Monday, 14 January 2008

A river runs through it

Victoria Falls certainly did not fail to impress. We had a wonderful day viewing the Falls from as many different angles as possible. Firstly from the top where everything is almost serene, then round to the Eastern Cataract where the Falls start and the noise is tremendous. Further round there is a circular walk and I think that by the time we had been round twice Gavin was getting a bit bored and we were soaked. Water was coming at us from all directions and we could not tell if it was raining or not. It was hilarious watching the other people dressed in all sorts of waterproof gear, or not, sometimes it is just best to succumb to the inevitable.
We then took a walk down to the “boiling pot”, a surging bend in the river soon after the Falls. This took us through a microclimate special to Victoria Falls and the path did turn into a river halfway down. However at the bottom we had a great view of people bungee jumping off the bridge to Zimbabwe. Gavin and I congratulated each other that we were both veterans of this sport for quite a few years now, so there is no need to have another go!. We also saw a large kingfisher which looked like a kookaburra and some sort of hyrax, neither of which I could find in my book to properly identify- must be very rare I am sure. After obtaining passes from immigration we headed out onto the bridge to Zimbabwe for yet another new view of the Falls. Back at the car I entertained a group of Germans by chasing away aggressive baboons with a big stick, we had to eat lunch in the car with the windows up.

We have since heard of the floods in Mozambique. Considering that the area around Victoria Falls has had rain for most of the day everyday for 24 days before we arrived it is hardly surprising. Interestingly the Zambezi was not actually unusually high at the Falls.

The next day we headed across the border to Botswana. At some check point along the way someone in a uniform tried to charge us “Council Tax” for entering the area, which we would be in for about an hour! Naturally we did not pay it. At the border we again seemed to make things difficult for ourselves. We knew there was a ferry across the Zambezi so we had taken some cash out to cover this. However, it seems that the Zambian government did not really like its own currency and insists that all foreign vehicles must pay in either US dollars or South African Rand. We did not really want to change the money we had just changed from Sterling in to Zambian Kwacha into US Dollars at a rather less than favourable exchange rate with the local black market dudes. So we scrabbled around and found the required number of dollars in an oddment of notes. Now it really gets ridiculous. They would not accept the single dollar notes so we in fact ended up paying less than standard fare in dollars when we were willing to pay the correct fare in local currency. You win some sometimes I guess.

The Botswana border is quite interesting, from the ferry one can see Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and Zimbabwe whilst being closely watched by crocodiles and hippos. There were no banks or Forex offices on the Zambian side of the border so we hoped that there would be on the Botswana side, we prefer these to dodgy black market dudes. Anyway there was nothing on the other side either side of the Zambezi and rather than risk getting caught out and not being able to use our Zambian Kwacha, back on the ferry I went to Zambia to strike a deal with a dodgy dude. It is odd that so many of the countries we have travelled through will not exchange the currency of their neighbouring countries.

It was immediately evident that Botswana is a much more affluent African country. There are many more private vehicles. They may all be rather old and knackered but they are still private and the people drive them much more conservatively- not like the NGO employees hooning around in shiny white Toyota Land Cruisers. The roads are generally maintained and there is lots of MEAT in the supermarkets and butchers. Here “Fresh Produce” means meat rather than fruit and veg. So now Gavin is happy, but for me the fruit and veg is not nearly as good as in other countries- you win some you lose some. In Kasane we stocked up on fuel, engine oil, groceries- all cheaper in Botswana, and made enquiries about the route we hoped was possible through Chobe National Park to Maun. We were told it was a bit wet and we only had to pay park entry fees at one point. So off we went.

After the tar seal ended, we carried on a very good dirt track, the only bad areas where at an animal crossing and elephant herds had really mashed up the road. We found a good spot to camp and made a lovely bush camp with a big fire to keep the animals away. There were prints of all sorts of animals around but I could not identify any lion paw prints.

The next day we entered the Chobe National Park and the road began to deteriorate. The main problem was the water, however it was very sandy and despite the massive deluge of rain during the night it had already started to drain away and the base of the puddles/ ponds/ rivers were firm. A vehicle coming in the other direction also informed us the road through to Maun was passable. Close to Savuti camp we came to a watering hole where which looked like a Richard Scary painting. There were animals everywhere, kudu, gazelle, elephants, jackals, pied stilts, wildebeest, all sorts. It was wonderful. That evening elephants came wondering right through the campsite, very close to the car- luckily I did not have any mangoes in the car- otherwise we would have been eating them as quickly as we could.

It rained very heavily again overnight and the next morning we set off in convoy with a Dutch couple, in a rental vehicle, and a South African couple in their Toyota. The road was considerably worse than the previous day with the good firm sand gradually giving way to mud. At the Park exit gate the Ranger informed us that the road to Maun was in fact barely passable. The road got even worse, then there was a river crossing which was not possible in the rainy season and the detour was not easy find, very boggy and likely that we would get stuck any way. Also there are dangerous wild animals. The advice was that we should take the road through Moremi Park, and pay another set of Park fees. We had been wiped out of all our Pula entering Chobe and although there were offers to lend us the money from the others we decided to push on along the road on our own. After all, we have arms and could dig.

We said goodbye to our new friends and found a good spot to have some lunch, stick some chewing gum in the fuel tank hole we had noticed a few other car checks and play swap the tyres again. Gavin took over driving while I again became the “pathfinder”. Which meant I got to wade through all the ponds and puddles. We made very slow progress and after a few hours came to where we thought the detour turnoff could be. We were heading in the right direction and the road had even improved as we circumnavigated a large area of wetlands. It was a beautiful spot and it would have been lovely to spend an hour or so birdwatching, but we had more pressing matters. Soon we came to a big lot of wet, wet, wet road. We jumped out and spent some time surveying the area. There was plenty of evidence of where other people had got stuck. First was the big hole with mud and sand banked up. The hole was twice the size of the car- it must have taken those guys a long time to dig themselves out. Then there were braches and sticks everywhere where people had tried to make the whole road for 50 metres or so driveable. Our problem was in getting around this big hole. To the right it seemed a bit firmer and was our only real option. Unfortunately it was not firm enough. We got STUCK and stuck fast.

There were no trees to winch ourselves off. So down came the sand ladders, shovels and out came the high-lift jack. The mud was particularly tiresome because it was sandy mud, so when we shovelled it out of the way it just got back in the way again.
We were making progress when three local lads who had been fishing turned up. They insisted on helping us and eventually Gavin drove the car free to firm ground. Then we all jumped in the car and the boys said they would show us the way to the village. It became a bit like the blind leading the blind and after they got us lost and we found ourselves again using the GPS we eventually popped out at the village and said goodbye to our helpers with their fresh catch. From there onwards the road was good. Ironically in the space of a couple of kilometres we experienced both the best and the worst dirt roads for the whole trip so far.

The next day we trundled in to Maun and bumped into our friends at the fuel station- we had beaten them! Although we were considerably dirtier, and had a few more car noises to torment Gavin. I have to say that my chewing gum repair (the first repair to the car I have been permitted to do) responded to the challenge very well.

We found a good campsite with the best hot showers and plenty of clean water for laundry and took a few days rest.

Now having spent a few hours playing search the ATM which will let us have some cash we are on our way to the Tsodilo Hills and from then on to the Namibian border.