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Namibia & Botswana Tour Part III: Maun to Livingstone

Maun was fairly uneventful except for the purchase of a new cylinder head (which I’d prefer not to talk about J).  The experiences of our guests in the Okavango Delta are far more interesting however.  For three days they stayed on an island in the middle of the Delta, far away from the rest of the world.  Their rooms were on stilts above the hippos and crocodiles in the water below.  Morning and evening game drives and a couple of boat cruises gave plenty of wildlife-watching opportunity including an incredible leopard sighting.  The leopard was half hiding in the bushes and suddenly leaped out and dashed across the plain in front of their vehicle.  Leopards are so elusive, so to see such action was truly amazing.

In Maun we said good bye to Dennis and Merete.  They are heading back through the Kalahari Desert south to Cape Town.  Dennis wanted some sand driving, so I’m looking forward to hearing about their adventures.  Meanwhile Pia and Henning have come with us to Livingstone, via Chobe National Park.

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Elephants on the side of the road

From Maun we travelled east to Nata where we spent the night before continuing the journey north to Kasane.  Along the way we nearly ran into a huge elephant that was hanging out by the side of the highway – that’s what I love about Africa: just driving on the highway and suddenly there’s an elephant!

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The chalet in Nata

Kasane is the jumping off point for Chobe National Park, the park with the highest density of elephants in the world.  Henning and Pia had been spoilt in the Okavango Delta so Chobe was almost an anti-climax.  While they were enjoying their game drives however, Francis and I discovered that we didn’t have to travel at all to see the wildlife.  About thirty elephants decided the bushes on the other side of the fence near our campsite were the perfect grazing site for the day.  So while we cleaned the van and prepared for the onward journey, the elephant herd munched about 50 metres from us.

Kasane, Botswana, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

The elephants near our campsite. They blow dust on themselves to keep cool

Crossing the border from Botswana into Zambia is easier said than done.  The Kazangula ferry is straightforward enough, but entering Zambia is another story.  The customs official wanted Francis to produce a written letter giving him authorisation to drive his own car!  There are three different taxes one must pay on bringing a vehicle into Zambia and rather than streamlining the process, the three offices are scattered throughout the port with one official who may or may not be on a lunch break at any given time.  Nearly two hours later we were signing the final book to be released into Zambia.  The correlation between development and bureaucracy was proven – the less of one, the more of the other.

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Cheeky baboons raid the bins in search of food

Now we are in Livingstone.  Yesterday we visited the National Park where there are walking trails to see the mighty Victoria Falls.  At the moment, there is A LOT of water coming over and it is a very wet walk to see the falls.  At the best of times one should wear a raincoat to protect from the spray.  But currently, Victoria Falls simply laughs at a raincoat and you are better off taking your soap and enjoying the bath.  We also walked on the bridge that is the border crossing from Zambia to Zimbabwe.  The middle of the bridge is where the bungee jump happens, but none of us were tempted.  There’s a less drenching view of the falls from the bridge as well, but still too damp to pose for a nice photo.  In the afternoon Henning and Pia went walking with the lions.  Getting up close to these massive cats, seeing their huge teeth, but patting them as if they are sweet little pussy cats was an experience they will never forget.

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Bungee jumping in the Zambezi Gorge

We have a day or two more in Livingstone before Henning and Pia fly home and Francis and I start the long drive back to Nairobi.  That will be next week’s tale.

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The Victoria Falls

Namibia & Botswana Tour Part II: Etosha to the Okavango Delta

From Etosha we headed east to Tsumeb and Grootfontein.  After a brief stop at the Hobas Meteorite, the largest to ever hit the earth, we continued to Roy’s Rest Camp.  After an overnight stop we headed north to Divundu.  River Dance Lodge was our overnight stop, one of the nicest campsites I have ever been to!  It sits right on the Kavango River on the north side of the highway that runs through the Caprivi Strip, meaning that you are looking across the river at Angola.  Lovely big couches on the balcony give a wonderfully comfortable place to utilise the free wireless internet – something we had all been missing for a while.

From Divundu we went south into Botswana, driving through Bwabwata National Park.  Unfortunately all the animals were sheltering from the heat of the day so we didn’t get to see anything as we passed by.  We crossed over the border and on to Shakawe in Botswana’s remote northwest.

