Namibia

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For more photos and a great chronological description, please visit Andy’s website (scroll upwards after clicking the link) where he has organized our holiday into five segments.

For our last week of holidays during our stay in Africa, Andy and I decided to explore central Namibia. We flew into Windhoek last Saturday and stayed one night. In the morning we took a shuttle bus to Swakopmund and stayed five nights. From there we went to Usakos for two days and one night, prior to returning to Windhoek for our last night. Before I go on to describe our vacation, I feel it is important to share a little bit of what we learned about Namibia.

In our Lonely Planet Botswana & Namibia Tour book (2010), we read that the tourist industry is primarily controlled by the Namibian caucasian population, who only account for 6% of the total population.
As such, while we definitely learned a lot about Namibian geography and enjoyed various activities, our cultural experience was quite limited. Unfortunately, there was not a lot of opportunity to interact with people of the Owambo tribe for instance, who comprise 50% of the population.

Some other interesting facts about Namibia from the same tour book:
– one of the lowest population densities in Africa
– 85% literacy rate
– high HIV/Aids stigma and approximately 15% of the population is infected
– 5% of the population controls three-fourths of the economy and 55% of the population lives on $2USD per day (according to a 2005 UN Human Development Report)
– as such, a large economic gap exists between the rich and the poor; unfortunately there are huge inequalities between population groups

Our travel efforts:
– we stayed in eco-friendly accommodation
– we appreciated when the accommodation management hires local Namibians
– we walked when and where we could to reduce our carbon footprint
– we ate at local run restaurants as opposed to large food chains
– we participated in low environmental impact activities: hiking, kayaking, desert tour
– we booked with responsible and environmentally conscious tour companies
– we purchased local products to support the community’s economy

The Cities
Windhoek is the capital city and seems to be large and somewhat modern. We did not spend a lot of time here at all. There are more sky-rises than in Gaborone. We read that the architecture of the older buildings demonstrate the influence of German colonization. The city streets seemed very quiet compared to the hustle and bustle of Gaborone.

The coastal town of Swakopmund, also colonized by Germany, is beautiful, quiet, and quaint.
The streets are lined with sand and many of them with palm trees. This offers an interesting contrast with the straight lined modern buildings of the town. At any given intersection, as you look to the West, you see the Atlantic Ocean at the end of the street, and as you look South, you see golden sand dunes.

We spent our first afternoon exploring Swakopmund, although most of the shops were closed as it was Sunday, and the waterfront. When walking out to the jetty and along the beach it was extremely windy and slightly chilly.

It is safe to walk around town at night. We realized that this was the first time in 3.5 months that we had traveled from one place to another after sunset by foot. This freedom gave us the opportunity to scope out various restaurants for dinner. Seafood places were easy to come by, however other varieties of restaurants were more limited.

Walvis Bay is more of an industrial town, compared to Swakopmund, which is geared more towards tourists. The outer edge of town is where many residents live in metal or cement shacks. We could see many children dressed in school uniform heading off to school by foot and workers walking to work, many of them dressed in navy blue long pants and sleeved shirts. Some may be working at construction sites, building new homes closer to the waterfront, or others may work in the salt mine. Walvis Bay is home to one of the largest evaporating salt mines in the world, however it is still owned by South African and not Namibia.

Getting Around
The drive from Windhoek to Swakopmund was very scenic. Small and spread out bush trees fill the landscape in front of large distant hills for much of the way. As we approached Swakopmund the terrain became paler with sand and vegetation is scarce. Few habitants live between these two towns.

We began to understand the vastness of the sand dunes as we drove down to Walvis Bay from Swakopmund. It was a beautiful drive: sand dunes on our left and Atlantic Ocean on our right. Our guide Craig pointed out part of Dune 7, the seventh largest dune in the world in terms of area.

The Desert
During one of our early days in Swakopmund, we decided to have a closer look at the nearby sand dunes. We walked past horse stables before reaching a large river bed. After crossing over, we were walking amongst beautiful sand dunes. In the wind, it was neat to see the ripple patterns left as the top layer of sand shifts. I was surprised at how colourful the vegetation was with greens and purples, albeit it was very brittle with dryness.

