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Road Report #4


BOTSWANA
ZAMBIA &
VICTORIA FALLS

 

Tuesday, June-05

We are so comfortable at Audi Camp that I am reluctant to leave it, wondering what is ahead of us. But as usual, the road was very good, asphalt all the way to Nata. Enroute we saw huge herds of zebra grazing at the side of the highway as well as ostriches so huge they looked like they’d been on steroids.

Our destination for the night was Nata Lodge and it is Zebraexceptionally nice – makes Audi look rustic. There is an attractive reception area, restaurant, bar, pool and attractive chalets. I have a hard time believing that oases like these exist in the middle of nowhere.

Camping is relatively cheap but even so, water in the showers is always very hot, fed by solar tanks on the roof. The challenge is actually to get enough cold water into the pipes to make it cool enough to stand under. But these shower rooms (called ablution blocks) are usually open to the elements in some respects so the hot water isWoman carrying laundry on head especially welcome as the evenings grow colder. There are always walls, but not always a roof and the passage ways are always open air, not shut tight with doors. As we proceed south and the weather gets colder I get in the habit of showering as soon as we arrive at a camp in the afternoon.

In the morning we see the cleaning staff running around the site carrying linens on their head - not an unusual site in Africa.

Wednesday, June-06

We slept well and were on the road by 8 am. We had heard the 300 km road from Nata to Kasane was a nightmare of potholes that took hours to navigate so we wanted to give ourselves lots of time. Fortunately, they have been working on it. The first 100 km has been completely rebuilt - a beautiful four-lane wide (or two lanes + generous shoulders and emergency lanes – no lines yet) highway. The Hwy from Nata to Kasanesecond 100 km is variable. There are potholes but most have been filled. Nothing horrible. Certainly nothing to compete with some of the roads we’ve driven in Central America or even the Dempster Hwy to Inuvik in the Yukon.

On this second 100 km they are actively working at making a new road so sometimes we were on detours that went around the new road, sometimes the original highway and sometimes patches which were partially completed. The final 100 km was again beautiful and smooth.

Parts of the final 100 km pass directly through Chobe National Park. We were excited to see a “Beware of Elephants” sign on the highway. How often do you see that in your life? For many km we saw the evidence - massive dumps at the side or sometimes on the highway. Finally, just a few km outside of Kasane we saw two young Elephant Signmales grazing at the side of the highway. No big deal. Just like you see moose in northern Canada.

Kasane is the big smoke up here – a town with some infrastructure, shops and services. We decided a taste of home might be nice for lunch so hit the local KFC. My favourite part of KFC is the coleslaw. I always order chicken plus a double or triple order of coleslaw but they don’t serve coleslaw here. Just fries. And there were no veggies at all. So Steve’s chicken burger had a bun and chicken, period. It was good but a little disappointing.

Being a tourist destination there are lots of lodges and campsites in Kasane. We settled on the Thebe River Lodge for 186 pula ($25) a night. It is modest but very nice. There is the usual restaurant / bar scene with pool. It is set on the river so there are some very beautiful campsites.

Elephants in Chobe NPWe booked ourselves onto the boat cruise that will take us into the Chobe National Park via the Chobe River for $30 US. The boat we were on was pretty downmarket: plastic deck chairs on a raw plywood deck that jiggled whenever anyone walked across it. But the evening was magic in terms of animals.

Our first sighting was a water monitor lizard, then several large sleeping crocs. Best of all though was a huge herd of 30-40 elephants including some very tiny babies. They were all at the river’s edge drinking and socializing, the little ones digging holes in the bank and playing in the mud. We got very close to them, the boats of no apparent concern to them.

We also saw a cape buffalo – an old guy living quietly out his retirement years on an island. Then we saw hippos, a large pool of them having a feeding frenzy on some grasses in the water. They were just crazy for this stuff, noisily chomping away at it. There was a white egret perched on the big bull’s head, sometimes right up on top of Hippo and Egrethis snout. Both bird and hippo seemed content with this arrangement.
After such a wonderful experience on the water we expected that a dry-land game drive into Chobe National Park would be a letdown so we are carrying on to Livingstone in the morning. Our choices are a long road route or a short ferry trip over the river so we’ll choose ferry.

Thursday, June-07

Good thing we had another peaceful night so we were ready for the shit show that is the Kazangula Ferry.

