The Decisions We Make and How We Make Them

Sitting in Johannesburg after returning from our “Round the Cape” road trip, we were left with six weeks and a blank slate. Well, not quite, we did plan to be in Uganda by June, so really, four weeks. And a whole lot of options for getting there.

Since Ethiopia has always fascinated us, and got nothing but the highest reviews from the people we have met, we considered flying to Addis Ababa and spending all of our time there before flying to Uganda. Looking into this, though, we discovered it was about the same price to fly from the US to Addis Ababa as it was to fly from Johannesburg to Addis Ababa. Either way it wasn’t particularly cheap. Plus, Ethiopia is so spread out and its roads so difficult to navigate that to properly visit the country would have required all the time we had…plus more. Ethiopia, though still high on our places-we-want-to-see list, would have to wait.

We also thought about heading straight to Dar Es Salaam or Nairobi and doing the traditional East Africa tourist trail. We could climb Kilimanjaro, do a safari circuit through the Serengeti, Ngorongoro Crater, and Masai Mara, tackle Mt. Kenya, and chill out on Zanzibar. And while there’s certainly a huge amount of appeal in those attractions, we didn’t want to feel like we spent all of the remainder of our trip immersed in tourist activities but separated from the general population. We had a desire to experience Africa on its own terms, not just hop from sight to sight.

So, in the end, we opted for the journey and not the destination. We decided to go overland from Johannesburg to Kampala, through Mozambique, Malawi, Tanzania, and Kenya. We would see Africa from buses and minibuses, boats and trains. We would stop to take a break or change modes of transport and in the process spend time in cities that would never make most traveler’s radar but which are the focal point of life for many Africans. As these weren’t tourist cities, there wasn’t the usual circuit of tourist restaurants, hotels, and amenities, so we would join the locals in bargaining for bananas from street vendors, washing our clothes in buckets, and seeking the rare hotel with hot water. On our overland journey, we would get as close to the African population as possible (literally, as we were often practically sitting on their laps, holding their babies, or watching as their children smeared bananas onto our pants). We would learn patience when our bus broke down, and we were left standing on the side of the road for hours, and we would learn to take in stride the total disintegration of any plans we might have, proving ourselves more flexible than we’d ever thought.

On June 17, when we fly from Nairobi to Bangkok, we will leave behind the continent of Africa without having stood atop the peak of Kilimanjaro, crossed the Serengeti in a 4WD, or seen the stone churches of Lalibela. If you had told me that would be the case when we were planning our trip, I would have gasped in horror. After all, these are essential African experiences. But once you hit the ground, perspectives change. I have no doubt we will return to Africa. And I know that arranging safaris or climbs or Ethiopian vacations is not difficult; it is possible even within the stingy framework of American vacation systems. But planning a trip with limited time around minibuses and ferries and trains and buses, all of which run when and if they feel like it, is not so easily done. And that’s why we did it now. Seize the day, they say. And that’s what we did, even when our day was spent squished with about 20 other people into a minibus smaller than a Dodge Caravan.

A Wall of White

We’ve now been to the three most famous falls in the world: Niagara, Iguazu and Victoria. And I must say that I think Victoria is the most powerful. Of course, we were there at the end of the wet season, and things can change dramatically from season to season, but lets just say its called the “mist that thunders” with very good reason. We first could see the plume rising from over 20 miles away as we approached through Zimbabwe from the Botswana border. After sorting out a place to stay and some food, we Walked down to the park, and it only looked more daunting. Then we entered the park.

Now, I said they were the most powerful. It’s actually quite difficult to ascribe anything more to it than that. Because, simply, you can’t see anything. The falls are 1.7 kilometers long, but we could only see maybe 300 meters worth of width if we looked from one end. Which was absolutely beautiful when the sun broke through and rainbows traversed the expanse.

But everything else was a wall of white. And I mentioned its called the “mist that thunders.” More like the downpour that thunders. Standing out at the rocks on the point of the Zimbabwe side was a truly soaking experience, made all the more magical by the nun enjoying the “rain” with us by spinning and shouting “It is a deluge of blessings!” Most other people just tried to stay under their umbrellas.