The main attraction in this corner of the world is the ancient rock art of Tsodilo Hills.  Ranging between 3000 and 10,000 years old, the cave paintings are fantastically well-preserved.  At Twyfelfontein, we had been surprised to see engravings of seals and penguins which indicated those people had travelled all the way to the coast.  But now in Tsodilo Hills, even further from the sea, we saw the same motifs!  Like Twyfelfontein, these paintings were used for communication about what had been seen and hunted in the area … except for the penguins, which must have been a tale from a weary traveller.

Tsodilo Hills, Botswana, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Ancient rock paintings at Tsodilo Hills

There was a huge cave where the San Bushmen must have sought shelter during the rains.  Evidence of fire smoke on the roof and other clues indicate this.  Our guide showed us a popular game the women used to play while the men were out hunting.  It required far too much hand-eye coordination for me, but Dennis, Henning and Francis all gave it a go with mixed success.

Tsodilo Hills, Botswana, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Learning to play traditional games

From Shakawe we continued south to Maun, the gateway to the Okavango Delta.  Dennis, Merete, Henning and Pia have abandoned Francis and I to enjoy three days in the beautiful Delta.  I am sure they are seeing such wonderful sights – the Delta teems with wildlife and there are so many ways to enjoy the sights from scenic flights, to dugout canoes, to walking safaris.

When they return we will say farewell to Dennis and Merete as they head back to Cape Town, and we will travel with Henning and Pia to Livingstone via Chobe National Park.  If you want to hear about that installment  click the Follow button below and you will be able to keep track of all our adventures.

I cannot believe how much stuff we have managed to stuff into our van!  Now it's clean, we just have to repack now .....

I cannot believe how much stuff we have managed to stuff into our van! Now it’s clean, we just have to repack now …..

Kakamega Forest

To bring in the New Year, I joined a couple of friends in Kakamega Forest, a place I have been meaning to visit for a long time.  There I met a couple of members from Kenya Forest Conservation Corps, a newly established local non-government organisation (NGO) working on conservation projects in the forest.

Kakamega Forest is the last patch of equatorial rainforest left in Kenya and is located in the west near the border with Uganda.  The forest is under threat from neighbouring villagers cutting the trees to produce charcoal, the primary cooking fuel used in East Africa.  The forest is seen as a resource for local people who use it for firewood gathering, vines are collected to use as ropes, bark is used for medicinal purposes and also to make blankets, cattle graze and thatching grass is collected.

The forest covers 45 square kilometres and sits 1600m above sea level.  An average of 2.08 metres of rain falls every year, with rainfall heaviest in April and May.  It is home to 380 species of trees and plants, including 125 tree species.  The forest contains some of Africa’s greatest hardwood trees such as Elgon teak.  Brush-tailed porcupine, bush pig, giant water shrew and hammer-head fruit bat are some of the animals found in the forest, as well as a flying squirrel that can fly up to 90 metres.  There are approximately 350 species of birds as well as butterflies and snakes which normally can only be found in West Africa.  There are over 40 species of snakes and 45% of all recorded butterflies in Kenya can be found in Kakamega Forest.  Seven kilometres of trails allow hikers to enjoy the forest.  In 1930, Kakamega was the centre of Kenya’s gold mining industry.  The forest has been protected since 1933, but panning for gold in the forest’s rivers is still common.

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Kenya Forest Conservation Corps has applied for 1000 hectares of land to conduct afforestation projects.  They are also planning to set up an eco-lodge where guests can enjoy the forest, especially those interested in studying the natural remedies available from the myriad of plants in the forest.  I met Gibson and James, two members of the KFCC.  They are dedicated to protecting the forest and finding alternative sources of income for villagers, so they are not reliant on destroying the forest to produce charcoal.  The carbon credits scheme provides a good opportunity, as companies can pay the local people to plant trees on their behalf to offset their carbon usage.

Planting my avocado tree.  James invites all his guests to plant a tree as a memory of their visit

Planting my avocado tree. James invites all his guests to plant a tree as a memory of their visit

James’ plans for an eco-lodge is to incorporate a full cultural experience with drumming workshops, traditional dance performances, story-telling, and the food will all be organically grown and locally sourced.  He is passionate about the healing benefits of natural foods and plans to set up specialised tours to educate people about the natural remedies to be found in the Kakamega Forest.

James is dreaming of setting up an eco-lodge on his land.  A beautiful setting right on the river, I can't wait!

James is dreaming of setting up an eco-lodge on his land. A beautiful setting right on the river, I can’t wait!