We gained an even greater appreciation for the sand dunes after going on a Living Dessert Adventure Tour. We saw a white-lady spider, a small side-ways moving snake, a gecko, two different types of lizards and a chameleon. The guide was very good at explaining the elements of the desert ecosystem and the life cycle within it. We also learned about the formation of sand dunes in terms of shape and mineral composition. He stressed the importance of protecting Nambia’s fragile deserts. Unfortunately, those who ride quad bikes and 4×4 vehicles in the deserts do not always stay on the approved trail, damaging vegetation and animals species. What is also disturbing is that the tracks they leave behind can remain on the desert floor forever, as much of the rock is too heavy to be displaced by wind. In the last five years, our guide Chris brought his concerns to the international community, discouraging tourists from visiting the country. This forced the Namibian Government to create laws around desert use and as of April 2011 the entire west coast of the country is considered a national park.

The morning of our final tour, we got to explore part of the Namib-Naukluft Park in a 4X4 Landrover and by foot. We saw numerous jackals and some seals. At first it was rather cloudy, but just as we began our desert walk the sun came out. We really enjoyed walking in the sand, climbing up various dunes and strolling along the ridges. The sand felt very hot on our bare feet at times. We finally had the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, completely surrounded by golden sand dunes. These are some of the tallest coastal sand dunes in the world. We climbed the tallest peak in sight and sat on its summit overlooking the coast with the nice ocean breeze cooling us off.

The Coast
At the beginning of our kayak tour in Walvis Bay, we quite enjoyed the drive through the salt mine and out on the sand spit, which now stretches three to four kilometers past the former end point where the lighthouse was placed. Winds continue to transport sand from the dunes out onto the spit, extending it gradually. We spotted flamingos, seagulls, pelicans, jackals, and numerous seal colonies. From our tandem kayak on the water, we got to see the seal colonies up close and witness the male bulls fighting each other for the female. We also saw dolphins jump and swim along side various other boats. The best part was interacting with the young seals in the water. We were amazed by their personality as they did acrobatic jumps all around our kayak, popped their heads up to look directly at us, and came up to our paddles to gnaw on them.

The afternoon of our final tour, we drove further south along the shore (now that the tide was out) to Sandwich Harbour. Here we walked along the edge of the lagoon and up various sand dunes until reaching another beautiful look out point. From up high we could really see the fresh water lagoon (the only coastal fresh water in Namibia) and where it feeds into the ocean. We then descended the steep side of the tall dune, which felt like walking down scree in the mountains, crossed over the lagoon, and walked along the beach barefoot before heading back to the vehicle for the long drive back to Swakopmund.

The Mountains
We spent two half days hiking in the Erongo Mountains. Just outside of the small town of Usakos lies the Ameib Ranch, a privately owned game farm. Inside this land there are numerous hiking trails around the mountains. We first explored Philipp’s cave, a national monument with famous rock paintings. From there we followed a trail to an area full of enormous rounded boulders called Bull’s Party. We then climbed past boulders and through caves and gorges to the plateau behind Elephant Head (Klettersteig “Elefantenkopf”) at a height of 1200m. It was quite amazing to see ancient rock paintings for the first time, and then walk in a valley amongst gigantic oddly placed boulders, that must have fallen many many years ago off the mountain tops and are now smooth from wind and rain. We were in complete awe of our surroundings all afternoon.

Nambia was a great country to visit during our final holiday in Africa. The owners of Mieke’s Guesthouse in Swakopmund were especially helpful in assisting us with our travel plans as we were unable to rent a car after forgetting our licenses in Botswana. We really appreciated their help organizing tours and transfers for us so that we could did get a sense of Namibia’s natural beauty.

Victoria Falls

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After a very long and inefficient board crossing experience we were in Zimbabwe. Shortly upon arriving to the town of Victoria Falls, the atmosphere felt different than Botswana. Firstly, the town was established for tourism, so there are many caf├ęs, restaurants, shops, lodges and activity booking offices. Street vendors are constantly asking you if you would like to buy their stone carved hippopotamuses. But overall, people are very welcoming and friendly.

We stayed at the Victora Falls Rest Camp. There was a nice pool area and the office was very helpful in booking our activities and transfers. The self-catering cottage we stayed in was clean and simple, but a little run down.

During a full moon, the park opens its doors to visitors three nights every month so that they can see the lunar rainbow created from the falls. We planned our trip in such a way so that we would be able to experience this natural phenomenon. As part of a large guided group we were able to walk around the park grounds and view the falls across the gorge (falling from the Zambia side) from various lookout points. When the water level is low as it is now, there is less mist generated from the falls, which creates a weaker rainbow from the moonlight. So unfortunately, it was not easy to see the rainbow, but it was still beautiful to see the falls at night.

