Current position Swakopmund, Namibia - where the desert the desert meets the ocean, and the streets are filled with the strange combination of retired Germans, and thrill seeking backpackers! I believe my last travelogue left me in Antelope Park, playing with lions, so let me tell you what I've been up to since then . . .
From Antelope Park our next destination was Bulawayo, only around two hours away; from there we had intended catching the overnight train to Vic Falls, but on the journey there, discovered that there had been a collision the previous night at 0300 between the train we were due to catch and a freighter. Good job we weren't two days earlier.
Our other reason for stopping in Bulawayo was to have a chance to walk with rhinos. Only eight of us decided to go, and we were picked up the next morning by our excellent guide, named Colin. We drove for about an hour, in an open sided safari vehicle, through Zimbabwe's flat scenery until we hit the rocky, interesting landscape of Rhodes Matabo National Park. The idea of the trip is to drive through the park to places where rhinos are know to frequent, or have been seen in previous days, get out of the vehicle and set off on foot to see if we can have a close encounter.
We were out of luck the first few places we tried, though did get close to zebras, giraffes, wildebeests and warthogs, and enjoyed the experience of walking rather than driving around. We did see rhino footprints and poo, and discovered how to distinguish between the excrement of white rhino - mainly grass, looks a bit like a lawnmower's been emptied out, and black rhino - graze under trees, so lots of twigs in the poo. It was very interesting listening to Colin, as he tracked the animals. We had a lunch stop at a covered lookout point, where brightly coloured lizards, which were brazen enough to eat the food right off of our plates, swamped us.
After lunch we drove around some more, before spotting our quarry. We parked up & walked in to the sparse bush a short way to where a white rhino stood, under the shade of a tree, next to her baby. We managed to get within around ten metres of the creatures, and were also quite close to a mother warthog, suckling her three babies. We had some great photo opportunities - well, until I stood on a loud, crackling twig & prompted a mini stampede! Fortunately we'd all got some good shots prior to that, or my name would have been mud! Before returning to our digs, we went and checked out some ancient (though nobody knows how old) cave paintings, which were pretty impressive.
The train being out of the question, we drove to Vic Falls the next day, arriving mid afternoon & immediately booking our activities. It was decided that all bar a few of us would go on the Booze Cruise ($25 for a sunset cruise on the Zambezi, as much alcohol as you can drink - mind you, as spirits work out around $1 or $2 a bottle, you'd be hard pushed to drink your money's worth!) that afternoon, so rapidly chucked our tents up & stuffed food down or throats in anticipation. We were transported over to the Zambian side - where for some reason almost all of the activities are based - boarded our vessel, along with the passengers from two other trucks, and got on with the serious matter of getting well and truly hammered. I'm pleased to say that we were all very successful in this task, and the drinking continued well into the wee small hours.
Unsurprisingly, I didn't manage to do very much at all the next day until the evening, when a few of us had arranged to go on a night drive. For $9 including dinner, we thought we'd got quite a good deal, but when dinner turned out to be a yummy three-course meal at a lovely lodge, we knew we were on to a winner. We didn't see an awful lot on the drive, but did manage to spot a previously unseen animal - a large porcupine, grazing at the local rubbish tip! Some of us decide to cough up around $4 each to spend the night at the lodge - somehow a more attractive proposition than returning to our tents. After returning to town the next day, I went jet boating. Well, I thought I was going jet boating, anyway - due to a bit of a cock up, it was far from the adrenaline pumping experience I had been anticipating, but instead was a lazy little bimble along the river. Not to worry though, as the following day was to be rather more extreme, to say the least.
I am scared of heights, but also stupid enough to not let this stop me from doing daft, scary things . . . like the gorge swing. The next morning, I returned to the Zambian side for a full & fun packed day of throwing myself off of a cliff, in four different ways! First of all I did abseiling - which I had done before, and enjoyed . . . I think. I will admit to having found it rather nerve racking on this occasion, and after I had reached the bottom of the cliff, spent the steep walk out of the gorge asking myself why I was putting myself through this. Next on the agenda was the high wire - or flying fox. Once harnessed up, you run towards the edge of the cliff . . . and hurl yourself off. The advantage to this activity is that once you have reached the other side of the gorge, suspended on a wire, you get pulled in, so don't have to make the hot, steep journey back out of the gorge.
