not many settlements save a few farming communities.
We press on to our lunchtime stop in the town of Springbok. The landscape has changed meanwhile; the terrain has become more hilly. This is the richtersveld, a rocky region where succulent plants grow
– we make a toilet stop and there is a ‘slaghuis’ opposite the petrol station so we buy biltong. It is almost the law of long drives in South Africa to take along a bag of biltong to munch on during the journey. Known elsewhere as jerky, this is raw meat cured using a dry herb and salt mix combined with dark vinegar, then air dried to produce a robust chewy treat. The tradition dates from the time of the Voortrekkers who had to preserve their meat whilst on the long trek seeking new lands.
This biltong meets with Stevie’s approval and now both he and the vehicle are re-fuelled, we make our way to the border.
It takes just 15 minutes to complete formalities (it can sometimes be a lot longer!) and we are on our final leg of this journey, passing through acres of grapevines with a dramatic mountain backdrop. We arrive at pretty Norotshama Lodge, a collection of thatched chalets on the banks of the Orange River, and after the vast plains of the drive north, it is truly an oasis of tranquility and beauty
Tuesday November 17
A truly lunar landscape greets us this morning as we set off on the road north. This is an unmade road but a good one. We left Tarmac behind just after the border and won’t see much of it for a couple of days, but our truck can handle the terrain beautifully.
En route we see some snooty ostriches, two males and a female, who promptly show me their feathery tails the minute I lift my camera. A feisty oryx with its lethally long straight horns gallops past us in a hurry to somewhere or other and two frisky springboks skip alongside the vehicle for several hundred metres, bouncing in the air and flicking their heels.
We stop for tea at AiAis where a natural spring produces water as hot as 65’c! I’m pretty sure Heston Blumenthal cooks duck at that temperature so I steer well clear.
The flora we see consists of short, stout, hardy bushes, one of which is the milkwood bush, whose sap produces a highly neurotoxic poison that the bushmen used to tip their arrows with when hunting. Their arrows were carried in a vessel made from the hollow branches of the so-called ‘quiver tree’. Fascinating stuff!
After the business of hotel inspections is done, we take the half hour drive to Fish River Canyon, one of the most astounding geological features in the country. A vast canyon of around 150km, it came about as a result of a tectonic event that caused a fault, and the resulting trench was the easiest course for the ancient Fish River. The hard quartzite of the Nama mountains prevented the river cutting into the depths instead, forcing it sideways.
This erosion, along with the effects of volcanic activity and glaciation, produced the undulating canyon we see today. Those are the facts and figures, but nothing prepared me for the visual spectacle of the canyon. No photo can do justice nor words describe the scale and wonder of the sight; it is truly awe inspiring. A small group of overlanders move back to their truck and once it has pulled away we are left alone to drink in the canyon’s powerful silence.
Back at the lodge the only way to wind down after such a breathtaking view is to enjoy another one. Our accommodation is in a wilderness setting amongst a backdrop of enormous rocks, perfectly smoothed by wind erosion. I climb up to the top of one of these rocky outcrops and sip my sundowner as the sun sinks down on another day in Africa. For as far as the eye can see, there’s nothing but space and tranquillity, and a huge orange sky…
Wednesday November 18
At 600km and 8 hours, Fish River to Sesriem is our longest drive. There’s nothing to be done about it -we just need to get from A to B! My biggest conundrum, however, concerns another letter: P. ‘Tea & pee stops’, ‘comfort breaks’, ‘visiting the summerhouses’ (some are for men and some are for women…) call them what you like, the challenge for Stevie and me today is to find places to stop en route, and on this road they are few and far between.
There may come a time on this tour where there is no option but to ‘go bushy-bushy’ – but for now, we’ll try to avoid it. We first stop at a remote hotel where the owner’s sheepdog is busy herding errant chickens into a pen while he sits on a terrace festooned with tinsel (it’s going to be one those days, isn’t it?). I remark that it’s a bit early for Christmas decorations. “Oh, no, I just left them up from last year,” comes the laid-back reply…
We continue another 100km and stop in a town called Bethanie for all the essentials of travel: water, ice, chocolate, fuel and biltong. So far so good…
Next stop is at a pretty garden cafe in a tiny hamlet. The proprietor is German and the speciality is bratwurst, followed by apple cake. That’ll do! As if to underline the lavatorial theme of my day, I walk towards the Ladies and a springbok wanders out! I later find out it’s a little tame one that lives there but for now I whip out my phone and capture the image of the day! I’ve decided that the caption will be: “If you’ve ever wondered how much it costs to use the bathroom in Namibia…. it’s a buck!”