The following morning, we entered the park again to walk around the grounds and view one of the seven wonders of the world in daylight. Victoria Falls is quite extensive as it is comprised of multiple falls along a long cliff edge and is the widest waterfall in the world. Barriers along the edges were created naturally from thorny branches for visitor safety. We appreciated this african characteristic as opposed to our metal barriers and caution signs. There was even a part where a sign warned that there were no barriers, so visitors were able to walk right out the cliff edge and look down into the gorge.

To celebrate my mother’s birthday we went to the Victoria Falls Hotel for high tea. The gardens were beautifully landscaped and we had a terrific view of Livingstone Bridge. We really enjoyed our afternoon over tea, fancy sandwiches, scones and assorted desserts.

The town of Victoria Falls is a hotspot for adventure activities relating to the falls. Amongst all the options (zip lining, bungee jumping etc.) Andy and I chose white water rafting down the Zambezi river. At first I was not very nervous, as we had been rafting together in Calgary and Ottawa before. But when the safety talk beforehand reviewed many maneuvers involving what to do when you fall out of the boat I became worried. Then as we descended the gorge on foot down a long set of steep stairs my nerves were increasing. On two occasions I found myself in the water, but every time Andy was there helping me stay calm. In the end, I survived all 18 rapids (the group rafted through rapids 1 to 19, walking around #9 as it was a class 6 rapid). I must say that the scenery was stunning, it was a beautiful sunny day, and the people in our boat were very friendly. After the last rapid, we hiked our way up the side of the gorge and found a delicious warm lunch waiting for us. It was an adventure on the Zambezi river that I will never forget.

During the day, my mother went on one last game drive to a private reserve and enjoyed a relaxing afternoon at one of the fancy hotels which included lunch and shopping. I was very proud of my mom throughout the whole trip and she adapted very well to the new culture and climate and really enjoyed all the activities.

We ate our final dinner at a restaurant called the Boma. Upon entering we were greeted by friendly staff who painted our cheek with dots and clothed us in traditional african fabric. Guests were invited to help themselves to the buffet of soup, salad, a variety of meat and desserts. Entertainment consisted of traditional dancing and singing, followed by an interactive drumming session with all the visitors. It was a lovely cultural evening and a perfect way to end our African vacation.

Thanks to my mom for visiting us in Botswana and thanks to my dad and sister being so supportive of our travels! It was a wonderful trip!

Please visit Andy’s website for pictures, videos and his terrific write up.

Kasane and Chobe National Park

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The town of Kasane is a getaway to Chobe National Park. One side of the street, the riverfront side, is lined with various shops, fancy lodges and some local craft tables. On the opposite side of the street, some stores and services for tourists can be found, but also traditional homes of clay and brick, where in the yard children play in buckets of water to keep cool and laundry dries along the line in the wind.

The Batswana here definitely welcome tourists as we help generate employment for them. Many of them work at the lodges or offer activities for the visitors. Again they seem pleased to share their country with others and are happy that visitors are interested in learning about Botswana and Africa. To give back to the community in a little way, we bought a soccer ball for the village children to play with. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to interact with them for very long as they are discouraged from speaking to “white people”; their elders may think they are asking for money.

We stayed at The Old House. This is a casual and simple family-run place with nine well decorated rooms, a restaurant, a small pool and a lovely view to the river. We were surprised and interested to learn that the caucasian owner of the bed and breakfast grew up in Botswana and was fluent in Sestwana. It was really neat to see him conversing with other workers in Setswana.

One morning we went on a game drive into Chobe National Park. We were excited to have my mom experience her first driving safari. The scenery of the park has a unique character. Chobe is known for its high elephant population and as such, most trees in the area that we were in had been chewed and rubbed to death. The land looked barren and provided a strong contrast to the large blue river and greenery surrounding it. In terms of wildlife, we were quite fortunate in our sights. After vehicles had there turn to look, we also got to witness a leopard hiding in a bush gnawing away at a fresh kill of impala. We were able to pull up very close to him as he did not seem bothered by the presence of vehicles. For Andy and I, this meant that we has now seen all of the big 5 (the most dangerous animals: buffalo, black rhino, lion, elephant, and leopard). We then went on to see a herd of elephants of varying sizes walking in a straight line through the bush. The young ones were seen dispersed amongst the older large elephants for protection from lions. We then had a rare sighting of an eland, the largest antelope. We also saw mongoose, giraffe from afar, waterbucks, impala, and sable. We were all pleased with our successful safari experience.