So not satisfied with our whiteout experience, and based on the highest recommendations of our friends Joyce and Jack, who recently completed their own round the world trip complete with a Vic Falls stop, we decided to splurge on a microlight flight over the falls. As we took off we saw an elephant roaming nearby, and hippos wading in the river just above the falls. I’ve never felt as much like I was actually flying. There’s literally nothing separating you from the air except a lapbelt and two handholds. And the pilot who knows what he’s doing of course. I soared above the falls, just above the plume, and got a real feeling for the magnitude of the place. Which certainly is grand. What struck me was the whole distance we walked the previous day, which sure felt like a long way, only went to the midpoint of the falls. And the view down the canyon below the falls as the Zambezi twisted and curved its way on was magnificant. Unfortunately but understandably, cameras were not allowed up in the microlight since they can easily find their way into the engine and that can cause a few issues, but I guess this means you’ll all just have to go up for yourselves to see it.

Let me finish this up by categorizing my impressions of the three falls: Iguazu was the most beautiful, with the lush tropical scenery and the myriad of actual falls, Niagara the most impressive because its powerful but for the most part you can actually see it and Victoria the most powerful because wow, it is.

And as an aside for those who wonder about how Zimbabwe is these days, we found the Vic Falls area to be quite normal, but I suppose as this is their main tourist attraction, this isn’t surprising. Most supplies were as available as they were in neighboring countries and the people were quite warm and hopeful that things were improving. There were two things odd about the whole scene. First, you could pay for anything in almost any currency as long as it wasn’t Zim dollars; the people were experts at currency conversion and I can’t even imagine trying to keep track of all of it in my head. The second was the bartering culture; we consistently were approached and asked for our shoes or jackets or pants in exchange for some wood carving or a few trillion Zim dollars. We wondered if they expected us to drop pants or take off our shoes then and there, but since we never were offered anything we felt was near an even exchange, it never came to that. But I can now say that I am a quarter of the way to a quadrillionaire! Makes you feel rich, even if its only worth a few pennies.

A Night in the Okavango

After an afternoon wildlife excursion in the mokoro, we arrived back on the island where we had set up camp just as the giant African sun began to sink into the placid waters of the Delta. As we admired the silhouettes of the trees and reeds against the orange sky, Mathebe, our poler and guide, began to build a large fire with wood he had gathered earlier. It seemed to us a pleasant touch.

Once it was roaring, Mathebe stepped back to admire his work and said, “We’ll keep this going all night.” That seemed a little excessive to us. But then he added, “It will keep the animals away from camp.” At that point it seemed maybe just adequate.

But with the sky still a bit aglow, things in the Okavango Delta seemed peaceful. So paying little mind to the idea of animals in the camp, we set about making a pasta dinner while Mathebe gathered more and more and more wood. He was serious about the fire. As we waited for the spaghetti to become al dente, Mathebe sat quietly, scanning our surroundings and listending intently. At one point, he stood quickly, beckoned us over, and asked “Do you hear that?” We listened. “It’s the animals coming out of the water.” Cool, we thought, and went back to cooking and then eating.

During the course of dinner, Mathebe pointed out a few more sounds to us. “Hear that,” he asked after a guttural growl came from the dark beyond our vision. “That’s a leopard.” To a set of grunts, “That’s an impala.” To a sharp howl, “Those are hyenas.” To some deep barks, “Hippos, coming out to feed.” And to the sound of branches snapping, “Elephants. The island was alive with animals, all of which we could hear but not see, our vision limited to the tiny circle illuminated by our fire and our suddenly very weak headlamps.

What had seemed pretty amazing when the sun was still up was starting to feel frankly a bit frightening. “Should we worry?” I asked, as Mathebe pointed out a path that he thought the elephants might take, which of course went right behind our campsite. “The fire will keep them away,” he said. “And in your tent, you’re safe.” Then he added after a pause, “But don’t for any reason come out of your tent.”

Not exactly the most reassuring answer, and our tent, a $3o purchase from the supermarket did not exactly make me feel warm, cosy, and secure. But after quickly cleaning up our dinner and going the bathroom (and praying we wouldn’t feel the urge in the middle of the night), we jumped into our sleeping bag and zipped our tent tightly up. It was about 8 p.m. Sunrise in the Delta is about 7 a.m. We had 11 hours of darkness in front of us.