As we continue our journey, the pressure is on to find a place for the afternoon break. It’s a relief, in more ways than one, when we discover the Lisbon Roadhouse; purveyor of beverages, snacks and grocery items, it offers a warm welcome and boasts lovely loos. The owner Mareike set up the roadhouse to provide a halfway stop on this route, having once been a tour guide and in the same predicament as us!
The last stretch is made interesting by the mini-tornadoes we see far in the distance whipping up the dust. We drive through the Zaries Pass and make the final approach to Sesriem, in readiness for a much-anticipated day tomorrow, when we go walking in the Sossusvlei dunes…
Thursday November 19
The day starts with a visit to the magnificent Sossusvlei dunes, the largest in the world. The contrast between the rich red sand and the intense blue sky has made for many a wonderful photo opportunity before now and today is no exception. It’s an early morning for our guests when they visit these world-famous dunes; we’ve planned it like that as temperatures can soar into the late 40’s by noon and we’d rather be back to base and relaxing by then to avoid getting overheated.
Even as we move on, the heat is rising and a walk to the ‘deadvlei’ provides a photographer’s paradise. Once upon a time trees grew in this area but due to water being diverted elsewhere by natural causes, the life was literally sucked from them and they now stand as dramatic, ghostly sculptures in the sand.
Next we visit Sesriem canyon; it’s not quite to the scale of Fish River Canyon but for that it’s no less interesting! After that we make a welcome return to the bliss of our air-conditioned truck to mop brows, raid the cooler box and compare photos en route to the lodge. On arrival, the pool is waiting. Here, guests may watch the oryx munching at the sparse grass near the lodge, or perhaps take a deserved siesta. It’s also a good chance to keep in touch with folks at home.
All the lodges we’ve visited so far have had free wifi – usually in the bar or reception – so it’s easy to keep in contact during such a lengthy trip abroad. The connection can sometimes be a little slow but more than enough to check in with friends by e-mail or Facebook or send the odd photo of a sublime African sunset to the Saga Twitter page!
Tomorrow we continue to Swakopmund, the biggest town we’ve seen for several days. Life on the road is taking its toll. Stevie’s got the sniffles and I need to organise my suitcase, which is bulging pregnantly due to bad packing.
We need to sort ourselves out, ready for the days ahead. It seems extraordinary that we’ve seen so much already and we have so much still to come! Ancient Bushman paintings, the wildlife of Etosha game reserve, the spectacle of the Kalahari desert, a bush camp in the heart of the Okavango Delta, and so much more… 1600km down, 4000km to go! Bring it on!
Friday November 20
Today we’re leaving the desert behind us for a while and having a bit of ‘city time’ but first the journey…
We make it to our first stop, a place named Solitaire, after only half an hour. As you’d expect by the name it’s a one-horse town that even the horse abandoned. It’s famous for its apple pie but that’s since that’s hardly breakfast food we plough on to a focal point on the road and indeed the world map – the point at which we encounter the geographical Tropic of Capricorn.
Obligatory photos beside the road sign done, we pause to admire and photograph some incredible ‘moonscapes’. And just a while further on, we see a vast plain with two perfectly straight lines of trees cutting through it, as if they had been planted by a town planner. But it was Mother Nature who made these particular plans, as the trees follow the course of an underground river. It’s an unusual, incongruous and intriguing sight.
One more spectacle awaits us as we drive into Walvis Bay, a town which thrives on an eclectic combination of tourism and heavy industry. This particular sight can’t be guaranteed all year round, of course, but we are lucky enough to witness an enormous gathering of flamingos feeding on the abundant krill residing in the shallows.
The majority are pink-hued lesser flamingos who peck away at the seabed, while the less common greater flamingos stand out from the crowd like gangly teenagers at a school disco. Taller and paler than their smaller cousins, they pummel away at the seabed with their feet to disturb the krill so they can scoop them up more efficiently.
