Sunday, 20 December 2009

A brief encounter with Johannesburg

My encounter with Jo’burg is one that I shall bury deep in the recesses of my brain. It was not a particularly pleasant experience and one which began as our propeller plane dipped out of the sky in preparation to land. Never have I felt a pilot fight with a plane so much. As a cross wind caught us, tipping us from side to side the pilot’s struggle to stay in control was palpable. Fortunately, we made and everyone breathed a sigh of relief.

Next, my hostel transfer, that I’d arranged the night before, failed to make an appearance in arrivals. A swift phone call to the hostel and I was told to wait at the information desk and that my transfer would arrive in due course. An hour and a half later and still no transfer so I rang again; this time I was told by the guy at the other end that he’d been unable to arrange a transfer so I would have to grab a cab. This would have been fine had the hostel not been situated on the opposite side of Jo’burg. I was quoted 400 rand (just under 40 quid); with traffic and roadworks it cost me £50.

Just getting to the hostel made Sleek Backpackers the most expensive hostel I’ve stayed in. Unfortunately, I got little return on my investment. After kicking up a stink (something that I’m quite good at!) I was offered an upgrade to an ensuite and the room on the house. Well, it wasn’t exactly an upgrade. A quick check of the bed linen and it was all too clear that the sheets weren’t clean, then there was the condom (fortunately still in its packet) under my bed and when I went to get in the shower, I was greeted by a clump of hair. You may think that was bad, but there was more to come! I went to the loo and the flush didn’t work (bearing in mind there was only a curtain between the ‘bathroom’ and the rest of the room) and then, when I decided to escape the pit that was my room, I couldn’t lock the door.

My room looked out over a common which a few suspicious characters had obviously decided to call home so there was no way I wasn’t locking the door. Fortunately, the guy from the front desk was walking by so I explained my door lock issues. I then had to wait whilst the handyman attempted to fix the lock. After three attempts and numerous dismantlings, the handyman finally fixed the lock.

The following morning I was heading straight back to Jo’burg airport to fly to Cape Town so I arranged my transfer (at an additional cost of £12) and then stayed out of my room for as long as possible. When I did finally return to the pit I used my pillow case and slept on top of the duvet.

A few hours of crap sleep later and I was heading back to the airport with a £62 hole in my wallet to grab a plane to Cape Town.

The whole experience left a bad taste in my mouth and left me with a grim view of Jo’burg. Whilst I’m sure the city has plenty that’s positive to offer, I shall have to re-vist minus my Hostel World booking for Sleek Backpackers to fully appreciate it.

A scenic flight unlike any other

We arrived back at the campsite at around 2pm the following day in time for a quick bite to eat and a long awaited shower. It was soon time to head to the airport in Maun where we had scenic flights booked over the Delta. Our planes were a 5 and a 7-seater Cessna; our pilots looked about 12. They were in fact 19 and 21 and were building up air time in order to become qualified pilots. Whilst young, they seemed to know what they were talking about which was somewhat reassuring given my general dislike of small planes!

There was the option to hop into the ‘crazy’ plane (with those guys who felt the need to do the dropping-out-of-the-sky charades) or the ‘tame’ plane (for those who preferred a more sedate view of the Delta): needless to say, I opted for the tame plane!

Even the tame plane was a little hairy at times as the pilot banked sharply whilst circling around in a figure-of-eight to give us the best view of the wildlife and scenery. And what a view! Herds of elephants marched in single file across the plains; hippos crazed on land in broad daylight; buffolos by the hundred were black blemishes that stretched as far as the eye could see; and, every now and then, a solitary giraffe nibbled away at an acacia.

Only by taking a flight can you appreciate the true scale of the Delta: all 18,000 square kilometers of it! Only from here can you see the intricate tendrils of the river as it splits and spreads itself out across the Kalahari, meandering its way through the reed beds. And only from above is it possible to see how heavily populated with animals the areas of land are that feed off this valuable water resource.

Whilst not a fan of small planes, I’m glad I buckled up and hit the skies over the Delta; it was the best way to end my overland tour of Africa!

