Run the equator: September 2007

Monday, September 24, 2007

Botswana - rivers and elephants

Dusk over palms.
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Waking up to the sight of fresh elephant dung five feet away from the tent, would make anyone pause for a second and reflect upon the mysterious coincidences of life. What was I doing while the elephant was peacefully going about its business, walking slowly on the edge of our camp? Did the lions come by too? What if I had woken up at that same time and walked outside to complete a business similar to that of the elephant? How would this untimely meeting between man and beast have taken place? Alas, I will not know the answers to those unsettling questions and I’ll have to find satisfaction in my tamer memories of our trip to the Okavango delta, Botswana’s number one tourist attraction.

Mokoros and their polers

The Okavango River, after running for one thousand miles through Angola, Namibia and Botswana spreads into a maze of shallow waterways over some 15,000 square kilometers of the Kalahari Desert, and brings it to life. The river has no outlet to the sea and flows into a caldera that used to be the lake Makgadikgadi long ago. There’s nothing left of the lake and the river arms spread across the land and lose themselves in a maze of shallow-water ponds, covered by thriving high grasses. These ponds are too shallow for navigation except by mokoro – the traditional, flat-bottom dug-out canoes of the locals, which nowadays, more often than not, are made of fiberglass. The mokoros make their way across the water, leaving short-lived paths through the grass in their wake. They are pushed by their skilful polers who stand up straight in the boats and keep their balance without effort, talking to one another – sometimes, I think, they make jokes about us. But steering the mokoro is no trivial task – I tried twice and both times I lasted for just one minute before losing my balance, falling overboard and flooding the canoe with a screaming Angela and the laughing poler in it.

Wildebeest running

The delta, where for two nights we camped on a patch of dry land together with our local guides, abounds in wildlife, but it’s more common to see traces, leftovers and bones than the living animals. We followed an elephant once, spotted some antelopes and wildebeest, saw the eyes of a hippopotamus bulging above the water, but in the end the real fascination is in the place itself, the spectacular remoteness, the peculiar mix of desert and water and the mokoros gliding gently above the yielding grass.

Beautiful African eagle.
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In contrast, our other tourist stop in Botswana, the Chobe river National Park, does not offer the off-the-beaten track experience like the delta, but it compensates by the large number of wild animals that can be spotted in a short three-hour boat cruise. The river banks at the edge of the park are littered with high-end tourist lodges, the town is not far, and many speed-boats of various sizes carry loads of tourists among the river’s islands in search for the best picture spots. We took a small 12-person boat, but the one that left the pier right before us was a gigantic catamaran, occupied by a boisterous pack of sweating Russians, with a full bar lined up with all that is needed for any self-respecting partying Russian. There’s a river ride for each taste and budget, from the grubby backpackers on a budget to the retired Americans blowing their 401k savings on their dream trip, the one they never had time to take in a lifetime of hard work, taking care of demanding children, and two-week-a-year vacations they chose to spend at their in-laws house.

Elephants in the fog

The riverbanks are crowded with animals; after spotting elephants wallowing in mud, one doesn’t need to go too far to see hippos grazing. Crocodiles lie motionless on the beaches with their mouths open, regulating the temperature of their reptilian cold-bloodied bodies. Eagles and antelopes, lizards and buffalos, lions and pachyderms share this unlimited supply of water and food. Some are food for the others, but they don’t seem to mind; the benefits for the species outweigh the disadvantages of natural selection. They all fell prey to our hungry cameras, but getting the national-geographic wildlife shot is not easy: the subjects are moving, their colors are often blending into the environment, and the sun is rarely coming from the right angle. Besides, all organized tours seem to have a propensity for taking tourists to see and photograph the sunset over a famous sight. African dusks are beautiful, the huge orange ball of fire sinking over the savanna, but otherwise they make for lousy pictures of anything else than the sunset itself. We still have four African countries to cross - my wildlife pictures will have to get better!

Posted from Livingstone, Zambia

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Sunday, September 23, 2007

Namibia

Dead Vlei - dry, but not lifeless.
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What could have prompted a nation usually characterized by thoughtfulness and calculated intelligence, to throw itself into a futile colonial adventure in the least hospitable patch of African desert? Once you have seen Namibia, you can’t help asking yourself this question. This barren stretch of land on the southwestern coast of the continent, home to some of the most ruthless temperature extremes, doesn’t look like a rewarding prize, no matter how starved for land or glory the few Germans that started this insane adventure may have been, a hundred years ago. Whether they really wanted colonies or they just wanted to annoy the British, their pathetic choice of location must have made them the laughingstock of jokes at the Whitehall for a while. The dream only lasted for thirty-five years (until the British got annoyed indeed), but it left a legacy that is still visible today: commercial signs and billboards along the road are often in German and the centers of the old colonial outposts of L├╝deritz and Swakopmund look like miniature German towns, with gabled houses, protestant churches, Schweinebraten, Erdinger Weissbier and Bavarian Gem├╝tlichkeit...