There were probably a hundred huge long haul trucks jockeying around the dusty parking lot waiting to board the ferry. It leaves every 30 minutes – each time with one truck plus whatever smaller vehicles are there. It cost 200 pula (about $28) for our vehicle. That sounds simple but it took a fair bit of chatting up to figure out that this is how it works.

First we had to clear Botswana border patrol, in effect, “leave” the country. This was quite simple. Immigration stamped us back out on our passports then the customs people stamped our laptops and cameras back out, although no one ever actually saw the cameras or laptops, just the form where we had recorded their serial numbers.

The frustrating part of the whole border process here is that the process is not obvious. The buildings don’t have names on them, there is no specific order for doing things and no one tells you what to do next – except the “fixers.” These are the army of dusty young men who harass you with “helpOffices at Kazungula Ferry.” And the unfortunate thing is we really do need help in terms of figuring out which building to go into next. So you ask the person in front of you, “Where is the immigration office?” and there you go. You just hired a fixer.

The photo to left shows some of the container-offices at the ferry crossing with the fixers lined up in front - they jump to their feet to swarm you as soon as you are within 50 feet.

They are very pushy and officious. They accompany you into the offices and lean over your shoulder and will NOT leave you alone. We told them over and over again that we would do this ourselves. In the future I think I would just hire one right off the start and that would at least insulate you from the rest of the horde. As it was, resisting this irresistible force just meant that we had a retinue of 5 or 6 fixers circling us at any one time.

Finally it is our turn to board the ferry. I have to get out and walk on while Steve has to drive our bakkie on. When I find him on the ferry he is on one side of a big semi-trailer and I am on the other side. While this big truck is still rolling the fixers urge me to duck under it. You think so? Dozens of people are doing this, dodging the rolling wheels and stuff hanging out from under the trailer. I demur. By the time the big truck has run up to within inches of Steve’s bumper, the fixer is now urging me to squeeze between the bumpers of the two trucks. But the big truck is keeping his engine running. What happens if the truck lurches? Meanwhile Steve needs money for the fare and is beckoning me to cross over – not realizing, I am sure what is involved for me. Oh well. I take a deep breath and squeeze between the bumpers. Life is short and then we die. But not today.

The fare was 200 pula (about 30 US dollars). The fellow is very officious, filling out a long receipt form for every person who needs a ticket. There is no lack of paperwork on this continent.

We arrive on the other side of the river. This is where the real fun begins with the fixers because they have rode over and are now desperately competing with each other to help us.

The Zambian border buildings are all a row of run down, unsigned, nondescript dusty buildings. We’ve now done this enough times that we figure out that the first one to go to will be immigration for our visa. This is quite easy to accomplish. Fill out the ever present ledger and pay $50 US each and we have visas.

Next, we ask a trucker who is also in line where to find customs to make a declaration on the vehicle. This is a very long form that includes every potential number from VIN to chassis to gross vehicle wt., net vehicle wt., you name it. The official spends a lot of time sighing into his computer screen and telling his co-worker that the “system is down.” That is not a good sign in any man’s country. We fill out more forms and sit in an office that looks like a set piece from a movie. The official disappears for 20 minutes. We ask where he is. “Gone to the printer,” his buddy tells us. Yes, he does return finally, papers in hand. He does some more stamping, we do some more signing and he says he is finished with us.

“Can we cross the border now?”

“Have you paid the carbon tax?”

“I don’t know, have we?”

Apparently not. We are steered in the direction of another office where a grumpy looking young woman takes our paperwork and informs us that it will be so many thousands of Zambian kwachas. Can we pay in Botswanan pulas? No. Can we pay in American dollars? No.

We can only do it in Zambian kwachas. We must venture out there into the dustbowl again to find a Bureau de Change.

The fixers are lined up outside the door waiting, hard at it now – determined to change our money. “There is no bureau,” they repeat over and over. We ask the guy at the border gate, the one with a uniform and a gun. He points to a nondescript green shipping container/office on the outside of the gate. Yes, we can walk over there and change money. The fixers are still following. “It is closed,” they chant. “It is closed.”