A short drive takes us to Swakopmund, a town infused with German culture, reflecting the country’s colonial past. Whilst other European powers scrapped away all over the continent in the ‘battle for Africa’, Germany’s colony was ‘South-West Africa’ which later became Namibia under the protection of South Africa before its independence in 1990. Our favoured hotel here is called ‘The Delight’ and it’s well-named!
A sweet and quirky boutique-style hotel, it has only been open for 20 days and the staff, in their brightly-coloured body warmers (yes, I know, it’s not THAT cold by our standards) are keen as mustard to please. On arriving in the bedrooms, the laundry bag invites you to “drop your pants here” and a little chalkboard bears a handwritten welcome message from the chambermaid. We’re going to like it here!
Saturday November 21
The excursion of choice today is the catamaran cruise in search of dolphins. After a splendid breakfast we are picked up by a bearded Goliath named Pieter who whisks us off to Walvis Bay to board his boat. Isaac is his right hand man and courtesy of him we are soon installed under a shade canopy on the catamaran with a glass of sherry. Too early? Nonsense… “it’s always sundown somewhere in the world…”.
I hope this doesn’t spoil the surprise for anyone planning to take the excursion but Isaac has the local wildlife literally eating out of the palm of his hand. A huge pelican with a metre-and-a-half long wing span careers towards the boat and lands on the railing next to him waiting to be fed a fish. This gives Pieter the chance to tell us all about these impressive creatures, and they truly are fascinating.
Sailing on we arrive at the ‘oyster beds’, a collection of multi-coloured barrels bobbing on the surface of the sea. Each floating oil drum has a rope hanging from it with 6000 oysters attached and there are floating barrels as far as the eye can see!
80% of the catch is sold to the Far Eastern market, but locally you can expect to pay around a pound per oyster at table, to be devoured with a squeeze of lemon or Tabasco. After a few quick calculations, Stevie and I deduce that we’re in the wrong job and should set up as oystercatchers!
Namibia’s coastline has numerous seal colonies and the one in Walvis Bay boasts around 60,000. As curious seals play beside the boat and pop their heads up above the water to observe us, we learn from Pieter that the male seals live long and grow large whilst the females – who outnumber their male counterparts by 25:1 – spend most of their lives pregnant, which is necessary because the life expectancy of the young is low.
Whilst we watch the seals interacting on the sandy spit and gambolling in the water around us, we are suddenly aware of a small school of dolphins moving just ahead of the boat. It’s almost impossible to photograph them so we just sit back, take a drink from the cooler box and watch the rise and fall of the fins as they glide effortlessly through the surf.
Isaac declares that it’s oyster time and whilst he pops the corks on the fizz we tuck into the oysters and various savoury snacks he has assembled for our enjoyment. The shipmates chat amongst themselves and we find ourselves talking to a lady named Jan from Nova Scotia.
It transpires that she is travelling south from Victoria Falls to Cape Town on a truck tour with some of Stevie’s colleagues and is loving the experience despite being about 50 years senior to many of her fellow travellers. She is all about trying new things and we encourage her to try her first oyster! Happily she declares it delicious and we top up her champers and drink to ‘African adventures’.
All in all, it’s been a glorious morning. It’s also been nice to catch up and regroup after a week on the road and get ready for the coming days. We’re heading north again and this time we’re in search of bushmen paintings and later the Big Five!
Sunday November 22
The coast north of Swakopmund is bleak and as we turn away from the sea for the last time and head east the landscape is barren. Wildlife barely survives and only because the moisture from the fog that rolls in from the sea allows some plants to grow. Somehow animals live in these conditions but apart from some distant springbok the only sign of life is a regal-looking Marshall Eagle sitting atop a telegraph pole.
After a pause for a cuppa in Uis – where an inconsolable Stevie finds the biltong shop closed because it’s Sunday! – we travel on, stopping to meet members of two tribes. The Himba tribe wear very little, have elaborate hairdressing and rub their skin with animal fat and ochre mud to protect themselves from the sun, so they are a striking sight. They’re happy to pose for a photo if you buy one of their bangles or give them some change but a little boy of about four is having none of it. He marches round the table, grabs my hand and pulls me down to his level, insisting on holding my phone to take a selfie of us both! This is obviously the future!
On we travel and soon encounter more market stalls with cheerful Herero women selling their handmade dolls, cushion covers and colourful cloth bags. They are dressed in traditional long cotton dresses with wide flat hats on their heads. This image is replicated in the little dolls and I can’t resist buying one from a lady who proudly poses with my purchase in front of her stall while her colleagues beaver away on ancient Singer sewing machines in the background.
