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Saturday, March 16, 2019

Hyenas are no laughing matter


Monday February  18th 

We’ve now set up camp near the Khwai river on Okavango Delta.  There’s a reserve and a community area.  That’s different than a park.  In the park there’s no commercial activities allowed – with the exception of a few sanctioned lodges.  The reserve is an area where the animals are protected, but some commercial activities – such as mining – are allowed.  The community area has no restrictions and where the people live.  Our camp has been set up in a campsite in the community area.
Real washrooms!

Looking for Dogs
We rise at our usual early time and head out into the reserve.  We have to sign in and that’s when we make a staggering discovery – They have modern washrooms at the reserve and park gates!   They even have showers!  There is a stampede for the washroom.  People return with big smiles on their faces.  Since we’ll be passing in and out of the gated areas every day the hated “long drop” toilets are now designated as “emergency” only.   There are also several posters up asking people to let the researchers know if anyone spots or takes pictures of the wild dogs.  I’m tempted to put a note on the bottom to let us know as well.
Bridge on the River Kwai
Because the Khwai river.  It’s not to be confused with the Kwai River in Thailand although some of the bridges over the river Khwai look like the bridge in the movie.   – which I also visited) is no near that habitat is lush and green – in contrast to the Chobe park we previous visited. The majority of the reserve is populated with a thick mopane forest. 

Bridge on the River Khwai
Shaka spots a vulture circling in the distance and heads off road to see what’s attracting him.  We find jackals crunching on the bones, while the vultures wait their turn.  Shaka figures what we’re looking at was a happy, but slow-moving wildebeest who fell prey to lions a few hours earlier.  I comment that I expected to see more vultures.  One of the Brits comments that Vultures are now endangered – particularly in neighbouring South Africa.  When I wonder what’s killing them, he tells me it’s locals.   Evidently there’s a belief that sleeping with a vulture head under your pillow will increase your odds in winning the lottery – I’m not making this up – here’s the link.
Save the bones for me:  jackals
I can just see Lottery Night In South Africa.
Host: “I’m here with Robert Kubayi, our most recent winner of Powerball Plus.  Congratulations, Robert.  Can you share with our viewers your secret for picking the winning numbers?  Birthdates?  Anniversaries?”
Lonely Vulture
Robert (Holding up vulture head): “Actually, John, it’s my lucky vulture head.  I slept with it a week and had a vision.”
Host: “Really!  Don’t you think that’s superstitious claptrap?  Aren’t you worried about what you’re doing to the environment?”
Robert: “This is the third lottery I’ve won this year!”
Host: “So, where do you get one of those?”  

Lest you think this superstitious nonsense is only restricted to Africa, it’s a little-known fact that in the Godfather I after Luca Brasi put the horse head in Woltz’s bed both of them won the trifactor in Hialeah!  Look it up!
The elephant is getting pretty close

We saw lots of elephants and hippos, along with antelope, zebras and Giraffes.  Around sunset Shaka stopped outside a hyena den.  I have to admit of all the animals we’ve seen the only ones that truly scare me are the hyenas.   All the animals in the park don’t seem to be concerned about the vehicles.  They look at them as sort of moving scenery - they don’t seem to know or care that there’s “meat” inside them.  All of them, that is, except the hyenas.  They’re sort of like the velociraptors in Jurassic Park – they KNOW that there’s something edible in there.  And if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll notice that the car is wide open – no locking the doors and rolling up the windows.  The open car is sort of a hyena eating station.
hyenas sizing us up
As the sun sets the hyenas stream out of their den and surround the vehicle.  One of them actually begins to bite the tires.  His teeth are so long and so sharp that Shaka is actually worried he might actually puncture it.  The others stand on their hind paws and look up at us.   

Hyenas are one of the truly scary predators.  Even lions are afraid of them.  They are extremely intelligent – some say smarter than chimpanzees.  They hunt in packs and are highly effective and fear nothing.

I’m glad when we finally head back to camp. 
“How far is their den from our camp?” one of the Germans asks.
“About 2km,” answers Shaka. “They sometimes come through the camp.  They won’t bother you as long as you keep your tents zipped up and don’t have any food in the tent.”
Sure enough, around two in the morning I hear hooting and roaring as the pack as come to visit.   I’m not sure how an eighth of an inch of canvas is going to keep a 150lb hungry carnivore out of me tent. I’d rather share my tent with a snake and two lions than a hyena.  I pull the covers over my head and pray.   Eventually they go away.  I don’t get out of bed till I get my morning wake-up call.

Tuesday February 19th

mokoros
This morning we’re scheduled to take a water safari on mokoros. A mokoro is a type of boat used on the Okavango delta.  It looks like a cross between a surfboard and a canoe.    It’s propelled by standing in the stern and poling it along the river like a punt. It was traditionally made by digging out an ebony or kigelia tree.  It’s now a popular way for tourists to get a different perspective of the river.  The bad news is that the hippopotamus thinks it’s a wonderful game to sneak up under them and overturn them.

Shaka drives us up to the river where the Mokoro guys are waiting.  The first thing we notice is that the mokoros are no longer made out of wood.  They’re made out of fiberglass.  The guy in charge points out that they are much lighter and easier to carry.
“And for the hippos to flip over,” I add.  This gets me a dirty look as he pulls out a clip board with the liability release forms for us to sign.   I try and scan it to see if hippo liability is covered, but it’s snatched out of my hands.