Then in the late afternoon, we went on a boat cruise along the Chobe river. For all of us, this was our first river safari experience. We saw crocodile in the water and up close on land. Along the banks we saw baboon, lizards, impala, mongoose, and numerous birds. In the water, we also saw many hippopotamus. An island belonging to Botswana as part of the Chobe National Park sits in the middle of the river. Many animals cross the river to graze on the island: buffalo, elephants, crocodile and hippopotamus. We all really enjoyed seeing the animals from the water and the boat cruise ended with a terrific view of the sunset.

Please see Andy’s post, a short video, and photos as well.

The Okavango Delta

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This was the first part of our African adventure with my wonderful mother. Andy and I were excited to share some of our limited Botswana experience and understanding with her, and we were also thrilled to explore Northern Botswana together.

After flying from Gaborone to Maun on an AirBotswana fight, we took a very small 20 minute charter plane into the inner delta. From above you could see a network of water channels, lush vegetation, and a couple of elephants. A fence marked one boundary of the Moremi Game Reserve. This area is one of the untouched natural environments in Northern Botswana only accessible by air.

The Accommodation:
We stayed at a “camp” called Oddballs. Although expensive, it is the more casual and relaxed lodge of a serious of three. We stayed in what is known as a luxury tent. It is equipped with two very comfortable twin beds, white linens, and accompanying bucket shower and flush toilet. Solar power provides hot water.

Many common areas are available overlooking water trails which lead to various islands. There was a look out deck high above the main lounge as well as a lower deck. There were also a couple of shaded sitting areas which provided relief from the hot midday sun.

The Meals:
There was a good mix of African and North American food. Breakfasts consisted of fruit, cereal and yogurt followed by a traditional bush breakfast: eggs, bacon (could be a little crispier), sausage, baked beans and toast (the only item missing was a fried tomato). For lunch we had salad and homemade bread with spaghetti bolognese one day and vegetable quiche the next. For dinners they served soup to start which was delicious. The first night we had ox tail with pap (maize meal) and the second night chicken, potatoes and veggies, both followed by a tasty dessert.

The Activities:
In the early mornings and late afternoons we took a mokoro to visit neighbouring islands. One or two people sit on plastic mobile seats inside the wooden boat while a poler pushes and steers the boat along. At times the poler would have to really shuffle the mokoro through thick reeds and mud as the water level was fairly low. The view from the mokoro is a very unique experience as you are siting at pratically water level and can look down in the water, to the sides at the reeds and the horizon, and then up into passing trees and off into the distance. It is a very calm and peaceful experience. We saw many birds, a frog, and at one point we stood up to watch a hippopotamus. Once we reached land we would do a nature walk around the selected island in a loop following the trails created by animals. We were able to see zebra, impala, warthog, red litchi, and kudu up close. Again we saw several different species of birds. We also spotted elephant and baboons off in the distance.

When the water level decreases even more in another month the islands will become one land mass above water. When the water level is high these same islands become submerged. The water level of the delta depends on the rains in Angola. It takes six months for this water to run down the mountains in Angola and flood the delta. So when it is rainy season in Botswana this rain fall is actually not what is filling the delta.

After returning from our first mokoro trip we were very excited to see that an elephant had decided to visit the camp. There he was, happily eating away at the leaves off trees in between some of the tents. We were happy to watch him in amazement with another couple. But then a large group of tourists returned from their afternoon activity. There were quick to fill the viewing area with their giant zoom lenses. We decided to go to the upper viewing desk to watch the sunset and the elephant drama. From above we were able to witness when the elephant decided to the crowd below. This is when my mother and I decided it was time to go shower. However upon returning to the main lodge afterwards, we accidentally surprised the elephant. Darkness had fallen over the camp but our path was lit up with torches. We had not seen the elephant as there was not a group of photographers surrounding it. The animal charged at us as we startled it. We heard it moving before we could see it. Luckily we moved out of the way towards bushes and it did not come towards us again. We were a little shaken and asked to be escorted back to our tents at bedtime.

Our Guides:
K** has been a poler in the inner delta for 8 years. He grew up in the neighboring village, and so it was easier for him to get his guiding license than a Motswana born in the city. He trained at the Wilderness Centre in Maun. L** has been poling for two years. He is also very knowledgeable about the flora and fauna of the Delta, however he is much quieter than K**. He speaks English well but does not seem as confident in his language skills. Polling itself is a physically demanding job, but speaking in your second language to tourists all day must be mentally exhausting. You can tell that they both enjoy educating others about the natural beauty of their homeland.

Mokoros are made from various hundred year old tress, one of them being the ebony tree. From one tree, one mokoro is made and it takes one and half months to complete the handcrafted project. A mokoro will last approximately four years until the wood will become too dry and will split. The guides at this camp are required to provide their own mokoro. K** made his first mokoro, and purchased his second one, which he is now using for P600 ($100 Canadian). The government is now encouraging the use of fiber glass mokoros in order to protect the environment.

