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Do it all in two wild weeks…

How often have you dreamt about standing right next to the thundering Victoria Falls, enjoying a sundowner on Cape Town’s stunning Table Mountain, shopping in Johannesburg, gliding in a dugout canoe through the swamps of the Okavango Delta and sleeping in a remote bush tent… but thought it not possible as your budget – and holiday leave – only stretches to two weeks.

Well, it is doable. In January my husband and I explored Southern Africa in 15 days. We spent five days in Cape Town, a weekend in Johannesburg, two days at Victoria Falls and five days in the Okavango Delta, taking in the best of South African, Zimbabwean and Botswanan sights and culture.

 

"Do it all in two wild weeks", by Alannah Eames

Click here to read the full article by Alannah Eames in the travel section of the Sunday Times, Malta, July 24, 2011.

Up in the air: Botswana from above

February 15, 2011 4 comments

From the A380 and Frankfurt Airport to boarding the Cessna 208B Grand Caravan at Kasane Airport, Botswana.

We’ve flown from Frankfurt to Johanneburg on Lufthansa’s massive A380, the largest aircraft in the world (and no, it may be bigger, but there’s no extra leg space in economy … unfortunately), with a South African Airways A319 to Victoria Falls International Airport and now in Kasane we board a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan, belonging to Sefofane Air, one of the largest and best airlines operating in the bushes of Southern Africa. Their slogan matches their service perfectly: “Connecting you to the wilderness.” With each trip we make, I notice the planes are getting smaller and smaller. (Our next flight between camps in the Delta will be on a six-seater Cessna 206, but we don’t know this yet.)

The caffeine- and sandwich-free cafe at Kasane Airport.

Kasane airport is tiny but professional and friendly with a check-in area, café and not much else. We’re on the fringe of Chobe National Park but the only wildlife close by are the dead bodies of these huge hard-backed beetles that are harmless but also clueless – they just don’t seem to understand that their bodies weren’t made to climb vertically but they still try to clamber up walls, knocking themselves out and putting themselves in comas. The ones that don’t get concussion spend at least an hour on their backs trying to get upright again!

The café also amuses me – they’re out of coffee, tea and sandwiches. “I had sandwiches yesterday but they’re gone now,” sighs the smiling lady behind the counter. Famished after our early start we knock back a pizza slice and chocolate bar. Paying for our “lunch” is also a tricky matter as we have no local Botswanan pulas but she’s flexible and lets us pay in US dollars. Craving a caffeine fix, we try again to get some coffee, offering our coffee sachets from the hotel in exchange for some hot water … no chance, the kettle’s broken and there’s no milk! 🙂 It’s Africa, I’m on holiday and as they say in Swahili “Hakuna Matata” (No worries).

The waiting area soon fills up with well-heeled tourists (some in designer safari gear, some decked out in everything that would attract every single wild animal in the vicinity) and there’s an air of suspense as passengers hang around wondering which plane sitting on the runway will take them to their camp. Everyone is united by the thrill of the unknown – what’s waiting at the end of that plane ride.

We check in our luggage –as the planes are small there is a strict limit of 20 kg per passenger but unlike Ryanair, they’re not going to charge you an extra EUR 15 per kilo, if you’re over the 20-kilo limit you’ll have to buy an extra seat. And there’s no suitcase or trolleys are allowed … not that you’re going to be able to wheel a suitcase around the bush anyway! We’re handed our handwritten boarding passes which make a nice change from the standard eticket boarding cards which we’re going to keep as a “collector’s item”. Our 90-minute flight to Hunda is one of the longer ones in the Delta and we’ll drop off, and pick up, some passengers along the way.

The best seat and view on board.

I nab the cockpit seat next to the pilot, Joel from Kenya, who’s one of the more experienced pilots and has been flying in the Delta for two years. It’s rainy season now (January) so we’ll stay below the clouds, giving us a bird eye’s view of the fantastic landscape and elephants and giraffes below. Today there are a few storms lurking on the distant horizon but, luckily, nothing coming in our direction. These bush flights are on a tight schedule and I can’t help but think that coordinating the routes, aircraft and passengers (plus the supplies which they bring to the camps) and dealing with the ever unpredictable weather, without compromising on safety must be a bit of a headache. But Sefofane Air, and Joel, makes it look effortless.

View of Chobe National Park from above and "emergency" landing strip.

There are plenty of landing strips scattered around the bush so there are plenty of options for “emergency” landings if necessary to dodge a storm. The flights in the Delta can get a little on the bumpy side during the hot dry months which is why the flights are often earlier in the morning to avoid the hot rising air. From above, the aerial view is breathtaking … we fly over the Chobe National Park and zigzag along the mighty Zambezi River. The landscape is a patchwork quilt of luscious grass, flat-topped African trees, sandy airstrips and after 30-minutes we spot the swamps of the Delta. Flying in Botswana is not only the most practical, comfortable and quickest way to get from A to B, but it’s also like a long private sightseeing tour with the fantastic chance to see the country from above.

Finally ... we reach the swamps, lagoons and waterways of the Okavango Delta.

