An epic adventure
Around ten years ago when I was cutting my teeth as a copywriter, I was tasked with writing content for a number of different companies’ African travel brochures. The closest I’d been to the “safari areas” of Africa was Egypt, which is to say, not close! However, the idea of exploring the game parks and nature reserves of Southern Africa remained immensely appealing to me for years, but I had no idea about logistics or what to expect.
In the years to come, I’d grill colleagues and people who had visited. I got two completely opposite opinions:
- Africa is totally safe. This came from colleagues in the travel industry including former tour guides and people who regularly go on safari in countries such as Kenya and South Africa; or
- You WILL be robbed/shot/murdered. This came from former South Africans (mostly) and the odd traveller who happened to have their wallet taken against their will.
Of course, this left me completely confused so I erred on the side of caution by not visiting. Silly me.
In 2013, I decided to bite the bullet and go. However, I decided to play it safe and do a half guided-half independent holiday. To that end, I booked Intrepid Travel’s 9-day Okavango Experience tour, which started in Johannesburg and concluded in Victoria Falls. The rest of the trip I would complete on my own. I cover this trip over two entries as it was long – 3.5 weeks long to be exact.
What I brought:
- A 60-litre backpack
- A day pack
- Kathmandu Flight Zip Off Trousers
- Kathmandu quick-dry undies
- Long sleeved cotton shirts in black and earth colours
- A hooded black Nike jacket
- Long socks
- Timberland hiking boots
- Washing line
- Small bottles of shampoo/conditioner
- A plastic waterproof bag for the trip to communal showers
- Quick-dry microfibre towel
- Small pillow
- Tissues and toilet paper (4 rolls to be exact, with cardboard inner tubes removed)
- Sleeping bag
- Refillable water bottle
- Head torch
- Travel adaptor
- Nail clippers (my nails grow at superhuman speed – 3 weeks travelling meant a clip was unavoidable)
- Anti-malarial prophylactics
- DEET or some suitably powerful mosquito repellent
- Fake wallet*
- Neck pillow
- National Audubon Society Field Guide to African Wildlife (this little book I highly recommend!)
*This one I carried in my pocket with a photo of my dog (for authenticity), a couple of expired credit cards, a few rand and US dollar notes. My real wallet I kept with my passport deep inside my backpack.
What I should have brought:
- A few extra layers (the deserts of Botswana get really cold at night in August)
- Carabiners (a hot commodity for bartering in Zimbabwe/Zambia)
- Old shoes (also a valued trading item)
- A hand-held torch
Pro Tip #1: Make sure you have the correct vaccinations before you go. A yellow fever jab fortunately now lasts for life. It is expensive, but depending on your level of cover, your health insurance may subsidise some of the cost. Also, don’t forget to bring the little book with you to get past immigration.
I flew from Melbourne to Johannesburg (via Sydney) on QF63 -a relatively easy journey of 14 hours from Sydney. On Economy Class, I always carry two things on board: my neck pillow and my Bose sound-cancelling headphones. The former stops my head lolling about (because I’m one of those annoying people who falls asleep instantly during take-off), and the latter to drown out crying children. Fortunately, South Africa is not that a popular destination for families with little kids so there weren’t any on this particular flight.
On arrival at the airport, we took a taxi straight to our hotel – the Holiday Inn in Sandton – where we met our guide, a jovial fellow called Timon. Our driver was called Poomba – just kidding. His name was actually Moses.
That night, our group of 14 (I think) trooped over to Nelson Mandela Square, which was around 15 minutes’ walk from our hotel. We figured there was safety in numbers, especially after dark. In those days I wasn’t vegetarian yet, so I headed to The Butcher Shop & Grill for a perfectly grilled steak and chips. Don’t be fooled, the place is far fancier than it sounds and there’s not a cleaver to be found. Expect waiters in white coats, a comprehensive wine list and much better quality for the price compared to home.
Pro Tip #2: Food in southern Africa is particularly good. A couple of Americans we met later in the trip carried 20kg of muesli bars and other edibles in their luggage because they thought there would be nothing to eat. A little ignorant if you ask me!
The following day, we boarded our bus – really, a special all-terrain vehicle with plenty of storage space – bound for Botswana. The journey was long but very interesting, with our first wildlife sightings. Side note: safari veterans always say they can spot first time safari-goers – these are the people who get excited by zebra (which are as plentiful as cattle out on the savanna. However, a zebra crossing never gets old!
