Sunday, July 24, 2011

In Malawi and are fine

Tallulah and Jo had the same plans we did, so we traveled together to the capital city of Malawi, Lilongwe. The morning we left Malula Lodge Jenny called a hostel for us to make reservations and, to our later surprise and chagrin, during this phone call not a word was mentioned of the political situation there. Turns out we unknowingly entered the capital on the pre-planned day of the president’s speech which incited planned protests from the opposition groups, which incited protests from the president’s supporters, which led to violence, rioting, the army being called in, and 18 deaths. The hostel didn’t utter a word about this, though the trouble had already started when we made reservations.

Our ride dropped us at the border, we got our stamps, and walked into Malawi, one of the most peaceful countries in Africa. We had to catch a taxi to the nearest town in order to catch a minibus to Lilongwe. The driver was charging exorbitant rates and said there was a petrol crisis and they could only get petrol from Zambia so it was very expensive. We talked him down a little bit and got in. Then in Mchinji there were no buses or minibuses and some locals said there was a big meeting in town about the petrol prices, so we had to take a metered taxi all the way to Lilongwe also at an exorbitant rate. On the way there the cab driver told Anne that buses weren’t running not because of a meeting but because of riots in Lilongwe.

The hostel manager explained what was going on and said that the protests led to riots but everyone expected things to be fine by the next morning. All the shops and restaurants in town were closed. In the morning more rioting started and they couldn’t get hold of any taxis on the phone. We were told of a way to take a few minibuses to get out of town and avoid the areas where the riots were. As we walked down the street we heard shots (which turned out to be tear gas), saw several young men running, and were stopped by some neighbors who said that the fighting had reached this area and it was not safe, so we headed back to the hostel.

The violence seemed to be only in a few large cities. All of the villages along the lake were peaceful, so that’s where we wanted to be. The hostel couldn’t reach any taxi drivers they knew, and we thought we would be stuck there indefinitely, but luckily a taxi showed up to take two people to the airport and he called a friend for us. We got dropped outside the city and took a minibus to a turnoff where we scored a hitch with a wealthy Indian man and his Malawian friend. The former got out of town to be safe and picked up his buddy, and they were heading in our direction. They were planning on stopping about 130 kilometers before Kande Beach where we wanted to go, but they were bored and decided to take us the whole way. 

The next morning we heard news that the violence had stopped. It was lucky we got out of the city just in case. We hung out on the beach all day and headed from there to Nkhata Bay where we plan to relax for a while and wait out any possible aftershocks. Word around town and in the papers is that things have cooled off. It’s unclear if any of this week’s events will have any effect on the current president. For details about Malawi’s current political/economic situation check out this site:

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

South Luanga, Zambia

(Photos at end. Frustrating computer...)

Once our travel troubles getting to Chipata ended, Zambia got much more applause from us and become our close encounter country. While transportation in this country was never easy, it was doable. However, the difficulty of getting around Zambia did ultimately play a huge factor in us deciding to stay only a brief period.

After hanging out a day in Chipata to regroup and catch up on sleep we met four British women also heading to South Luangwa National Park, reputedly one of the best parks in Africa. The next morning the six of us wazungus (white people) got on a minibus for Mfuwe village and the park. The ride itself was quite an experience. We fit 23 people in a 16-seat minibus and the top of it was loaded up with luggage, grains, and a new stove. There was no starter so anytime we stopped to let people on or off, which was frequent, several people were required to push start us. Moving the front windows down required just pushing them until they dropped into the door. You could see them. There wasn’t any inside paneling and many of the main parts of the bus, including the stick shift and door handles, were made of rebar. This minibus was quite possibly the most dilapidated vehicle I’ve ever been in and we traveled for 5 ½ hours on quite possibly the most dilapidated road I’ve ever been on. Anne and I scored the two seats up front and had the most comfortable ride of all on board. The dirt road had more potholes than flat stretches and the journey was a bit wearisome.