Fish river canyon at dusk

The first days of our trip we rolled along the coast to the Orange river, which marks the border between South Africa and Namibia, and then inched our way north on the highways that have become unpaved as soon as we crossed the border. This part of Namibia is the land of wire fences, of which there are miles and miles as long as your eyes can see, along the road and across the land. Those wires may be there to isolate wildlife from cattle ranches (of which I haven’t seen any) or maybe they protect the environment from the devastating hordes of tourists; either way I can’t help noticing the irony of partitioning and fencing out patches of this arid land sprinkled with little boulders which look like salt and pepper fallen from the sky … is every Namibian entitled to its own desert lot?

The truck

For hours each day we roll through the desert in our sturdy Mercedes truck specially retrofitted for the purpose of transporting tourists on safaris. It has an elevated passenger cabin and plenty of storage space underneath, for luggage, tents, mattresses, folding chairs, food and cooking utensils. Each day, our guides, Ian and Thembe and the driver, all three from Zimbabwe, prepare breakfast and lunch for us by the side of the truck, and most days they also cook dinner. Occasionally, we have to buy our own dinner meal, when we stay overnight in a town, or in certain campsites. After the horror of camping on the Inca trail, I was reluctant to sleep in a tent for so many nights (the trip takes 40 days), but it hasn’t been too bad so far, because the tent mattresses are thick (not the kind you can roll and attach to your backpack) and your hipbone and shoulders don’t hurt in the morning. The voyage is not entirely without pain though – sitting in a vehicle for hours in a row has always given me backaches, and I’m not the only one to feel happy when we take a break from driving and we can stretch our legs walking around. The distances between the tourist spots are immense, so we do spend quite a lot of hours driving, but there’s something good in this as well: we have been reading book after book in the past days.

It's always easier downhill

It wasn’t until we got to Namibia – when we reached Sossusvlei, the country’s number one attraction – that we understood what desert heat really was. There was no more pleasant breeze; there were no more clouds and no trees. The air lay on the land like a blanket of hot coals. For us, every moment spent out of shade was just another moment spent looking for shade. However I still found this dry heat more bearable than the sweltering, humid Yucatan hothouse. If the wind would pick up while we were camping, we had to wait for it to stop and then clean the inside of the tents and everything that was in them, waging a bitter losing battle against the fine, permeating, ubiquitous African dust. If you travel in Africa there is no choice but to get used to the dust, which has become a permanent companion since we left the lush lands of the Cape. In camp sites, at lunch stops along the road, on the majestic dunes of the Sossusvlei Sea of sand, in the Etosha National Park, in our truck – which rides with open windows most of the time – everywhere we go, dust is king. After a day in the open my hair feels so thick with all the dirt in it that I almost forget I don’t have much of it left. Fortunately there are showers and hot water at every camp site.

Indifferent giraffe.
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The group isn’t very interesting or particularly cohesive, which is a convoluted way of saying that I didn’t have much fun getting to know the other people we shared the truck with. But it isn’t bad either. The guides have lots of stories about Africa; they tell funny anecdotes about past safaris they have lead, they talk about African traditions, but mostly, they like to talk about Zimbabwe, their homeland. The troubles of their land preoccupy them like a sore spot; heartfelt and with bitter irony, they talk about the ruin that has befallen their beloved country, about “Uncle Bob” – Robert Mugabe, their eternal president who holds onto power like a fish on a hook, and about his irrational politics that seem to be cut out of equal parts of tragedy and comedy.

Shaking a leg

Namibia is mostly desert, but one teeming with wildlife, and there’s no place like the Etosha National Park to convince you of this. Zebras, giraffes, wildebeest, kudus, oryxes, springboks, elephants, rhinos, lions and tigers roam free through the thorny bushes, looking for food, water or shadow, all but ignoring the curious rolling metal beasts that roar and puff passing by, with their load of strange little two-legged creatures armed with their inoffensive one-eyed weapons… Did I mention tigers? Of course, there are no tigers in Africa, but how can I not put lions and tigers together after years of having this song on my mind: http://www.weebls-stuff.com/toons/kenya? It just won't go away...