Even as we march up to the open door they are trying to dissuade us from using the official government Bureau de Change for our transaction. We will not exchange our money with the fixers for several reasons. First because it is probably illegal and secondly because we have no idea of the exchange rate, except it is a complicated calculation involving thousands of Zambian kwachas to one $US and there is no doubt we will not be quick enough on our feet to make the correct exchange with these con artists. Thirdly because their money will likely be counterfeit or at the least a pile of newspaper tucked between a few genuine bills.

The young lady in the Bureau de Change is very nice and very official. She gives us a computer generated receipt for our transaction.

Back we go to pay our carbon tax and get that paperwork stamped. Are we finished?
Nope, now we must pay the road and transportation toll. We ask another trucker and he points at a building with two doors. We take the wrong door – nothing. The other door leads to an old man sitting behind another computer screen. Yes, he is indeed the collector of the transportation toll - $20 US. Yes, he will take US $.
Twice his internet connection fails and he has to start again. But we do get it done finally and we are off. Out of curiousity I ask him if computers have made the border transactions easier or more difficult.

“Easier for me, more difficult for you,” he says.

He explains that it is easier for him because at the end of the day he does not have to spend two hours tallying all the paperwork. It is all done by the computer. More difficult for me because first I have to fill out the paperwork by pen. Then he takes that and enters it in the computer. Electrical and internet connections are still spotty so twice he had to re-boot his system and re-enter the same info. So it all takes a lot longer for such as me.

The one thing all the fixers keep mentioning is Zambian insurance. They say if we do not have this the police will hassle us. We ask the nice man at the transportation office and he advises us that yes, we should buy it locally if we do not want to have a “big bother” with the police. We believe that we have all the insurance we need already through Bobo and they have given us a Cross Border Permit that is stamped “Insurance Authorized.” But this, apparently, is not enough. We need the actual insurance document.

We had decided to go ahead and pay the additional $30 for insurance just to cut the hassle but we cannot find the blue shipping container that is the official government insurance office. The fixers are all trying to sell us their own insurance but we do not trust this so eventually we keepZambian Hwy going.

Sure enough, five km up the road a policeman stops us to see our insurance papers. We act very confident and assure him that we have the insurance and show him the Bobo Cross-Border Permit which he says is not what we need, but he is looking confused so I press the advantage and tell him to look at the stamp, “Insurance Authorized” and act very very assertive about it. You can see the wheels turning in his head; he decides not to take us on.

The drive to Livingstone is an easy one. The road is very good and smooth. Livingstone seems to be quite a thriving city with at least one big wide open boulevard. We follow our instincts towards the river and find the Riverfront Resort.

There are big, wide open campsites in lush jungle-type foliage. There are little Waterfront Resort at Livingstonemonkeys everywhere. The Resort has beautiful chalets and a bar and restaurant and pool. It sits right on the Zambezi River. The setting is lovely.

At 3:45 we catch the sunset dinner cruise for $55 US each. The cruise is a disappointment. The only wildlife we saw was a few hippo off in the far distance. The captain did not even seem to try and find any wildlife. The staff were more interested in plying us with drinks – selection of which was very limited. No rum, for example.
Dinner was a buffet – coleslaw, big dry buns in a bag, heated sausages and chicken drummettes. Period.

So, “another contribution to the local economy,” as Steve puts it. The evening was rescued by congenial companions, a young couple from New Zealand on a round-the-world trip. We had a great time comparing notes and swapping stories.

Friday, June-08

This morning we drove our bakkie to the police station at the Zambia/Zimbabwean border and left it parked there. We made an agreement with “Michael” to protect it. Protection costs big time here - $6 US.

First step was to go through Zambian immigration to “leave” the country and discovered that even going over to see Vic Falls for the day was going to cost us an additional VISA entry fee ($50 x 2 = $100 US) as we did not have a multi entry visa which would have cost us $80 each to start with. So, an extra $40.

But the actual process was easy, just fill out the ledger and fill out an exit form. We walked across the international bridge. The Zambian side of the falls are visible from this bridge but it was very misty so we did not see much.

All along the way these fellows are hassling us; trying to sell us copper bracelets. Baboon and SteveEach one of them claims he is an artist who is making them in his village – all the same. Enroute Steve also acquires a baboon buddy who walks the route with him.

We walk the bridge and on to the Zimbabwe immigration. Here we get a visa for $75 each x 2 = $150 US to enter Zimbabwe for one day. The walk from there to the falls is about 2 km. Along the way we are amused by baboons who walk with us.

