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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.

Elephants, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

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!

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

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.

Livingstone, Zambia, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

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.

Bungee jump at Victoria Falls, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

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.

Victoria Falls, OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

The Victoria Falls

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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 …..

The Transit: Nairobi to Windhoek in six short days

It’s been quite an eventful week for OTA.  On Monday Kenya held its long-awaited election.  Francis arrived at his polling station at 4am ready to vote early so we could leave on our next adventure.  But alas, it was not to happen.  Twelve hours later, suffering from sunstroke and dehydration, he submitted his vote and I unpacked my bag for another night in Nairobi.

So on Tuesday, this time it was me to leave at 4am to pick up Francis and this time start on our next adventure.

Currently we are on our way to Windhoek, capital of Nairobi.  It’s a cool 4000km from Nairobi as the crow flies.  But of course, travelling as the crow flies takes us on all sorts of interesting roads.  So we take a longer route in the interests of saving time – this is Africa!

Our early start on Tuesday paid off and by evening we were in Chalinze.  Although satisfied with our progress, we did feel that the Tanzanian police stationed every 5km (it seemed!) were hindering us somewhat.  Of course some police are necessary on a major highway to control speed and occasionally check documents.  But checking the presence of our fire extinguisher and asking who we were voting for in Kenya (that was the real reason for the pull over) constituted, to me, a waste of time.

Breakfast in Morogoro - OTA travels from Nairobi to Windhoek www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Breakfast in Morogoro, Tanzania

Wednesday got a little more interesting when we lost the water pump.  Even on the major highways, the roads are riddled with potholes and, especially in Tanzania, the buses and trucks don’t mind overtaking on blind corners and pushing smaller vehicles off the road – a bit terrifying at times!

Francis came the rescue and, once procured (from the town 60km away and the first one that arrived did not fit), he popped it in and we were away.

Dinner that night does deserve comment before we continue.  Chips mayai (chips with a couple of eggs fried over them – I imagine a fantastic hangover cure, but otherwise a heart attack on a plate) and chicken, also fried.  In East Africa you get a choice of chook: broilers are normal chickens; African racing chickens are the one you see roaming the streets – tough old birds!  This night we got no choice; African racing chicken it was.  Francis’ comment sums up the jaw-breaking experience perfectly: “Oh, I thought it was a bone, but it is meat!”

Thursday was our Malawi marathon.  We crossed the border, meeting some friends from another tour company at the border post.  After getting past all the police checks in northern Malawi we were free to move.  And we did!  We drive all through the night, while I introduced Francis to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on an audio book.  That was about 12 hours we spent in Malawi, arriving at the Zambian border around 3am.  We snatched a couple of hours sleep in the supermarket car park in Chipata before continuing through Zambia – this is NOT how we run tours with our guests, please note!

Driving through Zambia with OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Street market in Zambia

So we zoomed through Zambia on Friday and entered Namibia on Saturday.  At last we reached Windhoek this morning after 5116 km where we were so happy to meet a hot shower and a comfortable bed.  Now, refreshed and ready for the next three weeks, we will meet our guests this afternoon.  Stay tuned next week as the story continues (of saner and more interesting travelling).

Travelling in Namibia with OTA - Overland Travel Adventures www.ota-responsibletravel.com

Villages in northern Namibia as we whiz by

Lamu

Having heard much about the island of Lamu, I decided to take a week off and check it out.  I knew it was on UNESCO’s World Heritage List and it was the place in Kenya to experience traditional Swahili culture.  I didn’t know that getting there by bus was not the best way to travel!  Lamu is fairly remote, and most tourists opt to fly in and out.

The journey involved an overnight train from Nairobi to Mombasa (not as straightforward as it sounds, but another story completely), a seven-hour bus ride with the girl next to me curled up with her head in my lap asleep, and finally an overloaded boat to the island.

But arriving on Lamu was like entering another world: from the bumpy dusty road to an architecturally beautiful haven.  My accommodation was a cheap guest house with a lovely rooftop terrace where I could relax if I tired of exploring.

My first goal was to fill up on the historic sites including Lamu Museum and Swahili House, giving me excellent insight into traditional Swahili culture.  As I wandered about the Old Town, I marvelled at the narrow laneways, intricate carved wood doors, and traditional houses.  There are no cars in Lamu; if you need to go further than walking distance or carry a load, you travel by donkey.  This makes walking a pleasure…. unless you get too close to a grumpy donkey!

My favourite thing when travelling is to watch life happen; Lamu Fort provided the perfect place.  Looking out over the central square from the fort afforded views of market sellers and chess players.  The fort has views in all directions, so I could see houses all around, with people coming in and out, children visiting their friends and playing in the laneways.

