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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. 

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