Monday 25 July 2016

Botswana - Summer 2016

Has anybody seen my Bush Baby?
Sunday, 24 July
The general air of Botswana is immensely different than Zimbabwe.  The boarder was truly pleasant with two larger than life bouncy ladies proudly dressed in their flag colours, making us smile all the way into Botswana.  Instantly you feel like you are in a country where the locals deeply love their identity as Botswana people.  What a difference 50 meters makes!  Before starting our drive to our first camp we did a small shop for essentials and this is where I managed to tick of the National Dish of Botswana: Seswaa.  It is a long cooked beef dish that is dry and has a consistency and taste of corned beef.  I like corned beef and so of the National Dishes of this trip so far this is an easy favourite.
We drove to Elephant Sands encouraged by a video that went viral of an elephant drinking out of the swimming pool whilst people were sat in it.  Clearly the video was old as now there was no way the elephant could get to the swimming pool.  Spiky rocks and knee high walls are all it takes to create a barrier between you and a herd of elephants!  It did mean that we could sit at the bar and play cards whilst elephants bathed in the water hole right next to us.  Had this been at the beginning of our trip we would have been blown away but the fact that we spent the previous night by the best waterhole ever in Zimbabwe with elephants, lions, hippos and crocodiles made Elephant Sands seem just mediocre.  Mediocre until we were settling down for the night and a Bush Baby came and sat with us!  A fearless bush baby that climbed into a small zip opening of one of our tents and tried to snuggle itself into Sophie's fleece whilst she screamed her head off.  It was massively entertaining and eventually I got the bush baby to sit on my shoulder and get it out of the tent.  It did attempt to crawl into my hoody but eventually jumped(they don't walk, they bounce like tigger!) around chasing moths on our cars for the rest of the night.  Bush babies are my new favourite animal.
We're at a point now where we have to start thinking about finishing up our left over food.  With no Safari drive we managed our first mini lie in followed by a proper breakfast of eggs and beans on toast.  We've seen no Rhino this entire trip due to the horrible poaching over the past years; all the parks that we have been to have said how they used to have plenty of Rhino but now they have zero.  We knew this would be the case and so had always planned our final safari to be at Khama Rhino Sanctuary.  On the way to Khama Rhino Sanctuary are the salt pans that gave us some incredible scenery and added two new species to our list!  We saw magnificent herds of Wildebeest and the odd few Ostrich.  We're just at the end of the wet season and so Pelican and Flamingo were bobbing around what was left of the lake.  The lake was so still it just looked like a mirror reflecting the blue sky where the horizon line between the two was blurred.
Our final meal was a giant vegetable curry in which all left over tins were thrown in.  We bought some gem squashes that roasted nicely directly in the coals as did some corn on the cob wrapped in foil.  It was sad to say goodbye to cooking on an open fire.  And then in the morning it was sad to say goodbye to safariing!  Our last drive this time looking for Rhino ended in disappointment.  Even at a Rhino sanctuary we saw no Rhino!  And so the time came to start our drive all the way to Johannesburg where the hardest of all goodbyes was waiting - our beautiful, hard working and never faltering jeeps.  Well, maybe once faltering... on our way to Johannesburg.  Smoke started coming out of our bonnet and it didn't take us too long to realise that we were missing a fan belt.  Luckily this was Botswana and every second person that drove by asked us if we needed help!  One of which phoned his mechanic friend who came and fixed it on the side of the road and refused to take any money.  I dread to think how different the story may have been if this happened in Zimbabwe!  2 days in Botswana clearly is not enough time and I will definitely find myself on these soils again soon; we didn't even touch Chobe National Park or the Okavango Delta!  For now upwards and onwards to our final leg of the trip - South Africa!

Saturday 23 July 2016

Zimbabwe - Summer 2016

That will be a fine of $20
Friday, 22 July

Between driving from our Hostel in Zambia and arriving at Hwange National Park we have been fined a ridiculous number of times.  Ok so the first fine for $900 was Bushlores fault for filling the papers in wrong but they footed that bill.  The boarder into Zimbabwe is just strange, unfriendly and i'm pretty sure a bit of a con.  We had to pay some random "agent fee" that was signed off by a guy on the street (literally a man on the side of the road that we dismissed and later recalled).  We had to pay the random man and the boarder control people and then saw them split some money around the back.  It's all a bit iffy.  