Hippo looking for mokoro to tip
We’re assigned two to a boat with a guy to pole us along and act as a guide.  As we quietly glide along the river the guide points out the obligatory birds. 
“Is that a fluted seersucker?” I ask.  
“Ignore him,” the Brit I’m sharing the mokoro instructs him.  
We see interesting flora and fauna as we glide along.  For me the highlight is seeing an African Boa.  I’ll take snakes over birds any day.  We also see some small crocodiles.   We can hear hippos laughing around the bend, but the guides won’t get anywhere near them.
“Very dangerous,” our guide says.  “More people killed by angry hippos than any other animal.”
“What kind of birds are those?” I ask, pointing at two small grey lumps swimming towards us.
“Oh, Oh,” says the guide. “Those are hippo ears.  There’s a hippo swimming right towards us.  Be very still.”
We hold our breath as the hippo glides by not three feet away.   
After an hour of poling up river, we pause for coffee and cookies, then get back in our mokoros and head back to our starting point where Shaka is waiting.

During the afternoon we spot a leopard.  We actually don’t spot the actual leopard.  We see the signs that a leopard is nearby – namely five other cars surrounding a tree.  We drive up to see what they’re look at to be treated to a leopard fast asleep in a tree - no doubt dreaming of leaping down on one of those pesky cars and scaring the bejesus out of the occupants.   After a while the other cars depart and we wait a bit.  Our patience is rewarded when the leopard, seeing the show is over, nimbly climbs down the tree and slinks off into the bush.


Tomorrow another travel day to our final camp.


Thursday, March 7, 2019

Scared Sh*tless in Botswana





Our  mobile tent camp

Thursday February 14th

Happy Valentines Day!   Today is the day my ten-day safari is supposed to begin and I have a lot angst about it.  The previous few days have just been about getting here.  Now I have to get to the starting point of my Botswana safari in Kasane.  I’ve been worrying about this for weeks.  I have to be in Kasane by 8:45am sharp.  I’ve written to Raza several times about my concerns about the transfer.  He assures me he’s contacted the BushTracks, the company responsible to get me there and they have it under control. 
When I arrived in Johannesburg the first thing, I did was take the representative who met me aside and ask if they had the transfer under control and realized I had to be in Kasane by 8:45 at the latest.

Lest you think I’m worried about a simple transfer, let me explain something.  This “simple” transfer from point “A” to point “B” which is less than 30 km involves no fewer than three different countries, four different guides, three vehicles and a ferry boat.  Smuggling an allied flier out of occupied France was child’s play compared to this.

The first guy was to show up at the hotel at 7:00am sharp.  He shows up at 7:10. He informs me he has to pick up some other customers on the way.  We wait 15 minutes at their hotel - they don’t show up.   The bottom line is I arrive at the meeting place in Kasane ten minutes late – luckily they have  waited for me.

Hippos along Chobe River
At the starting point I meet my fellow travelers: there was an English couple, a German couple, and a single German lady and single guy from England – seven in all.   Our guide for the trip is a Zulu guy named Shaka. 

5 hours in the rain
After filling out the requisite paperwork our first event is cruise along the Chobe river.   We see crocodiles, hippos, and antelope.  We also see rain.  As the cruise progresses so does the intensity of the rain.  By the time the cruise ends the rain is pelting down.  I look forward to getting into a nice dry vehicle for the five-hour drive to our first camp in central Chobe.  That’s when I receive my first surprise:  we are travelling in an open Toyota Landcruiser.  The  The bad news is they aren’t very effective when you’re driving down a highway in the rain at 80km an hour.  I have the poncho hood pulled up tight so I’m just looking out of a small hole for about  five hours while my hand luggage gets soaked.  Our main luggage is secured in a covered trailer behind us.  At a rest stop I ask Shaka if I can climb in the trailer and ride with my luggage  - it will be drier.
good news is we’re provided with ponchos.
Our transportation

Our destination is the Savuti Channel.  It borders the Delta to the west and Chobe National Park to the east.  It runs about 100km for the Chobe River to the Mababe Depression.  It was flowing when Livingstone (I’m not sure if it was David “A” or David “B”) first set eyes on it in 1880.  It’s been dry for the past 18 years.

Kenya tent
I receive my second surprise when we arrive at our camp and are assigned our tents.  I knew I was staying in a tent, but I sort of thought it would be more along the lines of the tents I stayed in when I visited Kenya. 

The five tents are set up in a row.  They are identical and I’m assigned tent four.  There’s no sign designating it as such and during the day I get confused and enter the wrong tent several times much to the annoyance of my fellow travelers. 

Botswana Tent

My tent consists of a single bed and a small table.  The “attached” bathroom is an open area surrounded by four tarps.  In one corner is the “long drop” toilet – basically another name for a pit toilet.  We are told we should dump a couple of shovel-full of ashes down the hole after each use.  I have several friends who wouldn’t need to worry about doing that since there is no way they’d be using it.  
My "long drop" toilet
My friend, Dave, in particular is rather fussy about this sort of thing.  He won’t use the outhouse at our summer cottage, saying he doesn’t want to be perched over a mountain of Groberman  droppings.  Another friend,  Tom, boasts he once went for two weeks without going at summer camp.   One of the guides at Victoria Falls told me that David Livingstone – I’m not sure if it was David A. Livingstone or David B. Livingstone – had his heart buried in Africa.  I take some comfort knowing that some part of me will also be buried in Africa.

bush shower
In the other corner of the tent washroom is the bush shower – which consists of a galvanized bucket with a shower spigot attached to the bottom.  Once a day it’s filled with hot water.  The idea is to make sure you use the water judiciously lest you soap up and find you have no water to rinse off.  This would be a major deal killer for my daughter, Aviva, who’s motto is the shower ain’t over until the hot water tank is drained – no matter how big the hot water tank.
The deluxe bathroom is finished off with a canvas sink with a small mirror hanging above it.

