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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.

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“Bye Bye” Okavango Delta!

February 25, 2011 Leave a comment

Loading up and ready to leave before the next thunderstorm strikes.

If you’re lucky, these guys might show up to wave you off.

It’s hard to say goodbye to the Okavango Delta, and to your favorite camps. Even though we’ve only been there for a week, it feels much longer and we don’t want to leave. The two camps we stayed at – Tubu Tree and Xigera – were extremely homely and well managed; I couldn’t find anything to complain about, even if I tried. 

Spending time in the Delta is a chance to recharge, to reconnect with nature and animals and will leave you reenergized. OK, maybe like me, you had some sleepless nights but you leave injected with a sense of admiration and love for this part of Southern Africa.

But all too soon, it’s off to the airstrip where Joel and our faithful Cessna 208B Grand Caravan are waiting to take us back to Kasane Airport.

Touching down on the tarred runway at Kasane, after a week in the bush (the same airport that we thought was tiny on the way out), feels huge; we haven’t seen a single car or shop, or heard the ringtone of a cellphone, for a week. On one hand, I see “civilization” with fresh eyes, but the other part of me craves the peace and nature of the Delta.  I miss the camps, the animals, the food, the people and our daily game drives. That’s the sign of a true vacation: one you don’t want to end … ever.

Island hopping in the Okavango Delta

February 23, 2011 Leave a comment

"Cruise" control takes on a new meaning in the Delta.

Game drives in the Delta are not like those on the grasslands of the Serengeti or Kruger National Park. We are in a wetland here and we have to get from island to island. There are no bridges or ferries. The solution is the Land Rover which can cross just about everything from marshy land, small forests and one-meter-deep water (or boat). It amazes me how much hardship these “workhorses of the African safari industry” can take.

Getting from A to B, Delta-style.

As we head off to Chief’s Island from Xigera Camp, I’m amused to see that Barobi, our guide, is shoeless. I soon discover why. After we have crossed one of these meter-deep channels, he opens the door of the jeep to let the water out – the floor of the jeep is covered in about 20 centimeters of water. Going through these channels is not for the faint-hearted as you see the water rising up and up and over the bonnet and wonder how much deeper it’s going to get. The thoughts of getting stuck halfway through is not a pleasant thought! But these camp guides are well trained and know exactly what they are doing so you need to sit back, relax and let them do their job.

Back on dry land, something stinks. It’s a hippo. I learn something new today: apparently you can smell a hippo before you see it because these guys stink even though they spend half the day under water. “This one seems to be a little late getting into the water” says Barobi. I look at my watch, it’s 10.00.

We bump along “the main road to Maun” which is a dirt track and a real bone rattler. (Maun is the “capital” of the Delta, and one of its main gateways.) We’re getting what Botswanan-born Lindi calls “an African massage”.

King of the bush: it's a lion's life.

Chief’s Island is well worth the journey. The two male lions we watch for almost an hour are magnificent. They are brothers and, apparently the family ties are strong. “These two brothers are very close. They lick each other’s wounds and take care of each other,” says Barobi. There’s also a lioness but no sign of her, although I wonder if she’s closer than we realize.

Whether you're more into birds, cats, deer or plants ... the Okavango Delta has something for everyone.

If you are into bird watching, Xigera is paradise. If you’re not, you’ll still enjoy watching them, and you need to keep your fingers crossed that you won’t end up in a jeep with some “bird fanatics”. We’re on serious business looking for the lions on Chief’s Island but some of our companions seem more excited about spotting a bee-eater or fish eagle, or, to make my blood pressure rise a few more notches, a “sausage” tree which is probably one of the most common trees in Southern Africa. You will spot these “bird loving” people easily – they have huge binoculars, carry a birdwatching book from the camp and will exclaim “Oh is that the African doo-diddley-doo bird” when they hear a bird at least 100 meters away. You meet some characters on safari in Africa- people from all parts of the planet and all walks of life. That’s what keeps it interesting. You talk to people you would probably never cross paths with back home. Although, saying that I didn’t really understand why a couple at Tubu Tree Camp were so upset that they had only seen leopards and no zebras, usually zebras are the most common animal you can see in Africa, but you’ll be hard pushed to get close-ups of leopards!

Coffee time! Little did we know the two lions were only 100 meters away.

