Monthly Archives: August 2009

Victoria Falls

I’m sure most people don’t realize it but there is a method to my traveling madness, or at least the Africa portion of it anyway. Two years ago when I returned from study abroad in New Zealand I realized I had no answer to the “where would you most want to go to in the world?” question, so I checked a map to see what corner of the world should top my list. Victoria Falls in the middle of Africa seemed like a suitable candidate because it caught my eye first being in the middle of the map and seemed like a place that would take a couple years to get to.

Two years later there I am, traveling  thousands of miles over bumpy roads in questionable countries, under the technical guise to see Victoria Falls.  Life is really funny sometimes isn’t it?

So anyway, the Falls.  Because most people have been to Niagara Falls it’s easiest to describe them based on Niagara- they’re officially taller but I never noticed a serious difference in height.  Instead what is the most noticeable difference is the length of the Falls- imagine Niagara being twice as long and it will give you a good idea of what it’s like.  It takes about 20 minutes or so to walk from one end to the other in a nice little national park, the entire time enduring a gigantic roar so loud you can continually hear it in the town of Victoria Falls about a mile away.

Other than dimensions, I’d say the biggest difference between Victoria Falls and Niagara is the mist.  You never really get wet while at Niagara Falls if you don’t want to- the gorge on the other side is significantly wider, and there’s probably less water going over because of the hydroelectric station- but in Victoria Falls you’re a lot closer and there’s so much mist it’s more like rain (there’s even a small rainforest, the only one for hundreds of miles in any direction!).  Some of the tourists will hence bring rain jackets or don trash bags sold by the hawkers outside the park, but Linda and I didn’t realize this would be an issue and it was a warm day so we instead got completely soaked.  But the rainbows created by all the mist were quite lovely…

Me in my “looking like a wet rat” phase after getting soaked by the mist in front of the famous Victoria Falls bridge, linking Zimbabwe with Zambia (we never went to the Zambia side because it was an additional $45 for that visa and Zimbabwe has most of the view).  The bridge was originally built at the turn of the 20th century by Cecil Rhodes to link his mining fields to Southern Africa and as part of his (never built) “Cape Town to Cairo” railway scheme.

A word about Cecil Rhodes because the man is the only person I know to have two countries named after him (Northern Rhodesia and Southern Rhodesia, now Zambia and Zimbabwe respectively), and I suspect having even one country after you is grounds for being a little crazy.  He started out in a little diamond business called De Beers, and was briefly Prime Minister of the British Cape Colony until forced to resign because of an attempted take over the Boer colony of Transvaal (ie where the Boers discovered gold) which failed miserably.  Undaunted, Rhodes managed to consolidate de Beers to control the diamond market that still exists today, partly by going north and creating colonies by getting mining concessions from tribal chiefs in his former-namesake countries, most questionable at best, then forcing the native tribes to give him cheap labor through taxes in a system Mark Twain dubbed “worse than slavery.”  Rhodes was an imperialist because he believed the Anglo-Saxon race to be the most superior on Earth- in fact, he included the United States in the famous Rhodes scholarships because he wanted to breed an elite of philosopher-kings who would get the US to rejoin the British Empire.

Ok, so Rhodes was probably a combination of crazy and a product of the colonial mindset (“the white man’s burden” and all that).  Regardless, it is hard to find a man who shaped modern African history more.

Except perhaps this guy could make an argument for that title- Dr. Livingstone, I presume?  Livingstone was a Christian missionary and explorer who among other things was the first white man to glimpse Victoria Falls.  He accomplished all this by traveling light and (gasp!) respecting local chiefs he met which caused everyone to say he was crazy.  The famous quotation was uttered by the journalist Henry Stanley who was sent to find Livingstone after he’d been missing for four years or at least allegedly uttered- Stanley tore the pages out of his diary detailing the encounter.  Either way, Livingstone intentionally or unintentionally set in motion the European colonialist movement in Africa, and in turn the mission schools whose foundation inspired ended up educating most of the leaders of independence movements on the continent years later.

So there it is, I have finally been to the place I most wanted to visit on Earth.  Which leads to an interesting question- what should I choose as my place I most want to visit in the world next?  I’m not sure yet but I’m tempted to continue the waterfall theme and say Iguazu Falls on the Brazil-Argentine border- after all, I have never been to South America…

Welcome to Zimbabwe

When it turned out that my overland trip in Southern Africa would end in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe, I can’t say I was certain what to expect because of all the stories you hear about on the news these days- nations associated with words such as “hyperinflation” and “cholera epidemic” and “lowest life expectancy rate on Earth” (37 for men, 34 for women) do not exactly sound like premier destinations. But people on the ground said “Vic Falls” is safe so I decided to trust them.