We made no reservations and found out the place we intended to go to didn’t allow camping during the busy season, so we joined Tellulah and Jo at Marula Lodge. Turns out we scored big time. The woman who just bought it is awesome and since the dorms are above her house and she’s not too keen on hearing stomping feet all night, she upgraded us to two en suite chalets for the same price. These were some of the most comfortable digs we’ve had on this trip. Plus, her staff was incredibly friendly and the grounds were lovely.

Jenny (the owner) woke us up at 7:20 the next morning to say there was an elephant in the garden if we wanted to see it. Turns out there are a few who frequent the property all day and come quite close to the bar/restaurant area and we beat our Etosha record of getting close to an elephant. We’re at 5 feet and counting now. Shortly after the elephant wandered away, Tellulah and Jo said there was also a pride of lions across the river that just killed a buffalo. Seriously.

We spent all day watching the lions – one male, approx six females, and three cubs – eating their kill, sleeping, and chasing off crocodiles and hippos. The river was wide enough that we were completely safe and had an unbelievable vantage point to watch their feasting. By the next morning the lions were gone and the crocs had finished off the buffalo and dragged it underwater. Talk about timing - we are so lucky.

The following day we did two game drives, one in the morning and one in the evening. Both were fantastic and we got to see a lot – giraffes, elephants, zebras, warthogs, baboons, hippos, crocs, a leopard, two genets, and more lions. The giraffes were a subspecies called Thornicraft which had darker patterns that ended at the knee. The zebras were also a subspecies and they didn’t have a brown “shadow” stripe so the black and white contrast was much more pronounced. The leopard was a highlight because I had only ever seen one at night before. This smaller guy had recently killed an impala and dragged it up a tree to feast in peace, and good thing because a spotted hyena was pacing underneath eager for any morsels to drop.

At the very end we came across a lioness and three cubs sleeping by the side of the road. Our
guide thought they could be from the pride yesterday that ate the buffalo. They were likely tired and satiated as the guide said, but still we got uncomfortably close to them to the point that Jo (who was in the lowest and closest seat on the truck) had to ask the guide to move further away. We were at most four feet away from a very, very large lion who was staring us straight in the face and could easily have jumped up and eaten us if she wanted to.
The trip to the park and Malula Lodge was awesome. We should have stayed longer…

seriously within striking distance

jeanette's so good with a camera!

leopard. really.

black spotted hyena looking for donations from the leopard

will you scratch that for me?

jo and tallulah 5 feet from mr. elephant

lions eyeing up the crocs who are trying to steal their lunch


hippo seeking attention because it doesn't actually eat buffalo

stop that! it's MINE!!

look! eagles are scavengers in africa too!


Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Travel day from Hell

Our post-Vic Falls Day introduction to Zambia has not been a positive one. In fact, yesterday was probably the worst day of the entire trip. On Thursday we got all of the visas we wanted to –other than the elusive Ethiopian one—very quickly and people were extremely helpful and friendly. So we decided to save on a night of lodging and take an overnight bus from Harare, Zimbabwe to Lusaka, Zambia. That was fine. We slept on the bus at the border along with six other buses full of people and as soon as the border post opened at 6 am everyone rushed in, was cleared, and we were off to Lusaka. Semi-chaotic, but nothing horrible. The only odd thing was the bathroom situation. When we arrived at the border around midnight, the actual bathrooms were closed. Instead of digging pit toilets outside of the gates, since the bus queue was a typical thing, there was nothing. People just hopped off the bus and went in an open field shamelessly littered with toilet paper. I’ve peed off the side of the road on many bus journeys in Tanzania, but this was something else. I think if I ran a health-related NGO, digging and maintaining pit toilets there would be one of my first priorities.
When we got to Lusaka at about 10 am a man got on our bus and asked where we were going. Stupidly we told him. The price he quoted us was reasonable.  As soon as we got off, a group mobbed us but we followed him to a bus to Chipata that he assured us was a time bus leaving in an hour. The bus did have passengers on it, which was a good sign, and it was the first in the line of buses headed that way. We got on, then after we paid our bus fare he charged us extra for luggage. We’ve since learned that that’s typical in Zambia. Fine. Then another guy gets on the bus and says that we didn’t pay enough for the luggage and if we don’t give him more, he’s going to throw our luggage off the bus. He was very, very, very insistent. To the point where we believed him. Turns out the schmuck was just a conman who stole our 20,000 kwacha. (About $5, but still, we had already paid almost $30 for the bus each.) Well, that made us feel like gullible, idiotic white tourists.
Then, we waited for the bus to go. 11 am rolled by, no movement. Noon. Nothing. We didn’t leave the station for 6 hours and 22 minutes. Six hours of waiting for nothing as they shoved more and more luggage on the bus and a constant stream of people came on trying to sell us socks, drinks, watches and perfumes. We tried to get our money back multiple times but to no avail. It was miserable. I guess you should never pay for bus tickets until you know that it’s actually leaving. We probably could have gotten on a different bus, but at this point, $60 is a lot of money for us to just walk away from. We aren’t broke yet, but money supplies are dwindling very quickly.  Our exhaustion from the previous night didn’t help.  Even though our seats reclined a bit on the bus, it’s not like it was a good night’s sleep.
A woman overheard us complaining –many Zambians speak English – and sort of put us in our place. She had overheard me say while in a fluster that I hated Zambia, though I quickly amended it with the fact that really I just hated the situation. It feels terrible to be had. She commented at least we could travel around to different places. The US government won’t even give most Africans a visa. (Very true. We had the same conversation with officials at the Kenyan Embassy the previous day.) And we had the money to travel, though she assumed that we just had it, not that we had been saving up for years and sold our cars and all our furniture. Yes, the situation sucked, but it only sucked for one day out of many for us. It sucked like that for many days for many other people. I still get annoyed and angry thinking about yesterday – why couldn’t the people in Lusaka be honest like the people in Zimbabwe? Or Botswana? Or even, for that matter, South Africa?  If the bus is leaving when it’s full, then tell me that.  Don’t say it’s leaving in an hour because that’s what I want to hear and it will get me on the bus.  Nice people in previous countries led us to put our guard down. But, I recognize that sometimes things just suck, and I need to move on. It’s not right to judge a country by the bus depot in its capital city and I know that, but still…
By the time the bus was ready to go – six hours later – you couldn’t even walk down the aisles. People were stepping from armrest to armrest to get out of the bus. The purpose of the bus seemed to be to make more money from transporting goods than people.  The place was filled with enough blankets to stock a large hotel, solar batteries and equipment, stereos, massive bags of flip-flops, empty and full suitcases, a tray of baby chickens (we think), and who knows what else. It was a scene to watch as people approached the bus depot and were instantly mobbed by those working for the bus companies.  It hasn’t been this bad anywhere else we’ve been, but at least it made us feel better that everyone got mobbed, not just us.  We arrived in Chipata at 2 am, 32 hours after leaving Harare. Luckily, we borrowed someone’s phone and booked a room at a backpackers. The owner left a key for us with the night watchman. We’re chilling out for a day before braving more public transport to South Luangwa National Park.  Then, it’s out of Zambia and onto Malawi, said to be the home of the friendliest people in Africa. Good. I’m ready to go back to some place like Zimbabwe.      
Warning: This blog was written before the bitterness and frustration had completely worn off. We're quickly getting over it.

Zimbabwe rocks

Zimbabwe has a tough reputation: a president who won’t leave office and is accused of assassinating political opponents, a collapsed economy that lead to massive inflation and now operates using the US dollar, and a semi-recent massive cholera outbreak. Despite all of that stuff, this country is fantastic. The people are mostly warm and welcoming and genuinely appreciate tourism and just meeting new people. They are curious about who were are and where we are from and are very open to communicating. It feels good to spend your money here because you know the people really need it. Other than the unbelievably persistent curio sellers in the Vic Falls area who literally appear from the trees, the people are very mellow and despite their hardships, do not beg or harass you.

After wringing the Vic Falls mist from our clothes, we took a dilapidated overnight train to the large, formerly hopping industrial town of Bulawayo. We boarded at 6:30 PM and were delighted to see that we were given a compartment with just two beds so we didn’t have to share with anyone else. Before the excitement from this unexpected surprise wore off, we were overwhelmed with the stench of urine emanating from a tiny non-functional sink in the corner of the room. I made Anne buy deodorizing spray for her boots a while ago, so we just kept spraying the sink with this and it helped. Once the train got moving it wasn’t too bad. There was a toilet at the end of the car but when you “flushed”, things simply dropped down directly on the tracks. The bunks were comfortable and our sleeping bags warm, and we arrived a mere 4 ½ hours late.

Bulawayo was an unexciting town but a convenient stopover. The mall had a movie theater and the streets were lined with 70s-style buildings and shops alternating with the same fast food court chains over and over. Most Zimbabweans we’ve encountered so far and have conversed with have been men and within one minute of talking many ask for our phone number so they can “be our friend.” Our first taxi driver seemed very genuine about wanting to be pen pals, and perhaps our second taxi driver as well, but all the others seem to want an American wife and a quick exit to a better life. It’s hard to blame them with high unemployment rates and progress coming at a snail’s pace.

We worked our way via bus, combi, and a hitch to the Great Zimbabwe Ruins. Unlike Vic Falls, the Lonely Planet grossly underrates this incredible World Heritage Site. The ruins as we see them today were largely built during the 13th century and many of the well-constructed walls still stand. All of the buildings were made from granite bricks that naturally broke from massive boulders in sheets then were stacked in sturdy, even lines without any mortar. The less perfect stones filled the interior of the meters-thick walls. Great Zimbabwe includes two major sections, the Great Enclosure and the Hill Complex.
Hill Complex

Great Enclosure and surrounding ruins

The Great Enclosure section was the home of the queen, the first and most important of the king’s 200 wives. It was also where young men and women went for premarital sexual training. Oral histories combined with phallic objects found by archaeologists suggest that the girls had to prove to the queen that they understood their lessons before they were allowed to wed. Within the granite walls is also a massive conical structure that represents the kingdom’s abundance, and its image was one of the icons on Zimbabwe’s now-worthless multi-trillion dollar notes.
Iconic tower

Inner and outer walls

Decoration on outer walls

Inside the complex

The Hill Complex towers above the Great Enclosure and the surrounding lands. The structure made excellent use of the giant granite boulders naturally found there to enhance the walls and to make narrow passages for safety against attacking enemies. The architects also include twisting passages that lead to nowhere to confuse any possible invaders and the inept tourists of the future. The king lived on the hill and seldom came down. His 200 wives took turns cooking for him as he sat in a cave watching over and ruling his kingdom. The Shona kingdom spread from the Indian Ocean into modern day Botswana and gained wealth through trading with the Portuguese. More than 5,000 people lived in Great Zimbabwe alone. The Hill Complex also included areas for spiritual rites, including fortune telling and worship, and a sacred tunnel for burying the kings. Our guide was excellent and despite the non-stop rain, this was by far one of the best tours we’ve been on this trip. While there we also found out that “Zimbabwe” actually means “great stone house” and to my knowledge this is the only country named after a historical site.
Security path up to Hill Complex

From the ruins we worked our way to the capital city of Harare via bus, minibus, and taxi, and arrived at the backpackers listed in the Lonely Planet only to find that it moved locations…about three years ago. Their advertisements had the same address on them, too. Our main reason for visiting Harare was because we heard it was a good place to get visas for other countries. We have heard from several other travelers that visas to Ethiopia are surprisingly hard to come by, and we confirmed on their embassy website that visas are no longer given at border crossings but may be given at the airport. So, we made a beeline to the Ethiopian Embassy but were denied because apparently now they only give them to residents of Zimbabwe. Next was the Tanzanian Embassy where we confirmed we could get a visa at this sketchy border crossing that Anne is very excited about (tune in five weeks from now to hear the details). The Mozambican Embassy kept our passports overnight but we picked them up the next morning with our fresh new visas. Finally, we hit up the Kenyan Embassy where the staff was unbelievably friendly and accommodating. It came up in conversation that Anne had lived in Tanzania for three years and the staff was bedazzled by this white woman who could speak Swahili. Word apparently spread throughout the building because more people came down to chat with her while we waited.