I can see by the expression on their faces this is not quite the experience that my fellow travelers had signed on to.  Along with them I decided to make the best of it thinking if I’m ever sent to prison I can turn to my cell mate and say, “You think this is bad?  It’s luxury.”

A typical dinner
The good news on this safari ( and a selling point for me) is there’s unlimited booze:  There’s G & T, for the Brits,  schnapps for the Germans, beer for me and wine for everybody.  I guess the company figures if you give the guests enough booze everything  will look great.
Our meal hall
The first order of business after throwing our bags in our tents is dinner.  Everything is cooked over an open fire or baked in underground bush ovens.  I have to admit the food is pretty good.   After more wine it’s off to bed.   I can hear lions roaring not to far away, but figure I don’t have to worry about them.  They won’t fit in my tent.


Friday February 15th

Surprisingly I sleep quite well.  We receive a five-thirty wake up call by one of the camp guys who pours a dab of hot water into my canvas sink.  It’s raining again.  I meet the others in the mess tent for breakfast which consists of cereal, yogurt, toast – with vegemite and tea and coffee – not quite the breakfast buffet I’d enjoyed the last few days.  At six we’re in the Land Cruiser ready for our morning game drive. 

The highlight of the morning drive is encountering a pride of 14 lions.  (Definitely worth watching the one minute video to the right) The patriarch of the pride is a magnificent male.  While the females strut, the juveniles and cubs run ahead and play, he moves at a slow stately gate – proving beyond any shadow of the doubt he is king of the jungle – or bush in this case.  

Red Winged Hitchhiker
We also see zebras, giraffes, and birds – lots of birds.  My fellow travelers are all avid birders.  To me a bird is a bird.  Every couple of minutes one of them shouts, “Look there’s a blue-cheeked bee-eater” or “Grey-headed bush shrike.  Stop!  Stop!”  and we have to stop for ten minutes while they click away with their cameras and ooh and ah.  I find it all quite boring.  After a few hours I decide to be a birder too. 

“Look!” I shout. “A red winged hitchhiker  at ten o’clock” or  “Stop! There’s  a grey hooded carpetbagger on that tree!  No, Sorry.  It’s not a carpetbagger.  My bad.  I think it’s a spotted Hornblower.  What do you guys think?”  
Juvenile Leopoard
Part way through the morning the rain lets up and clouds parted.  We head back to camp for lunch and siestas.  Around four we head out again for our afternoon game drive.  This time we see our first leopard.  It’s a juvenile and it’s resting on a log oblivious to us.  Maybe it was the rain, but we don’t see anything more exciting than a few more impalas and zebras – and birds.  We are keeping our eyes out for African Wild dogs.  They are an endangered species and very rare to see.  We see tracks, but no dogs.


Saturday February 16th

I’m awakened at three o’clock in the morning by an unbelievable thunder storm.  My stomach being awakened early thinks it’s morning and I feel the call of nature.  Nothing I can do convinces my stomach to wait until the rain stops so I have no choice but to put on my poncho unzip the back of the tent and perch atop the “long drop” toilet.  I’m sitting there with the rain pelting down on me when suddenly there’s a flash and enormous crash of thunder, sparks fill the sky and the air is filled with the smell of ozone.  Lightning has struck a tree just a few meters from where I’m sitting.  The good news is it scares the shit out of me – literally!  I ask myself “Am I having fun yet?” 
Wet roads
I crawl back into the bed and pull the covers over my head.   The storm continues.  Around five o’clock Shaka comes by to tell us the morning game drive has been… postponed. 
“Smart move,” I reply, pulling the pillow back over my head.

Around seven the storm moves off and skies clear.   We have a late breakfast and are out on the road around nine.  Because we are situated on essentially a desert – the Kahalari desert -  the water, for the most part, drains relatively quickly, but still leaves huge “lakes” on the roads.  

This morning we have our first encounters with elephants – that were somehow missing yesterday.   Several in our group are excited about seeing them.  The elephants don’t reciprocate the feeling, shaking their heads, trumpeting and charging the car.  “You don’t see birds doing that,” I point out.  Lots more impalas (Chevrolets as I now refer to them), giraffes and zebras – but still no wild dogs – just tracks.

After a dinner of roasted lamb chops, we sit around the outdoor dining table chatting.  I see the Germans eyeing me strangely as I refill my glass with some more white wine.  A short time later I excuse myself and head back to my tent.  I sleep well.

Sunday  February 17th

Unlike yesterday the skies are clear and I’m up early and the first one to breakfast.  The Germans show up a short time later.
“Are you okay,” they ask me with concerned looks on their faces.
“Never better,” I reply.  “Why?”
“Well last night you had a lot to drink.”
“Nonsense,” I reply.  “I just had a couple of glasses of white wine.”
“Nein,” says one of them.  “That wasn’t white wine you filled your glass up with.  It was Schnapps.”
“Well that explains it,” I exclaim.
“Explains what?”
“Why the wine tasted off.”