The forest is such a beautiful place, the serenity only disturbed by the calls of the Black and White Colobus Monkeys playing in the trees overhead.  On the early morning, we went for a walk in the forest.  The trails are not signposted, so there is the risk of losing yourself if you forget your direction.  But most trails eventually lead back to the accommodation or main gate and even when we got a little bit disoriented, the peace of the forest could not allow us to get too upset.  We found a viewing platform and climbed up for a view over a clearing…. and got us a bit closer to those noisy monkeys!

The accommodation available near the main gate is simple bandas (small traditional-style huts) with shared bathroom facilities (hot water is available on request).  There is a kitchen where you can self-cater or get the staff to prepare your meals.  The central dining banda is a large comfortable communal space where guests can relax and share stories of their forest experiences.

Kakamega is a bit of a hidden treasure, off the main tourist path.  Most people imagine vast open savannah when they think of Kenya.  But Kakamega Forest provides a unique contrast that I can only recommend.

Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Mikumi National Park, Tanzania

Between Christmas and New Year, I took a rush trip down to Tanzania to visit a Tanzanian friend I had met in Melbourne earlier in the year.  He was back in his home town of Morogoro with his family, and so I took the opportunity to meet his family and explore the Morogoro region a bit.

I have driven through Morogoro several times on our tours travelling between Kenya and South Africa, but have never stopped.  To be very honest, Morogoro is a typical African town – nothing to get very excited about.  But about an hour south east of Morogoro lies Mikumi National Park.  The main highway from Dar Es Salaam to Malawi traverses right through Mikumi, but again I have never had the opportunity to explore the park beyond the highway.  It is possible to see giraffe, elephants and impala as you drive along the highway, which really reminds you that you are in Africa.  Imagine just driving along the highway and seeing a family of elephants under the trees on the side of the road!  Or a giraffe waits patiently to cross the road as you go past.  So I have always enjoyed that drive, but now it was time for me to venture off the highway and see what lay beyond.

From the highway, it looks like Mikumi should be a forested park, as thick shrubs and trees line the road.  But on the other side of this line of vegetation, the landscape opens out into the typical African savannah.  We were travelling in Segere’s vehicle, which was just a saloon car, and the roads were perfectly fine for 2 wheel drive.  At the gate we were able to hire a guide who knew his park inside out and could tell us about the animals we were seeing.

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The first wildlife encounter was a small herd of buffalo covered in mud.  They wallow in the mud to cool down, which was understandable because it was baking!  I always think buffalos look a bit dim, especially with their horns creating an image of a ridiculously overdone coif.  But these ones covered from top to toe in mud really looked silly… not that I would dare tell them that, they didn’t look so friendly!

Next we saw a couple of elephants.  Segere’s kids were very impressed with how big these giants were!  They were chilling out under a tree, one of them scratching his hind leg on the trunk.  The tree looked ready to fall under the weight.  Elephants are responsible for huge amounts of environmental destruction as they eat so much and also knock plants down as they travel, scratch and source food.  Seeing an area after a herd of elephants has been through makes you wonder if some devasting machine came through and wreaked such havoc.

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Giraffes were the third item on the list and we saw a lot throughout the day.  I can never decide if a giraffe looks graceful or clumsy when it runs, but I like to see them run however they look.  Most of the giraffes we say were under acacia trees, which is their favourite food.  The acacia has huge thorns however, and tiny leaves so I would like to question the giraffe on the risk versus reward of their menu choice.

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We saw zebras, impalas, and plenty of birds including lilac-breasted roller, blacksmith plover and oxpecker.  We got to the hippo pool just in time for the only rain of the day.  It’s the only place in the park where you can get out of your vehicle.  Fortunately the rain didn’t last long and we were able to get some family photos to remember our wonderful adventure.

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Thank you to Segere and Speciosa and their children Nathan and Naty for hosting me in Morogoro and showing me Mikumi National Park!

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Nairobi to Kigali Tour Part 3 – Lake Bunyoni to Kigali

Chris and I took a canoe out on Lake Bunyonyi for a couple of hours.  It was so serene… until the thunderclouds rolled over.  Plans for an afternoon hike disappeared as the rain came down.

Fortunately we awoke to clear skies (albeit still dark) the next morning as we set off before dawn to the meeting point for gorilla trekking.  We climbed up to Ruhija, through the fog, watching the sun rise over the mountains.  Tom and Chris trekked the Bitukura family of mountain gorillas, although saying ”trekked” might be a bit of a stretch.  The gorillas were only a few hundred metres from the road!  Regardless of how long you trek though, it’s still an amazing experience to sit in such close proximity to these animals and observe their interactions with each other.  You can really see how we are related to the gorillas and there is something profound about sitting in the forest with such close kin.

