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Archive for October, 2007

Okavango Delta from the AirSunday is always a tough day in Africa. We have the entire morning to spend here in Maun but most of what I want to do – go to the post office, make phone calls, go to the bank etc. – is unavailable because those places are closed. At least the internet is open, although still I am struggling to upload photographs. Facebook is endlessly slow and for some reason I cannot sign in to flickr. I keep persisting, but the effort is frustrating.

I spent the last few days in Maun, Botswana – the gateway to the Okavango Delta. The delta is best explored in local two-person dug-out canoes called makoros. With our thermarests laid out on the bottom of the canoe and our day-packs at our backs, it was one of the most serene and comfortable rides I’ve ever had in a boat. The makoros sit so low in the water that you cannot see above the thick, tall reeds that rise up all around you. Water lilies spread out all around, their white flowers fully open to the sunlight. My poler made me a waterlily necklace and we drank from the delta through the stem.

It took about an hour and a half to reach the island where we made camp. Just over half of the Oasis group decided to make the journey, so we relaxed on straw mats in the sun, played games and swam in the delta. This particular part of the island was hippo and croc-free due to the density of the reeds, so we could swim without fear. The water was deliciously cool and beautiful to swim in. We had the chance to test our mettle by poling the makoros ourselves – not too difficult until you have to turn around! Only one person succeeded in falling in and later he had to be rescued when he couldn’t turn the boat around to go back… needless to say that he won our truck’s “dummy” award for that one.

In the afternoon there was a brief game walk, but truly there was little to see. I have been so spoiled by the amazing game viewing I have had so far that when we struggle to find game, there is a little disappointment. Unfortunately I had also been spoiled by our fabulous guide, Andy, in Matopos. The guides in the delta were not nearly as forthcoming with information as he was, which made it less enjoyable still. But the best was yet to come. The sunset over the delta, followed by the full-moon rise, was just spectacular. Camping in the bush is one thing I will never forget from this journey. The night is never silent, as one might imagine. Instead it is filled with the sounds of insects, hippos, elephants and birds. Speaking of insects, the mosquitos were particularly annoying around the Delta, although I am proud to say that I have yet to be bitten… a fate reserved for the very fortunate and the well-deeted.

There was another game walk in the early morning, at about 6am, which was a little more fruitful but not much. It was the makoro ride back that we all looked forward to, and more than one of us fell asleep to the blissful ride back through the water and the gentle humming of the polers as they guided us back to camp.

Most of Oasis joined us then to go on a flight over the Delta. We were seated in small 5 or 7-seater Cessna aircraft and taken up for a 45minute ride for a bargain $60 each. Our pilot was much less of a daredevil (unfortunately) than the other pilot, but we got an incredible look at the delta from above, with all its plentiful game (surprise!). We flew very low to the ground, just above tree-level. The delta is so vast that even from the air we could not grasp the full scope of it. In fact, it barely looks like a delta from the air – at least not the deltas pictured in the geography books – but rather a series of small islands surrounded by swampy but bright green reeds and grass.

Speaking of things moving at lightning speed, we leave Botswana today. One night of camping with the bushmen and we end up in Namibia. The part of the trip I was most looking forward to is coming up… the Namib dunes. Internet is improving too as we move further south, so I will try to update as much as possible and maybe throw in a few photos too.

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This trip is disappearing before my eyes. Already we are missing 7 of the original people who started this trip with us and 6 new people have joined. I lost two of my best friends on the truck yesterday, Jodie and Webby from New Zealand, as they move on to the next stage of their trip in Thailand. The reassuring part is that it is not goodbye but only “see you later” — they are going to house me in NZ for my birthday and they will show me all their favourite parts of the North Isle. There might be some skydiving involved… but that’s all next March! I can hardly believe there is less than three weeks before we arrive in Cape Town and lose almost half the truck before continuing on to Jo’burg. Time is ticking away faster than I can grab ahold of all the amazing things that I am experiencing…