From waterfalls to safaris

February 13, 2011 5 comments

Africa's "Four Corners"

From Victoria Falls, it’s surprisingly easy to get around to the neighboring countries so it makes a good base to start out on your Southern African adventure, or to finish off with. (If you choose to end your trip in Victoria Falls, it will probably strike you as a metropole if you’ve spent a few days out in the bush!)

Despite its political instability and shattered economy, Zimbabwe still has some good safari spots but you’ll need to move away from Victoria Falls to see the Big Five (lion, leopard, rhino, buffalo and elephant). Some say that the country’s wildlife has suffered from the poor shape of the economy which has led to increased poaching and more animals “emigrating” to the neighboring countries. However, it’s difficult to measure this and it depends who you talk to.

Hwange National Park is Zimbabwe’s largest with 14,600 square kilometres of sandveld, forests (including teak), grasslands and saltpans, and, according to some tourists we met, is “awesome” (no need to guess where they were from!).

No internet, no cellphones, no traffic jams, no stress ... lost in the wilderness at Davison's Camp.

Wilderness Safaris has three luxurious eco-friendly camps in Hwange – Davison’s Camp, (named after the park’s founder and its first warden Ted Davison) is one of the best with its nine tents overlooking a waterhole. The six-tented and solar-powered Little Makalolo Camp offers great guided walking tours even though its concession boasts a healthy population of predators like lions, cheetahs, leopards and wild dogs. Makalola Plains Camp, slightly raised on teak platforms has a small bunker hide by the waterhole so you can watch animals drinking close-up. What’s nice with Wilderness is that even if their rates might seem pricey at a first glance, it’s worth every penny of it for the service and quality, and, most importantly you won’t be disappointed with the experience. It’s also nice to know that some of the hard-earned dollars you spend at Wilderness camps are reinvested in local projects, part of the company’s focus on sustainable and eco-friendly tourism. It’s refreshing in today’s money-hungry, commercial-driven society to know that some companies don’t just talk about their dedication to the environment and their “green” best practices to make it look good on paper, but actually proactively do something about it. In Hwange alone, Wilderness support the local anti-poaching, water supply and white rhino reintroduction projects.

A common road sign on the Victoria Falls-Kasane main road.

If you want to get a Botswana stamp on your passport, then the famous Chobe National Park, renowned for its large elephant population, is within an hour’s drive of Victoria Falls. It is considered to have one of the best concentrations of game in Africa, right up there alongside the likes of the Serengeti; it was also Botswana’s first national park. The road connection is good and the Kazangula customs post hassle-free. Visas for Botswana are free and are given at the border. Apparently the Botswanans are paranoid about foot and mouth disease as we have to walk across a manky wet mat to cross the border, while the trucks have to drive through murky-colored water. I wonder if this dirty water isn’t more dangerous than the slight risk of spreading foot and mouth disease.

This border crossing is an important trade route as there are lots of trucks lined up doing their paperwork – some nice sparkling Volvo ones from South Africa, a few MAN diesel ones from Namibia and a handful of battered rusty ones from Zimbabwe. This reminds me that Kasane is close to Africa’s “Four Corners” – the point where four countries meet – Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and Zambia. It’s also a gateway to the Chobe National Park.

Kasane is also – along with Maun – one of the gateways to Botswana’s Okavango Delta where we, like other safari-hungry tourists, will board a small plane bound for the swamps of the delta.

Beckie, our chirpy and entertaining Zimbabwean driver, picks us up amazingly punctually at 7.45 a.m. at our hotel in Victoria Falls … too punctual as we expected a 7.45 pick up in Africa would give us about 15 more minutes to finish off our breakfast.

And here's the proof that there is "heavy" traffic along the way.

On the road to Kasane, which runs through a national park, we see quite a few local animals, including a male elephant in must sauntering along the roadside. At one point Beckie pulls over and picks up a chameleon which runs up his arm. “African people,” he laughs, “are afraid of chameleons as they think they bite.” Not this one.

Gecko's don't bite, contrary to African superstitions.

Hiding in the ditches at the side of the road are hornbills, or “oversized turkeys” he calls them, referring to their black and red neck plume. “We associate them [hornbills] with the rains. If you see them, it’s going to rain or get cold”. We almost crush a dung beetle rolling his massive ball of dung across the road and a troop of baboons who insist on sitting in the middle of the road. “In the morning they like to sit on the road to avoid the morning dew on the grass,” Beckie tells us, before we say goodbye to him at the border to Botswana.

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