Pro Tip #3: The condition of the roads linking Botswana and South Africa were good enough that I don’t remember them. Bring personal entertainment and snacks for an overland trip as travel times are long. Also have toilet paper on hand (i.e. in your day pack, not your luggage which is stored in the hold) – bathrooms en route don’t stock any.
Upon crossing the Limpopo River, we entered Botswana at Martin’s Drift and were bundled out of the vehicle at Khama Rhino Sanctuary. Somehow, our guide and driver had managed to pack two-man tents, sleeping mats, cooking equipment, fold-up chairs and tables in addition to all of our baggage. After an afternoon game drive – which uncovered our first rhino – it was time to have dinner and make camp. This was something we got better and better at with each passing day.
Inside our two-man dome tents.
Note: There is usually a single or dual socket power point available for device charging. We were popular with the group thanks to our powerboard!
Dinner was a filling steamed rice and a meat-and-veg stew made with a peanut sauce. Timon was a wizard, creating sauces with peanut butter, onions and a few other basics he had on hand. He would demonstrate his skills every night on this tour – making hot meals from scratch.
At this particular campsite, the ground was sandy and the toilet block immaculate. Of course, we were told not to leave our tents overnight – in case of wild animals – unless it was an absolute emergency so we were often tucked up in our sleeping bags – laid out on top of the supplied sleeping mats – by nightfall.
Pro Tip #4: Hang a hand-held torch where the poles cross on the ceiling of your tent if you want lighting while inside. I found it tricky trying to dress, read or find anything in my rucksack using just a head torch after dark.
The Okavango Delta
The following day, it was an early start as we made our way to the Maun – gateway to the Okavango. The journey took almost 9 hours and I was enthused about going to “the market” to stock up for the 2 nights we were to spend in the Delta.
On arrival however, we discovered that this was actually just a normal modern supermarket – no livestock, nothing! We took the opportunity here to purchase two 10 litre containers of drinking water in preparation for our stay in the bush.
Pro Tip #5: Don’t expect to shower in the Delta – you can just jump into a (croc-free) channel. It’s all freshwater. 10 litres between us was plenty for 2 nights.
Then it was off into the wilderness, with a crew to ‘pole’ us along in dugout canoes known in the local language Setswana as “mokoro”. Each mokoro sat two and a local villager poled us through the reeds to our campsite, with a small team dispatched to look after luggage and supplies.
We pitched our tents on an island around 2 hours deep in the Delta, with a bush toilet for the group around a corner, marked by a spade leaning against a tree. A bush toilet is basically a deep hole in the sand, over which a toilet ‘seat’ and lid are set up. When you’re done, you simply shovel sand on top and put the shovel back against the tree. The presence of the shovel against the tree indicates to a person approaching that the toilet is vacant, while a missing shovel says that it’s in use – a simple but effective system!
We spent a thrilling day on mokoro safaris around our campsite, finding elephant, zebra and warthog amongst other interesting wildlife. We also did some walking, approaching wildlife quite closely such as elephants shaking a doum palm to release its fruit.
Most safari-goers want to tick off the ‘Big 5’: lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino and elephant. These species are great to observe but keep your eyes open for smaller creatures such as aardvark, serval cat, even the tiny ant lion.
Pro Tip #6: Carry an illustrated wildlife guide along with your binoculars. That way you can mark off what you saw and learn more about it later.
That night, before dinner I went to the bush toilet and reported back to the crew that the hole was almost full. After dinner, I visited once more and after filling up the designated hole, fell into another on the far side of the loo – the freshly dug one! I was so worried that it had been used I wasn’t remotely concerned about injury. Fortunately, my whimpering attracted the attention of my travelling companion who confirmed with a torchlight that the hole was brand new. I had also suffered nothing but embarrassment. Double phew!
Pro Tip #7: This one I learnt the hard way. In the dark, always retrace your steps. Don’t walk on unfamiliar terrain if you can’t see!
We rose at dawn, enjoying a sunrise walking safari followed by lunch with a view of baboons going about their business amid the grass. As the sun burned in the sky, we stripped off and went for a swim. We also mucked around a bit with a couple of mokoros – whose poles, incidentally, are whittled out of Australian eucalyptus, an introduced species and something of a pest in these parts.
It was all fun and games until a herd of elephant approached the banks, ready for a drink, perhaps unaware or maybe just not caring about the insignificant semi-naked humans in the water. It was time to go.
Pro Tip #8: Never ever approach wild animals. Ever. I’m a firm believer that anything wild should remain that way. One informed, caring human is in no way representative of the species and thus, wild animals should keep a safe distance from us for the sake of their own survival.