Thus far we can definitely say that all travelers are encouraged to head to this beautiful and friendly country. The Lonely Planet is mostly worthless when it comes to information, though, so just ask around for help. People will honestly and willingly give it. The only rule is that you can’t say anything bad about their dictator, err, president.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Vic Falls

Our Lonely Planet guidebook can be a bit over the top with its descriptions: “Victoria Falls is the largest, most beautiful and most majestic waterfall on the planet” and “a Must See Before You Die spot.” It causes one to go in with very high hopes. Also, we’ve seen a lot of waterfalls on this trip. Any faithful blog reader will remember our waterfall tour of South Africa where every single hike led to one. In fact, at this point, we could actually be considered waterfall connoisseurs, meaning we couldn’t miss what was considered to be the best.
Getting from Maun, Botswana to Vic Falls, Zimbabwe was supposed to be very straight forward – just catch two buses and one combi. Of course, it turns out that buses running on the second leg of the journey are always full, so we hitched. This time our ride was in a Botswana Postal truck down a 300 km long road that was still mostly under construction. As we drove along the pothole-filled temporary road the driver tossed copies of the government newspaper out the window for the construction workers. Distributing the rag was part of his job, and he disconcertedly told us that most of the workers just used it for rolling joints. Having read a copy, I would say they were being put to a good use. (This is Anne writing this particular paragraph, and Jeanette takes no responsibility for my comments.) Our last leg, from the border to the town, was with a friendly, talkative taxi driver who took us to meet his children on the way to hostel, just because he was so proud of them.
The next day, we went to see the main event: the largest waterfall on the planet. We had high expectations and were in no way disappointed.  It is difficult to describe how awesome this Natural Wonder of the World is, so instead I will just post a lot of pictures. 
View from the Zimbabwe Side

One of 20 zillion rainbows

See, we were there!

Zambia side

Mist from Boiling Pots

Can you really have enough rainbows?

The ponchos didn't help that much.
There was a lot of water heading down the Zambezi River from flooding in Angola, so the falls had more water going over for this time of year than normal.  So much so that the spray came up from the gorge and down on you as if you were caught in a rainstorm.  Not a mist-storm, but a full on rainstorm.  A woman we met from Zimbabwe said she had been to the falls more than ten times and had never gotten so wet. We didn’t bring rain pants the day we were on the Zimbabwe side, because the Lonely Planet suggested you didn’t need them, and we got utterly drenched. The spray is so powerful that it actually quite limits your views as it is blown sideways by the wind. It felt a bit like being in the Aleutians actually…
Our visit to the falls was definitely enhanced by a fellow traveler and adrenaline junkie from California. After watching him bungee jump off the bridge that connects Zimbabwe and Zambia we wandered through the park that surrounds the Zim side of the falls. His enthusiastic cries of “this is amazing!” were infectious and made the pounding falls even more exciting. The afternoon sun formed rainbows around every corner. No matter where we stood in the mistier sections, it felt like the rainbows ended at our feet. We concluded that we had to visit the Zambia side of the falls together the next day.
On the walk over to Zambia the next morning we took a detour to see the Big Tree, a giant baobab tree with a 20 m circumference.  The kilometer walk back to the town center was like a mini-walking safari of our own – we saw baboons, warthogs, and impala just inches from us. The area was filled with elephant dung as well, though we were lucky enough not to startle any during their breakfasts.
Big Tree
Both sides of the falls were pretty amazing and should not be missed.  The Zimbabwe side offers more panoramic, encompassing views, but the Zambia side gets you right up close to the falls.  It’s tough to decide which is better, but I think for all three of us actually, the Zambia side couldn’t be beat.  We did a hike down the Boiling Point, a giant whirlpool in the gorge, and then over the footbridge to Knife’s Edge where views were stunning when you could see past the spray. This time we were smart enough to rent ponchos, though swimsuits were probably more appropriate. The mist was so thick that the rainbows made actual circles. Standing on Knife’s Edge, bemoaning the fact that we would soon have to leave the park, the three of us made a pact. We’re having a reunion at Vic Falls in 15 years and in the mean time will tour other great falls around the world. (Although, if we don’t get jobs soon, that could mean the Great Falls around our parents basements, if there are any….) Here’s to our new friend Mike and Vic Falls 2026! 

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Okavango Delta

No matter what we do, we can’t seem to avoid hitchhiking. You would think being out in the theoretical middle of nowhere, in a dug-out canoe, surrounded by tall reeds and water, we would be safe from it. But no, during each of our three days in Botswana’s Okavango Delta thousands of bugs hitched rides in our mokoro, hoping to find a better meal down the river. Gnats coated our arms and legs and the inside of the narrow, hollowed out canoes. Spiders ranging from tiny, almost-translucent spots to inch-long monsters crawled around the plastic seats we put into the boat for a more comfortable ride. It turns out that marsh lands are not for bug haters.
The front of a mokoro
Our only stop in Botswana was in Maun in order to tour the Okavango Delta, a massive river delta region that floods for about half the year allowing narrow traditional dug-out canoes to traverse the temporary channels and hop from island to island. During the dry season much of the area can be accessed on foot, but after the rains, walking is limited. This doesn’t deter the massive number of animals, though. Elephants easily and loudly splash through the streams with ease. In areas where the water is very deep, they go in over their head and use their trunks as a snorkel. Different antelope are specifically adapted to swim and live in the marshy environment. Even the lions here have learned to swim short distances. It can take more than 30 days to cross the 16,000 square kilometers of marsh land in the non-motorized boats. We opted to just go for three.
Our most striking encounter during this adventure was once again with elephants. We camped for two nights on Elephant Island. Though we immediately noticed the large amounts of elephant dung near our site, we still walked around the island without much thought. Our guide didn’t tell us not to, and we wanted to climb a tree to see a new species of antelopes, red lechwes, in the distance. Our second day there, we realized we were probably stupid to do so. Two large bull elephants decided to chow down on the small trees around our campsite. We stood 30 feet from them with only a few thorny trees separating us. When they were full, they cruised right by us with nothing protecting us other than their complete indifference. Sometimes it’s nice not to be noticed.
Friendly campsite visitor

Mokoro poler

Lily pads
Red Lechwe

Mads, our Danish tour companion, Jeanette with a Cape Buffalo skull, and BT our guide

And we thought we were close then, when a small lake was between us!
Unlike most of our outings in the past three months, this excursion was very relaxing. On the first day we sat in the mokoros for two hours as the guide “poled” us to our camp site. Tall, thick green reeds and thinner grasses pushed smoothly to the side as the boat slid almost silently through. The grasses sometimes opened up into pools filled with blossoming water lilies.Traveling by mokoro is basically like riding in a gondola in Venice. You sit in the front while someone stands in the back, pushes a pole into the water down to the bottom, and propels the boat forward. The polers make it all look so simple. It’s not. I tried to pole the boat and could never seem to get it to go straight or quickly. And balancing while standing in a moving boat, even when tall reeds on the side keep it somewhat steady, is not easy. I somehow managed not to fall in (good thing, since I only packed one set of clothes), but I fell over into the canoe and have another set of nasty bruises from my efforts.
After arriving at the site and setting up, we just hung out. In fact, all three days we had specific times for doing nothing. Our guide said that the government prohibits you from walking around during mid-day while the animals are resting. Though that seems somewhat unlikely, it was a nice change. During our evening and morning game walks, we wandered around other close-by islands looking for animals. We walked right by lechwe, zebra, wildebeest, elephants, and warthogs. Fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your perspective, we didn’t see any lions.
Sunset on the delta
We also had many close encounters with different varieties of the rare species Homo sapiens. The H. sapiens safarianas was clad completely in khaki with wide-brimmed hats and each carried a camera worth more than a tooth.* The more agreeable H. sapiens familias was heard making their typical social calls of “Mom, stop saying that…” while the loud and overbearing H. sapiens overland-touris disturbed the peace of the evening with loud singing and strange howling. Our trip into the delta was not the wilderness experience we anticipated, but nevertheless it was a fabulous journey.
Our last day on the delta was fairly uneventful, but it gave us time to realize that maybe we needed a plan for our onward travel. We have six weeks before we need to be in Tanzania to see an old friend and four countries we want to visit in the meantime. We’re actually going to have to pick up the pace a bit, so we’re spending one more day at this cheap backpackers to figure out where to go next. I’m pretty sure we’re Zimbabwe bound. I hope we can get a good hitch there…

*One tooth is worth approximately 160 days of traveling in Ethiopia or US$5,000.      