The next activity was rappelling, or rap jumping - basically abseiling, but instead of facing the rock, you lower yourself off the edge - face first. Don't even try to avoid looking down . . . you can't! I cried before and during this, but not as much as I did on the final activity . . . the gorge swing itself. Before I gave it ago, we had lunch. I'd said I'd go pretty much straight after lunch, so spent the whole meal crying and shaking and attempting to psyche myself up. You can, if you want, jump tandem - that way if you bottle it, the person you're harnessed in with can jump & pull you off. I decided this was the girl's way of doing it, and went for the solo.
I was so terrified, walking up to the platform; eyes streaming, knees knocking, whole body shaking, saying to the guys who work there, "I really don't think I can do this". They were great & really positive & supportive, and edged me forward slowly so I didn't have to look down to check that my toes were sticking over the edge, a big lot of nothing underneath them. I knew if I hesitated once, I'd be buggered, so when they counted me down "1-2-3-jump", sobbing my eyes out, I took a big step off. Falling falling falling, too scared even to scream, unable to think, plummeting 50 metres toward the bottom of the gorge at ever increasing speeds. Then the slack of the rope I was attached to was taken up, by the other wire, strung from one side of the gorge to the other, and instead of falling I was swinging - and instead of crying, I was whooping and cheering, and loving it, and sooo proud of myself for having done it!
The steep climb out of the gorge in the heat (31 degrees in the shade) didn't bother me so much this time, I was buzzing big time. The day is good value, as you are able to do any of the activities as many times as you wanted. I declined, however, deciding that I now had nothing to prove, and headed back to Zimbabwe & the campsite. I decided I deserved a bloody big drink that night, and joined several of the others in an all night drinking session - another messy night!
That was to be our last day in Zim, land of cheap, and we headed the next morning to the border with Botswana, only two hours away, where we had to get out of the truck & dip our feet to avoid the spread of disease. We drove the short distance to Chobe National Park, where there was the option to do a by all accounts superb river cruise . . . but I'm afraid I was far too hung over to even contemplate it!
The next day we had a 600km drive ahead of us to Maun, our base from which to experience the Okovango Delta in a mokoro - a dug out canoe. We made 500km of the journey, and then broke down. The wheel baring was buggered, and got so hot that the wheel hub actually caught fire! The heat was so intense that it welded the baring on to the hub, and a roadside repair was out of the question. Jade hitched a lift into the campsite, and arranged for us to be collected by the guys at Delta Rain, with whom we were to enter the Delta. We set up our tents in the intense heat, and settled down for an impromptu bush camp at the side of the road.
The next afternoon, all of us except Willy, Jade, and two of the girls who were not going, and had volunteered to stay, were transported into Maun - where a wild party for six year old twins was in progress. The following day we were driven a couple of hours into the Delta, where we were met by our polers, and escorted to the hollowed out sausage trees which were to be our transport for the next couple of days. We glided silently through lily pad filled ponds and reeds for a couple of hours to our camp for the next two nights. It was a most relaxing experience.
I slept that night and the next in my hammock - which was so comfortable! While we were there we did a couple of game walks, a sunset cruise - where we saw a big hippo in one of the ponds - swam in the delta & generally chilled & enjoyed the experience. After a smooth ride back on the third day, we returned to the campsite, where we discovered that the truck & the guys were still stuck at the side of the road. They managed to get towed in later that evening - tired & sunburnt - and we celebrated with a night of drunken debauchery. A good time was had by all!
We were all pretty hung over the next morning, so did the only sensible thing . . . and started drinking again! Ten of us had booked to do a scenic flight over the Delta later that afternoon, and were all eagerly anticipating it, remarking what great value a one hour flight was for a mere $50. We'd been told that the planes swoop down low over the game so you can get a good view, and if you asked the pilot, he would even do acrobatics for you! We were picked up half an hour before our flight, and transported to the small airport, where we boarded our Cessna planes, five in each.
As the small plane took off, I suddenly remembered that I strongly dislike flying. The first time the pilot steered the plane into a steep dive, I uttered a pathetic and heartfelt "oh fuck!' I kept thinking happy thoughts, trying to will myself into enjoying the experience, and attempting to curb my mind from thinking about vomit - times I have vomited; times I would be likely to vomit; what would happen if I vomited during a skydive - that sort of thing.
For a time, I managed this, and was just able to keep my stomach under control and look out of the window - although I had to put my camera away, after taking a mere two shots, for fear I would be sick on it, also because it was taking my entire powers of concentration to keep the contents of my stomach down. By the second half of the flight, when it became obvious that mind over matter just wasn't working, my body shut down. The sweat was pouring off of me, I scrunched down into my seat, pulled my knees up to my chest, eyes shut, waiting for the ordeal to be over. I can remember two thoughts passing through my mind during this time; one, that it was a scenic flight, and here was I with my bloody eyes closed, and the other that at least if we crashed the chunder inducing experience would be over!
