Stories from Southern Africa – part one: South Africa & Botswana

South Africa

The port of entry and exit for my 2008 Southern Africa solo backpacking trip was Johannesburg, South Africa. It is known as one of the most dangerous cities in the world, so I planned my trip accordingly. I stayed in a hostel outside of the city centre. It turned out to be quite a posh neighbourhood actually! I didn’t have many plans for Johannesburg and I was going to get to Gaborone, Botswana, the next day. During the day, I only went to the Apartheid Museum, which was of course a must-see when you’re there. For the evening, I asked what was around. The hostel staff told me about a shopping mall that has a nice cinema. I met a Brazilian guy who wanted to see a movie as well, so we were on our way – walking – after dusk, in Johannesburg. We went to see The Dark Knight, which was an amazing movie. On our way back, which was around 11pm, I realised he was getting a bit nervous. So we fastened our walking pace back to the hostel. Once we arrived, he was clearly relieved, haha! While I have a rule of not travelling after dark, I broke this rule on my first day. But, considering the circumstances, I think it was fine.

Botswana

The next day, I was on my way to Botswana. I would return to South Africa again at the end of my trip. I couldn’t wait to arrive. A friend of mine, has his sister and family living in Gaborone and he connected us. They were so kind to invite me to stay with them. I had brought a bag of Dutch delights for them, since the husband is Dutch as well and he wrote me some of the things he missed in Botswana. I arrived in Gaborone in the evening and the husband picked me up from the bus stop. It was really easy to identify ourselves. He being white and me being Asian. He drove me past some food places first, since I hadn’t eaten yet. I immediately noticed the popularity of ‘chicken and chips’, a concept that kept recurring throughout Southern Africa. We drove to his home where I met his wife (and my friend’s sister) and their baby boy.

The following day, they introduced me to a human rights lawyer working in Botswana to talk about her work. Since this was the summer after I graduated from law school and before I would commence my human rights studies at LSE, this was the perfect timing. In the afternoon, the husband drove me to Mokolodi Nature Reserve, hoping to find some giraffes, since they are my favourites. Unfortunately, we didn’t encounter any giraffes, but we did nearly hit a warthog and I realised why Pumba is the smelly one in the Lion King. My gosh, what a nasty smell! It was a beautiful reserve and we drove up to a view point from where you could see the whole park. Gorgeous!

That evening, my friend from law school would also arrive in Gaborone and I told my new friends that I would travel with her for a few days. They were so kind to invite her to their home as well! She took the same bus I did, so we knew the schedule. When I arrived, there were many people outside the bus, asking whether I needed a taxi. I usually just walk past them. Since my friend would arrive soon, I decided to mingle in between the taxi drivers. When the passengers got off the bus, the taxi drivers started asking “Taxi? Taxi?”. When I saw my friend, I did the same to her “Taxi?”. Without looking at me, she said “No” and she was about to walk past me. I grabbed her arm and asked her again “Taxi?” and she was about to pull her arm away from me, looked up slightly annoyed, and realised it was me. So she shouted out of happiness and hugged me. I told her she was welcome to stay at my new friends’ place and she was delighted.

The next morning, the two of us were on our way again to the north of Botswana – Maun. It was close to the Okavango Delta, where we were excited to go to. The way to the north took quite long and we had to transfer somewhere in the middle. The transfer took long as the second bus was late, but we kept ourselves entertained. In Maun, we stayed at a camp site. We organised a trip to the Delta for the next morning and went to the cafe/restaurant area to get some food and to relax from the bus ride. That night, sleeping in a tent close to ‘real nature’, I heard the most amazing sounds. Elephant sounds, all kinds of other animals… Even though I got woken up several times, I was smiling every time, just listening.

The next day, early morning, we were on our way to the Okavango Delta. We went into some nature park quite soon and suddenly, the car stopped. I looked to the left and there were herds of zebras and giraffes! Giraffes! Amazing to see them in the wild, so I got even more excited about the day. We got to the water soon after and we got into a mokoro – a little boat made out of a tree trunk. A guide waded us through the delta waters and explained us about all the nature. They had these amazing palm trees. He told me they were ‘ray fern palms’, but I haven’t found them online under this name. The water was apparently so pure that you could drink it straight. I didn’t, but my friend filled her water bottle from these waters – I don’t think she got sick. At some point we heard some noise in the water next to us. Because we were in between high plants, we couldn’t see what was causing the sound. Our guide told us to be very quiet. We slowly moved forward, around the bend. About 20m away from us was an elephant, walking through the water on its way to land. Gorgeous and a little terrifying to be so close to a wild animal like that.

Okavango Delta from a mokoro

The trip to Okavango Delta was beautiful and I started planning the next trip to Kasane for Chobe National Park. That evening, my friend and I met two other travellers from New Zealand. They were lovely and one actually went to London at the same time as I did and we became good friends. We talked about our next step and all of us were heading to Kasane, so that was perfect. We talked about the bus, that would take very long and the others had done that on their way to Maun and didn’t want to do it again. They mentioned cheap flights in small planes. I was up for it! Unfortunately my friend was on a budget and she decided to skip the National Park too and head back to Gaborone and Johannesburg.