Today is a travel day when we move from Chentral Chobe to Khwai.  Our guide, Shaka, is concerned.  It’s the rainy season and the roads are prone to flooding, and after the huge rainstorms we’ve just had he worries the roads may be impassable – even for a four-wheel drive Land Cruiser.  

He wants to get an early start so we’re up and having breakfast by 5:00am.  While we’re having breakfast the three camp guys  (who I refer to as Moe, Larry and Curly) strike camp.  They load everything into a truck and set up the next camp site before we arrive.

We are on the road by five-thirty and it’s soon evident Shaka’s fears are not unfounded.  The roads are horrible.  Just when I’m convinced the roads can’t possibly get worse – they do. 

spotted Giraffe bird
We stop along the way to see the obligatory birds and to allow the guys to get ahead of us and have time to set up the camp.

It takes us nearly 8 hours to travel the 40 kilometers, and when we arrive the camp has magically been recreated in its entirety on a new site.

We’re all exhausted from our travel day so after a few drinks, it’s dinner and bed - no schnapps for Jeff – the Germans are guarding their bottle. 








Saturday, March 2, 2019

Where the Hell is Botswana??


Victoria Falls
I wasn’t planning on going back to Africa so soon after my trip to Uganda and Rwanda.  I figured after I’d seen the gorillas and chimps I’d seen it all.  But after a few months I began to feel a tug to go back.  “Just one last time,” I told myself.  So I contacted, Raza Visram, from AfricanMecca.  Raza’s my Africa ‘go-to’ guy.

“Why don’t you try Botswana?” he suggested. I said I’d think about it.  The first thing I had to do is figure out where the hell Botswana was.  I figured it was one of those countries that used to be called something else, so I googled it.  It was called Bechuanaland – which didn’t help.  It sort sits on top of South Africa and is surrounded by Angola, Zambia, and Namibia.  It was considered one of the poorest countries in Africa until diamonds were discovered in 1955.  It now sports the largest Diamond mine in the world, so the economy is doing just fine. It has a very small population - only 2.2 million people - half of which are basically children - the average age is only 25.  It sit on top of the Kalahari desert. Botswana became independent in 1966.  

I checked with a few of my friends and was surprised that so many of them not only knew where Botswana was, but had actually visited the country.   All of them raved about it.  I called up Raza and said I thought Botswana might be interesting.  Maybe I’d try a different approach from my last trip to Uganda and Rwanda.  On that trip I’d stayed at upscale lodges.

Bakers Lodge Uganda
“Why don’t you try a tenting experience?” he suggested.  “You could contact the Letaka Safaris, run by Brent and Grant Reed.  (Letaka is the Tswana word for “reed.”)   He reminded me that I’d actually met Brent and Grant at a travel convention in Vancouver some years ago.  I still had their business cards, so I contacted them and arranged a date in February.  They suggested I take the Northern Highlights safari: a ten-day safari that included the Chobe National Park, the Khwai Concession Area, the Moremi Game Reserve and Okavango Delta.  
 
Fig Tree Camp Kenya
I would be staying in tents, but I’d stayed in tents in Africa before and they were really more like a fancy lodge.  They had Persian carpets, writing tables, electricity, were on their own concrete blocks, and had luxurious bathrooms attached to the back of the tent.  I could live with that.
Tent "bathroom" in Kenya


Raza suggested that I spend a couple of days in Victoria Falls before I joined the safari.  The starting point was in Kasane just an hour drive from Victoria Falls.  He’d arrange for a driver to take me their from Victoria Falls.  So I left the arrangements to him. 

I wanted to arrive fresh for the safari so I decided to take my time getting to Africa.  It’s a very very long haul from Vancouver.  I found a KLM flight that had a built in 22-hour layover in Amsterdam. I’d used it last year on my trip to Uganda and it worked out well.  I booked the same hotel I stayed in last year that had a free airport shuttle and breakfast.  I also arranged for another overnight in Johannesburg before continuing on to Victoria Falls.

I decided that I’d like to travel light.  I was allowed two twenty kg bags, but I wanted to travel with just one, so I kept on pairing down my packing list.  The literature for my safari said there was free laundry available, but they wouldn’t do “smalls” which I take it is another way of saying they wouldn’t do underwear, so I decided I’d need to take more than enough socks and underwear for the trip.  I actually weighed my first attempt at packing and actually had only about 15kg – most of which was cameras,  toys and cosmetics/medications.  

I was so proud of myself that I kept throwing things in every day.  By the time I left home my bag weighed 19Kg!!

Saturday February 9th
My flight to Amsterdam left at 3:45.  You’re supposed to be at the airport 3 hours early, but I generally find that 2 hours is more than adequate. Some of my friends show up barely an hour early and still seem not to have a problem.  Me?  I’m  a worrier.  I’d rather be early than late.  And there were two occasions where I nearly missed my flights because of accidents on the highway to the airport. 

Michele dropped me off at 1:30.  I made it through check-in and security and was at the gate before two which left my two hours to do nothing but twiddle my thumbs.

Sunday, February 10th
The flight was a long ten hours (seems longer when your sitting in what they euphemistically call  “economy travel").   The only hiccough was going through immigration in Amsterdam.  They have two lines: one for European travelers and another for “others.”  The line up for “others” was so long, they closed the door to the halls and only let us in a few at a time.  It took an hour to finally get through.