I should also note that about two weeks after I went to Zimbabwe the main story I saw that day on BBC News was about how they were finally back in Zimbabwe and showing the conditions. So on the other hand of the above advice, I have officially visited places the BBC doesn’t dare go! Wimps.

The reason Zimbabwe is such a bad place to live these days can be seen above- hyperinflation. The notes above, all printed in 2008, range from ZA$200 million to ZA$50 trillion, which if you stop and do the numbers is the same as going from $1 to $100,000 in a year. Obviously these notes are worthless now- they stopped printing the notes this past April because they literally ran out of paper to print the money on, and the Zimbabwe dollar ceased to exist on July 1, about two weeks before we were there. Nowadays everyone uses American dollars or South African Rand in the country, and you need to bring in all your currency as there is no money in any of the ATMs. Makes for interesting planning.

So what is the effect of such massive hyperinflation unparalleled anywhere else in the world? Well the way to imagine Zimbabwe these days is it’s in a state of decay- when a window breaks you just cover it up because you can’t purchase or even find the glass you need for a new pane, and when you can’t afford money to treat the water anymore you get a cholera epidemic. (To be fair the epidemic does not exist in Victoria Falls, but everyone showered with their mouth shut to be on the safe side.) Even in a tourist town like Victoria Falls some of the big expensive hotels had collapsed roofs because there’s no way to get new thatch or pay people to re-thatch the roof.

As a result of the hyperinflation, you can’t assume on any given day that you’re going to get the supplies you need to survive, as everything even very basic needs to be brought in from outside the country.  This is the sign at the Victoria Falls gas station- they had diesel the day before, but guess they ran out.  No paraffin on any of the days we were there, which is a pretty basic thing to have when the electricity is known to cut in and out erratically.image268

The advantage of hyperinflation is the price of the local beer at the tourist bar (called Zambezi) is US$1.  The bad news is, believe it or not, these are two brand new beers just handed over from the barman!  Obviously these bottles are recycled as long as they don’t leak beer and the machine filling the bottles is a bit eccentric as well, but everyone just hopes that the alcohol has killed off whatever might have survived what must be a rigorous disinfecting process. (Like that cholera bacterium- yay?)

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Of course there’s only so much I can say about the current situation in Zimbabwe because I only went to one town in it, which was a tourist town on the border at that.  Having said that I think my heart would absolutely break at seeing the conditions in the rest of Zimbabwe, because the only word I can use to describe the people there is desperate.  Absolutely desperate, to a degree I did not come across even in Asia or other places in Africa.

Take going to the market.  My sister and I had heard you can barter for souvenirs at the market with old stuff you don’t need anymore, so we took her pair of six-year-old tennis shoes to see what we could get for them.  We couldn’t have gotten a better reaction had we showed up at the market with a bar of gold- every person at that market greeted us with a “hello sister,” breathed down our necks, asked if we wanted something if we so much as looked at it, and generally harassed us more than I ever have in any other 3rd world market before.  My sister and I were lucky we were able to speak in Hungarian before, but we needed to make up code words for things that sounded too similar to English pronunciation because the hawkers would latch onto any small indication that we might be interested (elefant became a szurke, “the gray one,” for example, hippos became “the fat one”).  We also said we were from Hungary instead of American when asked- God help us if we ponied up on that detail- but one guy decided to give us the standard “oh Hungary, I love that country and have friends who live there!” shpeel.

“Do you even know where Hungary is?” I asked in an exasperated tone, getting pretty worn out by the harassment by this point.

“No, but I’d rather be there than here,” he pointed out, and I really couldn’t argue about that.

Anyway, pictured above is the lucky guy who got my sister’s old shoes, which we exchanged for two beautifully carved sets of stone bookends and a stone soap dish, the whole lot probably worth US$100 in the rest of the world. (I just typed “the real world” actually but deleted it- we often forget stuff like this is in the real world!) I took this picture after we confirmed the deal and immediately he became overjoyed that this was his lucky day- said the shoes were for his wife- and became the nicest guy you could imagine.

You’ll run into this a lot in Zimbabwe by the way- you will be harassed within an inch of your life because you’re probably spending more in a few days than many will have in a year because there’s 80% unemployment, but once they realize it’s a good day they relax and smile and engage in great conversation.  Two brothers even threw in a pair of necklaces and showed us a shortcut out of the market as a gesture of goodwill.