Posted from Livingstone, Zambia, two countries later...

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Deeper into Africa

Ten days ago, we have started our overland adventure that will take us across Southern and Eastern Africa from Cape Town through Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Malawi, and Tanzania, finishing in Nairobi, Kenya. There is not much time for internet, so the posts will be scarce and the pictures will have to wait for a while.

I am writing this from Maun, Botswana, where we have one hour to do some banking, and buy some water and food for the next few days which we will spend in the Okavango river delta, away from civilization, camping along with the animals in the bush... That's all I can write for now, there's a line of white people at this internet cafe and everybody's eager to check their email, myspace, facebook, livejournal... name your favorite social networking system. I have to go. The truck is across the street, and the driver has started the engine.

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Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Tired?

Dusk at Hermanus

As we started our long drive from the Tsitsikamma National Park back to Cape Town, I became aware of a certain travel weariness that had crept up on me. For three weeks we had moved fast from place to place, following a loose but busy schedule, sleeping one day here, two days there, changing landscapes and hotel rooms often, like a couple of drifters living in their motor home. The land had become familiar to us; we knew the grocery stores, the banks, the fast foods, and the parking customs but we didn’t settle in any corner long enough to develop the comfortable illusion that we had a home of our own. Familiarity with a place you visit creates the yearning to stay, but in the usual vacationer it is closely associated with the thought – good or bad – of returning home. We didn’t have a home to get back to, and we weren’t going to stay either, so I felt that it was time to move on, not just to another town and another hotel room, but to the next stage of our trip. But it was too early for this restlessness: we had to get to Cape Town first, and it was going to take us a few more days. This feeling of inadequacy had struck me a bit too early.

I spent the following few days under the ominous shadow of this thought, which made them a little dull and unexciting. I had already decided we had to leave, and this diminished the beauty of the places that we saw during those last days, although these places were in no way inferior to the ones we had already visited. Or it may have been the weather, I don’t know . . .

Cape Penguin.
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We got to Hermanus, the self-crowned whale-watching capital of the world, but didn’t see many whales, because we were too lazy to wait for hours on the bluff, looking at the sea through our binoculars, waiting for something to happen. We saw them in the end, but they were just gray patches floating on water, blowing steam and showing their tails once in a while as they dived. Alas, there was none of that spectacular breaching stuff that you see on the Discovery Channel. So I guess it was the disappointment that the whales didn’t come to parade themselves in front of my camera that made us spend most of our time getting busy with the local delicious food and good wine.

Next, it was Simonstown on the cape peninsula, a little town of rich, beautiful terraced houses overlooking the sea, part of a gorgeous stretch of narrow coastland running around the nail-shaped peninsula that extends into the Atlantic, south of Cape Town. There was not much to see here besides the penguins at Boulder’s beach. The whole town fell asleep around seven, so we had our dinner extravaganza in an almost empty restaurant.

Evil baboon

On the day we drove back to Cape Town we took a ride through the Table Mountain national park and visited South Point – the southern tip of the peninsula, which also holds the Cape of Good Hope. In the visitor center parking, I was attacked by a baboon that came from nowhere and wanted to steal the granola bar that I had just started to eat. I caught the baboon by the throat, pinned him to the ground and yelled at him: “You want by granola bar, you filthy baboon? Then come and get it if you can! Take this! And this!” I said, as I punched him in his dog-ugly face . . . Ok, it wasn’t quite like that. It climbed on the roof of the car as I was standing by it, and made a dash for my hand, but I jumped back. It seemed to want to come after me, so I threw the bar over its head and the baboon went after it and later was chased away by the park rangers armed with long sticks.

The Khayelitsa township.
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Finally, back in Cape Town (after another short detour to the local wineries), we landed at the same noisy hotel on Long street where we had stayed two weeks before. The next day, we took an organized tour to visit one of the most visible legacies of apartheid: the townships – the suburban conglomerates of dilapidated houses, wooden shacks and tin-houses where the black population had been forced to settle when the country was ruled by a regime that considered skin color as the most important guiding principle. The tour was a very educative experience, but I could not shake off a lingering feeling of guilt for having paid money to see the misery and poverty of others.

On the last day, as I returned our rental car, I finally felt free. Something else was going to begin soon. Better or worse, I didn’t know, but I was eager for it.