Friday, July 1, 2011

Safely in Maun

Picking up plenty of hitchhikers in Namibia definitely paid off. Our hitching karma was high enough to ensure an easy ride all the way from Windhoek to Maun, some 600+ kilometers, in one day. Apparently that’s a rather rare event.

Getting from Windhoek to Maun is not a straightforward task. We initially planned on taking a shuttle that would drop us at an intersection halfway, but we decided to leave two days earlier than it was scheduled. Also, it turns out waiting at that intersection is very dangerous because of the animals. I wonder if they ever tell their passengers that…

After much asking around and some good luck, it turned out we could get a lift to the border for half that price from a petrol station 50 meters from where we said our tearful good-bye to Good Sport. We hopped into a shared taxi with two other passengers, an old man tried to propose to me but I ignored him, and we were off! Of course, once we reached the next town our taxi had an engine problem. But, never fear! He found us a lift in the cab of a massive car-carrying semi. That driver left us at the border where within 15 minutes we managed to go through both border posts, exchange money from some random people traveling through (pula and Namibian dollars are 1:1 more or less), and secure a ride in the cab of a semi that wasn’t pulling any trailers all the way to Maun. We passed another group of tourists who looked like they had been waiting for hours. Suckers.

Our lift to Maun was very, very long. For the most part, cars and trucks can’t go faster than 80 km/h because of all the animals. Cows and donkeys just wander on the road without a care in the world. What makes it worse is that some donkeys are the same color as the tar road making them virtually invisible at night. As we cruised along in our low budget safari ride, we saw plenty of livestock, jackals, some impala, and I’m pretty sure I saw an aardvark. We also learned many, many things about Zimbabwe from the other passenger. His company bought the two trucks from England and picked them up in Namibia and will use them to transport explosives from South Africa to Zambia for mining. After talking to him about Zimbabwe, it sounds like a wonderful place to visit. We even talked politics, economics, and geography.

The only flaw in our hitching plan was arrival time. We didn’t realize how long it would take to get here, and we arrived after 10 pm. The backpackers was closed, the nearby hotel only had one very expensive room available, and no one was answering the phone at any place listed in the Lonely Planet. A group of men at the gas station tried to help us, but eventually we went to the nearby place to ask for the expensive room. The receptionist was a godsend. Instead of renting us the expensive room, she called around to all of the other nearby guesthouses to find us a cheap place to stay. Who in the States would do that?

The next morning Jeanette awoke with stomach problems, but we successfully made it to the backpackers. It’s filled with a great crowd of people, so it was very nice to socialize. And tomorrow, we’re off on a three-day dugout canoe ride through the Okavanga Delta.

I like being back on the public transport/hitchhiking circuit. You meet way more interesting people and learn much more about the places you are traveling. But we’ll see what I say when our hitching karma wears off….      

Namibia in review

It’s a very good thing that we rented a car for Namibia; otherwise travel there would have proved very difficult.  At the beginning of the trip we briefly discussed hooking up with one of those overland tours for Namibia, but ended up deciding against it, and luckily too because our abhorrence of them has increased with each one we encountered – big groups, loud people, late nights, forgetting other people are using the same campsites and don’t share the same schedule.  Okay, they haven’t been that bad, but on a tour like that there is no flexibility, and we like flexibility.  So, Good Sport ended up being a good thing, for us at least.  The poor car has suffered. (Luckily the guy at the rental car place who checked the car back in didn’t notice…. Thank goodness for a good car wash. J )

Namibia is a big country, and the cities/towns/places of interest are very spread out.  A few of the main roads are tarred, but otherwise there are different gradients of dirt road.  Some were kept up very nicely whereas others were in dire need of repair.  A few of the roads, or patches of them, were covered in rocks, and were very hard on tires.  We purposely rented a car with “no excess” which means it was fully insured, except that this insurance did not cover tires or the windshield, the two most vulnerable car parts on gravel or rocky roads.  Luckily we only had one flat tire and we were able to easily get it plugged and then kept it underneath the car as the spare.