Take adrenaline day. We were driven over to the Zambian side of the falls to a massive part of the gorge where they have room for abseiling, rap-jumping, flying fox and a gorge swing. I thought that abseiling and rap-jumping wouldn’t be very exhilarating but I was so wrong! The cliff face is about 70 metres high, more than enough to make your stomach flip a few times as you’re dangling over the edge. This is especially true for rap-jumping, which is essentially a forward facing abseil. We all tried to run down the cliff face Mission: Impossible style. I succeeded the most, but if you watch the video you will see that that is hardly an accomplishment – my legs are running but aren’t touching any cliff! It was quite hilarious.

The flying fox requires that you take the cliff jump at a run. It is one of the most unnatural feelings in the world, to run at a steep drop. But even though I screamed the whole way across the gorge, once the harness kicks in you feel so safe. At least they reel you back in on the zipline. That is not so for the abseil, rap jump and gorge swing. Once you descend 70-odd metres you have to climb up again!

I did the gorge swing three times in total, and I am told by my friends who did the bungi as well in Vic Falls that the gorge swing is just as scary. When my toes began to creep over the edge of the gorge, I felt as if nothing was going to stop the free fall all the way to the bottom. I think I left most of my internal organs on the platform when I took the first step. But I quickly recovered my senses and again – once the rope kicks in – you feel free as a bird! I did the gorge swing in tandem with my friend Ben twice. Tandem is supposed to be three times as fast and you have to go off backwards. I think it was scarier once I knew what was going to happen! Sarah did it in tandem with our tour leader Stu, and ended up with some mild whiplash…. in fact, we all did, but it didn’t decrease our enjoyment at all! So that’s what adrenaline does… it makes you crazy!

Hippos and Elephants

What with all these jam-packed adrenaline activities, it was lovely to get into Botswana to relax and get back to nature. Not only did we find supermarket shelves PACKED with food (no need to be arrested for photographs here!) but Botswana is home to some of the wildest and most untamed national parks in Africa. Yesterday we had the chance to visit Chobe National Park on a river cruise. Unfortunately the river was quite packed with tourists, but even that couldn’t discourage from what was a beautiful journey. The sheer number of hippos on the river is incredible. They sit in groups of seven or eight all near the water. There were lots of babies. As a result, many of the females were very protective of their space, and we saw many of them open their mouths wide in a mock-yawn: the hippo’s first signal that it is getting agitated. It made for some incredible photographs.

Chobe is most famous for its hordes of elephants, and we weren’t disappointed. As the sun was going down over the water, the elephants began to make their way from a lush green island to the main banks of the national park. Elephants are naturally playful, as we discovered in antelope park, as well as superb swimmers. They strolled through the water, drinking and splashing each other as if they weren’t elephants at all but children reluctant to get out of the swimming pool. I could have sat there and watch them for hours. In fact, my camera battery died and in a way, it was a blessing – I wasn’t waiting for the perfect shot, I was just waiting. Watching. Watching a crocodile laze on the river bank. A baby hippo practicing his yawn. A snakebird on top of an elephant. A fish eagle spread its wings and take to the sky.

Early tomorrow I will be waking up to take a local canoe out onto the Okavango Delta, supposedly one of the top 25 things to see in Africa. What isn’t a top thing to do in Africa, I wonder? For all the set backs – and there are many, like discovering a cobra in the girl’s shower moments after I had gotten out – there is no other place like this.

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Victoria Falls markets itself as an adrenaline junkie’s paradise, and it certainly is. Yesterday was spent watching a few people bungee jump off the third highest bridge in the world (but the number one is in South Africa, where I will be jumping!) and wandering around the falls. The water is very low at the moment – perfect for white water rafting but not so good for fall viewing. You can see where the water would be flowing during the high season. The area around the falls is like a rainforest. It is so lush and green compared with the rest of the city, which tends to be very very hot and dry.