From Lake Bunyoni we wound our way through the mountains into Rwanda, to Ruhengeri (or Musanze as it is also called).  We spent half a day with John, a local guide who showed us the twin lakes of Burera and Ruhondo from the magnificent vantage point of Virunga Lodge.  We enjoyed lunch on the lake shore, dreaming of buying land and having a holiday house in this stunning corner of the world.

Early the next morning Chris and I headed to the Parc National des Volcans to trek the Golden Monkeys.  Like the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest in Uganda, the Volcanoes National Park is dense bush.  And like the mountain gorillas in Bwindi, the Golden Monkeys do not care for paths to make it easy for us to get to them.  But there’s a real feeling of adventure as you beat your way through what seems to be uncharted territory to find these rare creatures.

We decided to change our itinerary a bit and head to Lake Kivu instead of spend an extra night in Ruhengeri.  The main tourist town on the lake is called Gisenyi and comes highly recommended.  However it is right on the Congolese border with Goma only a few kilometres away and that very day, M23 rebels marched into Goma and seized it.  On learning the rebels were nearly on Goma, we decided to avoid Gisenyi (it was just a bit too close for comfort) and instead went to Kibuye.  To get to Kibuye, the most direct route again would be to go to Gisenyi and head south along the lake shore.  But we felt safer taking a different route and ended up travelling through the most beautiful landscapes imaginable, well worth the detour.  Our guesthouse, Hotel de Sainte Bethanie, was set right on the lake shore and our rooms looked out over the water.

We took a boat ride on the lake in the morning, landing on Napoleon Island for what we were told was to be a bird watching walk.  Not a bird to be seen, but thousands and thousands of bats circling overhead.  The island was actually a rather tall mountain jutting out of the lake, which we hiked to the top.  From the top we could look out over the lake to the Democratic Republic of Congo, closer to Rwanda, as well as all the small islands dotting Lake Kivu.

Kigali was our last stop, where we visited the Genocide Memorial.  It is a powerful exhibition, but it’s challenging to comment further without sounding trite or waffling for pages.  Our final dinner was at Hotel des Mille Collines, with pre-dinner cocktails by the pool before heading upstairs to the Panorama fine-dining restaurant.  What a way to cap off a fantastic trip.  Thank you Tom and Chris for being such awesome travel buddies, and great first clients!

Nairobi to Kigali Tour Part 2 – Masai Mara to Lake Bunyonyi

We had two full days to experience Masai Mara’s magic.  Within the first hour we had spotted a dik dik (the smallest antelope and an extremely shy creature), some eland and two lionesses with a cub feasting on what looked to be a zebra.  We then spotted a lion and his mate out on the savannah enjoying their honeymoon – lions can mate for a week, resting for approximately 15 minutes between short, sharp sessions (about 30-60 seconds).  It was hard to top the lions, but as we headed towards Keekorok Lodge we realised there was a leopard hiding in the trees.  She was hard to spot, but we managed to get a glimpse of her.

The rest of the days we saw vulchers, gazelles, topis, impalas, owls, ostriches, hartebeest, warthogs, banded mongoose, wildebeest, zebras, waterbuck, baboons, buffalo, hyena and giraffe.  We had a picnic lunch at the Mara River where a ranger led us on a walk to show us where the famous crossing occurs during the Wildebeest Migration.  We met King Solomon, a massive Nile Crocodile lounging on the banks of the river, and several families of hippos.  The aroma was not favourable as there were still numerous wildebeest carcasses floating in the river, the remains of the migration, which the crocs are saving for a future meal, although the Maribou Storks and Vulchers were already tucking in.  Nearly back at camp, we spotted two bat-eared foxes outside their burrow, which is so rare as they are so shy!

King Solomon

On the second afternoon we visited a Masai village where we were invited to see inside their huts and learn how they live.  It was incredibly different to what we know at home, with little ventilation while cooking on charcoal inside the hut.  The beds are made of sticks and they keep the baby animals in the front room of their hut.  The huts are set out in a circle which surrounded by a fence made of acacia branches (they have massive thorns) to protect the cattle from lions during the night.

From the Masai Mara we drove to Kisumu and then onto Jinja in Uganda the following day.  Jinja is a pleasant town and we spent a couple of hours in the afternoon wandering the main street.  Our accommodation overlooked the Nile as it flows out of Lake Victoria and we enjoyed a beautiful sunset sampling Uganda’s beers.

