The second week of March was spring break for University of Botswana students. On the evening of March 7, the ACM group, our professor Georgia, her husband Tris and her daughter Elena (a Knox alum) flew from Gaborone to Maun to embark on a safari, followed by an independent trip to Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. What followed over the next 10 days was incredible, unbelievable and life-changing. I assure you that everything you are about to read is the absolute truth. This is a long one. Buckle in.
Our flight to Maun, which had been arranged months in advance, was delayed four times, so we arrived in Maun at 10 p.m. We were picked up at the airport and taken to a location called Audi Camp. Audi Camp is one of many businesses that hosts safaris and other excursions. We were housed that night in the most luxurious tents I had ever seen, complete with actual beds and fans. We arose at 6 a.m. for breakfast at 7 a.m., and then loaded into a truck to be driven into the middle of the Delta.
When we arrived at the waypoint of our journey, we were separated into pairs and boarded mokoro. A mokoro is a traditional canoe used in the Okovango Delta, carved from wood and steered by a standing pilot in the back using a pole. This was our transport both in and out of the Delta. Our guides poled us to an island where we set up camp and had lunch, and we then embarked on a bush walk, which is essentially a walking safari.
I didn’t even know that the most exciting moment of our bush walk had occurred until we returned to camp. Apparently, a lone bull elephant we had seen from afar shortly after leaving camp was rogue. He followed us for the entire walk, attempting to herd us into a breeding herd. This was a potentially very dangerous situation for us, but our guides led us back to camp with expertise, never allowing our confidence in them to waver. The remainder of the trip to the Delta continued with much less excitement, with a second bush walk the following morning and a trip back to civilization by mokoro.
We returned to Audi Camp for another night’s stay. Our dinner that night was by lantern light due to a sudden power outage. We took this time to shower and relax, knowing that the next four days would be filled with hard travel and camping.
The next morning we once again loaded into a truck and headed for Mababe National Park. Everything went smoothly for the first half of the day. But we hadn’t counted on heavy rains. No more than a kilometer from our campsite, where the crew awaited us with cots and hot food, we were blocked by a new lake filled with hippos. The next four hours were marked by trailblazing through the bush, getting stuck in the mud three times and completely failing to reach camp. Finally, when we were half a kilometer from camp, our guide, Parks, simply walked there to alert the crew and have the crew truck moved closer to us. We all got out of the car, took off our shoes and trekked through a swamp, down a hippo path, 500 yards away from a large group of hippos. At this point, the stress was so great for me that my emotions broke and I began sobbing, and later became physically ill in camp. I say this not to complain or to gain sympathy, but so that you can mark the incredible life change I went through during the course of this trip.
Tuesday was filled with many more hours of hard travel as we left Mababe and traveled to the region of Chobe National Park commonly known as Savuti. Arriving there in a timely manner, we had the privilege to spend several hours on a game drive throughout the park. I should note that this park was the only time the landscape met the stereotypical image of “Africa” most people have in their minds. Savuti was characterized by broad, open plains of long grass and umbrella acacia. We even had the opportunity to get out of the truck and touch a massive, ancient baobab tree. We then proceeded once again to a camp that had been set up for us, planning to rise early in the morning.
Before we headed to the main part of Chobe National Park on Wednesday, we got to enjoy another game drive in the Savuti region. It was at this point that people began to mention lions. We had already spotted elephants, wildebeest, Cape buffalo, giraffes, impala and zebra. People were ready to see carnivores. And then we saw a leopard. I’m not kidding. We really, truly saw a leopard. He was just lounging in a tree off the road a ways, scratching his face, napping, doing leopard things. It was an incredible moment, and we all felt so privileged, as so few people ever get the opportunity to see a leopard. But alas, we had to move on. Chobe was calling.
Upon reentering Chobe National Park after several hours of traveling, we were greeted by a lazy river with wide, open planes on the opposing side.
“That’s Namibia,” Parks said. We all looked at him askance. He explained that the Chobe River is the border between Botswana and Namibia, and that the planes we saw were actually the Caprivi Strip, one of the most famous tracts of land in Africa. And then we realized that all the animals we had seen up to that point were an absolute joke compared to what we were going to see in Chobe. Within 30 minutes of entering the park, we pulled into a massive breeding herd of elephants with at least half a dozen babies and watched them for 20 minutes, one mother even coming within two meters of the truck. Whole herds of giraffes wondered by. We were adorably charged by a two-year-old bull elephant holding a stick. But we didn’t see any lions.
On Thursday morning, we got to enjoy a three hour game drive before heading back to camp to pack up our things and drive into the town of Kasane. We witnessed a week-old baby elephant eat leaves for what was probably the first time. Still no lions. We were heading out of Chobe amazed, but with some small measure of disappointment.
Then Parks got a phone call from the crew. There were lions.
We raced through the park in the opposite direction that we needed to be headed. When we reached the waiting crew, they told us that the lions were under a tree a few meters off the road. Did we squint under the tree and use binoculars? No. We drove straight into the bush, right up to the tree. Lounging underneath were two female lions and two cubs. I was turned around in my seat in the cab, leaning through an interior window to whisper with the people in the back and get a better view. Then one of the lions roared. I have never whipped around and put on a seat belt so fast in my life. Parks quietly informed us that we were fine, that she had simply been scolding an annoying cub. Then someone whispered that the male was behind us. Elena and Mason rose from the seats, turning around and each placing a leg outside the truck, only to quickly scramble back in after Parks warned them to remain in the vehicle. We reversed and we watched the beautiful male disappear under a tree to seek shade. The two females and cubs emerged from their own tree into full view, treating us to the most amazing view of wildlife I have ever experienced. But we had a boat ride to catch, so Parks slowly headed out of the bush and proceeded down the road.
