Tuesday, April 26, 2011

THE SMOKE THAT THUNDERS

The first glimpse of the mighty Victoria Falls makes your head spin.

 

The Victoria Falls

 

You feel genuine fear reaching from the deepest pit in your belly snaking its way through to the finest veins in your legs, your arms, the core of you until you climax in a burst of awe. Numbness follows. You cling to the handrails, you plant your feet firmly to the stone path, you grab anybody next to you; because you’re jelly.

 

Congratulations, you’ve just been hit by the giant. All 1,708m by 108m of it. But it hasn’t even touched you. Not physically. Not even close.

 

Until you gather the courage to cross the puny metal bridge because you HAVE to get a closer look, however unconvincing the structure feels. That’s when monsoon strikes. And yet, that’s not the full force of the giant’s power, just a tease.

 

Soaking wet crossing the bridge, the soles of my shoes came off too.

Have you ever seen anybody more happy to be caught in torrential rain? Crossing the Knife Edge Bridge in Victoria Falls. A waterproof camera is essential.

 

Then you discover that the giant has a softer side. It plays with the sun and dances in the mist and lo and behold, the giant creates not one, but two rainbows, with glee.

 

Twin rainbows.

Twin rainbows by the waterfall. We also saw a full semi-circle that goes UNDER the bridge. In moonlight, you’ll see ‘moonbows’.

 

Victoria Falls Bridge.

The 1.3km Victoria Falls Bridge; the border of Zambia and Zimbabwe, and the bungee jumping station right smack in the middle.

 

The rainforest embraces the nurture of the giant, as the rocky dry land too far from reach, sits and watches, hopelessly forlorn, barren.

 

The rainforest.

The rainforest.

 

Barren land just on the opposite side of the falls.

And the dry half of the land, within the same vicinity of the falls.  

 

They call it Mosi-o-tunya, the Smoke That Thunders. And rightly so.

 

Sprays up to 400m in height and can be seen up to 50km away.

 The annual flood season runs from February to May, peaking in April. The spray of the falls rises to a height of over 400m, creating an inverted rain at the Knife Edge Bridge.

 

 Upstream of the falls.

It’s too dangerous to white water raft in the Zambezi River this season. I have to say, I was a bit disappointed as I was looking forward to it.

 

This is mother nature’s great wonder. The experience hard to fathom. The giant never forgotten.

 

Another great day. The entrance fee to the falls is USD20.

Monday, April 25, 2011

PHOTO ALBUMS (SOUTH AFRICA & BOTSWANA)

To view the photo albums, please click on the respective photos or links below: -

 

South Africa

The SOUTH AFRICA Album

 

Botswana

The BOTSWANA Album

 

Have fun!

Sunday, April 24, 2011

A MILLION DRAGONFLIES

Fact: Finding yourself in Botswana and not taking your chance on the wild side

 

….Is.

….A.

….SIN.

 

Simply because Botswana has more than enough to offer (all you nature buffs everywhere, hear ye, hear ye!). Throughout our travel in Botswana, we encountered the desert, inland delta, salt pan; apart from being turned into farmlands, most are now nature reserves. Tourism is BIG, it’s a pity that promotion is lacking – there wasn’t even a proper tourist info desk at the international airport, nor a brochure in site. To be fair, it is a newly built airport but if car rental and cab services are available, and to help the serious ‘go-with-the-flow’ tourists arriving without having done any homework on their destination of interest beforehand, you would think it would’ve made sense for them to start at the airport. Unless ‘take me to town’ suffices. I’m probably too particular in that sense. Cab drivers can smell your cluelessness miles away, and you’re screwed. What if Mr. Cabbie just arrived from a foreign land too? (That happened to me before, I had to explain the directions to the cab driver)

 

Botswana overland route

Botswana’s the first country where we travelled overland throughout - from Gaborone to Ghanzi to Maun to Kasane via Nata before crossing the border to Zambia via the Kazangula border.

 

So, after spending a few nights at the San lodge, we took the 3.5 hour bus ride from Ghanzi to Maun costing 52 Pula/person (USD8). Street sellers will actually pile up into the bus to sell newspapers, munchies and bananas, even socks (!) for the journey but strangely not drinking water. Looking through the glass windows from the outside before you board, it’ll look like the bus is jam-packed but there’re probably a few vacant seats left so you have to be quick. As soon as the bus fills up, it’ll leave.

 

The folks at Dqae Qare (still no luck in pronouncing it correctly) recommended the Okavango River Lodge; that’s where we were headed to (by the way, internet connection around Africa has been at best, sporadic, and generally slow). The minute we walked into the spacious room, we knew it was a win. We got lucky because it’s a 3-bed dorm (such an odd number, the 3rd person must’ve felt like a lamp post the whole time if the other two travelled together) but the 3rd guest didn’t show up so we had it all to ourselves, with an attached bathroom; all for 90 Pula/person/night (USD14). The food and beverages were also reasonably priced, the portions value for money. We signed up for the mokoro (traditional dug-out boat) ride for the next day, into the Okavango Delta, at 600 Pula/person (USD92), hoping that the rain wouldn’t fail us - again. It seemed that the gray clouds had been tagging along with us everywhere.