We check out the lunch stop we’ve planned for our excursion day then make our way to the famous centuries-old rock engravings of Twyfelfontein. San bushmen carved these images into the rock by way of communication to show which animals were around for hunting and as spirit beasts. I’ve made the mistake of coming here in the heat of the day and I’m glad to get back to the shade. We will bring our customers here in the morning when the temperatures are manageable as this is quite a strenuous visit and we want everyone to enjoy it in comfort.
Once I’ve cooled down a bit I take a look at the petrified forest, pieces of wood which have become stone through the influence of time and different minerals. My guide also points out the welwitschia plants, which are unique to this area and resemble something that could easily appear on Doctor Who!
Our accommodation tonight has a gorgeous pool which our guests will thoroughly enjoy after their excursion and there’s a fine buffet for dinner featuring something I’ve never tasted before… Oryx Strogonoff!
Tuesday November 24
We are now in the Etosha area, having driven up yesterday to do several site inspections. We are staying at Etosha Safari Lodge, which has the most incredible views over the bush from the outdoor restaurant and bar. Last night clouds gathered and lightning was visible in the distance but only a brief shower fell; the land is badly in need of rain and everyone is holding out for strong rains during December and January, particularly the farmers.
We saw some grazing their goats along the roadside instead of inside the farmlands, vying with the warthogs for the sparse vegetation. Trees have adapted to the conditions by forcing their roots so deep down into the earth in search of moisture from the water table that their trunks aren’t even visible above ground, only the branches.
Our customers will enjoy an afternoon game drive in Etosha as well as one lasting a full day and I have time to take a brief look at what they will experience, entering the park as it opens at 6.30am. The beauty of observing wildlife in game reserves is that you never know what you might see: maybe the Big Five, maybe nothing! As I’ve been lucky enough to experience many game drives, my goal is always to see something I’ve never seen before.
Much to the delight of my companions we see zebra, wildebeest and springbok, then a wonderfully close sighting of a spotted hyena. ‘It’s like the one from The Lion King!’ one of the group exclaims. Next, we are extremely lucky, as Wessel the driver brings the truck to a firm stop, to see the back of a dark shape galumphing bear-like into the bush. It’s an aardwolf, a type of hyena and very, very rare! The guide Matt has only seen three in all his years and has never seen one in this park!
As we approach the rest stop, the group is in raptures to see three large male elephants strolling alongside the road about 100m away. It is lovely to see their reaction and I wish them ‘happy spotting’ as I rejoin Stevie and head off to our next destination. The arid land becomes slightly more green as we travel on the main road south, parallel to the ridge of the Hochveldt mountains and with anticipation we approach the city of Windhoek, capital of Namibia and our last stop in this extraordinary country. Botswana beckons!
Wednesday November 25
It’s exactly a month until Christmas day and apparently there’s snow in the UK but that all feels very far away and the temperatures show no sign of relenting here today. We’ll have humidity to contend with as well in the coming days, so bringing the right wardrobe is key.
All the hotels we’ve visited so far have had a good and efficient laundry service at reasonable prices so customers can travel a little lighter and have their clothes laundered during the journey at some of our two-night stops. To give an example, in some of the Namibian hotels, a pair of trousers or top may cost R10 (50p) for a simple wash and fold with smaller items costing half that. I make a note to add this to the passenger itinerary, as it will help our customers with planning their packing.
Following breakfast in our comfortable Windhoek hotel, Stevie and I exchange the usual greetings, set the milometer to zero and set off, noting that we have exactly 2222km to go on our journey. We cross into Botswana and already the differences are apparent… No more German or Afrikaner influence; the language, people’s names, road signs are most definitely African – Tswana, to be exact. Another noticeable change is the road condition. There are no fences so donkeys, goats and cattle wander into the road causing a hazard for drivers and we take it nice and easy.
Our hotel in Ghanzi is the best available locally but is just a clean, comfortable bed for the night and no more. The welcome is warm and the barman suggests a Springbok cocktail. This consists of a measure each of Amarula (the African Baileys) and creme de menthe. Over ice it’s rather refreshing! Same again barman!