I grabbed the shuttle to the hotel, checked in, and grabbed a few hours sleep.   When I went down to the dining room for supper I was told the kitchen was closed for renovations.   The hotel, near the airport was in an industrial zone with no restaurants nearby, so I ordered a pizza grabbed a beer from the bar and took them up to the room.

Monday, February 11th
Even though the kitchen was down for renovations they still put together a respectable breakfast.  I caught the 7:00am shuttle and headed for the airport.   Given the problems I had with immigration the previous day I wanted to allow a lot of time to check in.  It was a repeat of my Vancouver experience.  It took less than 20 minutes to check-in and get to the gate.  This time I was the first person there – so more time to sit around.  By the time boarding time came around the gate was so crowded there was standing room only.  It was a packed flight.  I was in the middle row and my two seat mates was a South African couple who had immigrated to Canada.  They spent most of the ten-hour flight telling me all the places I should visit in South Africa despite the fact I kept telling them I was only there overnight.  They seemed so enthralled with their old country I wondered why they ever left it.  

Raza had arranged for someone to meet me and take me over to my hotel, City Lodge ort Johannesburg – which was literally attached to the airport. 

A charming lady named Louise from Thompson’s is waiting for me with a sign with my name on it as I get off the plane.  She marches me over a by pass that joins the airport to the hotel lobby.  She gets me in the line to register and says goodbye. 
“Aren’t you going to be here to take me back to the airport?”  I ask.
“Why would I do that?  She asks. “ It’s very simple.  You just go through the door on the left and walk the same way we came and you’ll be on the arrivals level.  It’s impossible to get lost.”
“you don’t  know me,” I reply.

The room is fine, but since it’s nearly midnight, there’s no time for any sightseeing.  I just drop on the bed and try and get some sleep.

Tuesday February 13th
I’m up early and head down to the hotel restaurant for the included breakfast.  It’s the most impressive yet.  A buffet that goes on forever.  I finish breakfast and check out.  I find what I think is the door to the airport and find that I’m in an emergency stairway.  I try to get back into the lobby but find the door locks when you go out.  I end up going up and downstairs until I find a hotel clerk going in.  I explain my problem and he takes back into the hotel and down the elevator back to the lobby.  He walks me over to the right door and walks me through it.
“You just walk down the hall here until you get to the Victoria Secret store.  You do not what that is, don’t you?”
I nod.
“Then turn right. Hold up your right hand,” he demands.
I raise my right hand.
“Good.” Turn right and keep going then you’ll be at the arrivals level.  Go up the escalator and you’re  at departures.   You got it?”
I nod.
I find I’m the first guy at the gate for the two hour flight to Victoria Falls.  We board the plane, push off the gate, then wait…   and wait some more.    Finally the pilot announces.
“Folks we have a small problem here in the cockpit.  We have an alarm, but we think it’s a faulty sensor.  We’re going to power down the aircraft and try rebooting the system.  That means there’ll be no lights… or air conditioning
We wait some more.  It gets warm.  Very warm.   The flight attendants open up the cabin doors to get some air inside.  Finally after another hour the pilot comes back on line.
“Folks, it appears that we can’t solve the problem.  We’re going to try and get you another aircraft.”
So we’re marched off the aircraft and wait some more.  Finally three hours late we board another aircraft and head for Victoria Falls.

When we land in Victoria Falls we’re met with more bad news.  The pilot announces that because of a huge rainstorm they won’t be able to unload the luggage.  So we deplane go through customs and wait another hour for the rain to let up.

Avani Victoria Falls Hotel 
Raza has arranged for another person to meet in Victoria Falls.  I figure there’s not a chance in the world he’s still there.  But as I clear customs I see a guy with my name on it.  He’s been waiting there for nearly four hours. His job is to take me to the hotel – actually half way to the hotel.  He can only take me to the border.  I will have to walk across the border myself and there will be another guy in an identical car to take me the rest of the way to my hotel.   I get to the border, get out of the car, get my luggage and walk across the border towards the waiting car.  I’m beginning to feel like a spy in a John le Carre book.

Raza has booked me into the Avani Victoria Falls Hotel.  At $350.00 a night it seems a little pricey to me, but Raza tells me that I’ll save money because the Hotel is actually inside the Victoria Falls and I won’t have to pay each time I come and go from the falls.

The hotel is quite luxurious.  Because it is inside the park there are Zebras and Impalas nibbling on the grass in front of the hotel.  There is also a huge swimming pool and a water hole with a sign saying “Beware of Crocodiles.” 

I take some pictures, have a couple of beers at the pool bar then head into the restaurant for the buffet dinner that featured some local favourites like baby crocodile tail, bush stew, and worm salad along with the normal buffet bar.   I pass on the worm salad.

logadile
It’s dark when I’m done and as I’m crossing the grass to my room I trip over something and look down to see that I’ve tripped over a large crocodile who’s glaring at me with his mouth open.  My screams bring the security guards running.  They hit the crocodile with their flashlight beams and begin to laugh.  It’s a wooden crocodile – one of many wooden animals they have on the grounds.
“Hey mate,” one of them says.  “You don’t have to worry.  It’s a logadile.  It won’t hurt you.” 
Somewhat embarrassed I slink back to my room.

Wednesday February 13th
 I get up early have breakfast and waited in the lobby for my guide, Joshua, to show up for the scheduled tour of the Victoria Falls.  I find I was the only one on the tour, which is nice, but I generally like to be in a group rather than by myself.



