Feb 22, 2011

Vacation news: Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe or, ZimZamBots!

Whoo hoo!

It's about time, right? I was zooming around southern Africa for the better part of a month.  So, where to start? I met three friends in Pretoria, where we picked up a rental car and drove into Botswana. We stayed near Nata for the night, and drove past the salt pans into Maun to stay at the Old Bridge Backpackers there. The next day we went for a mekoro trip (a kind of traditional dugout canoe, steered by pole) up into the Okavango Delta where we camped for two nights. We went on a couple game walks there at sunset and again the next morning. Just being out in the Delta was itself amazing, and on the second walk we saw a large herd of wildebeest, zebra, and sesebe relaxing near a gigantic baobab tree. I've seen more numerous herds and rarer animals in Kruger and elsewhere, but the fact that we were just out on our own feet and not ensconced in a car made a huge difference. It felt far less like a petting zoo. We also saw an enormous leopard tortoise, giraffes, warthogs and countless birds.
It's kind of gondola-style trip.

After returning to the car we proceeded to Kasane, where we went on a more standard game drive and river cruise in Chobe National Park (that river is the boundary between Botswana and the Namibian panhandle). Chobe is full to bursting with elephant and Cape buffalo, and I got some pretty amazing videos with elephants not ten feet from our truck. The river cruise was pretty cool as well, only marred somewhat by the presence of a dozen drunk Australian teenagers (though they did redeem themselves a bit by constantly declaiming about the presence or absence of various "crocs" in a thick Aussie accent).
Aww, widdle baby elephant!

Botswana is a lovely place. I think I now begin to understand what people mean when they say they've fallen in love with Africa. It is very similar to my corner of South Africa—same people, same language, same type of terrain—yet it is altogether a more wholesome and reasonable place. As far as I can tell, though the country faces some steep problems (mostly an atrocious HIV epidemic), the people are friendlier and happier, the institutions more sound and effective, and the outlook very much more positive. The price-adjusted per capita GDP is, depending on who you ask, between a third and half again as much as South Africa's. The best part from my perspective was that Botswana lacks the miasma of petulant whingeing that permeates the public culture in South Africa. It's a vision (through a glass darkly) of what might have been had Apartheid been avoided, and it's very positive. Definitely worth a visit.
Here's the four of us beginning our walk across the top of Victoria Falls.  You can see its mist in the top right.

Due to miserliness, we decided to leave the car in Botswana and head to Zambia on public transport (as it would cost an extra R2000 to cross the border, in addition to petrol and fees), but since we were only going to Livingstone and Victoria Falls this turned out to be an all-around good decision. There is no bridge to Zambia, only a ferry, and lorries are lined up several kilometers back into each country waiting to cross. The ferry takes one of these and a few passenger vehicles across each time, but if you're on foot, you can jump the queue and hop on. Once on the other side, you buy your visa (which must be purchased in US dollars for some reason, they won't take rand, pula, or even Zambian kwacha), and there are taxis waiting to take you to Livingstone for a reasonable fee.
Jumping into the Devil's Pool.

Once in Livingstone we spent some time doing large multiplication problems (5000 kwacha to the dollar) and went to what my friends, who did Peace Corps in Chad, assured me was a "real" African market. It certainly had the most intense smells of any place I've been. The next day we went to Victoria Falls, which unequivocally lived up to the hype. Staggering is putting it mildly. We spent the morning scrambling across the top of the falls to get to a spot called Devil's Pool, which is a place where you can jump in and swim literally right to the edge of the falls. After that we went across the border into Zimbabwe to look at the falls from the other side. The views were somewhat better but quite a bit more moist from the falls' mist. (That's probably the only time I'll visit a country on The Economist's top ten list of failed states.)
I wasn't kidding, you're right there. The worst part, though, is these damn little fish that nibble on your toes.

The next day we went on a one-day river trip down the Zambezi starting right below the falls. It was huge whitewater, as big as anything in Grand Canyon. There were only a couple rapids I would call hard—mostly we just went straight through and ate the biggest waves in the river—but it was massive. The raft company had sort of a flour-sifter model; our group flipped three boats just getting out of the first eddy. The sweep kayakers were scrambling around fishing people out of the river all day. The gorge was lovely and the river amazing; the only flaw being that we were saddled with several useless Afrikaners on our boat, who were somewhere between "lazy" and "ballast" in terms of paddling horsepower. Even that couldn't spoil it for me though, I've been jonesin for some river since I got here and that was just what I needed. A cold beer for the soul.

YA-HOO! That's me in the yellow helmet.

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