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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Conversation

Fritz: I'm a little worried about money...
Angela: Yes, I think we are spending too much, especially on food.
F: Yes, for a while now we've had a bottle of wine at dinner every night and recently we've started to have wine with lunch too. That adds up, you know?
A: True, we should eat cheaper for a while.
F: And no more wine for lunch, OK?
A: Yes, and tonight let's be really good and not spend too much money on dinner.

Food bill for that same night:

  • Garlic bread to start up
  • Chicken livers on ciabatta bread sprinkled with rocket (that's arugula for the rest of us)
  • Prawns with rice and salad
  • Fancy chicken sandwich
  • Bottle of white wine
  • Another round of prawns with rice and salad
  • Another bottle of white wine
Total: 450 Rand
Conclusion: to hell with it!
I guess we may come home earlier than planned if we keep it this way...

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Saturday, September 1, 2007

Splendor at the Cape

The city, the harbor and the mountain.
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It’s not surprising that when the Dutch settlers arrived at the southern tip of Africa in the 17th century they decided to make this place their home. It’s also not surprising that when the British started foraying into this land, almost 150 years later, they too, decided they liked it so much, that it had to be theirs. I too, felt the irresistible attraction of this land, its superlative, fascinating beauty, and wondered how the life of the first winemakers who started shaping the vineyards around Stellenbosch and Franschhoek may have been, and how the first farmers who crossed the Swartberg pass into the immense and empty Karoo picked the right patch of land to settle on.

The Kirstenbosch botanical garden

The landscapes of the Cape Province will literally bring a smile onto your face. Before arriving here I had no idea that everything would be so abundantly green. Even the seemingly barren hilltops of the less humid Karoo region are covered with shrubs that glisten in all shades of green under the hard African sun. This may be the case just because it’s the end of winter now and it has been raining often recently; a summer landscape may be quite a different story – the beautiful coastlands of California come to mind, with their luscious foliage frenzy during the short spring and the scorched yellow tones which last the whole long summer.

The Neetlingshof winery.
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There are quite a lot of things to see in the Cape Province, the most visited in South Africa. Like everybody, we began with Cape Town, the big happy village, a very relaxed and relatively safe big city, with a pretty downtown that reminds of a mid-size American town with its not-too-tall skyline and the pedestrian shopping area, the older, more bohemian streets where the bars and clubs are now concentrated, and the pretty restored waterfront, bustling with locals and tourists on a stroll. Quite an American-looking town indeed, except that it has a diamond-shaped fort in the middle, with bells, cannons and guards wearing the proper historic attire and performing an outdated ceremony for the sole benefit of tourists and their cameras.

Perfect harmony between man and bird.
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From Cape Town we moved eastward to explore the many wineries that cover the gentle hills of the region. Estates with imposing white gates and names like Blaauwklippen, Neetlingshof, Spier, Steenberg, Chamonix, Haute Cabriere, and Fairview are now all a blurry mix of memories, but I surely won’t forget the good times we had with all the bottles of excellent wine we bought there. Although wine tasting, Angela’s favorite “hiking”, is an activity very alien to my personality, I must admit it is very instructive and makes a good opportunity for pretty pictures.

The church in Prince Albert

From these vine-heavy tiny hills separated by miniature mountain ridges the drier, flatter Karoo, is just a stone throw away. The vegetation changes, the nights are cooler and the towns are more spread out. This is the land of ostrich farms, game reserves, winding, never-ending highways, where baboon families can be seen looking for food by the side of the road and you can drive for a very long time without crossing another car. We spent a few days here visiting or just passing through small towns with fairytale-sounding names like Montagu, Oudtshoorn, Ladismith and Prince Albert.


Sails and the wind
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The journey continues south, along the Outeniqua mountain pass, to the ocean coast and then eastward again. This part of the seaside, so aptly named “The Garden Route” brings forth yet another type of gorgeous landscape, to keep the traveler happy: thick, green coniferous forests, pearly lakes and lagoons, steep hills cascading into furious waves, and picture-perfect little towns tucked between sea, rocks and sand dunes. We spent a couple of days at a beach backpacker hostel in the remote Buffalo Bay, where the doors didn’t have latches or locks and the whole lodge, owners, staff and guests seemed to be just another large family. As I write this, we are staying in an ocean-side cabin in the Tsitsikamma national park where we hiked a bit, cooked a bit and mostly did nothing all day long. Tomorrow we’ll be on the move again heading back westward slowly toward Cape Town, on a different route than the one we took to get here, through endless fields of yellow canola and wheat, green at this time of the year.

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