And let me tell you, those were a long 11 hours. At first, while we could hear the animals, they remained at a distance. But then it seemed as if every animal in the vicinity had gotten a memo saying that we’d disappeared and it was now safe for them to move in. The grunts and growls and snapping branches got closer and closer. Soon we could pretty much hear the animals breathing. I am fairly certain that one or two hippos brushed our tent.

I lay there with every muscle tense (when I wasn’t shaking in my underpants). There was nothing I could do but hope and pray that Mathebe knew what he was doing. The animals that seemed closest to our tent, hippos and elephants, were herbivores. They weren’t interested in eating us, but they were animals and if they felt threatened they would without hestitation kill us. And having seen elephants stamp through what I’d consider dense growth as if it was nothing, I couldn’t help but picture them stepping right onto our tent, bursting our heads like watermelons.

With nothing to do but say a few Hail Mary’s, I just gazed through the thin sheet of our tent at the glow of the fire, reminding myself that the animals would not get too close to it. Every time it seemed to die, I’d feel my anxiety level rise, and it certainly sounded as if the animals got louder and closer. But somehow, every time, Mathebe would come to the rescue. I’d hear the zip of his tent, then the crash of logs on the fire, and then again the zip of his tent. The fire would come roaring back, and I’d thank God that he was braver than me.

Many long hours passed this way, until about 2:30 a.m. when I somehow drifted off to sleep, or at least dozed. The animal sounds didn’t entirely disappear, but they seemed softer, less frequent, less threatening. The fire kept going all night, and around 6 a.m, the soft light of dawn joined the fire. We heard a few more grunts and snaps, a growl or two, and the barking of baboons, and then the sun was up. And with the sun, we again became brave, reentering the world, as if somehow all the things that seemed so scary in the dark just vanished when the world became light. And in some ways, it seemed that they had indeed. With all the ruckus they had made during the night, I expected to see some evidence of all the animals that had made midnight visits to our camp. But besides a freshly trampled path, there was nothing to show for what we had survived. After all, it was just a regular night in the Okavango Delta for everyone and everything but us. For us, it was an exhausting but exhilarating night. And one, I don’t feel the need to repeat anytime soon.

OPT (Okavango Polers Trust)

We had all but decided to bypass the Okavango Delta due to the sheer price factor alone. Yeah, ‘supposedly amazing, yeah, it’s one of everyone’s 20 places you must go in your life, but we can’t do $1000 a night for two of us (and that’s what the lower end lodges, where you sleep in a camping tent, charge). I mean, the Galapagos was a huge splurge for us, but that still came in at under $500 a night in the end. Besides, Maun (the standard jumping off point into the delta) was over 800 km out of our way.

But then we read in our little Lonely Planet guidebook about the Okavango Polers Trust, a community run organization that does mokoro trips into the delta from the village of Seronga, just where the Okavango River fans out and becomes the Okavango Delta. Lo and behond, they were near the Namibian border (and actually a huge pain to reach if you’re already in Maun or anywhere else in Botswana) and had rates substantially cheaper than a lodge or mokoro operator in Maun. The catch was you had to provide your own food and tent, but hey, we’d been doing that for weeks now, no sweat. So we pulled up to their camp at sunset, camped, and, with over 75 community polers in the organization, had no problem arranging to go out the next morning for an overnight mokoro adventure.

In my experience, which as I’ve outlined, is not the classic delta experience but a more local approximation thereof, the richness of the Okavango Delta is not easily enjoyed. I spent most of each day sitting in the front of a boat surrounded by reeds, swatting at spider webs to keep them from breaking across my face and mainly spotting the tops of trees.

All the while waiting helplessly for our poler to push on, or occasionally start backing up because the water got too shallow.

Then there are the notoriously dangerous hippos lurking that we managed to narrowly avoid despite a few aggressive moves toward our boat that definitely had all of us, poler included, a bit panicked.

Hippos are way faster than they look! Patience, endurance, fearlessness (or naivete!) and the tolerance for layers of spider webs on skin (well practiced while hiking this past summer!), was certainly required.

But every now and then we’d break through into a river channel and surprise some otters or enter a lagoon and see all the lillies popping up or sneak closer to an elephant on an island and I’d totally get the magic of the place. The environment is absolutely tranquil.