The Hostess:
P** is the hostess at camp. She organizes all the guided activities and guest check-ins and check-outs. She also helps the kitchen staff to ensure meals run smoothly. She handles all the guest inquiries: drink orders, charging batteries, timing of activities etc. P** is very patient with the varying manners, expectations and cultural differences amongst the guests. Her work day is long. She is up at 6 am or earlier to help guest prepare for the morning mokoro trip and then she stays awake until the last guest has gone to bed. After working 42 days straight, she has a week off (this is the same for guides). This is when she travels by plan (the only way to get in and out of the inner delta) to visit her five children aged 4 to 18 who are being cared for by her mother. It is not uncommon for Batswana to work long days and weeks, have larger families, have an elder or other relative look after their children while they earn money for food and other basic necessities.

The Staff:
We met a lot of genuinely kind and hardworking individuals at the lodge. It was apparent that they were trained and experienced in working in the service industry catering to a variety of tourists. Even the service during meal time was different from what we had experienced in other places in Botswana. On example is that they would say “you’re welcome” after being thanked. Batswana culture shows appreciation in different ways, but they do not out right say “thank you” or “you’re welcome” like we do. Many of them live in the village near by. Hunting is no longer allowed in the Okavango Delta, so they need to go to Maun to buy food. The cost of food is high here as it is imported from other parts of Botswana or other countries. Traditional homes in the village are made of clay from termite mounds and they use pop cans inside the walls for structure and insulation. They make sure the cans are well sealed so that mosquitos can not breed there. Thatch is used for roves: long strong staw-like grass is thickly layered.

As a foreign tourist, it was hard to accept the dichotomy between our lives at the same lodge. Conversations continue between us around themes of tourism, living conditions, social challenges, environment, fair-trade, health care, education, developing nations, and living abroad. All I can say for now is that we are, and will forever be, very appreciative that these Batswana welcomed us into their natural environment. We are thankful for their hard work and skills that allowed us to continue to learn about Botswana.

The photos Andy took will tell the story better.
And see Andy’s post about our experience as well.

The Hoerikwaggo Trail

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We had heard from many that Cape Town was a beautiful city. In order to satisfy our desire to be outdoors, we decided to explore the area on foot by embarking on a five-day four-night trek. This was a fantastic and memorable experience! It was wonderful to see such a beautiful part of the world from varying altitudes and spend time together simply walking and talking.

Overall the trail was well marked. During some sections there was ample signage and at other times additional signs would have made navigation much easier. The four park maps that we purchased were very useful during our trek. It was not as if we could ask others for suggestions, as we were the only overnight hikers that we saw the entire time.

Along the way we stayed in the four different tented camps provided by South African National Parks. They were all terrific accommodations with canvas tents, fully stocked kitchens, toilets, hot showers, and boardwalks. There was also an effort to protect the environment with vegetation restoration, solar power, biodegradable soap, use of natural light and careful use of natural resources. A host was there to greet us each afternoon when we arrived. Surprisingly, all four nights we were the only ones staying at the tented camps. (Before and after the trek we stayed at a beautiful B&B, Parker’s Cottage)

In terms of food, we relied on dehydrated food packs with extra rice for our dinners. We purchased these from a camping store in Gabs beforehand. We had to plan our meals carefully as we needed to carry all of our food. We ate oatmeal and fruit for breakfast and buns with nutella for lunches. Almonds, dried fruit and granola bars served as good snacks in between meals. After Day 2 we were able to stop at a small grocery story to replenish a few basic items.

Considering we hadn’t completed a mulit-day hike in over a year, we were a little worried about hiking fitness levels. The gradual increase in difficulty helped our body adjust to the demanding use of leg muscles and the sore hips and shoulders that come from wearing a large backpack. Our feet were sore after the first day, but the Merrell barefoot shoes held their own during the hike. Extra ankle support from our hiking boots would have been helpful at times but we did appreciate the light weight and comfort of the shoes. We left our poles behind in Ottawa and these also may have come in handy during the trek.

We had great weather in general! We really appreciated the many hours of sunlight so that we could enjoy the terrific coastal views. At times, however, it was very windy. Day three was especially difficult as we had to complete two tough climbs in extreme winds (we had to use our entire bodies to fight against the sideways winds and gravity as we climbed). Day five it rained a little and the low cloud cover made navigating the top of Table Mountain challenging. Despite the cooler than expected weather, we were quite content with the clothing and gear that we we brought and we were able to handle all the elements well. The terrific pictures Andy took will definitely show what nice weather and scenery we enjoyed. You can also read his post here.

