Race back to Cape Town

In all the fun, we had left ourselves only two days to get back to Cape Town, in order to arrive in time to meet Tom’s dad who was visiting on holiday.

After an early breakfast with the elephants, we hopped into the car – destination South Africa.

All was going well for about half an hour, when Tom’s infamous bad shoulder decided to call time on his driving. Arm numb and limp at his side, I took over the driving, both of us with a rising sense of dread – would I have to drive the thousands of kilometres back to Cape Town alone?

The answer for day one was yes – Tom couldn’t take back over, and I drove 12 hours straight. Through the length of Botswana, a quick border crossing, then down through northern South Africa.

South Africa’s Limpopo province, as a side-note, is like nothing else we’d seen in the country. For the first time, we felt like there was a corner of the country where it really is Africa.  Much of the country feels like a displaced Europe.

We made it as far as Pretoria, catatonically tired.

The next morning it was early to rise for another equally long day of driving. Tom decided to try driving, and we started off by pulling into a service station to have Beast filled up and checked over – oil, water and tyre pressure please.  The attendant got to work while we drank a coffee.

Back on the road, we were off down the motorway when a loud bang was followed by the car jerking madly, and bits of tyre were flying madly all around us. Tom managed to pull us over into safety, and we got out to find our front tyre had burst and blown to smithereens.

Now, Beast is no small car, and Tom wasn’t going to be able to help with the tyre. I opted to call roadside assistance. Only, it was a Sunday, and none of the eight numbers provided would answer the phone.

There was nothing else for it, I would have to change the monster truck’s tyre on my own.

I got to work, Tom casually watching and smoking from the roadside.

I had the screws off and the car jacked up when suddenly an even bigger monster truck stopped alongside. Out jumped a veritable rambo, and wandered over.

“I was driving up the other side of the road and saw you. South Africa’s dangerous. This is a dangerous spot. Do you mind if I help you?”

YES PLEEEEEEEEASE!!!!!!

Tucking his gun into his wasteband, our new friend got to work, and five minutes later our new tyre was back on; and we were waving goodbye to our gun-toting friend.

Pulling in at the next service station, it turned out the previous guy had put completely the wrong pressure in all four tyres. Thanks for that, Shell employee.

Thereafter the day of driving was uneventful, and we ploughed through hours and hours of gold and diamond mining land, followed by sparse empty bush stretching forever.

By nightfall we were pulling into Beaufort West, a small town already in the Western Cape.

We had booked a room at an 17th century inn but were arriving late, and we ran in begging the staff to take pity and let us have some dinner – any dinner.

The restaurant was closed, but the lovely people improvised – bringing a bench and table outside our room, and before long we were indulging in an al fresco meal of cold beers, a slice of home-made chicken pie (delectable!) and chips.  Happy Valentines Day!

For the morning we only had five hours of driving left. We checked into our new, very quirky and blue apartment (more on that another time), and by evening were with Tom’s dad.

And with that it was over. A month’s worth of travelling covering 10,380 kilometres. A lifetime’s worth of memories.

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Elephant sands

The time had come to begin our descent back to Cape Town – but before we set off in proper, we had just one more stop to add to our trip, Elephant Sands.

We had never heard of Elephant Sands before, and hadn’t had any intention of adding an extra stop. However, Tom had befriended a fellow camper a week before, who raved of a place where hundreds of elephants roam freely among the tents. We couldn’t resist.

Arriving at Elephant Sands mid-afternoon and checking into our pre-erected tent, it wasn’t five minutes before two elephants came trundling over to the watering hole just meters from the restaurant.

We grabbed our cameras and beers, and sat literally 3-4 meters away from the giants drinking, washing, giving us the odd going over with their intelligent eyes.

It’s so fascinating to watch elephants, they have such distinct individual personalities. One of the elephants – not the biggest at all – was a total bully, and chased off anyone trying to drink from his little patch. We were entertained by the moody so-and-so trying to chase off the others, who resorted to staging distractions in order for the others to sneak behind bully’s back and get a sip or two before he noticed, and went charging after a new target.

Water is turned off after dark at Elephant Sands, because otherwise the elephants dig up and burst the water pipes, so we had to hurry back to our tent for a solar-heated shower before the sun went down.  Only, to do so involved a 5 minute jog across the elephants’ watering hole, and new arrivals were constantly pitching up to drink.

We didn’t get flattened, and soon we were back at the restaurant, in time for a few last pictures before darkness fell.

For whatever unknown reason, the owners of Elephant Sands decided it would be unlimited free wine for everyone for the night, uh-oh. We settled in for dinner with the other 10 or so people staying, and dug into the stew and maize-meal served up.