Today was much more action-packed. Early in the morning we were picked up for white water rafting the Zambezi. I loved it in Ottawa – how could I not do it here? The Zambezi has a notorious reputation. It was difficult to make the decision to raft after learning that a girl died on the river only last week. Our experience was much more tame — we even avoided tipping! The other boat wasn’t so lucky. They tipped and were sent careening down the river on a very intense Grade 5 rapid. No one was hurt and we all had a great time. The scenery is gorgeous (quite literally… the Zambezi runs through a massive gorge). We even saw crocodiles on the river, including an enormous croc that was sunning itself on a rock. It then slipped under the water, and we couldn’t see it anymore. Knowing that something that huge and dangerous can just disappear is quite scary! But no croc accidents either. At one point we were able to get out of the boat and ‘swim’ the rapids, and despite the risk of crocs, we all got in and it was probably one of the best moments of a fantastic day.

The worst moment of a fantastic day came right at the end. As I said, the Zambezi river runs through an enormous gorge (hence why the falls are there). In order to get out of the river at the end, you have to walk all the way up out of the gorge – the equivalent of a 70 storey building. After a full and strenuous day of rafting, hiking up a steep cliff face was not my idea of fun! The fastest time up the mountain has been 6 minutes, the slowest 2.5hours. I made it in a respectable 23 minutes and the fastest of our group was 13. At the end, ice-cold Cokes awaited us… shame that I hate coke. I stuck to water and all was well.

Tomorrow is ADRENALINE DAY. I’ll be abseiling, rap-jumping, ziplining and gorge swinging. Can’t wait to write about it… if I’m still alive!

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Zimbabwe continues to prove itself as a difficult but rewarding country. In regards to the arrest mentioned in the previous post, one of our number was hauled away for taking a photo of empty supermarket shelves. Without some quick thinking from our tour leader, he may have ended being charged with treason. Scary stuff. Our yellow truck high-tailed it after the police vehicle so we could follow our jailbird to the station. It was a nervous two hours before he was released.

Great Zimbabwe Ruins

The Great Zim Ruins are the biggest medieval ruin in sub-Saharan Africa, proving that there were large and thriving civilizations here before the Europeans arrived. It is divided into three concentric circles, with the King living atop a mountain and all his wives (often over 200) scattered around the base. The Queen (his number one wife) had the most spectacular dwelling, which features on the Zimbabwe 100,000 dollar bill. The ruins are not the most spectacular that you will ever see, but I was glad to have visited. One of the highlights included a very low ceiling-ed cave at the top of the King’s castle. Whenever he wanted to call one of his wives (number 76 perhaps?) he would shout into the cave and it would echo down the mountain and into the valley below. Our guide, Caroline, gave us a demonstration by shouting her name, and you could hear it echo seven or eight times in a row afterward. Very cool.

The heat was immense. There is very little bottled water, and – horror of horrors – a Coke shortage here as well. Not that I drink Coca-Cola, but everyone is missing their Coke fix. I find myself back to drinking soda water again or cordial when available.

Rhino Stalking

The mornings in Zimbabwe are cold, and we are up early. Split up into three groups, we make our way to Matopos National Park for some rhino stalking. Our guide is a fully licensed bush guide named Andy. The guides in Zimbabwe are some of the best trained in Africa, and it shows. He has been guiding people through the bush for the better part of thirty years and he is about to give us the tour of our lives.

There are some zebra just off the road in an open plain. Two of the males are battling for dominance. Andy pulls the jeep over to the side of the road and motions for us to get out. We some trepidation – this is the first time out into the bush on foot for all of us – we hop onto the ground and edge toward the zebra. If we keep walking and don’t stare at them too hard, the zebras may allow us to get close. And they do, before one of them spooks and they gallop away into the distance. Andy tells us the difference between male and female zebra but don’t ask me to explain that now. With a rifle slung over his shoulder, Andy definitely strikes a frightening silhouette (imagine the guy out of Jumanji, but younger). He gets excited at something on the ground and we all gather around. Rhino dung. He picks it up. It’s fresh. He is more excited. We are all a bit disgusted. We move on.