Day 1 – Friday, Sept 30, 2011
Cape Point Lighthouse to Smitswinkle Tented Camp
15 km – Easy – 7 hours
– before hiking we walked up to the old lighthouse where we could look down on the most southerly and southwesterly points in Africa
– we saw ostrich, whales (likely Southern Right Whales), baboons, tortoise, ibises (loud birds in trees), antelope

Day 2 – Saturday, Oct 1, 2011
Red Hill to Kommetjie
12 km (wrong turn!) – Easy – 5 hours
– Drove to Red Hill from Switswinkel camp as there is no trail open yet in between (pre-arranged with driver Chris)
– our tented camp was close to Skangkop lighthouse and boardwalk with ocean views. We were less than 100 m from ocean!

Day 3 – Sunday, Oct 2, 2011
Kommetjie to Silvermine
21 km – Tough – 8.5 hours
– ridiculously windy all day!
– trail started along Kommetjie and Noordhoek beaches for first 2 hours.
– at the end if the beach we couldn’t find the trail to start ascending Chapman’s Peak. After being halted by private property signs and path closures, a lovely woman with two dogs agreed to take us up to the main road where the main ascent started.
– steep and windy climb up Chapman’s Peak with 360 views

Day 4 – Monday, Oct 3, 2011
Silvermine to Orange Kloof
15 km – Tough – 7 hours
– clear skies, bright sun, and little wind provided us the opportunity to really enjoy the views of the bays and mountains.
– the fairly flat multiple ridge walks provided some needed relief for our legs and feet (although the final downhill towards camp was difficult).

Day 5 – Tuesday, Oct 4, 2011
Orange Kloof to Table Mountain (upper cable car station)
9 km – Medium – 4.5 hours
– nice hiking through forest and gorge
– we felt lost at one point before the last big ascent as it was hard to tell where we were with the clouds and fog
– we needed to use ladders during final climb up to the Western Table
– we ended the trail at upper cable car, which saved us hiking down another 90 mins of killer downhill
– it is not as flat up top as Table Mountain would seem from below
– for lunch we had warm food at Table Mountain cafe and a latte!

UPDATE: We have also decided to release the full unedited details of the trek (the notes we took each night). Anyone who is interested in more details can find them here.

Catching Up…

Pictures from our weekend away in Soweto and Johannesburg are now up. (Sept 24-26)
Thank you to Andy for his hard work with sorting, organizing, and editing all our shots.
You can also read his post about our experience here.

This past weekend (well, we took an extended long weekend, Sept 29 – Oct 5) we explored the natural beauty of Cape Town on foot. Pictures and posts from our 5-day and 4-night trek along the Hoerikwaggo Trail will be posted soon.

Learning About the Past

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The Intercape bus was the chosen method of travel for this weekend’s excursion and it proved to be a good choice. With lots of leg room, comfortable seats, an on-board washroom and a decent rest stop we were all quite content for the 6 hour journey. The only difference from similar Canadian transport was that on the way to Johannesburg, a constant stream of Christian audio-visual material played over the tv screens.

We did not stay right in Johannesburg, but from our time at Park Station and driving through the city in a taxi van, it definitely had a big city feel to it similar to that of Toronto and Montreal. Evidence of early gold mining with dusty man-made hills was scattered on the outskirts of the city centre. This was all quite contrary to the simple and casual feel of Gaborone.

So this weekend getaway differed greatly our former wilderness excursions. Instead of exploring African nature we learned a lot about the history and society of Soweto, Johannesburg, and South Africa. It was also unique as we traveled with a new Canadian friend named Kristen who is also volunteering at SSI.

We stayed at Lebo’s Backpacker’s right in Soweto where there were several outdoor and indoor common areas. We enjoyed hot breakfasts (eggs, cheese, tomato, bacon and toast) and traditional dinners (beef or chicken, pap, chakalaka, salad, and veggies).

Saturday afternoon we visted the Hector Peterson Museum. On June 16, 1976 this young boy of 13 years was shot be police during what was supposed to be a peaceful protest. Students across the township were marching in school uniform to voice their frustrations over Afrikaans being introduced as the new language of instruction. This event marked the beginning of the end of the Apartheid.