After dinner we all sat back out in the darkness, and watched the troop of elephants who had since arrived at the watering hole, bringing their babies too. We just sat up like that under the stars, with the elephants and free wine, way too late into the night.

Getting to bed involved yet another – slightly more exciting – race across the watering hole in the pitch darkness. “Well, good luck, hope you make it!” the jolly owner and other guests giggled, as we bolted off into the dark.

Attack of the baboons

After a full day’s drive, we arrived at Chobe National Park on the border of Zambia in time for nightfall. Once again, we would be pitching a tent in the dark.

Navigating our way through the most bizarrely maze-esque campsite, we set about pitching our home for the next four nights by car-light.

It wasn’t exactly smooth sailing, our hitherto-faithful tent decided to give up the ghost, tent poles snapping in half. (Sorry Stu and Danya, we’ll buy new ones). Brilliant, juuuuust brilliant. Queue half an hour of battling with broken sticks, string, tentpegs and mosquitos, to emerge with one very wonky tee-pee. It was time for a very large glass of wine at the lodge restaurant up the road.

After dinner we drove back to the jungle of a campsite, getting completely lost until eventually the camp guards came to find out what on earth we were doing driving round and round the campsite in the dark.

They showed us to our tee-pee and we bedded in for the night.

Next thing I know, I wake to a voice outside the tent: “Knock knock knock, is anyone home?” the voice asked.

6 o’clock in the morning, I stuck my head out to find out who wanted what at this time in the morning…

But he didn’t need to speak, I soon saw exactly what he wanted.

Our tee-pee was surrounded by carnage, Beast’s doors wide open – the baboons had staged an attack. Breaking into our car, the pesky gang of monkeys had distributed all of our food and a good number of our belongings around the campsite.

“Look, there’s one of them just over there,” the guard pointed. As if I was going to retrieve whatever morsel of our supplies the pest was currently stuffing his face on.

Informing Tom of the disaster, the camel’s back broke. Storming out of the tee-pee in his pants, Tom had broken at last.

“Enough’s enough. WE. ARE. NOT. CAMPING. ANY. MORE.” Tom bellowed. “Get your things we’re going to find a room!”

Encouraging him to calm down and put his clothes on before we went anywhere, I went off to find the ablution blocks for a wash. Five minutes later and feeling refreshed, I swung open the door to startle a HUGE warthog and its babies blocking the path out. I quickly retreated, and climbing up to the window, squealed at Tom to come and keep watch.

After about 15 minutes of waiting, the warthogs moved along with their grazing, and Tom shouted “Right, exit now and keep to the wall along your left. You should be fine.”

He wasn’t entirely wrong about the camping getting a bit taxing, I thought.

Nonetheless, we drove off for our first day’s game drive, and were rewarded by an incredible hippo encounter – the hippo out of the water grazing, and completely unphased by our presence. He ploughed right over to the car, gave us a good looking at, and continued with his breakfast. We held our breath, before inching off.

Tom’s anger at camping hadn’t dissipated by nightfall, so we duly moved into the cheapest room we could find – a room set right along the river. “Be careful of hippos and crocodiles, they come up here at night,” the hotel helpfully advised.

Over the next few days we didn’t meet any hippos or crocodiles, but we did have a band of warthogs and mongooses constantly at our sides. Note – baby mongooses are now officially the cutest thing to walk this earth.

The next days of gamedriving went equally well, with elephants – including a few days’ old baby -, and a pride of lions with cubs, gracing us with their presence.

All in all, Chobe truly is one of the most stunning places I’ve been, and the sheer number of animals is incredible. I can’t wait to go back one day.

And no, we never did go back to camping after that.

Wilderness camping

A small town called Maun boasts to be the gateway of the Okavango. This was our first stop in Botswana. We needed supplies, fuel, and a new tent to brave wilderness camping in the delta.

After the long drive we were early to bed, following dinner in Maun’s top restaurant: “Pizza, Pub, Coffee and Curries”.  Quite a wordy name for a restaurant, I would say, but there you go.

In the morning we were in action mode – we needed meat, snacks, water and beer for us, diesel for Beast, and a tent capable of withstanding the fabled Okavango rainy season storms.

All our supplies on board, we set off to Moremi Game Reserve, where we would be camping at a demarcated camp in the wild for 2 nights.  By camp, I mean the bush was cleared, there is a toilet and wash facility, and braai/bbq pits. No electricity, no shops, no drinking water, no fences. The most daring of our camping undertakings yet.