A day in the Okavango

The following day at dawn we set out in the same groups on a morning game walk. The flies were less persistent and the cool morning air made it far easier to walk around. We headed off in opposite directions, walking in single file in silence. Occasionally our guide would stop and listen, prod something with his stick or look searchingly at a pile of animal excrement. Five minutes in and something caught my eye. I stopped to look. Initially all I saw were bushes but then a small head poked out – a small badger-like head which was soon followed by a small badger-like body. Two honey badgers emerged from the bush and trotted across the path right in front of us. These creatures are the size of a badger and wear a long black and white coat that reaches down towards their toes. They are pretty ferocious beasts, well known for attacking snakes or invading bee hives for honey. In fact, the day before the other group had come across bits of a python that had met its sad demise after a honey badger attack.

Later on we came across a lone buffalo (very dangerous), giraffe, impala and a family of baboons...all within just a few metres of us. We spent a good three hours wildlife tracking, taking in the sights, sounds and scents of this unique environment.

After heading back to camp for a few hours, some of us decided to go fishing on the mokoros. Slipping in to the mokoros, we headed out among the reeds until we reached a lake sized pool complete with resident hippos. The hippos were intrigued by us and headed over to check us out. After much snorting, grunting and yawning the novelty wore off and they dispersed back to their corner of the lake. Meanwhile we set up the fishing gear…which didn’t take all too long given that it consisted merely of a piece of cat gut with a hook attached and a scoop of mud full of worms.

Our poler Dipsy (yep…as in Dipsy the Teletubbie) attached a worm to the hook, flung the cat gut out and promptly reeled – or rather, tugged – in a fish in a matter of seconds. Claire and I followed suit with a little less success but within 10 minutes we’d both caught a fish (and a fair bit of reed!). Nat and Ravi were having a little more trouble and floundered about up until we all got too hot and bothered and left them to it.

That evening we headed out on the mokoros again…back to the hippo pool to watch the sun set. Again we enjoyed a spectacular sunset and one of the last few I’d experience in Africa. In the foreground, hippos dived and snorted and energetically prepared for a night grazing on land. Beyond that a sea of reeds and trees topped with the vibrant colours of the setting sun. As ever in Africa, another moment to remember!

Later on we rustled up a chilli con carne on the fire then watched as the polers and guides performed their tribal songs and dances. We were encouraged to join in which resulted in a bunch of mzungos squatting and jumping up and down in an attempt to imitate a frog. Their voices were beautiful and coupled with the fire and the sounds of the bush (flies and mozzies included!) made it a very special evening. We were then asked to perform…a difficult task considering we didn’t have a single singer or dancer among us. We opted for Jolie’s Banana Dance: a unique piece involving a significant amount of butt wiggling. The lyrics and sequence are as follows:

All the bananas in the world…UNITE! (arms from hanging straight down go out to the side and up to a point above the head to form a banana)
Peel banana, peel peel banana (peel yourself)
Shake banana, shake shake banana (shake)
Jump banana, jump jump banana (jump up and down)
Go banana GO! (punch fist in the air)

And not only did we do the Banana Dance but our polers and guides LOVED the Banana Dance. In fact they asked us to perform it again and again as they tried to learn the words. They even started singing it in their own language and doing the moves! Whilst our performance could have left us die a mortal death of embarrassment, we were fortunate to be saved by the musical genius that is the Banana Dance

A conversation about conservation

Whilst we sat by the fire Nat and I got chatting to Wacko. We asked him about the conservation area we were in and how it came about.

This area of the Okavango Delta has been given back to the people. Split into sections, local communities had to write proposals about what their plans were for the area before being given the concession to work in it. Wacko’s community had area 17 and 32 which strode the river. He explained that the area of land was split into two again: half for ‘photographic’ trips (those who like to see animals rather than shoot them) and half for hunting. In both areas they had built lodges and had found areas where they could take tourists to bush camp in the delta as we had done.

His community managed this area of the delta, ensuring the reed beds remained rubbish and pollution free. Wacko explained that the hunting lodge was rented out to someone who ran the lodge. They then paid the fees necessary to receive licenses to hunt game. An example Wacko gave us was the elephant. The cost of a license to kill an elephant is USD$250,000…and that’s just the cost at cost price! For the manager to make money he must add a substantial profit margin to this cost. Thus, hunting game in this area is not a cheap hobby but provides significant income to the local community.

