February 2, 2008 at 6:10 am | Posted in Botswana, Namibia, Zimbabwe | Leave a comment

Zimbabwe – Botswana – Namibia………December 13 – December 22


We had driven 3600 miles across South Africa from Johannesburg on the mid-eastern side to Cape Town on the southwestern side and were due to return our car to Johannesburg but we didn’t want to make the trek across the country so we purchased a flight back to Johannesburg. A good investment. We made it to Johannesburg by 11:00 am and caught our 1:00 pm flight to Victoria Falls, affectionately referred to as Vic Falls. It was a clear flight until we were hovering over Victoria Falls and the pilot announced that the ground controls were not working to support an instrumentation landing with no visibility so unless he could actually see the runway, we would have to return to Johannesburg. We all crossed our fingers but there was no break in the clouds so we headed back. British Air was generous enough to put us up in a nice hotel and buy us dinner for the inconvenience which they were not obligated to do since it was a weather-related issue but, then again, they could have landed if the instrumentation had been working – that’s Africa. We headed back the next day with hopes of being booked on another flight. We learned we had been placed on a South African Airlines flight but had to wait on standby until the flight was closed. We could only get on if someone had cancelled and this was not expected. Once the flight closed, we and some other passengers hovered over the poor clerk all clambering to get a seat. It was very tense and while all the passengers remained friendly, it was cut-throat. We were nearly ok until a family of 5 with small children showed up and took what seemed to be the last of the remaining seats. Miraculously, she told us we could go as there were still 4 seats left but we had to run as the flight was to take off in 15 minutes. We still had to get through security and customs which we knew the exact layout of because we had done the circuit the day before. We asked forgiveness and cut in front of all of the other passengers waiting in the security line and quickly removed our laptop, tossed our packs, threw jewelry, cellphones, cameras and wallets into the buckets and then put ourselves back together. The kids were experts with the security routine by now. It helped that some of these smaller places do not make you take out your liquids or remove your shoes. We asked forgiveness again as we cut to the front of the customs line and people seemed to be supportive of us (small kids always help) and then we sprinted to the gate with people pointing and laughing at the scene as we were carrying backpacks, bags of snacks, gifts, and other straggling items. We made it to the gate where they kindly announced that the gate was closed and that no more passengers can enter. Despite our pleading, they sent us to the transfer desk where, finally, we were successfully placed on the next flight out with a secure reservation which was to depart 1 hour later which we could get on without having to go through security and customs again. This time we successfully landed in tiny Victoria Falls. We stood on line for at least 45 minutes in the tiny ballroom-sized airport and paid our visa fees in American cash to enter Zimbabwe.

In Zimbabwe, you must pay in either South African rand or American dollars. They won’t allow Americans to use Zimbabwe dollars or South African rand in an effort to obtain as many American dollars as they can as they are worth more to the government. It seemed like a racket – we never heard of a place that dictated what currency you can use based upon your nationality. Our hotel cost us more because we had to pay in American dollars. Zimbabwe was a very strange place to be. The government is starving its people yet Victoria Falls, one of their main sources of revenue, appeared to be a facade untainted by the reality of the rest of the country. There were signs of desperation throughout. For example, there needed to be tourism police stationed around town to avert the desperate locals from hounding the tourists into buying their crafts. We needed to be escorted to our hotel for “protection” because it is out of desperation that folks lurking in the bushes may demand your wallet, or your shoes or the shirt off your back. We had many offers for our shoes in exchange for a soapstone carving.

As soon as we dropped off our bags, we made a beeline for the falls which were conveniently located steps from the hotel. The sun was shining bright and it was hot. The falls were spectacular to say the least and we walked along a paved walkway within a mini rainforest that took us along them. While the sun shone over the falls, buckets, we mean buckets, of rain fell over us as we tried to take pictures of the falls. It was unbelievable. We walked along further and folks who were returning from their walk were dry. It literally only rained a few hundred feet around us and nowhere else. We laughed at how fascinating it was and were rewarded for our efforts with a splendid rainbow that festooned the sky above the falls. We dried off during the rest of our walk. The falls gave us mixed emotions – they did not seem as big as the pictures and it may be because you view them from the top as opposed to the bottom where they would potentially have more impact. However, we were lucky to view them during the wet season when they are the most powerful.