Having pitched our very complicated rented tent, Tom was approached by the only other campers there – two middle-aged German men, touring southern Africa in a deluxe camper van.

They were off on a boat trip in the delta. Could we come too? We asked. Brilliant, they said, very brilliant. So off set the oddest group of friends – me, Tom, greying pot-bellied utterly friendly Hubert, and beige-clad lion hunter apparel wearing silent Peter – to meet Luke, our boatman for the afternoon.

The Okavango delta is simply stunning, and no words could possibly suffice. Water channels and reeds as far as the eye can see. Water so clear and still the sky is reflected perfectly, dizzyingly.

We were all silent, taken aback by the sheer beauty of the place, snapping pictures in every direction. And of each other. Hubert was making a small video.

Soon we approached a group of hippos. Looking mischievous, Luke announced: “Get your cameras ready”. Speeding up, he tore around in circles around the hippos, giggling at his joke.

The hippos didn’t get it, and got mad instead. The big male decided enough was enough, and launched himself after our boat. Strangely, there’s nothing else I could describe the scene as, than a hippo swimming the butterfly stroke. Launching in and out of the water the angry hippo chased after us bearing his fangs in threat, but our motorboat was just too fast, he couldn’t quite catch us. “Photo photo photo photo” Luke screeched throughout, then dissolved into laughter.

Albeit amused, I think we all breathed a sigh of relief to be out of range of the hippo.

Sun set over the delta, and our boat trip was over. Thanking Luke, we disembarked, and our German friends insisted on paying for the majority of the trip: “We’re older anyway!” Hubert joked.

We never did trade contact details. Funny to think of these sudden friends for an afternoon, who paid for the most phenomenal boat trip, in whose home-video we star.

Back at the campsite, I hastily gathered firewood and set a campfire, and Tom started digging our food out for our braai.

But then tragedy struck!!

In the depths of the Okavango delta Beast’s fridge had given up service. ALL of our supplies had gone off in the 35C heat in the car. In our putrefied-smelling car, all we had left was 6 bread cobs, 4 corn cobs, some mushrooms, and 3 packs of crisps.

I baked our corn in the fire, and suddenly remembered a tin of sardines we had left over in Cape Town, which I had stowed in the car. And so our first wilderness dinner was fire-toasted cobs and sardines, fire-roasted corn, and hot beer.

We withdrew to our tent, ready for an early morning game drive. Opening the darkening flaps so we slept only under a mosquito net, I lay watching the stars, listening to the animals busy in the pitch black around us.

In the morning we set out at 6am in track of animals. We were rewarded with every variation of deer, warthogs, giraffes, zebras, and elephants – all with their babies.

We then decided on a mukoro trip – a locally used dugout canoe, propelled by pole. We spent a lovely hour on the water, our guide working our way through the maze of water channels among the reeds and waterlilies.

Afternoon was spent game-driving, during which we startled a mother-elephant and baby standing in the road. Slamming on the brakes, we sat in silence, watching. Suddenly, mummy had had enough, trumpeting loudly, flapping her ears, she was coming for us.

Engine back on, elephant tearing towards us, we sped away, leaving mummy and baby safely in the rearview mirrors.

We made our way back to camp, ready to light the campfire of the century, and boil some pasta we found in our Cape Town leftovers to go with our corn.

But the closer to camp we got, the darker it seemed, the more threatening the clouds looked, and the windier it got. By the time we reached our tent a storm was afoot – gale winds, lightening, and thunder.

What initially seemed to be one storm, turned out to be four surround-storms, we were completely surrounded by immense lightening on all sides.

Not wanting to sit under the trees in such a storm, we retreated to the only covered area there was – the ladies toilets. With a thatched roof sticking out about a metre beyond the actual building, we set up our camp chairs outside, under the protruding thatch, and watched the storm.

It was quite the experience, to be sat in what seemed to be a relatively calm middle point, the sky flashing and thundering on all sides around us.

Our campfire of the century plans well and truly thwarted, we drank our stash of red wine and ate our remaining crisps, huddling from the storm.

By 11pm it had subsided enough that we braved it back to our tent, and slept for the night, before upping camp and gamedriving the day back to Maun. We had survived phase one of the wilderness.

Goodbye Namibia

Our last stop in Namibia was Popa Falls, some 40 kilometres from the border with Botswana.

We arrived mid-afternoon to our accommodation, to find we were the only visitors – for let’s just say, a while. The staff were suitably excited.

We were less so, given the approaching dark clouds, and the thought of the night ahead in our non-waterproof tent. “It’s definitely going to rain,” the receptionist informed us cheerily. 5 years in Africa later, it’s still difficult to feign sufficient enthusiasm about that sentence, which is inevitably seen as a piece of good news over here.