The next morning, my friend and I parted ways and I went with the two other travellers to the airport. They had brought with them another friend: a local pilot who wanted to help us find good flights. We arrived around 9 am with our backpacks ready to go, but all flights for Kasane had departed already. After enquiring about flights for tomorrow, we were informed that there were only two left. So, while our pilot friend helped us find that one last flight to Kasane, the three of us were waiting. Our pilot friend returned with a colleague, saying “There is one flight to Kasane leaving now and it’s for free. Do you want to go?” They were looking at me and I wanted to ask if someone else wanted the free flight since I wanted it to be fair, but the others were travelling together so it was only logical that they would take the two flights for tomorrow and I would take the free flight now. So, of course I was like “Yes!” I followed the pilot and he took me to the plane. He let me sit next to him in the cockpit which was amazing! The flight was quite long since we had to go somewhere in between and pick up some people, but I didn’t mind at all – I’m an aviation enthousiast!

Cockpit flight from Maun to Kasane

In Kasane, I stayed at a not-so-nice-camp site. The staff was really rude, but the location was perfect – right next to Chobe National Park. I planned to do two safaris. One sunset and one sunrise one, so I thought I would stay there for two days. However, when I arrived, they told me the sunset safari was about to leave and I could still join. So, off I went! One of the most beautiful sights I’ve ever seen. It was by boat and we went past all kinds of animals. The most beautiful sight was when the sun was setting and it was bright red. Inside this sun, there were two elephants and that silhouette was perfect! Everyone one the boat was in awe and I pressed the shutter button of my camera. It didn’t do anything. I look at my camera screen and it said “change battery pack”! Argh! That was so frustrating! I kept trying again and again, but of course it didn’t work. Now I’m thinking I should’ve waited for half a minute and tried, maybe it would’ve given me one good shot. But now all I have is the memory. I got John Mayer’s song in my head “You should have seen that sunrise [sunset in my case] with your own eyes. It made me feel alive. Didn’t have a camera by my side this time.”

That evening, back at the camp site, I met a South African guy [who passed away in 2009 – R.I.P. Z.A.] who had been working as a ranger for a couple of months. We were talking and he said, since our camp site was next to the National Park, we’d be able to see hippos from the camp site. I didn’t believe him. So he took my flashlight and we walked into the edge of the camp site. Now, there were big electric fences blocking the camp site’s territory, so it was ok. We walked towards the water and the ranger was shining his flashlight into the water. No hippos. But, I heard a sound from the left. I asked him, what’s that? He’s like, just a bird or something. I’m like, no – it sounds like something much bigger. We shine the light in the direction the sound was coming from… and there were three elephants just on the other side of the fence. Wow! They were just grazing, but got annoyed with our light shining, so they started moving away. Too bad, but that was a beautiful moment.
I planned to do the morning safari and then move on to Zambia. This guy told me he was heading to Zambia as well, but he was hitchhiking. I thought he was crazy. Little did I know that just a few weeks later, I’d be hitchhiking  myself…! Anyways, he was planning to leave early in the morning, so I couldn’t join him due to the sunrise safari. I told him to reserve a space for me at the hostel and that I’d see him later.

The next morning, I went on the sunrise safari. I don’t remember too much of it, honestly. I’ll look up what I wrote in my journal when I go back to the Netherlands again.
After the safari, I grabbed my bags and was ready to leave. I asked the reception how I could get to Livingstone, Zambia. They told me to take a taxi to the Zambezi, cross the Zambezi in a ferry and take a taxi to Livingstone. Least helpful staff ever. So, I took a taxi to the airport that I arrived at the day before. The taxi driver was a funny man. He was asking about my ‘husband’. Travelling solo means I always have a fake wedding ring and a story. My then husband’s name was Brandon (of course named after Brandon Boyd) and our children were called Luca (my dog) and Bruce (Brandon’s dog). And he was a UNDP development program officer in Tanzania. Right… Anyways, this taxi driver asked me about my ‘family’ and he taught me some Setswana words. Very nice guy.
When I arrived at the airport, the staff remembered me from the day before. I went over to the tourist information and asked them about transport to Livingstone. They told me that there were buses and they’ll call some agencies to ask around for me. In the meantime, I looked around the waiting area. Now this is a very small airport so there are no strict departure and arrival areas. I look around and suddenly I see the pilot friend from Maun sitting there! He asks me what I was doing there and I told him I did all I wanted and decided to move on to Livingstone one day earlier. He told me to wait. Five minutes later, he comes back and tells me he has a flight for me that leaves in four hours. It’s not for free this time because it’s an international flight from Botswana to Zambia, so I have to pay a tax – that’s all. It was 10 euros. Ridiculous! I told him I would pay for the full price, but he insisted. Ok… Amazing!
A few hours later, I was in the plane. The pilot asked if anyone wanted to be in the cockpit and I said “I do!” but at the same time another man said something as well. He looked at me and said, “No, go ahead” and I was like “No, please – I was in one just yesterday!”
The flight itself was amazing too. The pilot took us over the Victoria Falls! I wanted to jump off the bridge on the bungee there, so the pilot made a comment about that. It doesn’t look that high when you’re much higher up! Beautiful views!

Victoria Falls

That’s it for part one – South Africa and Botswana. I will write about Zambia and Malawi next.

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