The poler whisks you along in silence (which you may remember was my main beef with our Ecuadorian jungle experience) in the mokoro. The animals we saw weren’t necessarily the big famous ones, but the birdlife was exceptional, the hippos numerous, and the reeds are whole interesting ecosystem to themselves. And while we didn’t see much big game during the day, the night was a whole different story that Theresa will bring you in our next post.

Hitching a Ride

When I was a child, I hitchhiked a lot. You see, my grandpa taught me how, and whenever I used to go to his house, I’d always go out hitchhiking. I’d stand at the end of his driveway, stick my thumb out, and wait. Then whenever my grandpa’s red station wagon came down the street and slowed for me, I’d hop in, and together we’d ride down the driveway to the car port behind the house. It was exciting.

And it was, until recently, my only experience with hitching—either seeking a ride for myself or giving someone else a lift. Though I often feel for people standing on the side of the road with their thumbs out, I don’t stop. It’s just not a risk I’m willing to take.

But in Africa, hitching is a way of life. The majority of people get around by hopping in the back of a passing pickup or cramming into the backseat of a compact driven by a compassionate soul. As we had our own car as we traveled through South Africa, Swaziland, Namibia, and Botswana, we didn’t need to worry about how to get from place to place. But we were in the lucky minority. Every day we’d pass tens if not hundreds of people looking for a ride. Though I was sometimes tempted to, we never stopped. Our backseat was overflowing with all of our stuff, so we wouldn’t just be able to quickly pull over and have someone hop in. And unfortunately the status of our world has taught us to be so suspicious.

But then we went for it. Well, we eased into it, first giving a lift to three British girls who were taking the Baz Bus around South Africa but found that the connecting bus they were planning on taking between towns was full. We then picked up a park employee at the gate of Etosha, who needed a ride to the junction about 20 km away. And finally, in Botswana, while waiting for the three-car ferry that slowly, slowly, slowly took cars and foot passengers across the river, we agreed to give a ride to a guy about our age who was going home to Seronga, the village we were heading to for an Okavango Delta experience.

And though we didn’t get paid for the lift (and weren’t looking to be paid), we were rewarded. Having the hitcher in our backseat was like having a private guide offering insight into life in this rural part of Botswana. He told us about his uniform–a khaki outfit complete with medals–which I mistakenly thought was a military uniform; turns out it was the outfit he and all other male members of the Zion Christian Church (South Africa’s largest) wear to Sunday services. He pointed out the makeshift villages on the east side of the road, explaining that these were the temporary homes of people who had to be relocated from villages on the west side of the road because of flooding, and he identified all the bodies of water that in a normal year would not be there. He talked to us about soccer, a favorite Sunday afternoon past time as witnessed by the many games we saw going on (all with teams in surprisingly matching and official uniforms). And he told us about the upcoming elections when we passed a political party gathered under a large baobob tree. When we dropped him off at his home–a traditional mud and thatch hut, he made sure we knew where to go from there and then thanked us multiple times. It was a good experience for both parties it seemed.

And though I don’t plan to make picking up hitchhikers a habit, especially once I’m back in the U.S., I’m glad we let our walls down and let this guy into our backseat. Thanks to him what would have been pretty but context-less scenery was translated into an insightful look at life in northern Botswana.

Tsolido Hills

Often while driving around in South Africa and Namibia, we heard that there was San Bushmen rock art nearby. But usually this required a whole day’s trip, or a large effort or expense to hire a guide, and so we always passed up the opportunity. It seemed to be everywhere, but always just out of reach. We had started to worry we would leave without ever observing some of the oldest art in human history. But then we passed near Tsolido Hills. Honestly, this probably isn’t somewhere we should have gone in our small Kia, as the last few miles were definitely for 4WD vehicles only.

But it was too good to pass up, and thankfully, our little Kia that could pulled through. Two villages sit at the bottom near the hills and local villagers act as guides for a small fee. Four hills wouldn’t be particularly exceptional except for where they rise – out of the flat, flat Kalahari plains. And so they stand out dramatically, so much so the Bushmen thought the world began at Tsolido Hills. The largest and most jagged they called male, the more gently curved (and one that supported people) the female and the two smaller the children. And given the sacredness of the hills to the people, they covered them in rock paintings. Here’s some of our favorites.

A whole lot of drawings together.

These were far under a rock and are called the dancing penises. I guess its pretty accurate.

Giraffes always look comical.