Victoria Falls are impressive.  They’re truly the Largest waterfall in the World.   They’re 108m high and 1.7 km wide – almost double the height and a half kilometer wider than Niagara Falls.  It depends how spectacular the Falls are depending on when you visit them.  The water levels vary dramatically throughout the year.  The lowest water levels occur October through December.  The highest levels occur from February through August.  If you’re viewing during this time, you’re going to get wet – very wet.

Joshua shows me an impressive statue of David Livingstone, the first European to visit the falls in 1855.
David A. Livingstone
After two hours of viewing the Falls Joshua tells me he is going to drop me off at the border to be turned over to another guide who will show me the remainder of the falls on the Zimbabwe side of the border.  When I’m finished that guide will return me to the border where I’ll cross again and Joshua will drive me back to my hotel.  All of this is accompanied by much stamping of my passport.

The first thing my Zimbabwe guide shows me is another impressive statue.
“This is a statue of David Livingston,” he proudly tells me.
David B. Livingstone

“I’ve already seen him,” I tell him.
“Where,” he asks me.
“On the Zambian side,” I reply. “Which one is the real David Livingston?”  I ask. “That guy or this guy?”
He seems confused by my question.
“David Livingston was the first white guy to see the falls,” he offers.
“Who was the first black guy to view the falls,” I counter.
“Pardon me?” he asks.
“There’s a statue to the first “white guy” why isn’t there a statue to first black guy?”
He has no answer.

At the end of the tour we stop at the bridge that separate’s Zambia side of the falls from the Zimbabwe side.  The bridge is famous not only for the fantastic view of the falls but it’s where, for a mere $160.00,  you can jump off the bridge, drop down 111 meters and bob up and down like a yo-yo until they winch you back  up. 
I should point out there’s not enough money in the world that would entice me to do that.

I watch a few crazy people fling themselves off the bridge then cross the bridge accompanied with more passport stamping and have Joshua drive me back to the hotel.

The real thing - not a logadile
There aren’t a lot of guest at the hotel that night, so they decide it’s not worth opening the dining room, so dinner will be at the pool bar.  At the bar I meet a woman from Peru which gives me a chance to annoy her by practicing my bad Spanish.  She hands me her camera and asks if I can take a picture of her with one of the crocodiles on the lawn. I tell her the crocodile is fake so she can walk right up to it and put her foot on it.  As she places her foot on it, it begins to move. 
There is much screaming as she runs back to me, grabs her camera and offers some choice Spanish words I didn’t understand, but sort of gathered the meaning of by her associated hand gestures.

Next: The Safari Begins: What's a drop toilet?



Saturday, February 2, 2019

Yellowknife NWT & the Northern Lights - It's an Adventure!


I’ve always wanted to see the Northern Lights.  I almost saw them when I was 15.  I was at a summer camp near Sudbury, Ontario.  It was the last night and the tents where we’d spent the previous eight weeks were packed up and stored for the winter.  We would be spending our last night under the stars. Being the last night, the camp counsellors weren’t being terribly observant which allowed many of us to slip into our girlfriends sleeping bags. 
I was busy trying to get to second base – which was difficult with two people being shoe-horned into   I ended up on top and was busy trying to figure out the mysteries of the female bra.  I’m reasonably mechanical, but I had come to the conclusion that it was like the stone that blocked Alibaba’s cave – you needed a magical word to get it to open.
15 year old stud Groberman
a sleeping bag made for one.

My attempts at adolescent love was so overpowering that my girlfriend, on the bottom, looking up, declared “Hey! Are those the Northern Lights?”
I figured it was just another excuse to end my interminable groping, and ignored her.  It turns out it was the Northern Lights.  So I never got to see them, nor get to second base.   

2017 Solar Eclipse
Flash forward a half century.  I’m proud to admit that in the interval I did manage to get to second base, but never saw the Northern Lights.  I saw comet Hale-Bopp in 1997, and the solar eclipse of 2017, but was missing seeing the Aurora Borealis so I could complete the Atronomical Trifecta.  This winter I decided to rectify that.  When I mentioned it to my buddy Tom, who had accompanied me on several other adventures he immediately signed on.  Travelling with Tom is always… interesting. (read my Amazon rip).

Yellowknife NWT
For those of you who don’t know where Yellowknife is, it’s in Canada’s north.  It lies on the north shore of Great Slave Lake about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle and has a population of just under 20,000.

When I announced to my wife that I was going to view the Northern Lights she surprised me by telling me it was also on her bucket list.  Even though we’d been married 40 plus years I’m still learning stuff about her.  Tom mentioned his partner wanted to go, so there was a foursome.

I booked a three-day two-night tour on line with Northern Lights Tours.  I’d sent emails to a few tour company’s but they were the only ones who got back to me.  They answered all my questions and seemed to have excellent feedback on TripAdvisor.     Our package included transfers from the airport, hotel, clothing and two nights viewing.

Viewing the Aurora Borialis is a bit like going fishing.  There’s no guarantee you’ll see them.  First of all the weather might not cooperate, and if the weather does cooperate they might just be a no-show.  I was told we’d have about a sixty percent chance of seeing them during our stay.