Next stop Kampala.  We took a city tour with Ishmael, visiting the Ghadaffi Mosque, Catholic Cathedral, Ba’hai Temple, Palace and National Museum.  At the end of the day we tried to get to Lake Victoria, but the closest we could get was the port where the wooden fishing boats were bringing in their catch for the day.  The smell was a bit much so we didn’t loiter…. and certainly any idea of a swim disappeared quickly!

It was a long drive, contending with extensive road works from Kampala to Kabale, the next day.  We stopped for lunch on the equator, but did not test to see if the water drained down the plug hole in the opposite direction.  Finally we arrived at Bunyonyi Overland Resort, overlooking Lake Bunyonyi in Uganda’s western highlands.

Visiting Kenya’s premier game parks, tracking mountain gorillas in Uganda and soaking up the Rwandan vibe in Kigali – this tour showcases the best of East Africa.  Join OTA on November 3 to experience this Kenya to Kigali Adventure for yourself.  Contact Tracey and Francis on tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to book your place today!

Nairobi to Kigali Tour Part 1 – Nairobi to Maasai Mara

The mess of traffic provided immediate entertainment for Chris and Tom when they arrived in Nairobi.  Roundabouts with traffic lights and policemen all sending conflicting messages to drivers creates a show for new arrivals.  We managed to arrive at Roussell House in one piece, and enjoyed a welcome Tusker (Kenyan beer) in the beautiful gardens.

The trip started with a visit to the David Sheldrick Elephant Orphanage.  Elephant orphans from all over Kenya are rescued and reared here after their mothers have died as a result of poaching, falling in a well, or natural causes.

Afterwards we headed to Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum and the second largest on the African continent.  Ben and Pius of Amani Kibera met us and we enjoyed a local lunch of pilau (rice with spices and meat).  After lunch we walked to the library and the girls’ centre both established by Amani Kibera.  Despite being confronted with the poverty, Chris commented that there was a ray of hope through Amani Kibera’s work and we were not left with a feeling of hopelessness as often happens when visiting such a place.  Instead, the positive energy from the Amani Kibera team could only inspire us.  At the girls’ centre, a meeting of local performers had just concluded a planning meeting for the upcoming Amani Kibera festival.  We spent time talking with some of them about their work in the community before they invited us to the pub to watch football – go Gor Mahia!  We had been completely embraced by this community and no longer felt the tourist/local divide.  What a great welcome to Kenya!

Tom donates some books to the Amani Kibera library

The following day the “real safari” started.  In the morning we drove to the Amboseli region where we would spend two nights at Maasai Simba Camp.  After lunch we were introduced to the people who run the camp and learnt about the community projects supported by the profits.  In the late afternoon we went for a walk with some of the moran (warriors) to see the sunset over Mt Kilimanjaro.

A full day was spent in Amboseli National Park, one of Kenya’s premier parks.  Before we entered the park we were greeted by dozens of giraffe along the side of the road.  Inside the park we saw elephants, reedbuck, Thomson’s and Grant’s gazelles, zebras, wildebeest, hippos, waterbuck, warthogs and an array of birdlife including egrets, Grey Heron, Blacksmith Plovers, Crowned Cranes, ostriches, Fish Eagle, weavers, Superb Starlings and African Jacanas.

Early the next morning we went for another walk with the Maasai and we were so lucky to see a “naked” Kilimanjaro!  The mountain is usually covered in cloud but this morning it was completely clear.  As we stood on top of a hill and watched the sunrise over Kilimanjaro, our guides showed us how to clean our teeth Maasai-style, with a special stick that breaks down into a brush.  As we descended the hill we found the tree whose sap provides the toothpaste.  We saw a black-backed jackal as we walked, which made us wonder what else was lurking in the undergrowth, but only met some hornbills.  On returning we said farewell to our hosts and headed back to Nairobi, where Tom and Chris went for complete contrast by having dinner at the historic Stanley Hotel.

Tom and Chris brush their teeth “Maasai style”

To the Maasai Mara next for another wildlife spectacular!  We set off early in the morning for the reasonably arduous drive to Kenya’s top tourist attraction.  We were greeted immediately by warthogs, impalas, giraffe, zebras, a mother elephant and her baby and finally some lions.

Join OTA between 3rd and 23rd November for another Kenya to Kigali Adventure.  Contact tracey@ota-responsibletravel.com to book your place today!

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