Thursday November 26
We’ve a meeting at 10am in Maun so we get up at the crack of dawn and get on the road. Maun is the hub town for visits to the Okavango Delta, a vast inland delta that originates in the Angolan mountains and flows down into Botswana producing a set of inland waterways spreading out like fingers on a hand. All this water attracts the cream of Africa’s animals as well as over 600 species of birds.
I’m driven to a point on the water where visitors join a mokoro, their transport to the heart of the delta. A mokoro is basically a cross between a canoe and a punt and is driven by a ‘poler’ who stands at the back of the boat and propels the vessel along with a long pole while the passengers sit in front and admire the scenery. Mokoros were originally made from the hollowed-out trunks of the sausage tree but these days plastic is favoured.
My poler is called Lenkamali – or Li – and he has been in the business for 20 years following in the footsteps of his father who was also a poler. As we glide along the water, we startle the many birds that congregate in the reed beds. Li names them all as they take off and I try to write down all their names: Pygmy goose, blacksmiths plover, purple heron, pied kingfisher, white-faced duck… I can’t keep up! My favourites are the African Jacana – or Jesus bird, so-named for the way it patters across the lily pads as though it’s walking on water – and the open-billed stork, which has a criss-cross bill with a gap in it like a nutcracker for taking apart its meal of choice, snails!
Li points out that there is an elephant ahead next to the river which is thrilling, but also a bit of a pain because he’s in our way. Elephants like to eat the roots of the water lilies and they don’t like to be approached or disturbed by pesky little boats, particularly when the waters are low like this.
Li inches the mokoro forward, testing the elephant who reacts badly, throws forward his ears and makes for us in a mock-charge! Li is a very good driver going forward but he sure can shift in reverse! We back off and just have to sit it out until the stroppy elephant gets bored and turns away, then we can pass. The polers are experts in these animals’ behaviour and know just how to manage this sort of encounter – using years of experience and great respect!
On arrival at camp I’m introduced the facilities. My tent contains a proper iron campbed with mattress, sheets, duvet and pillows so I’ll hopefully sleep well. The shower consists of a canvas cubicle with a bucket hanging from a branch above it that is filled with warm water and controlled by a tap. The loo is a ‘longdrop’ stationed to the rear of the tents for privacy. I note with a smile that there is a big pile of fresh elephant dung beside it!
We set off for a game walk in the cool late afternoon and Li points out wildebeest, red letchwe, medicinal herbs, a huge baobab tree, buffalo tracks, an aardvark burrow, a wonderful flock of wattled cranes flying overhead and a beautifully patterned leopard tortoise who gamely tries to keep up with us as we walk along.
Returning to the camp, I make use of the bucket shower (which works brilliantly, by the way) and enjoy a meal, cooked on the fire, of chicken curry, rice, potatoes, vegetables and salad, followed by a nice cup of tea. As we sip our sugary hot drinks to a background of frog chorus, Li remarks upon the full moon rising. A huge white ball of light is slowly advancing into the sky, illuminating the vista and bringing another incredible day in Africa to a spectacular end….
To an end? What was I thinking? This is not the end of the day but more like the start of the adventure! My night in camp was filled with action from a troupe of baboons leaping around in the tree above my tent to growling thunder accompanied by dramatic lightning flashes to foraging warthogs grunting and munching grass inches from my pillow and even the intrusion of an elephant thrashing through the bush about 50m away en route to the river bank! Night-time is clearly when the fun begins in the delta! So not a lot of kip but it was magical!
The next morning is cool and overcast, there’s been a little rain and the temperature is a pleasant 24’c. We have a cracking bush breakfast (fruit, yoghurt, cereal, full English anyone?) and Li kindly transports me back to base by mokoro, managing to keep the elephants sweet, and the peace and quiet of the river is the perfect end to this camping experience. It’s back to the lodge to prepare for the next stage of our trip, travelling to central Botswana and the bird Mecca of Nata…
Saturday November 28
Today, perhaps because of the coming rains, a feeling of optimism is in the air. But that’s not all. The theme of today appears to be romance and it starts with my right-hand man. Stevie is missing his girlfriend and for the last fortnight has just about worn the tip off his index finger sending her WhatsApp messages. I prise him away from his phone and we get on the road for Nata, soon stopping to observe a pair of eagles on the ground beside the road.