I asked how the government and the local community managed these licenses. Basically, the community is given licenses to kill a certain number of impala, zebra and elephants each year. These licences then either keep for themselves or sold on to the manager of the game lodge. When I asked whether anyone flouts the rules, Wacko said absolutely not. Every year the community must submit audits of where the money and licences given to them by the government have gone. Anyone who flouts the rules loses their valuable concession on the delta. Given that the majority of the community is employed in some way or another in tourism associated with the concession, no community can afford to lose it.

Botswana is known as one of the least corrupt countries in Africa but hearing Wacko talk so passionately about the Delta really brought to light what good management of such an ecologically unique area can actually achieve. The government receives money, the communities thrive and everyone works very hard indeed to conserve the area.

The Okavango Delta

7am and we pile into a small 4x4 open-sided truck. With us we bring tents, mats and enough food, water and cooking utensils to be able to bush camp at the side of a river for two days. We have a three hour drive ahead of us, two hours of which will be spent jolting our way along sand tracks and through mud and water.

It’s sweltering hot already, the sky blue with just a smattering of white clouds. As we turn of the main road after Maun and onto a sand track we start to get a real taster of the desert. The acacia trees are in bloom: small, droopy yellow flowers topped with a crown of pink hang listlessly between the threatening, 3-inch spines which line each branch. As we drive we have to keep bringing in our feet to avoid getting scratched.

The earth is pale and sandy and too hot to stand on in bare feet as Dan finds out when we stop for a bush wee. Every now and again the van dips down into an area deep in mud and water, the driver cuts the speed and we lollop across, putting the 4x4 gearing to the test.

Among the bushes, herds of zebra graze against a backdrop of elephants and giraffes. Weird looking secretary birds run around in search of snakes to eat and in the distance the characteristic black plumage of ostriches.

By 10am we finally arrive at our destination: a small clearing at the edge of one of the small reed-lined channels of the river where a number of mokoros (small dugout canoes that can carry two people and a poler) are pulled up onto the sand. A group of men and women who are soon to be our polers stand waiting and no sooner than the van comes to a stop, they begin energetically loading the boats.

Claire and I decide to share a mokoro between us and are introduced to Wacko who is both the lead guide and our poler for the next couple of days. The polers fold our mats in such a way as to make a seat on which we can sit and, after maneuvering ourselves into the canoes, we begin a fantastic 2-hour trip through the reed beds of the delta to camp.

In the mokoro you are barely 10cm from the water surface. On either side, vibrant green reeds stand tall against a cloudless blue sky and large lily pads line the edge, each boasting a single purple tinted flower. Silence (a rarity on a tour) envelops you, the only sound being the splish-splosh of poles slicing through water.

Every now and then one of the polers lets out a mocking laugh as the junior poler on the luggage mokoro ahead of us gets her mokoro tangled up in reeds.

For half an hour Claire and I sit in almost perfect silence just soaking up this unique environment and atmosphere. And then, swim time! A couple of the group strip off to their undies and jump into the water. After a quick swim to cool down, they clamber back onto their mokoro and we continue on our journey.

Two hours later, we arrive at a small clearing on land. After gingerly hopping off our mokoros (they have a tendency to tip over!) we help unload the boats.

Some of the polers have already put up some of the tents and we help out putting up the others. The tents are arranged in a circle around a small area where one the polers is busy starting a fire. The next step: the long drop! One of the polers uses a shovel to dig a hole about a metre deep in another clearing some way away from the tents. This will be our toilet for the next few days. Once you’ve done your business, you use a stick to brush a small amount of dirt over the offending material. This helps to stop the long drop from smelling.

We settle down to lunch around the camp fire and Wacko explains that we have the option to go swimming in a small pool area among the reeds in the afternoon followed by a game walk at dusk. I opt for the game walk only as swimming among all the reeds doesn’t really appeal.

After a couple of hours reading my book and enjoying the peace and tranquility of the forest surroundings it’s time to set off on the game walk. After an extensive briefing as to what to do in the event of us coming across elephants, lions or a lone buffalo (the most dangerous of the three!), we hop into the mokoros and are taken across to the other side of the river to another area of dry land. Here we dismount, split into two groups and set off after our respective guides.

Flies swarm around us, buzzing by our ears, getting into our hair and landing on our faces. Initially it’s really annoying but eventually you get used to walking and swatting at the same time.