Entry to Victoria Falls is $30 US each. We notice that a lot of the people going in are wearing rain capes. We think this is silly. We did not have rain capes when we were here ten years ago. The falls are misty and damp but rain capes?Rainbow at Vic Falls

So we walk and at first it is enjoyable. It is a little more than a km to the end of the walkway. The falls are very full of water this year – much more so than when we were here in October ten years ago. Then it was misty. Now it is increasingly wet to the point that at the worst we were both soaked right through our clothes to our skin. The falls are so heavy with water this year that the tops of the palms and dense foliage are being inundated with a spray that then drips down the fronds collecting into what amounts to a heavy rain.

Even the money in our belt was wet through and we were worried about our cameras although we had them in plastic bags. We turned around before the end of the trail. The rain had become as intense as a tropical storm and the fog was so dense there was nothing to see.

Walking back we took the inland route and it was suddenly very dry. Amazing ecosystem: soaked like a jungle where the spray from the falls lands on the big leafed foliage and then rains down on us. Then 50 feet away it is so dry and dusty. We sit on a log and let the sun start to dry us. There are baboons playing all around us, hoping we are going to pull out something to eat, I think.

At the entrance/exit to the park we see a café and sit in the Baboon at Vic Fallssun there to enjoy chicken wraps and coffee and caramel cake. The bill was $31 US. Nothing is cheap here.

We walk across the street to a market to look at stuff. A fellow talks us into taking his cab ($10) for his city tour – a quick drive around a 3-4 block area and then he’ll take us to the craft market and then back to the border. I am willing to pay because I know I will be very tired later and it is several km back to the border. I also want an opportunity to talk to a local about how life has changed for them since we were last here. “Stan the Man” explained that conditions have improved a great deal since the power sharing agreement between Mugabe and his challengers. While Mugabe is not sharing “much” what is being shared has resulted in very positive changes for the people, he says.

Since Zimbabwe adopted the US $ as their currency, inflation has stabilized and there are more tourists– not a lot, but much more than ten years ago. The cabbie proudly showed us two grocery stores that were full of food. We took his word for it. Ten years ago the shelves were bare. The petrol station is also full of petrol again. On our last trip the petrol was all being shipped to Angola for the war.

Stan took us to the craft market – but it was all men selling carvings. Steve did buy a second mask and got some giraffe salad tongs thrown in.

On our own we found the women’s craft market – much cheaper and more interesting. I ended up with 3 bowls, a basket, 5 batiks, 3 runners and 4 cushion covers. Steve could not resist two more carvings.

Back at the border Michael had done his job, our bakkie was just fine. We always doubt that these young boys are actually capable of “protecting” our vehicle but if we don’t pay them, we suspect they would be VERY capable of ensuring there was a flat tire or a scratched paint job on our return.

On reflection, the whole Zambian / Vic Falls excursion ran us about $600 US with all the extra visas and fees. Was it worth it? We've seen Victoria Falls before so I'd say no, for us. But we were there and we had not calculated it all out in advance so as each new "fee" was picked out of our pockets we just kind of shrugged and thought, "Well, we are in for a penny already..."

On the driveway back into the camp a young bull elephant and his four friends were literally blocking the road. We had to just sit and wait for them to decide what to do. After tearing up some trees and making some mock charges at the gate of the camp they eventually moved on but once back in camp we could hear them throughout the afternoon and evening; roaring and fighting with each other. There is a lot of rutting going on at this time of year and the young bachelor herds are very frustrated. The females are so near and yet they might as well be on the moon in terms of the likelihood that one of these young bulls is going to get lucky. The big old bulls whose very size and longevity is proof of their virility and good genes are the first choice of the ladies out here. So the frustrated young fellows fight a lot amongst themselves.

Staying in this camp for several days we’d taken advantage of the warm weather and hung our laundry out to dry – for some reason the ants took a liking to Steve’s socks. Hundreds of them covered each sock. We waited for the sun to start setting and then they mostly all went home. The ants, I mean.

In the morning we leave for the Caprivi Strip, until the Angolan ceasefire in 2002, a very dangerous place to traverse. We are told it is now very safe and the road is good. Next stop: Namibia.

Carolyn Usher