Eagles are often solitary beasts but this is a breeding pair of brown snake eagles and they are hanging out together under a tree perhaps having snared a snake to share for breakfast! Further along the road we see a pair of steenbok. With their spindly legs, delicate features and big eyes, they could have been the inspiration for Bambi. They snuffle at the grass together without the need of other company, as they will for the rest of their days; these particular antelope mate for life.
We spy a northern black korhaan emerging from a thicket. These birds have a rather special way of wooing the ladies whereby they announce their presence with loud cries then leap high into the air fluttering down so they can impress the potential mate with the underside of their wings which are a brilliant blood-red.
A different perspective on romance comes along next in the shape of a lone male ostrich. He wants a lady and he wants her now! We can tell because the front of his legs have turned a bright crimson. In this state of frustration the ostrich can become extremely violent and if we came close might even kick a dent into the side of the car. We wish him luck in his lusty quest and keep on driving!
We stop halfway and a long procession of cars drives by, windows open, music playing and horns tooting. Someone’s getting married! Saturday is a popular wedding day and for one young couple the church is waiting and hopefully a happy life ahead. We give them a cheer and a wave!
We arrive at lovely Nata Lodge and I declare my stilted chalet to be perfect for a honeymoon, with a gorgeous big bed, a terrace for late night drinks in the moonlight and a romantic garden shower. As if to concur with my opinion, two red-eyed doves frolic on the terrace railing, flirtatiously chasing one another up and down.
We’re in Nata to see the Mkgadikgadi Pan, a vast salt pan the size of Portugal where birds gather in their thousands for breeding season. At the moment the waters are low so the flamingos won’t be there but people still flock to experience the scale of the pan, the barren openness and a crisp cold sundowner whilst watching one of the most magnificent sunsets in the whole of Africa.
After a thoroughly romantic day, there’s disappointment for Stevie as the wi-fi signal is poor and he can’t chat with his loved one. There’s one final surprise though. As he sits forlornly gazing at his impotent phone, a pair of tiny lesser bushbabies pop their heads over the canvas screen beside him gazing around with their big round eyes before scampering off into the forest together.
What a wonderful day in Botswana where love was most definitely in the air! I take to my big bed and dream only of the Big Five as tomorrow we head to Chobe!
Sunday November 29
The road north from Nata to Kasane runs parallel to the Zimbabwean border and is part of the national park. Consequently we encounter a number of animals on the road before even arriving to Chobe! First a solitary female elephant, then a group of three and further on a pair of beautiful black and white fish eagles soar above us.
In safari lore we have the Big Five (leopard, lion, elephant, rhino, buffalo), the Little Five (leopard tortoise, antlion, elephant shrew, rhinoceros beetle, buffalo weaver) and the Ugly Five (wildebeest, warthog, hyena, culture and maribou stork.) I ask Stevie to consider which animals would be included in the Beautiful 5, should such a thing exist.
After much debate (bear with us, we’ve been together two weeks now and this is how we pass the time…) we can’t decide on five but both concur that the most beautiful animal with its grace, elegance and lovely soft eyes is the giraffe. As if on cue, four giraffe appear ahead of us, chewing at the green shoots of the tall trees beside the road. They all turn their heads at once and observe us quizzically but they are skittish and before long they turn and canter as if in slow motion back into the bush.
On arrival in Kasane I’ve many places to visit but once the meetings are over I’m invited to participate in one our planned activities, a sunset cruise into the Chobe national park. The weather is gloomy and overcast in anticipation of the coming rains so there’s no sun, let alone a sunset! But the idea is to see the animals that reside close to and within the river. The Chobe River marks the boundary between Botswana and Namibia and many boats operate these safari cruises from both countries.
Wrapped up warm, the boat sets sail and our captain Chris and guide Edmund tell us about the animals we are seeing. Everyone wants to see hippos and we are not disappointed! Here and there a pair of small twitchy ears bobs up to the surface from under the water followed by two big eyes and two big nostrils. A blink of the eyes and then down they go again… We watch for a while before something catches Edmund’s attention on the riverbank. Is it a log? Is it a pile of leaves? No! It’s a Nile crocodile! Just a young one but with 42 tonnes per square inch of pressure when its jaws snap, one bite would take any loose limb clean off. We keep our distance…
We see red letchwe, waterbuck, impala, maribou stork, the most aggressive of all the animals, the great African Buffalo, and numerous hippos in the water as well as nine big boys out of the water grazing on the island in the centre of the river. Each hippo is trailed by its very own cattle egret. In an act of symbiosis, the egret feeds on the insects which are disturbed by the hippos feet as he shuffles along, and gets rid of ticks which might settle on the hippo, so everyone is happy with this relationship!