We knew this about Zimbabwe but didn't think it would be so smack-in-your-face obvious.  Finally into Zimbabwe we got stung so many times!  Our first fine was for entering a big car park through the entrance... Kind of our fault but surely not illegal?!  $20 per car within 20 minutes of arriving.  We were planning to sit and have a nice meal but after dealing with arsey Zimbabwe policemen we just wanted to get into the National Park.   I did manage to buy the National Dish of Sadza from the supermarket though so not all misery!  It looked disappointingly familiar - cornmeal made into a thick, stiff porridge this time served with stewed beef.

The national park was only a few hours away but in that time, between the two jeeps, we paid $20 at every police check on the way.  The light on our registration plate wasn't working; the pressure in our fire extinguisher was too low; the brake light has a crack in it.  The police knew and we knew that $20 was never worth arguing over and so we just paid it every time; the policeman here haven't been paid since January!  I just saw it as an expensive toll where the proceeds go to "charity".  Never have we been happier to enter a National Park!  

Hwange is known for having pumped waterholes all year round and so when dry season comes there is only one place you need to be to see everything!  I find it fascinating how you can use one animal's behavior to find others.  A nervous Puku usually means there is something around that might eat it; circling vultures in the sky can be seen for miles and means that there's a fresh kill below.  We used the spiralling tower of vultures to find our best kill siting of the trip.  A pride of around 7 lions, with cubs(!), eating a small elephant.  We sat there on our own watching a lion trying to gnaw the tip of the trunk off and chew it like a deflated rubber dingy whilst another fended off vultures.  This was truly a once in a life time experience.

How many legs?!
Just two minutes up from the lions was Masuma Dam campsite with a beautiful hideout overlooking a water hole crowded with playful elephants.  This campsite only allows one camp group at a time and James tried to book us in months ago to no avail.  We were allowed to hang out there though and so switched between the hideout and the elephant remains for a few hours before the campsite guard (our new best friend Edward!) told us that he didn't think the people who booked the site are coming.  We just had to wait until the National Park gates closed, radio the men at the gate to confirm that they never arrived to the park and the campsite was ours!  In the past few weeks we have stayed at some stunning locations but Masuma Dam was my all time favorite.  The Zimbabwe cops seemed a million miles away and Edward was so smiley and warm (with his AK47 in hand) Zimbabwe was well and truly back in my good books.  We watched entire herd of elephants come and go, our full bellied lions quench their meat sweats and every other animal we have seen throughout our trip pay a visit to our waterhole.  Whilst the lions were drinking the elephant carcus was drowning in a sea of vultures.  The night was filled with roars, snorts and trumpets (not just from my girlfriend sleeping next to me!) and we woke up early to sit in the hideout for a stunning sunrise.
We left Zimbabwe without leaving Hwange Park which suited us just fine.  We made sure to stop by our lion pride before leaving and found the bones picked clean and two determined lions still chewing on the hide.  Zimbabwe didn't disappoint - I expected beautiful scenery and got beautiful scenery, I expected to be bent over by police and certainly got that too. 

Wednesday 20 July 2016

Zambia - Summer 2016

The Great African Safari
Tuesday, 5 July
An opportunity like this only comes up once in a life time and I grabbed hold of it with both hands almost two years ago when the idea was first mentioned.  James worked in South Africa as a safari guide in a previous life and had been planning a group trip since I met him!  25 days driving through Zambia, Zimbabwe, Botswana in roof tented jeeps followed by 5 days of chilling in the wine regions of South Africa.  Everything booked and organised down to a tee whilst I contributed nothing but suggestions of some foods that I wanted to eat.  Welcome to Zambia!

So first, our jeeps that we booked from South Africa.  Two 4 by 4 Toyota Land Cruisers through that came with two tents on the roof and everything you could possibly need as a happy camper.  From sleeping bags to poiki pots, it had it all.  Though our trip started in Lusaka it was still cheaper (at 19 rand to the pound!) for us to have our cars booked and driven from Johannesburg than to use a local company.  We aim to drop them off in Johannesburg before jumping on a plane to Cape Town anyway.  They dropped them off to us at Lusaka Backpackers early morning and gave us all a talk on the ins and outs of these beautiful machines before we hit the road to begin our adventure.

First stop, Pick 'n' Pay; their equivalent to a Tesco/Walmart Supermarket.  We packed our trollies with $500 worth of food and alcohol and piled them into the back of our trucks.  One fridge for beer the other for meat.  One giant draw for fruit and veg the other for dried goods.  Everything had its place... for the first day at least.  We arrived at Mvuu Lodge in Lower Zambezi National Park by sunset and were buzzing from sitings of Elephant and Impala just getting to camp.  Perched on the banks of the Zambezi we set up camp and cooked by head torch whilst Hippo snorted and bellowed in the background.  I could get use to camp life!
Though we are self driving we decided to ease ourselves into safariing by paying a guide to sit in our passenger seat for the day.  We tried to leave for sunrise in the park but our morning routine wasn't as fine tuned as it is now.  For our first safari drive of the holiday we did amazingly well.  The animals known as "background" to James excited us first timers to no end.  Impala, Kudu, Baboons and Vervet Monkeys were all sited within the first hour and we insisted on stopping at the siting of each and every one.  Warthog and Nyala got the same treatment until we had our first Lion siting at which point all other animals turned beige.  "Lions famously don't do anything" said James.  But we saw them humping.  All 3 seconds of it!  We found a spot by the river for lunch where we fried up some sausages and felt blessed that this was our life for the next 25 days.  Lion sex and sausages; strong first day!
Early nights followed by dark and cold mornings with "al dente" porridge is our way of life now.  We can be packed up and on the road within the hour of waking.  We spent our second day on a boat safari where we fished for Tigers and looked our for Lions.  Catching a Tiger Fish has long been on my list of things to do but I never thought I'd do it with staring hippo in the waters, sun bathing Crocodile on the banks and the most beautiful birds flying over head.  Our lunch stop was hurried by a great big bull elephant that gave us a real show of strength by pulling a tree out of the ground right from our picnic spot viewed from the safety of our boats.  The following days safari brought us Zebra, Black Backed Jackal and the very rare Wild Dog; a whole pack of them just relaxing in the shade! Extremely lucky.  Of the African big 5 we have already seen lion, elephant and Buffalo.  Our time in the Lower Zambezi National Park was perfect for our first stop and I can't wait to see what the next 20 days has in store for us. 
The great thing about having two cars is...
Monday, 11 July

One can help the other if it gets stuck!  The land cruisers have 4 levels of getting unstuck when necessary.  Level 1 is simply putting the car into 4 by 4 mode.  If that fails, then level 2 is putting it into "low range" or "tank mode" as we liked to call it.  In most sandy situations tank mode did the job.  Failing that you have "differential lock" which forces all wheels to turn at the same speed and then if worse comes to worse (touches African hard wood) we have the winch.

We left the Lower Zambezi via the scenic route over the mountains which as the crow flies saved us some mileage.  As the crow flies... These were some fierce rocky, sandy hills on "roads" that sees a car every couple of weeks.  Successfully navigating charging angry elephants, pot(black)holes and cliffs in which required everyone to lean to one side we were doing pretty well.  Then came one particularly steep, gravely track in which in first gear 4 by 4 got three quarters of the way up and chugged to a stop before a foot of sliding back again.  Stuck! Having radioed the other car we got the response "yeah we're stuck too".  ?#&*@!  Turns out that there is a level 5 - a spade.  The journey was a fantastic experience in a half glass full kind of way.  I wasn't joking when I said elephants charged us - plural! The first day we drove without a guide and all the elephants in the park had turned against us.  And then once we finally hit tarmac we almost ran out of petrol and the first petrol station we found didn't sell diesel.  18 hours and 2 jerry cans later we arrived at South Luangwa National Park.  Worth it?