Two very large and impressive looking rhinos.

A penguin and a whale? In the middle of the Kalahari? They think the the nomadic bushmen may have wandered this far down toward Cape Town to know about them.

It’s hard to describe how it feels to stand there in front of something drawn 3000 years ago. For me, it wasn’t so much spiritual, which is usually how these things are described, but more of a feeling of the scope and uniqueness of humanity. Here were people, 3000 years ago, that despite living in such a difficult environment to survive (or perhaps because of it) felt a need to use their energy for these creative endeavors. Whether it was to appease or thank the gods or simply needing an outlet for creative energy, it speaks to the the innate way our minds work. It was really fascinating to just stare at one bushman’s legacy. I wish I can leave something that lasts 3000 years.

Landscapes of Namibia

Southern Namibia is pretty much utterly devoid of people. But it sure is full of landscapes and amazing scenery. Here are some of our favorite pictures from Fish River Canyon, the Quiver Tree Forest, Aus and Sossusvlei.

Life North of the Red Line

Between Tsumeb, where we spent the night after our last day in Etosha, and Rundu, which is near the beginning of the Caprivi Strip, the tiny northeastern part of Namibia that squeezes in between Angola and Botswana, we crossed the Red Line. This line, marked by a veterinary control fence, prevents the north-south crossing of animals, or the passing of animals from the northern communal subsistence lands to the commercial cattle farms of the south. The goal of this fence is to protect the southern animals, which are sold for meat both inside and outside of Namibia, from instances of foot-and-mouth and other diseases.

For us, the fence wasn’t so interesting in regards to its role in keeping cattle disease-free, as much as it amazed us how different life was on the two different sides of the fence. South of the fence Namibia was either wide-open spaces that seemed to be occupied by absolutely no one or small cities that were generally of a fairly modern (and sometimes quite German) design with supermarkets, banks, clothing shops, and Western-style housing (or shanties).

North of the border, Namibia suddenly and very dramatically became Africa as most of us non-Africans probably picture it. We entered a world where life centered around the village, and where villages consisted of rondavels constructed of mud and clay with thatched roofs and small enclosures for animals. The villages were surrounded by stick fences. A communal water spicket was usually also available, and women and children walking from the faucet to their homes with large containers of water balanced on their heads was a common sight.

Animals–goats, donkeys, and huge cows with prominent horns, roamed freely, grazing on the side of the road, or standing stubbornly in the road daring you to approach. Occasionally a small boy with a stick walked alongside them, doing his best to herd them.

In between villages, maize, sorghum, and other crops grew. On occasion, you’d catch a glimpse of women grinding up the maize into meal, using stone pots and a stick.

We were a novelty it seemed. Though we were driving on a paved national highway, every single person we passed stopped and stared at us. All the children would wave frantically and burst into huge smiles when we waved back. Some tried to race our car; others yelled at us to look at the snake they had caught. Though life was certainly not easy, there was obviously much joy.

Outside some of the villages, crafts had been set out, apparently to sale to the few tourists like us who passed by. There were enourmous clay pots and giant masks, wooden airplanes and helicoptors, and carved animal figurines. Wanting a closer look, we stopped at one of the larger stands, which seemd to be manned by absolutely no one. The village was perfectly quiet. But as we all know, appearances can be deceiving, and as soon as we pulled over and got out, seemingly the entire village emerged to stare at us. We moved through the goods, checking out the various items for sale, and greeting the people, most of whom just continued to stare. Jeff, finding a cheetah he just had to have, began to bargain with the guy selling it, and I moved off to say hello to some children who had gathered in a group to gawk.

As soon as I spoke to one girl, all the others moved in, and I was soon surrounded by kids. They told me their names and ages, where they went to school and what grade they were in. We talked about football and netball, and they stared, stared, stared at me.

Finally, they asked me a question: How old are you? This apparently interested the parents too, who were gathered in a cluster a bit further away, as they yelled to their children to find out what my answer had been. I could only wonder what they thought. At 28, I was certainly older than many of them, yet I did not have any of the things that they, at my age, would have: a hut (or house) of my own, children, the weariness of having to physically work hard every day. My life was pretty much as incomprehensible to them as theirs was to me. But we shared a smile, some laughs, and I think, a wonder at the beautiful strangeness of this thing we call life.