The next day we had to figure out how we were going to get to Botswana. We were winging it more and more as our adventure went on (not to mention that guidebooks cost a small fortune due to a very high tax on all books in South Africa- without a guidebook, it is hard to plan ahead and we didn’t have one for Botswana). The town of Victoria Falls was smaller and less modern than we expected as we were hoping to consult with an experienced travel agent upon our arrival. Our hotel only booked day trips so we wandered into town looking for an agent. Two tourism police escorted us down a path where there was supposedly an agent. They started to lead us up an unlit stairway to the top floor of a strip mall when we said, “No way.” It all looked a bit unsafe. Just then, Fletcher, the travel agent, came walking up to us. We felt a bit better and we all went to his office upstairs, along with the tourism police. Hmmm. Fletcher’s office consisted of a desk, a computer, a small rack of outdated brochures, and four chairs – two for us and two for the tourism police (the boys played with their cars on the floor). We told him we wanted to book a place in Chobe. He was very nice and professional and suggested Chobe Safari Lodge which we had in mind anyway. He made a few phone calls and got us a room plus he would transport us in one of his vans. We gave him a small deposit and we saw pictures of the vans and they looked new and we had a confirmation number for Chobe so all seemed legit, plus with the tourism police there we figured Fletcher wasn’t going to take advantage of us. He was to pick us up the next morning.

Then the tourism police led us to an open market. We spent an unanticipated several hours there where a small group of locals set their wares out on blankets in a dusty lot with each blanket containing at least 500 individual items and there were probably 50 stalls. Most of the items on all of the blankets were the same – soapstone carvings. We were the only 4 tourists visiting at that moment and we were safely accosted while we shopped. At one point, we showed interest in purchasing some now defunct Zimbabwe paper currency. Immediately about 20 men had formed a human hut around us so that the boys, who were sitting on the ground at our feet, couldn’t see the sky. The paper currency came out of their pockets and pouches like disposable tissues and were offered to us in clumps for prices anywhere from 75 cents to $2. The paper currency was beautiful before the devaluation- each piece a different color engraved in painstaking detail with elephants, buffalo, lions, and rhinoceros. They were worthless except as souvenirs reminiscent of an earlier Zimbabwe. Everyone was very friendly despite their disregard for our personal space. They were very kind to the children showing off the many crafts. After purchasing currency, coins, wire spiders, bracelets, soapstone carvings and grass figurines, we felt we had contributed amply to the cause. Conversely, our hotel/resort was supposedly a tribute to the ethnic culture right down to the minutest detail but instead it was an overdone monstrosity amid the have-nots. We felt uncomfortable in the cavernous place as no one was in the casino and no one was walking the outdoor corridors. Where was everyone? It was like a movie set! We went to a restaurant on the premises and ordered pizza but they were out of pizza. Then we ordered hamburgers but they were out of buns. Then we ordered chicken but they were out of chicken. Zimbabwe’s situation was starting to show through in lovely Victoria Falls.

Despite the fact that the hotel was out of place in this deprived country, there were some interesting parts about it. Our room overlooked the bush so there were baboons swinging from the trees nearby. Our sliding glass door had a notice on it to remind us to close and lock it as the baboons are smart enough to switch the latch up if unlocked. Lurking underneath the trees on the other side of the electric fence were the locals hoping for a transaction from anyone sitting on their veranda. Imagine trying to pass money between the rails of an electric fence – we don’t know how much business they were expecting. Outside our room was a family of about a dozen mongoose living in a burrow beneath the walkway. They scurried by us during their evening forage for food. A giant crab larger than your spread hand stood guard in front of the utility closet in the corridor. Not sure where he came from as we were nowhere near the ocean. Are there land crabs? Our favorite was a moth that nature had camouflaged as a stick. We stared at this “stick” seemingly clinging to the wall unsure if was a creature or not until we were able to detect tiny legs. The boys were especially fascinated as we waited for long stretches to see if it would move. Oliver kept an eye out for dung beetles who had unfortunately rolled onto their backs and were rendered helpless like a turtle and he dutifully set them straight. We remember taking walks with Oliver when he was three and the walks would take forever because he would stop and transport every creature in the path to the grassy sidelines.

The hotel was decorating for Christmas with a tree and gifts in the lobby. Christmas seemed very strange in this part of the world. Evergreen Christmas trees in the bush? Red and silver wrapping paper? Christmas specials at the 10 little stores in town? It seemed out of place. We watched as locals lined up at the bank to make withdrawals of their near worthless currency. When they would emerge from the bank with wads and wads of money, we initially thought that they were withdrawing their entire savings. However, wads and wads simply translated to just a few bucks. The government wouldn’t let folks withdraw more than a certain amount at a time. Meanwhile, the boys swam in the terrific swimming pool while we had poolside drinks. Two drinks totalled $7,500,000 Zimbabwe dollars! It was even difficult for Peter to calculate the conversions and, to complicate things, there were at least three different conversion rates – the official, the market and the street. You never knew which one to use. One of the tricks that the locals play is to sway you to buy something and when you give them currency that`s more than the price of the goods, they claim to not have any change. Then they try to convince you to buy more such as 6 bottles of water instead of 4. This happened to us a few times but we never backed down which forced the seller to hunt around to all of his buddies looking for change. The boys were understanding either through osmosis or from our explanations how everyone wants you to buy their stuff and they try lots of different schemes to get you to buy as much as they can. Marketing 101. One scheme often used is that the sellers will put things in the boys hands for them to touch, play with and, hopefully, beg us to buy them. We had never encountered this in America but it was common on our trip. Helium balloons, stuffed toys, handmade cars, games, and souvenirs. The boys were so shocked in Egypt when a man offered each boy a free bronze pyramid and each adult a free turban. The man insisted it was because we were Americans and he loved America. We offered a few dollars but he flatly refused to accept it. We said, “Thank you” and started to walk away. Uh Oh. We apparently didn’t know how to play the game because now he pursued us asking for various amounts of money. We did not want to buy these things so we took them out of the boys hands and gave them back. He refused to take them back and asked for money. Because he would not leave us alone, we resorted to threatening to call the police. The boys found this most exciting. The man retreated with his pack of cheap souvenirs awaiting his next prey. Oliver wanted to hear the story over and over again and wanted to understand why this man would pretend to give us gifts but then demand money. Advanced Marketing. From then on, without our saying so, Oliver would never let a seller put anything in his or Henry’s hand as he wanted to foil the marketers before they foiled him.