Only a few minutes later and we come across a family of rhinos, a mother, baby and an adult bull (probably the father). We literally stalk closer to them, coming up alongside the mother and baby so close that you could almost reach out and touch them. These are white rhino. The difference has nothing to do with their colouring, but rather the names come from a misunderstanding between the Brits and the Dutch. The dutch were trying to call the white rhino the “wide” rhino (because of their wide, square lips). The Brits thought they were saying “white”. Hence White (squarelipped) Rhino and Black (hook lipped) rhino.

The bull notices us. Andy talks louder to get his attention – if the bull knows we are there then he will be less afraid. Unfortunately the bull does not like us. He huffs a little and paws the ground. His horn is facing us. You can sense the collective tension of the group, how we all edge back a little. Andy reassures us, then makes a metallic sound with his rifle, as if he is preparing to shoot. The rhino spooks a little and comes closer. Andy stands up and waves the rifle around, shouting at the rhino. Finally the bull responds and turns away. Panic over. We stalk a little further into the bush, following the rhinos, but when we come across another of the groups we leave in search of other game. Throughout the course of the day we see spiders, deer, antelope, eland, hippo and crocodile, all at close quarters.

As if that wasn’t enough, we left Andy for a different part of Matopos Park – the historical side. After a 45minute trek up a mountain (you’d think I would have had enough with mountains already!) we arrived at a cave with bushman paintings over 6000 years old. These are the kind of stick man and animal paintings you see in the history books as children – but I could never imagine actually coming up close to see them. Africa is still untouched that way – you can get up close and personal to ancient things and wondrous animals that you never could in the Western world.

A bit further up the mountain and we had some of the best views in Africa. The Matopos are built up of huge granite blocks all balanced on top of each other. You can’t even imagine how they stay stable – some huge rocks seem destined to fall, balancing on a tiny boulder. It was standing on that mountain that made us all so glad to be on the trip – no matter what or who we may have given up to be there.

I’m now in Vic Falls preparing for an adrenaline weekend. Also, it is England vs. South Africa in the rugby world cup so tension is high. Should be fun!

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Antelope Park

I sit here at the computer and have no idea where to start. The past few days have been exhausting and wonderful. After the beach weeks we had at zanzibar and lake malawi, it is difficult to get back into the swing of major activity… but by god, we did it!

Harare was hair-raising. There may have been an arrest involved, but I assure you it wasn’t me involved. The full story will be told after we leave Zim. But I will say that everyone is now safely back on the truck, if a little shaken up.

We stopped at Antelope Park (outside of Gweru, Zimbabwe) for four nights. This is where all the true action takes place. Antelope Park is a 3000-acre private game park with a focus on lion conservation. There, we booked our days solid with activities. I swam with elephants which was terrifying and hilarious. Hilary (a fellow Canuck) was my partner and we were the only girl pair to stay on! The elephant tossed and turned in the water at lightning speed but we clung for dear life. After that, I went on a game ride on horseback. Unfortunately what used to be quite a strenuous and exciting ride had been tamed down because of some recent accidents on horseback. But we managed to steal a few canters, and got incredibly close to zebra, wildebeest, impala and ostrich, amongst others. I also got couple of brutal looking scratches on my arm from speeding past an acacia tree (acacia thorns can pierce car tires!) Sore but full of adrenaline, I went right from a horse ride to a lion walk. We walked with three nine-month old cubs, getting to stroke and play with them along the way. Needless to say the pictures are unreal. I will try desperately to get them uploaded, but it’s an exercise in futility at the moment.