With our group were a junior guide/tracker and an older specialist guide who, armed with his bedraggled book of endemic animal and bird species, helped the junior guide with his tracking. Our guides tracked using animal faeces, evidence of broken vegetation and sound…just as you see in the wildlife documentaries (yes they even pick up faeces to feel how warm they are!)..

At one point our guide stops suddenly and indicates to us to keep quiet. Suddenly, the deep rumble of an elephant reverberates close by. We peer around a bush and less than 20 metres away is a large bull elephant surrounded by his harem of females. They are so well camouflaged among the bushy undergrowth that you could literally stumble upon one without realizing it was there in spite of its gigantic size.

Standing there face to face with eight elephants as they tear away at the leaves and branches of trees, you become acutely aware of your vulnerability: if any one of the elephants decided to charge, we could easily be killed. How anyone could raise a gun and shoot one of these magnificent giants is beyond me.

We watch from a safe distance, maneuvering ourselves out of the way every time one of the herd gets too close. After a while we leave them be to track and find other animals. Eventually we come across a herd of zebra. Of all the animals her, it’s the zebras that are most humanized. Our arrival triggers mild interest; a few heads are raised, tails are flicked before the novelty wears off and the zebra return to grazing.

In the shadows of shrubbery our quide quickly points out the brown hide of a group of Topu who turn their backs to us then hop and skip away, into the security and camouflage of the undergrowth.

As the sky darkens we make our way back to our mokoros. As we near the river we hear the distinctive grunts and moans of hippo. Our guide quickly leads us in a different direction to enable us to circumnavigate the grazing hippo. More people are killed in Africa by hippos than any other species; get in between a hippo and water and you are literally dead meat.

Back at camp, around a roaring fire, we set about cooking dinner. After dinner we find a few thin twigs in the bushes, shove marshmallows on the end and have roasted marshmallow for dessert!


Crossing the border from Zambia to Botswana involves: getting off the truck, filling in a form, getting an exit stamp in your passport, getting back on the truck, driving a few hundred metres, getting off the truck, bribing a ferryman (to get us to the front of the ferry queue), waiting for 40 minutes or so, getting on to a dodgy looking open-topped vehicle ferry, sitting on the ferry for 20 minutes as it crosses the Zambezi, getting off the ferry taking with you 2 pairs of shoes (they know that mzungos have more than one pair), filling in another form, getting an entry stamp, walking through a tray of disinfectant (to prevent foot and mouth), dipping your second pair of shoes in the tray then finally getting on the bus again. On a good day, the process takes about 2 hours; on a bad day, it can take up to 7!

Botswana is quite different to any of the other countries we’ve been to: 84% of the country is in fact desert – the Kalahari Desert. Desert is defined by rainfall and can take many forms so, whilst the Sahara is made up mostly of vertiginous sand dunes; the Khalahari Desert is actually pancake flat and covered in acacia scrub.

As we drove through northern Botswana, what became immediately evident was the almost complete lack of villages or small communities. Between the large towns are just miles and miles of acacia scrub spreading in every direction as far as the eye can see with little evidence of human life. Large areas are fenced off as game ranches where wealthy Americans come to hunt during the hunting season which starts in March and lasts for six months of the year. The roads are long and straight, criss-crossing the desert at perfect angles. Alongside the roads are dustbins bearing cartoon images and the words ‘feed me’ painted across them – the first attempt I’ve seen at keeping a country rubbish free.

When you reach a town, you get the sense that Botswana has moved further ahead than many of its neighbours; the houses here are brick with tin roofs and many have individual satellite dishes. In Maun we drove past a fantastic sports complex that was kitted out with all the mod cons including flood lighting; even the prison was smartly built and well kept.

Maun is a hotspot for tourism: it’s the gateway to the game reserves, the luxury hunting lodges and the unique natural wonder of the Okavango Delta. The Okavango Delta is unlike any other delta on earth in that it’s the only river delta that doesn’t head out to sea but instead spreads out like tendrils across the Kalahari Desert only to disappear.

As a delta in the middle of a desert the Okavango Delta attracts wildlife from miles around who thrive off the 18,000sq km of water and reed beds. It’s a unique ecosystem that attracts tourists in equal measure.
The evening we arrived in Maun, we set up camp then cooked enough mince to feed us for two days. The following day we were heading into the Delta to bush camp with no facilities so preparation was key.