Popa Falls is a series of smaller cascades, creating a white-water rapids effect as the Kavango rushes towards Botswana and the delta.

Not having much to do – the boatman had clocked off early – we pitched our tent (glaring threateningly at the clouds), and then sat and drank a beer as the sun set over the rapids, before a surprisingly good steak at the “restaurant” which probably hasn’t ever seen a paying customer before.

The clouds seemed to be holding, and we retreated for a night in the tent. We woke up DRY!!! And headed straight out for our early-morning boat trip.

Our guide Lawrence took his job seriously, and promising us a great river safari we set off down the river in search of birds, hippos, and crocs.

Before long he had found us a family of hippos, peering out from the water. Not content for us to only see their ears and eyes, Lawrence drove towards them. “Don’t worry, they can’t overturn a boat this big!!” he said gleefully, ploughing onwards.

The hippos scarpered. In a tumult of spray and splashing and grunting, the huge hippos were climbing over each other – stepping on each others’ heads, to get to open water. Great viewing, great photos. A bit mean.

Giggling, we moved onwards, and startled a crocodile – about 3 metres long, which immediately took to the water and dived under our boat. Less funny…

We spent an hour and a half enjoying the safari, and saw hippos and crocs galore, as well as numerous lovely birds.

Another half hour was dedicated to viewing the cascades themselves, although, looking crestfallen, Lawrence informed us “the boat can’t go there”. (Not sure a river barge is suited to white-water rafting anyway, Lawrence).

After a quick breakfast sandwich, we set off for the Botswanan border, excited for the real adventure part of our trip – 2 weeks of camping in the Okavango delta, and the Kalahari!

Worms at the Okavango

From Etosha, we drove north to the top of the country where the Kavango river divides Namibia from Angola.  We would be following the river as it winds its way through the north of Namibia into Botswana, and down into the Okavango delta.

Arriving in Rundu, we checked into a cute little guest-house on the shores of the river, and were given a chalet in luscious gardens of tall African trees and flowers, with a view of the river below. The staff quickly handed us a menu, informing us we had to pre-order any evening meals.

It was an easy enough decision – with every type of river fish listed on the menu; we picked a grilled whole local bream. However, Tom couldn’t resist the mopani worms to start…

So at dinner out came a bowl of 1-2 inch fat worms, deep-fried, with a bowl of honey to dip them in. Tom tucked in, daring me to taste a couple. Luckily it was dark, so gathering my bravery I caved – hand me one. Dubious, I squeezed it. Too soft! Swap it for a very, very crispy one, I said. Digging out the crispest of the lot, there was nothing else for it…!

No real texture – just crispy, and as for taste… a mild bitterness but otherwise unoffensive. OK, I took another to try with the honey. Better than without the honey, but still not much more than “not bad”. I won’t be eating any again, but surprisingly not really a traumatic dining experience.

After the excitement of the worms, we sat and ate our lovely fish with our hands, drinking lovely chilled rose, and sat chatting deep into the night while the bats flew around in the trees above our heads.

In a very tech-addicted moment, in the morning we moved to a different lodge due to the first one having no Wi-Fi… we really wanted to speak to our mums after 4 days offline!

Our new accommodation seemed even lovelier, with little chalets nestled right on the water’s edge, and the river much much wider at this point.

We worked online all afternoon, then ran back to our room to shower in time for dinner. Fresh and ready to eat, something caught my eye on the bed. I moved closer… a tiny maggot. I flicked it off. But then there was another, and for that matter, another… and another. Ripping back the sheets I found our bed was full of tiny maggots, hundreds of them.

Marching over to the reception to ask to be moved rooms, we were shown to a different room.  Also with worms in the bed. “It’s because of the thatch roofs”, we were told. As if I cared why I was going to have to sleep with worms.

We made the most of dinner and sunset on the deck over the river, and in the dark resigned ourselves to the idea of sleeping with worms.

I woke up constantly, flicked as many worms as I could away, and went back to sleep.

So there you have it, our first two days at the Okavango – eating worms and then sleeping with them.

 

Not-camping in Etosha

We arrived in Etosha National Park in good time, mid-afternoon. Driving into the park, we immediately got lucky – a group of male kudus stood next to the road. Notoriously difficult to spot, the most impressive horns of all the deer kinds in Africa. 5 years into our African life, this was the first time we have seen male kudus.

We got to our campsite, and pitched our tent – on rock. Note to campsite planners – don’t place a campsite on rock, it’s impossible to secure a tent. We ended up having to place boulders inside our tent in the four corners. What a comfy night we were in for.