Malta … the rock in the Med

If you’re looking for long stretches of sand, hammocks swinging under palm trees and coconuts hanging above your head, then Malta is probably not the place for you. But if you’re looking for blue skies, almost 99.9% guaranteed sunshine, value-for-money, and a heady blend of culture, history and sea, then this English-speaking enclave in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, located halfway between Sicily and Libya (two countries which are worlds apart) is probably a good choice.

Traditional Maltese fishing boat near one of the island's many caves and inlets.

What do the British, Italians, North Africans and Arabs have in common? … Malta
Malta is a fascinating melting pot of British, Norman, Italian, Roman, North African and Mediterranean influences … the language alone is a pot-pourri of English, Italian and Arabic although it sounds a little more like Arabic with its guttural vowels and “sh” sounds. No matter how hard you try or how many languages you speak, you’ll be hard pressed to figure out anything of a conversation or article in Maltese. After visiting Malta for the past ten years, I’m just getting my head around names like Naxxar (pronounced Nashar) and Ghar Lapsi (pronounced Ar Lapsy).

Dotted along the coastline are the imposing watchtowers built by the Knights of Malta, while on the next corner there’s a restaurant serving English breakfasts or Italian pasta … that’s the beauty of Malta. All these influences and traditions blend seamlessly together for a powerful fusion of unique, and somewhat exotic, local culture.

EU membership a plus for the island nation
Since Malta joined the EU in 2004, and since my first visit to the island almost ten years ago, the island has developed dramatically. Infrastructure has improved, more hotels and high rises have appeared, recycling has become part of the norm and the island has replaced its Maltese Lira with the Euro. Long promenades along the seafront have been constructed and driving standards have improved. But what’s really nice to see is that as Malta modernizes and European-izes, it has still managed to hold on to its quirky habits and personality. Just take a look at the ancient Leyland buses which weave their way through the numerous small villages en-route to the chaotic Valletta bus terminal. Or the limestone houses with their crumbly facades with a Porsche or BMW parked outside.

The stunning casino at Dragonara.

Locals grumble that Malta’s got more expensive since it entered the EU and adopted the Euro, which is true, but it’s still good value-for-money compared with other Eurozone countries. Expect to pay around EUR 30 for two people in a nice restaurant with starters, main courses, wine and coffee.

One of the biggest draws for me, as an English speaker, about Malta is the language. You get Mediterranean sunshine, warm people, vibrant life and Italian-inspired food but the beauty is that I can communicate with the locals, read the newspapers, chat to people on the street, watch a movie in English and in case I really miss some of my Anglo traditions, I can also enjoy an English breakfast or afternoon tea.

Malta and Ireland: blood brothers?
Many Maltese people tell me that Malta and Ireland (my country of birth) are very similar and in the beginning I used to wonder if they had been smoking pot. What could a rainy potato-eating island on the windy Atlantic coast have in common which went from boom to bust have in common with a sunny, pasta-loving island in the deep Mediterranean? But, after ten visits to Malta, I start to see some similarities. I just hope that Malta doesn’t follow Ireland’s “boom to bust” approach to handling its economy where materialistic greed and overspending have more or less crashed the entire country.

For a start, it’s pretty obvious that both islands are perched on the perimeter of Europe and both were British colonies for many years. And both countries drive on the wrong side of the road, as the Germans are fond of saying. But dig a bit deeper and you see that both nationalities have a similar relaxed attitude to life, living it to the full and both countries have the same Catholic background. Then there is the language issue – English and Gaelic are Ireland’s official two languages; English and Maltese are Malta’s. Both second languages are important for the local culture and are an important source of national identity, but both are pretty much useless on an international level. What makes it even more fun is that nobody – except the Irish and the Maltese – can understand their respective indigenous language.

More recently, I’ve also started to notice another similarity. The little stone walls dotted around Malta and the barren land often reminds me of the west coast of Ireland and the Burren limestone plateau.

View of the landscape on Gozo. Gozo is one of the three islands which makes up the country of Malta.

Or maybe not?
So what’s different? Well the weather for a start. And secondly, Ireland definitely has more, and longer, sandy beaches than Malta, although they are wasted in a country where the temperature rarely soars above 20 degrees! The Maltese definition of a “beach” is often a bunch of rocks from which people dive into the water. There are some sandy beaches scattered along the north and west coast – Golden Bay, Paradise Bay, Armier Bay to name but a few – but they are all quite small and can get crowded in the summertime.

Well, if you’ve done Spain, Greece and Portugal and don’t want to go too far from western civilization and the Euro, Malta’s a great vacation choice for a long weekend or for a two-week summer vacation. (Sicily is just a two-hour boat trip away and makes a nice trip from Malta, if you get itchy feet.)

Get there: Ryanair, Air Malta and Lufthansa offer good fares and regular scheduled flights; while SAS flies direct from Stockholm.

When to go: Weather is pretty decent the whole year around although March and April can be a bit blustery and the occasional “freak” storm is known to hit in August and September. Summers are hot.

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