100% totally worth it. We were literally woken up by an elephant outside our tent.  Just bumbling about, insisting that the leaves were best from the tree branch that canopied our tent.  Croc Valley was our slightly busier, slightly more up market campsite for 3 days of which one was dedicated to Dolce Far Niente - the art of doing nothing.  Cooked breakfast overlooking the soon to be dried up Luangwa River followed by reading on the hammocks and blog writing by the pool was pure chilled out bliss.  The only irritant, but more entertainment, were the mischievous monkeys after a quick snack... or an entire block of just opened cheese in our case.  We watched it eat the entire thing and instantly regret it.  Even our cutlery with bits of food left over on them were up for grabs.  We finished our lazy day with a night drive where I learnt that it is easier to spot animals in the dark than in light!  Simply shine a spot light around and all animal eyes will reflect back like two LED's.  We spotted a couple of Hyena(pun intended), a Genet and a Civet as our new species and found that different animals reflect different colours making it easy to determine what's what.  If you walk into a set of red eyes at night run and never look back.  I used this eye reflecting method back at camp to find all sorts! Hippos and Crocs in the water, Bats in trees and even enormous spiders in the grass.  Yep, bugs reflect back too... thousands of them in one bush.  Sometimes ignorance is bliss.

We've had some practice at game driving on our own now and have learnt that the best method in finding animals is to look out for other game drivers, the professional ones.  The second we learnt this we went from seeing nothing all morning to seeing a pride of lions and our first Leopard.  During our time in South Luangwa, including our second camp site Zikomo Lodge in the Nsefu sector, we've had some great siting’s.  We had an afternoon drive in the Nsefu sector and saw 17 different lions including some cute little cubs and a white lion called ginger.  We were also treated to another Wild Dog siting too, this time on a kill and fighting with a Hyena! Our luck continued even after we returned to camp for the night as we had a pride of 7 lions just sitting on the plains overlooked by our camp and a nervous herd of Puku whilst we cooked.

There's something amazing about cooking on a camp fire.  We have gas burners but have mainly saved those for our egg and sausage brunches.  We pick up fresh fruit and veg from street markets between safari parks for next to no money and seem to always entertain the locals with our presence.  African hard wood burnt down to coals is the best thing to cook on ever.  Every campsite supplies us with firewood that is so dense it sinks in water and burns well into the next morning.  We've wrapped all sorts in foil and just thrown them straight into the coals for great side dishes of corn on the cob, sweet potato, eggplant and squash.  We've flame grilled 9 rump steaks, 4 meter long boerewors', 3 whole chickens and they have all turned out perfectly smoky, juicy and cooked through completely.  And then there's the poiki pot that just sits on the coals for hours slow cooking a bolognaise or a casserole.  We may be missing out on some African delights but I have thoroughly loved cooking here!

Marking your territory
Sunday, 17 July

I am yet to be of the age where a midnight pee is necessary but there's something about the utter inconvenience, biting cold and potential mauling by a lion that has changed my bladders function when camping.  There's nothing worse than leaving your warm sleeping bag and entering the darkness with your head torch reflecting eyes at you whilst you mark your territory.

A 14 hour drive took us from South Luangwa back to Lusaka where we arrived at Pioneers Camp and ordered seven T-bone steaks.  Our first meal not cooked by us on an open fire was an absolute treat and we carried this forward with a hearty breakfast at Mugg & Bean before another big shop and hitting the road again for a further 5 days safari.  Our first campsite was Mayukuyuku Camp which sits on the banks of the Kafue river and had a resident bull elephant when we arrived.  We are in Kafue National Park, the 2nd largest national park in Africa (the size of Wales!) and our first campsite situated inside the park.  It definitely feels different being inside as we are having a lot more visitors.  A massive hippo hiding in the dark outside our toilets made a nerve wracking situation for the girls going for the routine pre-bedtime wee!  A few hours game driving took us to our next camp, still in Kafue, called Kasabushi where our scary visitors continued.  A beautiful lioness walked straight past our camp and into the bushes alongside our trucks.  We all stood with one hand on the door handle and heard it roar at us from no more than 10 meters away.  Life at camp goes from total relaxation to palm sweating exhilaration in seconds.

Visitors to camp are only encouraged when you leave the left overs of your roast chickens outside your tent.  A bowl of two entire chickens worth of  bones was licked clean within two hours of going to sleep and I didn't hear or see a thing!  We're at the stage of our trip now where anything new is extremely exciting.  A new species of antelope has become far more thrilling than another lion.  We're on the Nanzhilla Plains at the moment, still in Kafue, and we have seen Side Striped Jackal, Eland, Roan, Duiker, Reedbuck and Oribi but nothing was more impressive than the immense horns of the very rare male Sable.  Though the Black Mamba in the middle of the road on the way here did make my my spine tingle from behind the steering wheel.  Keeping with the theme of scary visitors Nanzhilla's resident pest is the famously ferocious Honey Badger that kept us company whilst we grilled giant Texan steaks and pushed over our bins when we slept.  Tomorrow I get to sleep in an actual bed and use a toilet that doesn't involve being stalked by lions or freezing your gonads off.  After 16 days in a tent, a few days in JollyBoys hostel is going to feel like a 5 star spa resort.