Sunday morning we went on a 4 hour bicycle tour of Soweto. We leisurely road along the left side of the streets and stopped numerous times along the way. At some stops we discussed the historical significance of a certain part of the township or a particular street. At other break points we were able to taste certain delicacies such as cow’s cheek or an ice pop. During these stops children would often approach our bicycle group to say hi, touch our bicycles, have their picture taken and give us high fives. In general, the people of all ages were happy to see us and welcomed us to their neighbourhoods. The most significant part of the tour was when we parked our bikes and got to walk through the lanes of the one of the poorest areas of Soweto, Orlando West. We were able to see first hand the difficult living conditions of many many families. Communal taps and toilets provided basic infrastructure to the thousands living in the area. Children played in their tiny yards and waved to us practising their English greeting of “hello.” What amazed us the most is that the adults, elderly and children alike all seemed happy despite their unfair living conditions. The tour also included the memorial for Hector Peterson, Nelson Mandela’s House, and a lunch stop for a “quarter” (an unhealthy burger-like meal consisting of french fries, egg, ham, and chesse, surrounded by bread) at a local restaurant.

In the late afternoon, we visited the Apartheid museum. Upon purchasing a ticket you are randomly labeled a “white” or “non-white” and there are separate adjacent entrances for each. As such, right away you get a small sense of the separation and discrimination that took place during the Apartheid. With the time we had, we were able to go through most of the areas and learned a lot about the unfair treatment of so many people and the challenging living and social conditions they faced. Although we were a bit rushed for time, we were thankful to have had the chance to visit the museum.

Monday morning, after leisurely eating our breakfast, we made our way downtown via taxi-van to Constistution Hill. Here we took a 90 minute tour of the various prisons where many political prisons were kept. The difference between the prison conditions and treatment for “whites” and “non-whites” was sickening. The personal written and audio-visual accounts from prisoners who had returned to share their stories were extremely moving.

While in Africa, we were pleased to have the chance to visit Soweto and go through various museums to learn more about the Apartheid and its significant events and personalities. It definitely helped put many things in perspective.

Pictures will be posted next week on Andy’s site.

Exploring On Our Own

We had another fun weekend exploring a part of South Africa with new friends: Kgaswane National Park.

Four of us traveled together in another friend’s car. Handling the inefficiency at boarder crossings is becoming routine. You need to approach the counter in order to get the small form to fill out. Then you fill our the form once you find a working pen. There is sometimes a line up that has formed at the counter. So then after waiting again they finally check your passport and stamp it.

It was nice to be able to hike on our own without a guide, just out in nature in a beautiful National Park. The campsites were a little close together, but other than that is was a great weekend to spend with new friends. We ate very well as there was a braai (BBQ) right at our site. We also did two of our own short game drives and tried to identify the animals ourselves.

I will let our pictures explain the rest. You can also visit Andy’s site for more info.

Safariing in Style!

Just across the South African boarder is a private game reserve called Madikwe. We spent the weekend, well 22 hours (overnight Saturday), at the Tau Lodge inside the game reserve. It was nice to spend time with our friends Dave and Lidija. We were all royally spoiled.

Here are some highlights:
– The rooms at the lodge were actually chalet style, each with their own outdoor shower, large bathtub, super comfortable bed, and balcony over looking the water hole.
– In the evening, after returning from our game drive, we heard noises coming from the water hole. We found three elephants bathing near our balcony. It was quite amazing to see and hear them breathing and splashing in the water.
– By the end of two 3 hour game drives (one Saturday afternoon and one Sunday evening) we had seen 4 of the Big 5!
*In the evening we saw two lions slowly on the hunt for some sort of food.
*During our rest stop, we saw a couple elephants in the bush, and then drove into the bush to have a closer look as they ate at trees.

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*In the morning, I spotted a rhino as we drove down the road. We were able to follow the two of them for a short time until the other vehicles came. They turned out to be black rhinos (really a slightly darker grey from the light grey of white rhinos) which are very rare and can be aggressive.
*Lidija noticed a lion going into a thicket and as we approached we could see a whole pride of them, a mother and several young (approximately 5 months old). We stayed there for a while to watch them. We could get near to them without worry as they grew up in the park and are used to vehicles. (this is when the safaris can seem a little “zoo-like” but it was still pretty cool).
*We also spotted a herd of water buffalo that were slowly moving towards a thicket to find shade for the day.
*We tried to find a leopard in the hills but didn’t have any luck. It is the hardest to find.
– The game drives were very comfortable. At first I was worried that they would feel too long, but the time passed by quickly as we were seeing so many animals. The roads in the reserve were very well maintained so that ride was smooth and fairly quiet. They also provided big leopard print blankets for during the cool mornings and evenings.
– The scenery was amazing. The landscape was filled with rolling hills and we saw the most beautiful sunset yet near a smaller distant water hole.