Our truck will of course take our customers right from Cape Town to Victoria Falls but our hire car can’t cross the border so I make arrangements to be met by our contacts in Zimbabwe before enjoying a ‘last supper’ with Stevie. Driver, cook, author, guide, musician, songwriter, farmer, inventor (‘I invented an electric car,’ ‘Are you sure Stevie? I think someone already did that?’ ‘No, it was me…’), raconteur, painter, wildlife expert, lover of life and now friend; Mr Steve Botes, thanks for keeping me safe and for your wonderful company… I salute you!
Monday November 30
It’s a short drive to the border and formalities completed, it’s time to say goodbye to Botswana and of course Stevie. I’m rubbish at goodbyes so after a slightly gruff ‘thanks for everything mate’ and a big teary hug I’m handed over to my new driver whose name (and I swear I’m not making this up) is…. Wonder. There’s a surreal moment when I introduce them. ‘Wonder, meet Stevie… Stevie, Wonder…” We have a good laugh then say our goodbyes and get on our way.
Wonder gives me some background about the country as we drive the hour’s journey to the town of Victoria Falls. He’s as diplomatic as possible but it transpires that everything I’ve assumed about the country from news reports is true.
There are vast tracts of agricultural land which should be feeding the population, there are mineral riches lying beneath the earth waiting to be mined, there is a wealth of wildlife yearning to be discovered, but years of politics, mismanagement and corruption have left at least 80% of the population without formal employment, most of them surviving on subsistence farming and bartering. At one point inflation went up by 500 million per cent. Sorry, Wonder? I can’t quite understand that number! ‘Oh yes, at one point a loaf of bread cost 800 trillion dollars. It was ridiculous’.
Our customers will of course enjoy a walk to the falls with a local guide but there are many other options so my first mission is to check them out. Mike came to this area as a rafting guide and is now an integral part of the infrastructure here as his company runs so many of the excursions. It’s an extreme activity destination so I hear about rope swings and white-water rafting and bungee jumps…. gentler activities include a safari on elephant back and walking with lions!
These are injured or orphaned lions who have been reared in human company and will be released back into the wild once they reach 18 months old. I’m interested to hear about the helicopter flights as I think this will be very popular with our customers. There are two versions, a short flip of 13 minutes that flies over the Zambezi and the falls and a longer version which also takes in the national park where customers may glimpse wildlife from the air. That sounds wonderful! Mike insists that I experience this for myself and before I know it I’m being whisked off the helipad!
The waters at the falls are low just now but one can easily see the spray rising above the precipice where the water crashes down into the gorge. Locally known as Mosi-oa-Tunya – ‘the smoke that thunders’ – the description could not be more apt and the sight at eye level is astounding; what on earth will it be like from the air?
The answer is ‘spellbinding’! It’s not only the sight of the tumbling water, or the expanse of the mighty Zambezi but also the magnificent gorges that slice through the earth revealing even more dramatic cliffs and chasms.
As the pilot circles around we are able to take superb photos. He then points the helicopter in the direction of the national park and swoops down so we can see elephants and giraffes – so many! After about 20 exhilarating minutes we’re returned gently back to earth and everyone emerges from the helicopter with big smiles on their faces and adrenalin pumping! Wow!
I think this is probably a good place to end my journal, quite literally on a high! What an epic journey our customers are going to have! What sights they will see! From the vibrant city of Cape Town, to the great Orange River, the majesty of the Fish River Canyon, the photogenic Sossusvlei dunes, fun times meeting dolphins and seals, historic bushman paintings, a variety of thrilling wildlife experiences including game drives by river boat and mokoro, camping in the African bush, glorious sunrises and breathtaking sunsets, and finally visiting one of the modern day wonders of the world.
But quite apart from all this, our customers will enjoy the camaraderie and fun of an adventure truck tour; an unforgettable experience which leaves the traveller with shared memories, new friendships, a great sense of achievement and a heart full of passion for this incredible continent. Don’t just visit Africa, dear traveller! Live it! I did, and I would not have missed it for the world!