I spent my weekend in Zimbabwe enjoying the Falls and doing various adrenaline activities I will outline in a later post.  But as the final note on the “current situation in Zimbabwe” post, it should be noted that I while getting into Zimbabwe was pretty easy (hand over US$30, you are handed a visa to stay as long as you like), I had a surprisingly hard time getting out.  See my handwritten airline ticket above for the flight to Johannesburg, complete with handwritten luggage check of the same type, which I got at the counter next to the giant old definitely-not-digital balance scale.  I had an electronic ticket for the flight, and it turns out if you’re doing so you need to make sure you document it within an inch of your life because (obviously) the computers were down.  So we needed to call Johannesburg for me to get on the flight- lucky the phones were working!- so I was luckily able to get the hell out of Zimbabwe.

The other object in my lap there was one of two postcards my sister and I purchased for US$2 each, probably the most expensive postcard I have ever purchased especially when compared to the prices of everything else in the nation.  Why so expensive?  Because they’ve ceased printing Victoria Falls postcards, of course, so if you want one you’ll need to pay dearly for it.

What a heartbreaking country.  I cannot think of any nation on Earth where I wish the people a better life and future more than Zimbabwe.

Summary of Botswana

Botswana is a lovely country with amazing scenery and people not found elsewhere.   They are also sort of famous in Africa for being the most politically stable country since independence (a multi-party system with no vote rigging and a free press is unheard of  anywhere else), so it’s always nice to support the places that get it right.

Highlights-

- I am in love with the Okavango Delta and consider it to be one of the true highlights of my entire trip.  Just an amazing place completely unlike one you will find anywhere else on Earth.  Plus the campfire night where we got an odd mix of local African music and some of our own tunes going was simply magical.

- Also, do yourself a favor and fork over the extra dollars for a flight over the Delta so long as you’re there.  You won’t regret appreciating the scale and doing a safari by air, I promise you!

- I saw a male lion in Chobe National Park as well as so many elephants that I got sick of them.  Plus there was luxury camping meaning I didn’t have to do food prep or anything! Sweet.

- As a fun little detail, my sister and I were very impressed that when we wanted a plastic bag to carry our grocery purchases in Maun they charged us the equivalent of ten cents for the bag.  There is something very interesting about a nation considered third world which is more environmentally friendly than your own.

Lowlights-

- I got bit by mosquitoes in the Delta, the only place in a malarial zone where such a thing happened (we were careful and took pills regularly and bathed in repellant, but mosquitoes seem to think my blood is tastier than candy).  This is annoying because if I ever develop flu-like symptoms the next year I need to get tested for parasites living in my bloodstream, which is a titillating prospect I must say.  As a complete aside however one of the world’s best malaria study centers is at CWRU, so I’m sure those researchers would be totally psyched.

- It is unfortunate to mention that the one time someone tried to cheat me during my entire trip (in a very real sense, not a “trying to see if I can get away with an overinflated price” sense) was in Botswana, at the Maun Campground.  My sister and I decided to upgrade to really nice digs after the Delta which were rather expensive for Africa, which were lovely until a fire started on the electrical pole beside our bungalow.  Oh lovely… anyway, fire was put out but we were obviously without power or hot water, and instead of offering any refund on this the campground waited until very late at night to offer us $5 off a $60 room or the full refund if we wanted to set up our tent at that godforsaken hour.  Somehow we weren’t particularly touched by this offer so we put  up  at tent that night on principle.  As I said, this is the only time I felt in any country that someone was not going out of their way to be nice to the customer, probably because this campground has a bit of a monopoly in Maun for people who want to go out to the Delta.

- Last, there is an odd little ritual in Botswana whereby every 100 km or so there is a checkpoint and everyone needs to walk through disinfectant with their shoes.  This is ostensibly to curb the spread of foot and mouth disease but seeing as there have been no cases in this part of the world for years it’s really more a remnant of government bureaucracy they haven’t managed to be rid of.

What really annoyed me was how one day we went through these checkpoints around lunchtime, and they checked our coolers and discovered we had salami.  Technically you’re not supposed to carry meat through the checkpoints but the real reason the salami was unearthed is because the guards were hungry and wanted to confiscate it, but in order to screw them our cook and driver ate the stuff quickly rather than hand it over.  Thus later at lunch that day there was a salami shortage, which is a great tragedy when the only other meat you can get in that part of the world is spam mystery meat  a finicky eater such as myself won’t touch.