Focusing on our purpose – we set off for our first game drive. We got lucky again, and watched a pride of lionesses fooling around in the grass. Eventually, it started getting dark, and we needed to get back to camp.

So far, all was relatively uneventful. However, the closer we got to camp, the greyer the clouds seemed, and the wind definitely seemed to be picking up.

By the time we pulled into our campsite, the wind was howling, and our tent was being battered so hard by the wind it had bent over sideways, held down only by our trusty inner rocks.

Hmm.

We took a second attempt at resurrecting our tent, with the campsite guard looking on bemusedly. “The rain’s coming too”, he pointed out, helpfully.

The wind wasn’t playing game, or our tent wasn’t, or I don’t know.

All I do know is that the evening ended with Tom sitting spread-eagle on top of the tent trying to hold it down, while I dismantled it around him and tried to shove the components back into Beast.

Running into reception, we begged, and were given a cheap room in the bigger camp.

That trauma over, we went for dinner. Famished, we started to tuck into our soup, before being given a fright. A jackal wanted our soup too. Flapping it away, we carried on eating. But before long, he was back, with a friend.

The theme of the whole evening was set – jackal, upon jackal, upon jackal, sneaking into the restaurant, under tables, and sometimes even on top of tables! In the meantime, the guests flapped, hissed, shouted wildly, trying to stave off the scavengers.

Sleep couldn’t come too soon, and before long, it was 5.30 and we were getting up to catch the morning’s animals.

Coming to camp’s front gate, a cheery member of staff asked: “Did you notice the rhino?” No we didn’t, where is it? Just over by the gate to the campsite.

And flipping heck, there it was. A stunning animal, in all its glory, grazing at the campsite entrance, the campers blissfully unaware of the huge animal metres away from their tents. We secretly congratulated the storm on moving us into a room, and having watched our rhino mate for long enough, we drove off to top up our petrol.

Only, there was no petrol. One might think this would be a key piece of information to pass on to tourists staying at a camp in the middle of nowhere, but we hadn’t been informed, and didn’t have much petrol left at all.

Luckily, we hadn’t set off gamedriving, and we estimated we had just enough to reach out next camp – 100 kilometres away. (We were thanking our lucky stars for Beast’s capacity at this stage).

After Tom throwing a tantrum at the camp receptionists for not telling people about the fuel situation, we set off for our next camp, praying the car would last that long.

On route, we got lucky yet again – coming across another lion stalking around by the roadside.

Etosha is a huge 20,000 kilometre+ park, home to a huge salt pan. The result is an otherworldly feeling, shimmering white as far as the eye can see, dotted with gazelles and zebra.

Rushing into our next camp smack-bang in the middle of the park, we had only one question – do you have fuel??? Yes, they had fuel, so off we went to fill up before anyone else had the chance to steal Beast’s food.

We had intended this to be a mid-camping refreshing stop, so we had pre-booked a room. As it turned out, we had a second night in a room, and had no tent to pitch. So, we had a job of doom that we had been putting off, and had to finally face – the fridge.

Note to self, do not let anything go off in a car fridge, because it will become a stinking, juicy pit of hell.

While Tom disinfected the inside of the fridge, I had to use our only cleaning implement – a toothbrush – to scrub the metal inner basket of the fridge. In the midday heat. Served.Us.Right. Lesson learnt, we vowed only sealed cans, tins, bottles would enter Beast’s fridge ever again.

In the afternoon the heavens opened again – during our gamedrive – bringing out a rhino, hyenas, and many gazelles to frolic in the water.

For day three, we moved to a third campsite, in the ground of an old fort. This time, the foresightful camp planners had placed the campsite on sand – a joy to pitch tent in, and comfy to sleep on.

Happy with our home for the night, we set off for an evening gamedrive, where we were in for a real treat of my favourite kind – a secret, one-on-one with a pair of elephants.

Having come across the nellies grazing in some thick bushland and moving away from us, we decided to try to intercept them on the other side of the bush patch. We parked up and waited, and before long, out they came, accepting our presence, sifting up all the plants they felt like gobbling.

Before long, they wanted to move on, and giving us a wary look, they crossed the road right next to our car. Rolling very quietly, we followed them, again going round the side of their patch to meet them on the other side – at a waterhole.

Again, the nellies obliged, soon meeting us on the other side of the bush, where they ate, drank, and played around for a while, us watching in silence.

After half an hour or so, another car sped up, screeching to a halt, and sent our friends running away into dense bush.

So that was it for the night, we were back to camp, for a night of blissful sleep under our tree on the sand.

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