As our trip drew closer I began to monitor the weather.  The long range forecast was unclear if it would be cloudy or clear.  One thing it was clear about – it was going to be cold – very cold!  Minus 37 degrees Centigrade  (minus 35 Fahrenheit).  With windchill it would feel like minus 51 (minus 60 Fahrenheit).  Flesh freezes at that temperature if you even think of going outside!  In case you’re interested the average temperature of Mars is  minus 55 C.  So if you didn’t make the cut for Jeff Bezos Mars mission and you want to know what it’s like on Mars, just visit Yellowknife in January.

Getting there is relatively easy.  It’s a two-hour flight from Calgary on Westjet or Air Canada.   I was getting concerned when we arrived in Calgary as it was snowing, and it was cloudy all the way into Yellowknife.   As we arrived, the captain announced it was a balmy minus 35 degrees (not counting the windchill factor).  As it was a small plane and a small airport there was no gate.  We deplaned outside and made a quick dash into the airport where we found our driver, Joe, and guide/photographer, Tracy, waiting for us with our cold weather clothes and boots.
Super 8 Yellowknife

Being a small town there weren’t a lot of hotel choices in Yellowknife – a total of five.  I chose the Super 8 even though it wasn’t one of the two “upscale hotels.”  It had better TripAdvisor reviews and included breakfast.

We weren’t disappointed.  The room was large and clean and the staff was particularly friendly.  After unpacking the first order of business was lunch.   There were only fast food restaurants near us:  Tim Hortons, Pizza Hut, McDonalds and Fatburger - We opted for Fatburger.

Early sunset in Yellowknife
We didn’t put on our rented clothes but just the cold weather gear we were wearing – big mistake.  Even though it was only a block away I was nearly frozen – particularly my face – by the time we got there.

During the late afternoon, (the sun set around 4:00pm) the skies began to clear and it looked like we might have a good opportunity to view the Aurora.  The prime Aurora viewing hours are between 11:00pm and to 2:00am.  By the time Joe, our guide, picked  us up at 9:30pm the skies were totally clear.  That was the good news.  The bad news is the temperature had dropped more until it was about minus 45 and dropping.     That meant really dressing up warm.  

There’s a knack to dressing for cold weather – the secret is layers – lots of layers.  I’ve hired a professional model to demonstrate.

First layer:




The first layer is light thermal underwear and socks.



Followed by a heavy t-shirt….


… and a light sweatshirt.


..on the bottom I put on a pair of sweat pants…


And finally the heavy quilted snow pants.



After the pants it’s time for some heavy socks that can be pulled up over the bottom of the pants.



After the socks, it’s time for the foot warmers.  These attach to the bottom of your socks.  They only go up to your toes.  If you want to keep your toes warm, then you also need to add the toe warmers. 

I was a little leery of using those chemical footwarmers due to an unfortunate incident my old writing partner some years back. He was complaining about cold feet during a cold snap and decided, rather than spend the two dollars on footwarmers he’d do it himself.  He put a heaping tablespoon of cayenne pepper in each of his socks before he headed off to an important meeting we had with prospective clients.  

Part way through the meeting he began to sweat profusely, then his legs began to vibrate.  Needless to say the meeting ground to a halt as we all watched this bizzare performance.  A few moments later he jumped up and began to run to the door.  I ran after him to see what was wrong.  All I saw was  a shoe part way down the hall, then another shoe.  I followed the clothing trail to the staircase where I saw one sock part way down the stairs and another on the landing. 

When I went outside, I saw him jumping up and down in a snowbank.  When I looked up I saw our prospective clients faces pressed to the window.   Needless to say we didn’t get the gig.  So I was a bit concerned when I fastened the footwarmers to my socks and stuck them in my boots.  But they worked well.  They lasted all night.  In fact they were still warm the next morning. 

After the socks, it was time for the snowmobile boots.  These had felt liners that added additional protection against the cold.  I ended up renting boots that were a size bigger than my shoe size to accommodate all the extra socks and warmers. 


To keep my face warm I put on a balaclava – which also could come in handy if I ever decide to rob a bank.

…and finally the fur trimmed parka.   On my hands I had fingerless wool gloves covered by heavy mittens.  I found the fingerless gloves worked well when I was taking pictures.  I also had hand warmers that I kept in my parka pocket.  

Now you may think the above may have no practical use for you; but I beg to differ.  This method would be of great use for you when travelling on budget airlines where they charge you for checked bags – just wear all your clothes!

Around 9:30 the bus showed up.  The skies had totally cleared and there was a three-quarter moon in the sky.   Despite the fact that the bus’s heater was going full blast the windows were frosted over and you could feel the cold seeping through the floor.

Both or driver, Joe,  and guide Tracy, were from China.  Evidently a high percentage of northern light tourists are from Asia.  Luckily both spoke excellent English.  Tracy explained to us that we were going to be viewing the lights (if they appeared) from various locations. 

The first location was about 15 minutes away from the hotel.  Tracy got out of the bus to check things out and returned with a big smile to announce that we were lucky.  The Aurora gods were smiling upon us.


We exited the bus and looked expectantly in the sky.   Above us and to the north was a light coloured band of light – almost like the milky way on a clear night, but fainter.  As our eyes adjusted to the dark the band  seemed to undulate and move. 

I set up my camera on a small tripod on a small hill and set up for a time exposure.  As soon as I pressed the shutter and stepped back the tripod and camera  took off  down the road like a bob sled.  I had to chase it for a bout 50 meters till I caught up with it.

Our guide set up her camera in a more secure place and took as many pictures of the aurora as we wanted – no extra cost. 

