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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.

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?

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