Then people in the back started shouting that the male was chasing us. Sure enough, he was coming down the road full tilt with fire in his eyes and fury in his heart. Parks stopped the car. Those in the back screamed for Parks to keep going, but suddenly the lion stopped. Parks calmly turned to me and explained that you have to stop when a lion gives chase to your vehicle, or he will learn that behavior and chase other vehicles in the future. Apparently lions are dogs, in some sense. Safe from the rage of the king of the jungle, we left Chobe and entered the town of Kasane.
In Kasane, we immediately boarded a boat which took us on a three hour tour of the Chobe River (luckily, no unexpected squalls blew in for the Skipper to contend with). Here, we got incredibly close to hippos, saw a crocodile for the first time, pulled right up to some baby elephants playing and were blocked by a bull elephant swimming out into the water. Leaving the wildlife behind to catch our ride to the Zimbabwean border was bittersweet.
By the time we had gotten our visas and crossed the border, it was about 7:30 p.m. We took the half hour trip into the town of Victoria Falls and enjoyed a hot shower and meal at our backpackers while watching a traditional dance troupe. Believe me when I say that was the best shower I have ever taken in my entire life. Was the day over? It was not. Our backpackers just happened to be the hot spot in town, and Elena, two members of the ACM group and I made some great friends. One of them offered to drive us to our various activities the next day. He also just so happened to own four elephants.
I got to ride an elephant. For free.
Yes, at 11 a.m. the next day, our new friend drove us all to the bridge which crosses the border between Zimbabwe and Zambia so Elena and I could watch the other two girls bungee jump. For the first time ever. From one of the tallest jumps in the world. We then proceeded to our friend’s elephant ranch, wherein we rode and fed elephants. We then proceeded to the Victoria Falls park, where we had a delicious lunch (I tried crocodile — it’s fantastic). And then we saw the falls.
Nothing, absolutely nothing, will ever live up to or do justice to Victoria Falls. They are the single most mighty, powerful, incredible thing I have ever witnessed. Though we rented rain coats, we were soaked to the bone by the end of the tour, simply from the mist. At each new observation point I expected to be used to the view, and was floored each time. I cried a little bit. In a previous blog post I said that you have to go to Johannesburg. If you can only go one place in Africa, I rescind that claim. You have to go to Victoria Falls. Just trust me on this.
All of the other students were leaving that night, but I was having a really wonderful time and could feel myself growing as a person, so I decided to stay another night and leave on Saturday. Elena and I had another fantastic night with our new friends, and were invited boating the following afternoon. We spent Saturday morning touring around the town, and were picked up from our backpackers at 3 p.m.
I kid you not, I have now watched the sunset while boating on the Upper Zambezi. This actually happened to me. And that’s when I realized I didn’t want to leave. I knew I was supposed to go back. I knew if I stayed another day I would miss a class. I just didn’t want to go. So I didn’t.
The following day was much more relaxed. My professor’s family and I enjoyed a lunch in the world famous Victoria Falls Hotel. I met some very nice German guys in my backpackers (they’re everywhere, I swear). At 10:30 p.m., I dutifully took a taxi to the bus station and boarded a bus to Bulawayo. By myself.
I arrived at Bulawayo at 5:30 a.m. and was informed by some taxi drivers that the bus to Gaborone from that street didn’t come until 2 p.m., but that a bus came to another street at 8 a.m. The only problem was that it didn’t come every day. We came to the conclusion that we would wait until 6:30 a.m. and call the other office to see if the other bus was coming. At 6:30 a.m., they promptly left without me. As I sat wondering what to do, a woman approached me and asked what I was doing there. After I explained the situation, she told me that this wasn’t a safe place for me to wait. I assured her that if I couldn’t catch the 8 a.m., I would go into a café to wait. She told me which café she worked at and left. I sat there for another five minutes, still wondering how I was going to sort this, until I was approached by another cab driver. He informed me that the woman had told him that I wanted to go to Gaborone, that the other bus was most certainly coming, and that he would take me there. And that is exactly what happened.
During the course of my trip from Bulawayo to Gaborone, I met a very nice Zimbabwean lady named Sue who lives in Gaborone with her British husband and children. We talked amicably at all the stops, and as we entered Gaborone she sat down next to me. When she asked me who was picking me up, I told her I was catching a cab back to campus. She gave me a look, and invited me to simply hop off with her, saying that she and her husband would give me a ride back to campus. And that’s how I traveled from Zimbabwe to Gaborone by myself. Through confidence and the kindness of strangers.
When I say that this was a life-changing experience, I don’t only mean that I witnessed incredible things that few people ever get to see. I mean that I am changed as a person. I feel confident. I feel calm. I went from so much anxiety over being stuck in the mud that I vomited outdoors to traveling alone in southern Africa. So I hope that you don’t judge my ego when I look you in the eye and tell you, “I can do anything.” Because I can. And I know that now.