Before I shut down, I did manage to see quite a bit of game though, including a multitude of elephants and - out of one eye, with my head pressed helplessly against the window - a shiny hippo, trotting from one pool to another. I'd have loved to have got a photo of this, but unfortunately it was beyond me! Thankfully I managed to survive the experience without lapsing into a full coma, but it was a very subdued ten people who left the airport - much different from how we had bounced in just an hour before. In total there were three in-flight vomitters, and one post-flight one. I probably should have just joined them, as I had to spend the rest of the evening lying down in my tent, feeling very sorry for myself!
We found out on our return that the parts for the truck arrived from South Africa, and were told that we would be ready for the off the following day. After paying our substantial bar bills the next morning, we left Maun and Botswana behind us, replacing it with the much awaited Namibia. We stopped the first night in a campsite that didn't have a swimming pool (as most of them have for the last couple of weeks), but instead had a cage, floating in the river where you could swim; the purpose of this was to keep the crocs out!
Our next stop in Namibia was Etosha National Park - our last one of the trip - where we spent two nights. The first campsite we stayed became full of jackals once night had fallen - which I thought was pretty cool! I slept that night by the water hole, along with a few others. We'd retired to our tents when we heard the roars of lions, not too far off, so grabbed our sleep stuff & shot off to the covered area by the water hole. We didn't see lions - or much else - but it was an enjoyable and different experience all the same. I slept the next night out under the stars & full moon too, enjoying the warm, mosquito-free night.
From the park we went to an amazing place, called Cheetah Park. Mario, a Namibian born farmer, whose father and grandfather before him had run the farm, runs it. He has three tame cheetahs, who we were able to pat & get photos with, and a number of wild ones. In the late afternoon we went out on jeeps to watch the cheetahs being fed, great chunks of donkey thrown out for them to jump up and catch. Afterwards Mario told us the story of how the park came into existence, what he is trying to do there, and the problems he faces for the bizarre Namibian laws. I'm going to pass on the details of this story now, because Mario needs help if he is to continue his valuable work - and if there is anyone out there who could help, or knows anyone who could, please do.
Of the approx. 7,500 cheetahs left in the world, 2,500 of them are in Namibia, therefore although they are considered endangered in most of the world, they are not thought of us such in this country.
Farmers - including Mario's predecessors - shoot cheetahs, because they destroy significant numbers of wild stock, for which the farmers receive no compensation.
Nine years ago, Mario trapped three cheetahs and decided to keep them rather than kill them; these are the tame ones we saw. He built his fist enclosure to keep them in, and decided that he would like to save more of these animals if he possibly could. He let it be known that he would be willing to take in cheetahs trapped by farmers, and soon farmers from the surrounding area were contacting him.
Officially, there are only two things a farmer can do when a cheetah has been caught; kill them, or release them into the wild. The problem is that - desert aside - there is no 'wild' in Namibia; all the land is owned.
Despite the fact that national and private and game parks in other countries would happily take cheetahs from Namibia, it is illegal to export live animals. It is possible to get licences to export pelts etc.
A further change in the law now says that Mario is unable to collect cheetahs from other farmers. If he is caught doing so, he faces fines or jail, and numerous checkpoints mean that discovery is likely. The cheetahs should instead be shot.
Statistics state that cheetahs do not breed in captivity - Mario's experience suggests otherwise - despite this, another new law has decreed that all cheetahs in captivity must now be sterilized.
Mario is continuing to flaunt these insane laws, and do what he can to help these magnificent creatures. He hopes to raise enough money to be able to fence off his entire farm, and dedicate the lot of it to the cheetahs. Currently, although tourism contributes something toward the project, he still has to rely on farming to make ends meet, for him and the cheetahs. The main thing he needs is publicity - someone who knows someone that can bring this worthwhile cause into the public eye, and under the influence of those that maybe able to help. Namibia is not that big or powerful a country, surely if WWF or another charity or pressure group were able to take up the cause, something could be done to change these senseless laws, and help to save an endangered animal.
You can find more details at their website, http://www.cheetahpark.com/default.htm
Actually, I think I will leave it there, on that important note - I feel my tales of piss-ups in Swakopmund will seem somewhat trivial in comparison.
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