The next day I arose early for a morning lion walk. These lions were almost a year old and much bigger. It was quite intimidating. Then we watched some elephant training and got to interact with the elephants. Here Sarah and I got hugged by an elephant and hung off its tusks… so much fun! We also went to cub viewing together, where we rubbed the tummies of some of the most adorable lion cubs. Did I mention that I was sick through all of this? Yes, unfortunately my doxy (malaria pill) didn’t go down properly and was burning my throat… imagine 48-hour heart burn… not pleasant. But there was no way I was missing this day. I rested until nightfall, when I went on a lion stalk. Three of the older lions (between 2 and 3) were released into the game park and we followed them over bushes and anthills as they stalked game. It was one of those surreal true “African” moments. It took an hour and a half before they managed to pull down an ostrich. We watched as they gorged on the poor animal – as these lions are still ‘learning’ to hunt, they didn’t kill their prey before they started eating it. The goal of these night stalks is to teach the lions to hunt on their own so they can be reintroduced to the wild. But the scariest part was yet to come. As the lions have to be put back in their enclosures, the trainers had to pick up the kill (the ostrich) and return it to the cage. Armed solely with dustbin lids, the trainers banged at the lions until they leapt away, at which point another trainer grabbed the ostrich and threw it into the truck (yes, the same truck we were in). The trainers were tense – three lions are hard to keep track of (normall ythey only deal with two). Luckily everything went well and we drove back to the enclosure while the lions followed.

Once they were safely in the cage, we waited for a few seconds in the pitch black. Then began a symphony of roars as all the other lions realized there was fresh meat about. It was the most magical experience so far in Africa. I seem to say that every week. But it is true. It just gets better.

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(This post was written approx. 5 days ago)

This past week has seen me in three completely different countries: Malawi, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. It is difficult to compress all the experiences and impressions I have had this week, but if I had to sum it up in one word, it would be: overwhelming.

Truck Travel
So far I have said little about life on the Oasis truck, but this week is as good as any to start off. Four out of the past five days have been drive days. First of all, there is no such thing as “clean” on the truck. The seats all face each other, like facing pews in a Church. All of our bags fit under the seats, and there are overhead lockers to store our day-to-day items. There is an elevated area right behind the cab of the truck called “The Beach,” where we are allowed to sunbathe and stick our heads out of the roof. Some people are beach worshippers, and spend hours just baking in the African sun as the miles pass us by. Anyone who knows me will know that I am not one of those up on the beach all the time, but it is very comfortable up there.
The windows on the truck are covered by a large “clear” plastic tarp – it’s supposed to be clear, but it is most definitely not. Most of the time the tarps are rolled up so that the windows are open to the air (there is no glass). This is where the dirty part comes in. Wind and dust blows through the truck sometimes with gale force — there is just no saving hair in that kind of situation. Most of the time I put my hair back into a ponytail when the truck is moving… and when I take the elastic out at the end of the day, the hair is frozen in place. It’s like hairspray but better! Dustspray! Without the sides up
though, the truck starts to bake like a sauna.

Cards are played while the sides are down, but we have lost many Jacks of Hearts out of the windows so playing is treacherous most of the time. I spend most of my time reading (surprise!)… actually, I think a few people on the truck are scared of me, I finish a book or sometimes 2 a day. There is some good reading on the truck, ranging from Out of Africa to Asimov to Kathy Reichs to Arthur Conan Doyle.
The most popular past time of all is sleep… often drive days mean 5am wake-up calls, so a lot of catching up is done on the truck.

Lunch takes place on the side of the road. Stu, the driver, pulls over at an appropriate spot (with shade if we are lucky) and we open the side of the truck to get at the food inside. Each day there is a designated “cook group” of about 3 or 4 people. They will have prepared lunch the night before, which generally consists of a medley of cold pasta, tuna, canned sweetcorn, beans and onion. The truck also stops for ‘pee breaks,’ which also take place on the side of the road.
We take lighters to burn the toilet paper after use. You learn to squat. You learn to get over stage fright.