Alberto Mateo

The real beauty however, I found at the waterfront.  Fishing has long been the primary industry of Lamu, and it continues to be an important part of life here.  I watched as the fisherman hauled in their catch, made and mended their nets, and repaired their boats.  The dhows (wooden sailing boats) they use are the same design as years past, and fathers teach their sons the skills of boat building, net making and fishing.  And so life continues as ever before in this remote paradise.

Alberto Mateo

Lamu is a haven, so serene compared to mainland Kenya.  I learnt there are many ways to experience Swahili culture, apart from the museum.  For example one man invites people to his home for a dinner of traditional dishes, there are sunset dhow cruises, or just soak up the atmosphere in the Old Town.

Alberto Mateo

The photos for this post were supplied by Alberto Mateo.  More of his work can be found at  www.albertomateo.com  and www.thelastfootprint.com

Travelling East Africa: Independent versus Group Tour

Quietly considering myself a “seasoned traveller”, in June 2010 I packed my backpack and headed off to Africa for the adventure of a lifetime. Family and friends told me I was out of my mind and requested I join a tour. But I had already backpacked the USA, Europe, and worked as a tour leader in Central Asia, Russia and China doing my own independent travelling in those parts between tours. So what could Africa throw at me that I could not handle?

This naivety is not uncommon, I am relieved to admit. But in fact Africa is NOT Europe. It is not even Vietnam, which may be considered a reasonable comparison if you look at development data. But that is the wonderful thing about this amazing continent: it is different to everywhere else in the world. And despite having started my backpacking career ten years ago, Africa still makes me feel like the greenest of travellers. That is not to say independent travel is impossible; indeed I survived three months backpacking South Africa, Mozambique and Malawi. If not for finding a job, I was planning to continue up to Nairobi. As it happens, two years later I find myself in Nairobi, living semi-permanently in the continent which has thrown me my toughest challenges and continues to do so.

In this article I will discuss the different methods of exploring Africa – independently, group tour, and private safari – and the pros and cons for each. These days I do suffer an internal conflict: I am a huge advocate for independent travel, getting to know real life through home stays and using public transport; but now I run a tour company offering private safaris (I’ll admit that up front, so you can read this article in whichever light you think appropriate) and the more I use my own vehicle, the less I enjoy crowded buses.

1. Independent travel

As I said, I love travelling independently. It is my preferred method for my personal travels. You get real experiences, have more opportunity to interact with local people, and your schedule is usually flexible enough to take random opportunities as they arise. You might get chatting to a woman on the bus and a few hours later as you both disembark she invites you to her home to meet her family. You are free to take that opportunity.

But travelling this way in Africa has proved more challenging than I imagined. Even in trying to complete simple errands in daily life, complications arise and nothing ever seems to go smoothly. For some, they can handle these constant obstacles and consider it “part of the fun”. But it can wear a person down. It is time consuming. Moreover, as a mzungu (foreigner) you are perceived as rich and will be charged higher prices; most opportunities to get more money from you will be taken. There are poor people in Africa unfortunately, and they must survive somehow.

2. Group Tour

Overland trucks traverse the continent, catering mainly to the backpacker market, making them a cheap option. Sitting in the back of a truck for a few weeks sharing all the amazing new experiences with a bunch of other travellers is fun. At the end of the day, there’s always someone to have a drink (or three) with.

But there are some pitfalls with group tours (as any independent traveller will be quick to point out!). What if you don’t like the other people you are forced to travel with? You also should ask a lot of questions about extra hidden costs – on first glance a tour may look cheap, but check the inclusions and exclusions. A tour to the gorillas in Uganda is $500 cheaper than another so you choose that, only to find the gorilla trekking permits are not included – there’s the $500. There is no flexibility in the itinerary and often the schedules are exhausting, quickly covering a lot of mileage to see as many sights in as short a time as possible. It is good if you have limited time and just need to get around and tick off a checklist, but to relish a destination, this is not the way to do it.

3. Private Safari

I mentioned earlier that I do run a private safari company, so you have fair warning that my advice may be biased, but I am trying not to be. I have travelled independently, worked on an overland truck with large group tours, and run private safaris and there is a reason why I have chosen to start my own private safari company. Simply because I truly believe it is the most effective way to travel in East Africa. You can design your own itinerary, accommodation and meals according to your budget. You have more flexibility on the road. And often it is cheaper for families or small groups of friends; by the time you pay for four people on a group tour, you may as well have paid for private transport.

If you are solo, a private safari is expensive. Further, there are so many tour operators it can be an overwhelming task to choose which one to travel with. Reading reviews on travel forums is a great way to find a reliable operator and then the communication between you can build trust and ensure you get what you need from your holiday. The final disadvantage to a private safari is the impression that you are in your own little bubble, with little engagement with the continent. However an increasing number of operators do offer opportunities to visit and interact with local communities, as responsible travel principles becomes more important in the tourism industry

I still like the idea of mixing with the locals on public transport, but when I find myself on a bus sharing three seats with five people, with an embargo on open windows, for ten hours, I do question if it is worth it.

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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