We arrived in Kasane, Botswana at the Chobe Safari Lodge which overlooks the Chobe River. The river is a main drinking spot for the local animal and bird populations. We were pleasantly surprised that for not a lot of money, we secured a nice place with two bedrooms, overlooking the river with ethereal mosquito netting draped across our bed. The boys were once again excited to have bunk beds. The entire place was covered in thatched roofs and was authentic African. We immediately signed up for the game drive that evening and 2 more after that. We also went on a water safari. We spent four nights at Chobe. The staff was very friendly. The sumptuous buffet was something to look forward to each night. This is where the boys tried impala, warthog, kudu, springbok, ostrich, crocodile and guinea fowl. Nothing tasted too strange and it was fun to try it. Henry usually had seconds and particularly liked the impala. Peter was always on the lookout for Malva Pudding – an African dessert closely resembling his favorite dessert, Sticky Toffee Pudding. We saw many animals and birds. Botswana was proud of the fact that there are no fences surrounding their wildlife parks so the animals can truly roam wherever they want to. The lilac-breasted roller is the country’s national bird and it is beautiful with 7 brilliant colors covering its feathers. We saw a lot of animals but it was now wet season which meant that the animals did not frequent the river as often because they could get water inland. We saw vultures, lions, crocodiles, hippos, impala, kudu, eagles and the endangered puku. We were warned not to go to the banks of the river where the crocodiles could be lurking nor should we roam the premises at night in case a hippo decided to walk the grounds to snack on grass. The boys never left our sight with all of these foreign dangers in the wings. Chobe is known for its hippo populations and we kept hoping to see one with their mouth wide open as we had only seen them being shy and mostly submerged up until now. A wide open mouth is not a yawn but a sign of aggression – hippos are very territorial and defensive.

Next day, we were excited to learn that one of Chobe’s offerings is a daytrip to a Namibian village. Our guide took us in his boat. We first had to stop at the tiny border crossing to get our passports checked and then to Namibia which was right down the river. We walked the muddy track with our guide who hailed from one of the villages. On the way, he pointed out certain bushes and trees that were used for medicinal purposes. He took a few leaves from one and put them in his mouth and chewed on them the same way you would stick a piece of gum in your mouth. We got to the village and a handful of children scurried ahead so they could be first in line for the candy our guide had brought along to hand out. What was very noticeable was the huge baobab tree – one that Mom was especially keen on seeing. Our guide advised us that this specimen was thought to be 200,000 years old. The seed pods on it are so large and elongated that the Namibians make flipflops out of them since the seed pod is shaped like one’s foot. When you split open the pod, you end up with a perfectly formed pair. Our boys passed out the candy which helped solidify in their minds that this was a big treat for these children. We walked around the village which consisted of about 10 mud and stick dwellings and a chicken coop built on stilts to keep predators away. Nature served as their outhouses. Some ladies were weaving baskets or studying the Bible while the children helped their mothers sweep and the boys rolled giant spare tires across the dirt courtyard. Most of the men were on an island fishing until the waters recede again. We were told that a nearby resort bought their land from this village and as an act of good faith, the resort installed a couple of wells in the village so the children wouldn’t have to go collect water from the river anymore because 3 children had been killed by crocodiles while doing so. As though life wasn’t hard enough. We bought several baskets and took a last look at the giant baobab tree and the people who lived within its shade.

Our last night at Chobe was highlighted with an unforgettable sunset that changed the celestial skies into a different palette every 5 minutes. We were entertained by a local group of Namibian men and women singing and dancing to traditional songs while wearing traditional fashion. They wore woven anklets and bracelets with seed pods dangling from each one and the seedpods would shake like mini rattles and when they stomped their feet in unison, it made an exciting impact. The night creatures provided the background music and it was bittersweet for us as we prepared for our next adventure.

(click photo for slideshow)


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