Funny the things that really upset you in hindsight.  Cheers!

Chobe National Park

Chobe National Park is the big game park in Botswa, just a stone’s throw from where Botswana, Namibia, Zambia, and Zimbabwe come together.  We spent a night there but I think more people as excited about the digs that night as they were about seeing animals, as we were billed for a night of “luxury camping.”  What does that mean, you ask?  It meant a three-course meal on linen instead of balancing our plastic plates on our knees, a tent tall enough to stand up in instead of crawling around on knees, and a cot instead of the good ol’ sleeping bag.  These are the things that excite you after nearly three weeks of camping, believe you me.

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To begin the safari highlights, here are some giraffes.  After many safaris I am convinced that giraffes are my second favorite African animal (you just can’t beat leopards), just because they are the most messed up example of evolution out there.  I mean look at that thing drink, it needs to disjoint its shoulders to do it!

Next,  a troop of baboons causing a ruckus in a tree.  I was rather amazed by them because they were doing antics that looked just like the Barrel of Monkeys game.image191

The all-important task of grooming.  You get to eat all the lice you find, so it’s not a bad deal at all!image195

Here is the fun-filled fact of the day I learned while on safari- a warthog is called an “o’pumba” in these parts.  There are no meercats in this part of Africa, so no word on whether they’re called “timone” in any local language!

Anyway, once we were done with a land-based safari it was time for a boat cruise on the Chobe River!  Except by “boat” I mean “barge some bright entrepreneur stuck a roof and plastic lawn chairs on,” because this is how things are done in Africa.  I don’t think I saw something that would pass as a “normal” boat anywhere on the Chobe River actually…

A few hungry, hungry hippos who are the sole inhabitants of this island in the middle of the Chobe River.  Interestingly enough this island is one of the more highly contested pieces of property in the world as the Chobe River marks the boundary between Botswana and Namibia.  Just a few years ago tensions ran so high in the dispute that it took a ruling in Botswana’s favor by the International Court to settle the dispute!

And what did Botswana do with this new found territory?  Add it as part of Chobe National Park of course!  Seems a little silly really- I don’t think the hippos particularly minded being Namibian or Botswanan.image209

Huh.  Did you know male elephants have five legs?

Anyway, Chobe National Park is noteworthy because it has an elephant population numbering around 130,000, meaning it has the highest concentration of elephants anywhere in the world.  In fact there are about 60,000 elephants too many which pose a serious problem- you can’t cull them because Greenpeace gets really pissed, and you can’t send them to other parks because elephants never forget and come back.  Until a solution is found, large swaths of Chobe look like a tornado just passed through due to the destruction caused by too many elephants.

No African river cruise is complete without a few crocodiles, so here is a picture of one looking appropriately evil. To my knowledge, there has never been a sympathetic-looking crocodile found in nature.

Chobe was my last African safari, which is probably an ok thing because I wouldn’t want to take the risk of going out one too many times and losing the magic of it.  But as a final note we did see a male lion just late enough at night so I couldn’t take a picture- who proceeded to roar and mark his territory lest we forget his rule of nature.  Pure magic.

Okavango Delta from Above

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When you’re in the middle of the Okavango Delta, it’s impossible to grasp the scale of it. The place is several thousand square kilometers, meaning we only moved an inch or so on the map above, and the only way to really understand the scale of it is from the air.

Our little eight-seater plane that took us on an hour-long ride above the Delta. I’ve done little planes before, but this one made me sick to my stomach by the end of things, probably because you’re so obsessed the whole time with looking at details on the ground.  As for what the Delta looks like from above, well…Picture 002

It was wonderful, absolutely wonderful.  We flew at 500 feet or so the whole time and wow, you really cannot imagine the scale of this place until you look to the horizon and all you see is water, islands, and more water for some good measure.

The most exciting part of  the Okavango Delta from above, though, is spotting the occasional animals as you go by.  Like those grey lumps on the left?  Elephants!  The countless trails through the reeds are made by animals too, as they travel between the islands.

It’s really hard to get a good picture of the animals below from a speeding plane so I opted to not spend much time doing it and enjoy the ride instead, but here’s a picture of water buffalo to give you an idea of what it’s like up there.