One thing we noticed after looking at the pictures from the first site was the camera caught far more of the colours and details than the naked eye.  That is if you camera wasn’t a iphone.  For some technical reason the iphone’s  camera didn’t capture the lights in any detail.  Those with a camera or Samsung phone got the best results.  For camera buffs, the best results  were attained with setting the ISO to 1800, opening the aperture to 2.8, and about a 10 to 15 second exposure.  Don’t even try taking pictures if you don’t have a tripod – all you’ll get is a swirl of color.

After about 15 minutes we’d had as much cold as we could stand and retreated to the relative warmth of the bus.  We then headed off to the second location – on the shores of the Great Slave Lake for the second viewing.  We arrived around 11:00pm and when we exited the bus our jaws dropped.  The lights had intensified and were dancing across the sky.  We were on the edge of a large frozen lake, there were boats pulled up beside us, and a huge expanse of sky in front of us.  A truly fantastic site.

After half an hour the cold overcame our excitement and we all retreated back to the bus to warm up. 
We visited two other sights, but the lake sight was undoubtedly the best.

Around 1:00am we headed back to the hotel.  Tracy transferred the photos directly to those who had iphones and emailed a link to those of us who didn’t.

Back at the hotel it was time for a cup of hot chocolate and bed.

Although we didn’t get to bed until after 3:00am, we were up early to cash in on the included free breakfast – which wasn’t bad for a second tier hotel.  Waffles, boiled eggs, bagels, cereal.  I’ve had far meagre “continental” breakfasts at expensive hotels. 

While we were eating a tour arrived from Guadalajara, Mexico where the lowest it ever gets is 6 above.  Boy, are they in for a surprise!   We sat across from a local school temperature who admitted the weather was cold – even for them.  She remembers once when it was minus 60 and her eyes froze when she crossed the street.  She was out less than a minute. 
“I guess it’s indoor recess today, “ she sighed. “It’s mandatory when the temperature is below minus thirty.”
“What’s it today?” I asked.
“Minus thirty five and supposed to get colder.”


Around ten o’clock there’s a knock on the door.  It’s Tom.
“Hi, Fen and I are thinking of going downtown.  Want to come?”
“Tom, it’s minus a million degrees out there.  Why on earth would you want to go out there?  There’s nothing to see downtown but a couple of car lots and a restaurant or two.”
“It’ll be an adventure,” he replies.
“So would chopping a whole in the ice and jumping into the lake.  Do you want to do that?”
“Maybe.”
“Well, you go right ahead,” I reply. Michele and I are going to stay here where it’s nice and warm until we have to go out tonight.”
“We’ll be back in a couple of hours,” Tom assures me.

Canadian Electric Cars!
Michele and I spend a quiet day in our room.  I’m excited about seeing the Aurora again that night.  I looked at the previous night as a dress rehearsal.  I reviewed all the pictures we took and figured out how to even do better tonight.

Around 4:30 in the afternoon there’s a knock on the door.  It’s Tom.
“I just thought I’d tell you we’re back,” he announces.
“I can see that,” I reply.  I look at my watch.  “Tom, you’ve been gone five hours!  What could you possibly have seen in downtown Yellowknife that would take five hours.”
“It was an adventure, “ he announces.  “It started when the bus broke down..”
“Bus?” I ask.  “What bus?”
“Well Fen and I decided to take public transportation.  There’s a bus stop right across the street.  We only had to wait twenty minutes for one to come by.
“Twenty minutes in minus thirty?
“Minus thirty-five,” corrects Tom.  “But then the bus broke down.  It was a new bus I don’t think it was made for the cold.”
“So what did you do then?” I ask.
“Well we waited with the bus driver for another twenty-minutes or so till they sent another bus.  It was a real great ride, the bus driver was very helpful.  Too bad we couldn’t talk to him longer,  because we had to transfer.”
“You had to take two buses to get downtown?” I ask incredibly.
“Three if you count the bus that broke down.”
“So it basically took you nearly two hours to go five miles?  Why didn’t you just take a taxi?  You’d be downtown in five minutes!”
Now you know why I love travelling Tom….“It’s always an adventure!”

Joe and Tracy show up around 9:30 and we dash into the bus.  This time we’re experience watchers so we grab the seat with the heating vent.   The windows are totally frosted over so I can’t see where we’re going.  After fifteen minutes Tracy announces that we’ve arrived at the first site and she’ll go out and see if the Aurora is visible.

After a few minutes she gets back on the bus and announces that the Aurora hasn’t started yet.  So we’ll just wait for a few minutes and check again.  After half an hour the Aurora is still a no show so Tracy announces we’re going to drive to another spot – maybe they’ll be there.

We wait about half an hour and then move on to the next site and then a fourth – same story.  Finally around 1:00am  Tracy admits what’s become obvious to all of us on the bus – the Aurora is a no show tonight.  While I’m disappointed that I didn’t get another chance to see them, I’m buoyed by the fact that we had a great show last night.

In the morning we have a late breakfast, pack up and head off to the airport and home. 

If viewing the Northern Lights isn’t on your bucket list, it should be.  You don’t necessarily have to view them from Canada, you could tie in viewing with a trip to Norway, or Iceland or many other northern countries.  Just make sure you book three nights – that way you’re pretty much guaranteed to see them on at least one night.

In two weeks I’m moving from one extreme to another.  From 40 below to 40 above as I head of to Botswana for a safari.

As Tom says. “It’ll be an adventure.”