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– Besides those big 4, we also saw giraffes up close near the water hole by our lodge and a group of warthogs (a mother and her young) at the side of road.
– The main lodge itself was also beautiful. The restaurant had an indoor dinning area and an outdoor patio. There was also a very nice balcony on the second level where we sat for tea before our afternoon game drive. Both overlook the water hole which offers stunning scenery and extra opportunities for spotting animals.

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– There was an abundance of fresh and delicious food available. We definitely ate well. For lunch and dinner however, although there were several options, many of them did not appeal to me. I could not bring myself to eat ostrich or springbok for instance. When you have seen these animals in the wild the idea of them being hunted legally for food is difficult to accept. I had a vegetarian quiche for lunch and fish (hach I believe) for dinner (I have not yet seen wild fish during our trip so I was ok with this).

It was a terrific weekend getaway! After a lot of camping, we were ready to be spoiled with a beautiful lodge. For safari pictures click here and for pictures of the lodge click here. You can also click here for more about our weekend in Madikwe.

Into the Wild, Seriously

Khutse Game Reserve in the Kalahari Desert was this past weekend’s destination. This was some serious African camping.

The Vehicle:
We definitely rode in style this weekend. A nice 8-seater Land Rover picked us up early Saturday morning. The seats were comfortable and included seat belts, we had excellent elevated views of our surroundings, and air circulated nicely with the windows open. But the coolest feature was that there was a small ladder at the back of the 4×4 that we could climb up for game viewing.

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The Drive:
After an 8am pick up Saturday morning, we arrived at the entrance around 1:00pm. The first half of the drive was on “tarred” road. We drove through many robots (which actually weren’t operational yet as the road was new) heading north out of Gabs, and after an hour or so we passed through a large village called Molepolole. Street vendors, supermarkets, petrol stations, and various random stores characterized the main area of the town. The next notable village we came to was Letlhakeng which is where we stopped for petrol before continuing on. At this point, the tar ended and we found ourselves driving on a dirt road. This second half of the trip was very dusty and noisy as we bumped and shoke along this extremely long road. We passed numerous cows, some random and some being herded, several goats, and some donkeys pulling carts of supplies.

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The Gear:
We slept in a large canvas tent. This was practical protection against possible visitors to our campsite at night. Our beds consisted of a mattress on top of a stretcher-like bed. They even supplied sheets, a comforter, a blanket and pillow. This was perhaps the most comfortable sleep I have ever had camping. So no, I did not hear the lions roaring at 4am…I was sound asleep!
Our kitchen was equipped with tables, a table cloth, chairs, a kettle and even an apron!

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The Environment:
We really were in the wild. It was similar to being in Banff National Park, yes there is an entrance gate, but the park is immense and rugged (and minus the tourist strip of shops and restaurants like in Banff). It was nice to be away from roads, cars and fencing as was the case with the other game reserves. We were in the Kalahari Desert and beside the one other occupied campsite, we were all alone with our guide. And this is peak season! The long golden grasses, the brown salt pans, and the sandy trails were beautiful. And of course we saw yet another red-orange sunset. It was amazing to experience true african nature!

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The Food:
We were pleasantly surprised by the healthy food offered by Africa Insight. At times North American food here is rather greasy so we weren’t sure what to expect. There was fruit, yogurt, sandwiches, quiche and chicken curry on rice. We enjoyed tea and coffee by the campfire both in the evening and in the morning. This was definitely not the type of camping food we were used to.

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Our Guide:
Leonard was one of the nicest Motswana I have met yet. As many Batswana, he was very friendly, polite and well dressed. He really wanted us to enjoy the experience and learn a lot about the wildness and way of life in his country. Leonard was quiet at times, but then full of information when we asked him questions, and when describing various animals and birds. His favourite sayings were “Aie” when something minor went wrong and “Yup” instead of yes. He was an excellent driver, which seems to be a rarity here. What I was most impressed with was all the schooling he went through to become a guide: after finishing Form 5 (last year of high school which is equivalent to Grade 12) he completed a diploma in tourism (2 years), and then earned a degree in tourism (3 years). Both study periods included some practicum work in various parts in Botswana and he also did some additional training at Mokolodi Nature Reserve. We really appreciated his expertise and company in the wild.

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Another great weekend exploring Botswana’s wilderness….seriously!
Visit Andy’s website for more information and click here for the full set of pictures.