That night, we got a bit of song, dance and games with our cheerful crew – one, Zest, who was a rapper in his spare time!
The next morning, it was time to leave and our early departure meant lots of dew, which got onto your face and clothes as you glided through the reeds in the mokoro. It also meant breaking through intricate webs spiders had so meticulously spun overnight. And going through clouds of midgies – which died the instant they made contact with my DEET-coated skin!
Arachnids of the Okavango Delta. Hefty.
Midgies met instant death on my DEET-covered legs.
Pro Tip #9: Use a stick to push away any webs in front of you else you risk going through them with your face.
When we bade our Delta crew farewell, we left them some tips and snacks (crackers and tuna, namely) that we had picked up in Jo’burg and Maun, which they were truly grateful for.
Pro Tip #10: I found that the locals were extremely grateful for consumer goods and food, maybe more so than money (which was of course, still happily accepted). A man I traded with in Zimbabwe explained that this was because there were plenty of things money couldn’t buy in the villages, such as shoes! He gave me a copper bangle in exchange for an old tee-shirt.
There was time for a quick scenic flight over the Delta – totally worth the money – with our two planes flying so cheekily close we could see the passengers in the next plane clear as day.
We were off now towards Zimbabwe via a little camp surrounded by seemingly nothing but desert. I won’t say much about this property other than that it carted in fresh water to attract elephants, who turned up in droves when the water truck arrived. I saw a young bull with a car tyre around its leg and reported it to reception only to be met with a curt “there’s nothing we can do about that”. I also wrote to Botswana’s Department of Wildlife and National Parks and relayed what I’d seen to Intrepid Travel, attaching photographs of the animal. Interestingly, Intrepid no longer uses this camp.
This was the elephant with a tyre round its leg.
Pro Tip #11: Botswana is a relatively well-run country and as wildlife generates significant revenue for the nation, they tend to care about their animals. Reporting injuries or poaching may well spur action.
Then we found ourselves on the Botswana-Zimbabwe border, where we had breakfast in the company of a troop of baboons. Formalities took a little while, but as someone once said: T.I.A., This Is Africa.
Before long, we were in Zimbabwe. To illustrate just how different the country was from Australia, Timon warned us on multiple occasions before we entered the country not to discuss Mugabe or politics at all unless we fancied spending time in jail. We heard him loud and clear.
Pro Tip #12: Zimbabwe doesn’t have its own currency – the economy collapsed long ago. South African Rand and US Dollars are preferred, but at a pinch, Botswana Pula is accepted as well. Don’t bring big denominations and expect change in a mixture of currencies even at reputable establishments such as The Kingdom Hotel. Barter is also possible on the street.
Victoria Falls is breathtaking. That you can go right up to to precipice of the gorge will leave you even more breathless. We didn’t get a chance to visit Devil’s Pool due to some poor planning on our part, but watching another group hop from rock to rock at the lip of the waterfall was enough to get my heart going overtime.
We had planned to spend just half a day here before our flight to South Africa – a shame! We only had enough time to complete a helicopter scenic flight and a zip lining tour of Batoka Gorge, which was exciting but in no way as daring as anything else. Activities on offer included bungee jumping, a gorge swing, white water rafting and of course, climbing into the slippery pool known as ‘Devil’s Pool’ where you could watch the waters of the Zambezi River plunge over a hundred metres onto a bed of jagged rock.
Pro Tip #13: Stay a while – there is plenty to keep a thrill-seeker occupied, plus Chobe National Park, famous for its huge elephant population, is just nearby.
This was quite probably the most poorly planned sector of our adventure but we survived to tell the tale. Our travel agent in Melbourne booked our flight to Cape Town out of Livingstone Airport in Zambia, stating that this was the only service available. This was incorrect – Victoria Falls has its own airport with regular connections to South Africa.
Now, we only got our vaccinations because Zambia appears on the list of yellow fever countries. Also, we had to purchase a visa to get across the border – which we approached on foot, carrying all our luggage on our backs. It was here I picked up my copper bangle and got to see a grown man crying like a baby – he was all prepped to bungee and clearly couldn’t take the plunge.
After clearing border control, we discovered that Livingstone Airport was a good 15 kilometres away. We could’ve legged it but the oppressive heat and our big backpacks meant there was a good chance we’d miss our plane. So we bribed our way onto a luxury tour bus. Numerous pairs of designer sunglasses turned to look disapprovingly at our sweaty, dusty persons as we climbed aboard, grateful for air-conditioning.
We made our flight.
To read about Part 2 of our journey, where we independently travelled through South Africa, click on the link below: