The most insane week….

Internet in Namibia has been shaky at best, despite being one of the most westernized countries that we have visited so far. I almost feel like the “Africa” portion of my trip has ended, even though I will be doing a township tour on Wednesday that will surely change my mind. As a result of the poor internet, I have been unable to update, despite having lots to say! So this entry will be extremely long and probably written over the next few days. My aim is to be caught up by the time I leave Swakopmund (Thursday morning) so keep on checking for new updates throughout the week. We are then moving on to a few bush camping places in Namibia, and I won’t have time to update then… so I had better get on it!

Things to write about….

D’Kar campsite, Botswana

There are so many truck companies that tour around Africa, it is unreal. Acacia, Africa Travel Company, Kamuka, the list goes on and on. But the best thing about Oasis is that they take you off the beaten track, searching for the small places and activities that make a trip like this worthwhile. One of those places was the D’Kar campsite on the edge of the Namibian-Botswanian border. The D’Kar campsite is part of what Oasis calls “community-based tourism,” where what we are doing (travelling, enjoying ourselves, learning about cultures) benefits the communities we visit. D’Kar is a bushman or “san” community, and while we were there we were introduced to the truly ancient bushman culture. D’Kar is also home to a brand-new archeological discovery, so new that they have only just applied for funding to truly excavate the area. The discoveries made there will change the course of human history — the stone tools prove humanoid civilization existed in this part of Africa for 3 million years. Not only that, but we got to seriously interact with the tools… touch, play, feel… artifacts that would be found behind three inches of thick glass in the British Museum.

Another highlight was the bushmen dancing and storytelling. Their language is made up of a series of clicks, which help to form the words. It adds a whole new dimension to their stories. Like Native Canadian or Aboriginal stories, many of the bushmen tales were creationist and animal-based, such as how the ostrich came to have a long neck or how the jackal burned his back. It is also not often that we have to watch for scorpions as we sat around the fire… but it is a local hazard and we all had to watch our feet and our shoes.

Windhoek, Namibia

Namibia is beautiful and highly German, which means lots of good meat, lots of good bakeries and lots of colonial German architecture. We went out to Joe’s Beerhouse and had an amazing group meal. Lots of game meat was eaten, including gorgeous zebra steaks, ostrich, springbok, oryx, impala, and more. We all tried a little bit of everything, and it is delicious. No wonder the lions were salivating over the ostrich during the lion stalk! Sarah certainly took to the ostrich and continues to eat it at every possible occasion – even in an Italian restaurant in Swakopmund! I desperately wished for more time in Windhoek, but there is so much to see that we had to move on…

Etosha Nat’l Park, Namibia

Etosha is the national park of dreams. It is made up primarily of a huge clay pan called the Etosha pan. There are many waterholes dotted around, where the animals congregate during the day and at night. Three campsites are situated right inside the park around floodlit waterholes; we stayed at two of them during our visit.

This part of Namibia is hot and dry. The game drives in the truck lasted for over 8 hours each day, and despite the stunning scenery and incredible game viewing, few of us lasted until the very end. Still, there was nothing better than sitting in the front of the truck with our driver, pair of binoculars in hand, staring at the panoramic view of game. Giraffes became boring (how is that possible? there were just so many of them…), springboks “pronked” across the road, lions lazed in the sun, everywhere there was game and birds galore. The second waterhole we visited gave us the best night viewing we have experienced, bar my lion stalk in Antelope Park. Waiting from 8pm until well past midnight, we saw jackals and a lone giraffe, as well as lions and rhinos. Game viewing requires a lot of patience. But there is nothing better than being the first one to spot a silhouette in the darkness of the elegant neck of a giraffe, waiting as it slowly approaches the waterhole, steps back, approaches again before bowing down to the water. For pictures of the giraffes in Etosha drinking, be sure to visit my flickr site (link at the side) for a view that few words I can come with can describe.

Cheetah Park, Namibia

Although cheetahs seem to be relatively rare in the national parks, in farmland Namibia they are considered to be pests. Farmers are known to shoot to kill without hesitation if they see a cheetah approach their livestock. One such farmer shot a cheetah on his farm, only to discover that was survived by three newborn cheetah cubs. The farmer and his family took these cheetah into their home and raised them as pets. Now, the farm is a sanctuary for cheetahs found in Namibian farmland. Instead of being killed, the cheetahs are brought to this place and taken care of.

The cheetahs in the house are as domesticated as large cats can be, and we were able to approach them and pet them, just like we did with the lions in Antelope Park. Maybe its due to their litheness or their speed, but cheetahs are much more scary than lions. They seemed less predictable, to be sure. But we all took some photos, before going out into the sanctuary to watch the wild cheetahs being fed. Some people have the most insane jobs in the world. Two guys jumped off the pick-up trucks we were standing on with a garbage can full of meat and large sticks. Five or six cheetah growled and snapped all around the trucks, the guys barely staving them off with their sticks. Then they would throw the meat into the air, to be caught in hungry mouths. The cheetahs did live up to their speedy reputation, bolting once they had captured their piece of meat so that it couldn’t be stolen away. It was a close encounter with an animal we have yet to see in the wild, and it was refreshing to see another example of conservation tourism at work.

Spitzkoppe (the Matterhorn of Africa), Namibia

Spitzkoppe is a giant outcrop of rock in the Namibian desert. There were more rock paintings here which I ventured out to see, and I climbed the closest outcropping of rock with Eric and Amelia to watch the sunset. It was the first night since we left Victoria Falls where we didn’t experience rain and thunder. Therefore, it was the perfect night to sleep out under the stars. I have never seen a sky so huge as that night. Shooting stars fell all around us, passing straight overhead or in the corners of our peripheral vision. The night was cold, but comfortable wrapped up in our sleeping bags and lying on our roll-mats. Namibia is full of contrasts and truly wild beauty. Again, we feared snakes and scorpions, but we all survived the night… even if we didn’t sleep through the night at all.

On our way out of Spitzkoppe, we stopped at Cape Cross on the Atlantic Ocean. Here, we visited a giant group of seals, who stop here on their way north. The seals were everywhere crowding the beach and the smell was just immense. We watched them frolic and fight, and try to protect their babies from the hungry jackals which kept circling the area. The ocean was freezing… only a few brave (or stupid?) souls ventured out into the sea. They lasted a few seconds before running back out again into the warmth of fresh towels. Yikes!

Swakopmund, Namibia

Just as Vic Falls is an adrenaline capital, so too is Swakopmund. Here, the contrast of scenery is truly visible. A seaside (or oceanside?) city, Swakopmund enjoys both the quaintness of a German town with the action-packed thrills of Victoria Falls. The dunes are right on the doorstep and they are known as the playground of Namibia — the government has donated a lot of money in order to allow for plenty of ‘sand tourism’ while preserving the delicate and unique ecosystem.

The first activity that I did in Swakopmund was sandboarding! Due to my severe dislike of snowboarding, I decided to stick with the lie-down version. There is almost no learning curve and you get to have fun straight away! The boards are basically constructed of thin formica with a very smooth flat surface for sliding on. The guide positions you onto the board with only one piece of advice – don’t move a muscle. Then he lifts your feet over the edge of the dune and you fly down the side of a massive sand mountain! We started off small, but by the time we reached “Dizzy,” the monster hill, I was hitting top speeds of 77km/h. The fastest of the day was 79km/h. As with the gorge swing, it was the gruelling climb back up to the top that was the worst part of the day. Climbing sand is no easy feat, especially with the wind whipping the boards around your body. But the adrenaline rush is worth it, and so is being out amongst the dunes. The dunes are just incredible. They are the stuff of pure desert imagination.

After that, we decided to get an even better view of the dunes by skydiving! Namibia is one of the cheapest and most rewarding skydives in the world, due to the fact that you get to appreciate the massive sand dunes, the sparkling blue Atlantic Ocean and the Swakopmund city scape. I was the very last person to go up in the plane, after watching people in our truck jump for over three hours. To say that I was trembling with anticipation is severe understatement! I jumped with a camera man to film my wild adventure and had the absolute time of my life. The freefall lasted 30 seconds. To be honest, I never expected skydiving to be so incredible peaceful. Under the canopy, I had a full five minutes of flying like a bird, enjoying the view and chatting with my guide. I even got to fly the canopy for a while, learning how to steer and shift in the air. The landing was tip-toe gentle, and the photographs are fantastic. I wanted to do it again in an instant, and was bursting with envy for the guys who get to jump ten times a day.

The next day (as if there could be more!) we ventured back out into the dunes for some major adrenaline fun — quadbiking. I chose an automatic bike (although I would STRONGLY recommend semi-automatic bikes if anyone out there gets the chance to do it!) and we zoomed around the dunes for a good two hours. The views were… unreal. And getting to ‘rollercoaster’ (drive up and down the side of dunes, often close to vertical steeps!) was amazing.

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Okavango Delta

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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Moving at Lightning Speed

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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Wonders of the World

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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Stalking 101 (Rifle and Night Vision Goggles Optional)

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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