My favorite thing though?  The amazing clarity of the water from 500 feet- it’s pretty shallow and water in the Delta is always moving, meaning you can see the bottom!  At one point I even saw a hippo floating with his head above the water like we had from the ground, but from the plane I could see the rest of his body below the water, kicking legs and all.  What a marvel…

All too soon it was time to come down to Earth, but I must say this combined with the trip into the Delta the prior two days was one of the true highlights of my trip.  It never ceases to amaze me that the world never gets boring even after several months of exploring it- just when you think you might have a grasp on things a world marvel like the Okavango Delta will amaze you with its beauty and uniqueness, and leave you breathless.

Okavango Delta

There are some places that speak to you on the level of their immensity, their beauty, their unique position on our planet, and one of those places for me is the Okavango Delta. This place is amazing- it is the area where the Okavango River from the Angolan highlands ends in the Kalahari Desert, miles and miles from the ocean, covering 15,000 square kilometers. It’s billed as “the world’s largest inland delta” but frankly any guide will tell you there aren’t really any others upon questioning, and there is really nowhere else quite like it on Earth.

So naturally, we had to check it out.

All aboard at the poling station! Now the water in most of the Delta isn’t very deep- think waist-deep if that- so the local tribes in the area get around by a flat-bottomed boat called a mkoro made from a sausage tree. These days there are two types of mkoro, one from original wood and one from fiberglass, and if you ever go into the Delta I recommend the fiberglass kind as they’re roomier and less likely to take on water. Plus they’re better for the environment, as the sausage trees are not sustainable for the demand…

What our group ended up doing was two nights of true bush camping in the Delta, as in the no running water dig a hole kind of camping, on one of the larger islands in the Okavango area. This means we needed to fit everything onto the group mkoros for the journey in and out, and there was lots of chaos at the poling station as we got ready!

If you’re wondering why the starting point is called the poling station, it’s for the simple reason that a mkoro is propelled by a poler/guide, who are native to the area. You can try poling a mkoro but it’s surprisingly difficult, most people fall in their first try…

This year is a record flood in the Delta, the largest flood in 40-odd years!, meaning what was normally a 1.5 hour mkoro ride to our campsite was transformed into a 3-hour odyssey (and, of course, three hours getting back). We definitely felt sorry for the polers by the end of it.image260

A picture of Ruth, our tour guide for the overland adventure, who was on her nth ride into the Delta. She is hugging her giraffe water bottle which I confess I was insanely jealous of on the entire trip, both for the cuteness factor and the fact that water bottles are awesome.

Oh, and just so no one ever accuses me of making Africa sound a lot more rosy than it really is at some times, see those little black specks on my sister’s backpack in this picture? Bugs. Thousands of thousands of bugs that were hiding in the reeds of the Okavango and attacked our mkoro while we were going, whose only goal in life was to find the most awkward crevice on your person and die there. Don’t come to Africa if you don’t like bugs, ok?

I’m the hip-hop-opatamus, my lyrics are bottomless!

Another cautionary warning to African adventurers- beware the hippo. Most people don’t realize it but they’re the most deadly animals in Africa because they don’t like boats and are known to attack any that come into their pools. They’re kind of hard to spot too, just poke their heads up on occasion before disappearing below again.

Now our guide isn’t crazy, so this picture was taken from the reedy edge of a hippo pool on our sunset mkoro ride, and Linda and I were perfectly happy to sit on the edge where we could see the bottom. Some of our other tourist friends apparently did not get the memo of “the game is Hungry Hungry Hippos for a reason” and kept complaining about how they wanted to go closer, wanted to see the hippo charge or somethin’… Their polers flat-out said they were too scared to go closer while Linda and I stared in mild amazement. If you’re going to come to nature you’d better show some respect, as if you want a perfect shot you can go to the zoo instead!

Speaking of animals, you know what the coolest thing about the Delta is? You go on safari here, but on foot instead of a car! It gives a completely different feeling to the whole safari adventure to examine all the tracks and scat and learn a lion walked where you’re standing the night previous, or try to sneak up on a heard of animals… but not too close…

Our poler and guide Kapinga, the man we de facto entrusted our lives to. He was also awesome and knew everything about the bush you could imagine, such as an explanation here about how termite mounds have built-in air conditioning. At the end Linda and I gave him an extra 20 pula tip (about US$3, the amount each person was advised to tip the group of polers) and I never saw anyone so happy with such a small amount.How the cool kids gear up for an Okavango Delta safari, or at least the kids who have an older sister who don’t want to carry the sunscreen and bug spray.

Back through the reeds on the mkoro on our way out of the Delta (much less buggy this time). Imagine this going on for about three hours and you get an idea of what going through the Delta is like. Though if you’re having trouble getting the scale of things and wish you could see it from above, just wait until the next post…