Zip-lining between countries
Tuesday. 19 July

I haven't really talked much on food as we have pretty much cooked for ourselves every single day.  After 15 days we've gotten pretty good at it; our last camp meal was roasted pepper and butternut squash risotto!  So now back in some civilization the opportunity to get my lips around some National Dish is finally available.  The dish that represents Zambia is called Nshima: a massively underwhelming brick of bland starch.  Worth the wait.  Another example of food born out of necessity over desirability.  Typically served with two side "relishes" one protein based and one veggie based.  I had it with a grilled quail and two vegetable dishes plus some soupy sauce that came for the Nshima.  The waitress was giggly with my order and enthusiastically asked "you like Nshima?!".  My honest response would have been "meh...".  It's a heavy, stodgy means to an end that is non-offensive and non-exciting.  The definition of food envy - eating Nshima whilst everyone else ordered chips.

We are in Livingston and have been living it up in real life beds and actual restaurants.  We even went out for an Indian purely because we could.  JollyBoys Hostel advertised the top 3 things to do in Livingston as the Victoria Falls, Safari and The Gorge Swing with a little video showing each one.  Though the video of the gorge swing made your chest fall into your stomach I couldn't help but think if you had to do it once this was the one place in the world to do it.  I had to convince myself before I encouraged the others and our walk around Vic Falls gave us all a live view of the bungee.  Victoria Falls is an immense show of natures power giving you the constant feeling of being one footstep away from an imminent death.  The only question was what would it look like whilst hanging upside down from a bridge?

Making the most of non-camp life I booked myself into a traditional Zambian "Ukuchina" massage where they use hot towels to scrub, scold and knead you at the same time.  Nothing special but worked 3 weeks of camping out of my stiff back.  Though we were staying in a cheap hostel we spent the afternoon pretending we were staying at The Royal Livingstone Hotel where we had lunch and wine by the Zambezi.  We also booked ourselves onto a surprisingly impressive boat safari come booze cruise which advertised all you can eat and drink.  Our best sunset of the holiday was probably from this boat and we got some decent Elephant and Giraffe sightings too.  All this relaxing to take our minds off the fact that we were now booked onto the "3 jump special" from the Victoria Bridge.  

The 3 jumps included a Zip-line from Zambia to Zimbabwe (one which we actually needed our passports for!), a bungee from the bridge and the gorge swing - all of which have the backdrop of the beautiful falls.  It was just us 3 boys that decided to do it and paid $210 each for the experience.  They took our shoe size and measured our weight on arrival and we instantly felt a little more at ease at how professionally it was all run.  As we put on our harnesses and life jackets (as the guy told us it was for "just in case") I kept secret that I had read a news article about a woman's bungee chord snapping at this very same place a few years ago.  We drew straws to decide on the order in which we went and hoped that we would do them all in order of scariness.  Zip-line first, pretty relaxed and almost dull considering the overflowing levels of adrenaline running through our bodies in anticipation for the Bungee.  The build up to the bungee was excruciating whilst we queued and watched others throw themselves over the edge and hurtle down towards the Zambezi.  It's 111m of falling which gives you enough time in your head to wonder when, if ever, the chord is actually going to catch you and trail back in your mind at the moment you were attached by the ankles to reassure that you are in fact connected to the rope.  Yes the bungee was scary but it was the swing that was absolutely terrifying.  There's something about jumping off feet first and seeing the world scream by the right way round that makes it all the more unnerving.  Again you fall for enough time for you to question when you will stop falling before the swing catches you and spits you out away from the bridge.  Would I do it again? No.  Am I glad I did it? Hell yes!

An impressive finish to our time in Zambia.  Tomorrow we cross the boarder into Zimbabwe once again but this time by car.  Zambia has been an absolute delight with its beautiful people and truly stunning safari parks.  Lets see what Zimbabwe has to offer.