There have been two nights of bush camping so far, and one of them took place in Mozambique. After being terrified by stories of how we were camping in one of the most landmined countries in the world, we set up our tents. It gets dark here by 6pm. The night is pitch black. Even the stars hide until later in the evening. Dinner prep takes around 3-4 hours, as we cook over open flame. By the time we finish eating, there is little left to do and we retreat to the tents.

Zim-millionaires
After Mozambique, we continued along our journey to Harare, Zimbabwe. Again I was shocked by how different two neighbouring countries can be. Mozambique (or rather, Tete Corridor, which is the part of Mozambique that we visited) is dry and dusty as hell. Zimbabwe is lush. We drove past gorgeous ranches that spread over acres of land, lined with white picket fences and filled with horses. We drove into
an industrial city, with tall sky-scrapers and beautiful architecture. We also drove into a country in turmoil. You can tell the wealth that was once here. But it isn’t any more.

I changed $100USD. The official exchange rate at the border is 1USD:35000Zim dollars. The exchange rate that we got on the black market was 1USD:350,000. I became an instant zim-millionaire! The exchange rate fluctuates every day, prices skyrocket, inflation soars. How they survive, I have no idea.

We visited an orphanage that Oasis supports in Harare. The children were just finishing up a cricket match with the bats that the last Oasis group had brought them. All we brought with us was food. Lots and lots of food. Rice, maize flour, sugar, milk powder and lots of canned meat. The cook was in tears of joy. She laughed with us, hugged us, and said “We were almost starving, and then the Lord came.” Many of the people on the truck wanted to buy toys with the money that we had donated. But once we got there, we knew that food had been the right choice.

I am now in a multilevel shopping centre in Harare, on internet that is 60cents/hour or 200,000 Zim dollars/hour. It is beautiful here, and I love it. We have two weeks in Zimbabwe altogether. I will let you know how fast I spend my millions of dollars.

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Lake of Stars

The Lake of Stars festival is a melange of African and Western music held on the shores of Lake Malawi. We went on the final, apparently most frenzied day of the festival. It was so much fun.

Our first impressions of the festival were of sand and too-cool-for-school travellers jamming to guitars on the beach. It seemed highly low key and a litte unorganized: most of our group trouped off to find a TV where they could watch the rugby (the rugby world cup is the truck obsession… it is hard to get away from it, and when the all blacks lost… there may have been blood lost on the truck as well, we shall never know). Who would pay $20US to watch rugby? So a few of us sat by the main stage, waiting for action to start. We weren’t disappointed. A British band called “Niche” came to the stage and thrilled us with truly excellent music. After she finished, a not-so-good South African group hit the stage, and we moved to the back where there were some food and souvenir stalls.

On the way up to the food, I made awkward eye-contact with a guy sitting on the grass. I nudged Sarah (who was now limping thanks to an unfortunate boating accident, see “It could only happen to Sarah” for details), and asked her if she recognized the guy. She didn’t, but apparently the guy recognized me as he got up and came over. He was part of a group we had met up with on Zanzibar Island — and he had followed us all the way to Lake Malawi! Okay, not quite true, it seems like all travellers were pulled in this direction, as we saw many people that we had met previously all congregated together. But the interesting thing about this guy, Mike, was that he knew the band, Niche, who had just played. We got to meet and interact with the band, including their really cool female leader singer Zeb.

The rest of the evening progressed smoothly, with tons of entertainment and some of the best music I’ve ever heard live. Everyone was there to have a good time, and it showed. After what seemed like hours of solid dancing under the stars, my friend Hilary turned to me and said: “What time is it?”

I looked down at my watch. I almost couldn’t believe what time it read. I checked it again. “18:50.” It wasn’t even 7pm yet, and we had already been having the greatest time. It had been pitch black since 5:30, and time had just disappeared from underneath us, moving quickly and slowly, as if we were caught in a whorl.

This is Africa time, baby.

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