It was easy to estimate driving times in South Africa because almost all major and secondary roads were paved, but here we quickly got into the habit of designating an entire day for travel even if our destination was just a few hundred kilometers away.  Gas was relatively easy to obtain in even small towns, but we filled up or topped off the tank whenever it was available just to be safe.  There were fewer cars on the roads here than in South Africa, and virtually no public transportation.  There were always people hitchhiking between towns, but in the more remote tourist destinations we didn’t see too many.

In the winter Namibia is very dry and very cold at night.  I am still shocked at how cold I have been most nights.  With the car we had an extra sleeping bag (because Anne needed to buy a new one) and an extra blanket that we used many nights and were loathe to give up when we cleaned out the car.  Oftentimes, we’d crawl into the tent right after it got dark and huddle under blankets and sleeping bags reading, then go to bed very early.  We went through an entire bottle of lotion in the one month we spent here, and even then our skin was constantly flaking off.  And here’s another big indicator of the dryness: we actually finished a tube of chapstick before we lost it.

Namibia has a lot of outdoor attractions but not a lot of hiking.  There were a few multi-day hiking trails that sounded awesome but a minimum of three people were required to obtain permits so none of those came to fruition for us.  As a result, we both feel as if we’ve been trapped in a car and have been very sedentary for the past few weeks.

Namibia Wildlife Resorts has the permit to run concessions in all national parks.  You may be able to tell from the name, but any organization with “resort” in its title doesn’t exactly cater to us lowly backpackers.  Accommodations were frighteningly expensive.  In fact, we had to pay more for camping than we have for a double en suite room.  And everything is per person, not per campsite.  Their facilities were decent but nothing special and due to the price we found ourselves trying to limit staying inside the parks, which means it also feels like we’ve constantly been on the go.  On top of that there were hefty “conservation” fees daily for each park.  Oddly though, the receipts for these say Department of Finance, not Department of Wildlife so I’m not sure what they are conserving.

Accommodations and provisions have been easy to get in all major towns, and many grocery stores and restaurant chains from South Africa are also here.  The people are friendly for the most part.  There is a large German influence from its colonization in the 1800s.  This is mostly noticed in large cities by the building styles (namely Swakopmund) or in restaurants (lots of German fare – sausages and schnitzels).  Our guidebooks all talked about the best German influence of all -  beer.  However, I tried several of the ones brewed here and they don’t taste much different from the South African lagers.  There is one microbrewery in Windhoek that was very tasty though. (This is Jeanette typing, can you tell?)

The parks in Namibia, although expensive to stay in, were some of my favorites; from the sand dunes in Soussvlei to the Skeleton Coast to Etosha, it was all pretty remarkable and ultimately worth every penny.  One of my favorite days by far was our big water hole day in Etosha, which happened to occur exactly on the three month anniversary of our trip.  I couldn’t believe it when we hit two months, and I believe it less now that we’re at three.  I am starting to get worried about having time and money to see it all. Namibia in general was more costly than expected and prices are very similar to South Africa. 

Up until now all countries we went to accepted the South African Rand – Swaziland, Lesotho, and Namibia – so we were fine as long as we had Rand on us.  We ran out of Rand early into Namibia, though, and were left with the much less useful Namibian dollar. Our last days in Windhoek were spent endlessly counting our money to see if we had enough to make it out without needing to hit the ATM one more time.  We didn’t, but it’s always better safe than sorry.  Our motto is ‘foreign currency not accepted is better than no currency’.  Okay, I just now made that up, but it is a good motto.

I distinctly remember writing the South Africa entry saying we were both ready to go to “Africa” now and I have to say that I feel the same way now.  Namibia has been wonderful and I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it but it will be a nice change to get back to public transportation (I can’t believe that I’m actually saying that) and get into some more rural areas. Also, we’re broke and can’t afford these developed countries any more. I mean, seriously, how is Anne ever going to afford a new tooth?

To Botswana or bust…..