 

 The lodge is located right by the river, you'll have dinner while enjoying a natural orchestra of frogs and crickets....and occasionally the determined mosquitos.    Clean, comfortable, a bargain at 90 Pula / person / night.

The Okavango River Lodge in Maun.

 

A speed boat will take you to the Boro Station (we got a slightly hungover driver but luckily yours truly survived in one piece) where you’ll hire a poler for your mokoro and he’ll also be your guide for the day. On the way to the jetty you’ll enjoy an array of beautiful birds and small wildlife, the largest being the crocodiles. Our poler was a nice chap called Lenkamile. As you enter the delta, there’ll be less birds and wildlife and you’ll be surrounded by nothing else but reeds and water lilies. The best part of all -the sheer peace and quietness encapsulating you as you go – nothing but the soft ‘woosh’ of the pole slicing through the clear waters. About an hour later, we were walking on one of the ‘islands’ – I have to say, toilet paper saved me from the grief I would’ve faced being in the bush with the least vegetation! Girls, take note! It wasn’t a successful walk, we only stumbled upon an old lone elephant and a curious lone antelope checking us out from yonder….well, hippo bubbles too, if you count that in.

 

We later learned that the polers only get a fraction of what’s being charged by tour operators. Not so much of a surprise because due to the location and accessibility, tourists only get a chance to communicate with the operators first before being aware of any possible arrangements directly with the polers. Another advice is when bringing snacks or lunch for the trip, do consider including some for your poler because most of the time it’s not included in the rates charged to you. Lenkamile offered us overnight stays at his village and camping trips the next time we visit; we’re definitely considering it!

 

 Reflections of the clouds in the water makes you forget.

 Crisscrossing through the Delta. The most serene and peaceful environment in Africa I’ve experienced so far. 

 

Getting tanner by the minute!

Rizwan on a game walk in the Delta.

 

Boro hut.

A house at the Boro Village. Quite geniusly constructed from natural resources, and tin cans used to strengthen the structure.

 

We spent the last night at the Okavango having to iron our damp clothes to make sure they’re dry by the next morning.

 

The clothes were as damp the next day.

 

Warning: Dry Fits don’t work in this territory.

 

From Maun we took the bus to Kasane. The only hassle was that we had to transit in Nata and there’s no guarantee that there’d be buses from there up to Kasane. In Nata, we were dropped off at the local gas station and were told to wait for the buses coming from Francistown. The buses stopped alright, except for the fact that they look more like mini(sardine)vans. 

 

We hitch-hiked for the first time.

 

And what a ride it was. The driver was driving at 150km/h on the tarred road and 130km/h on gravel road heavily pot-holed. Lo and behold, the tyre burst AND he was stopped for speeding – nothing a couple of hundred Pulas can’t settle….after an hour of negotiating that is. The highlight of the ride was when we encountered an elephant standing happily in the middle of the road. We were indeed now, trespassers on his land. A magnificent sight nonetheless.

 

We met up with Lucky in Kasane whom we’d be hanging out with for the next few days. We went on a sunset cruise on the flooded Chobe River that evening and saw hippos up close. It became a bit nerve wrecking when we realized they were so many of them everywhere. They’re dangerously sneaky huge blobs of dark gray in the water!

 

Never mess with these guys!

The closest we got to a hippo was when we discovered one chilling out just near our camp.

 

Mom and babies. 

Baby elephants playing with each other while having a quick drink with their mother.

 

The next couple of nights we camped out, under the stars, first at the Chobe Safari Lodge then in Chobe National Park. It was an incredible experience. Every night, we’d just gaze up at the belt of stars, imagining it as a whole galaxy above us until our necks hurt – so brilliant and beyond compare.

 

If you ask me, I prefer the game drives in Chobe better than Pilanesburg in South Africa. In Pilanesburg you cover so much ground but the animals you see are merely tiny specks in the distance. Driving in Chobe is like driving in a zoo - everything’s life size. And lions, we finally saw lions (!) – a whole pride, resting under a tree after probably a healthy meal the evening before.

 

    An adult male giraffe.    Your friendly neighbourhood vultures.

    A buffulo not minding the company.

Some of the animals up close in Chobe.

 

A camp is never complete without a barbeque so a braai was well on its way for dinner in Chobe.

 

 Setting up camp.    Sunset gold from our camp.

Our camp site in Chobe.

 

We said goodbye to Botswana after 2 weeks of adventure and made our way towards the ferry to cross the border to Zambia. It wasn’t a full accomplishment, we missed the Central Kalahari Game Reserve and the Makgadikgadi Pan. Bust next time when we’re back, it’ll be proper 4-wheel drive with roof camp and kitchen – the way they do it here, hard core Safari style.

 

Now if you don’t mind, Mr. Cab Driver, take me to the nearest Sports Toto. In this country, please.

 

The spots on the wings of the dragonflies, like brown velvet.

Dragonfly season. And the end of our journey in Botswana.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A WALK IN THE BUSH

Dqae Qare.

 

Can you say it?

 

After a week working in Gaborone we decided to make the journey to other parts of Botswana, starting with Ghanzi. An 8-hour bus ride from Gaborone to Ghanzi costs just under 130 Pula (USD20), the earliest bus leaves at 6.00 a.m. There were so many donkeys along the bus route, it’s donkey heaven. We didn’t manage to get contacts for Ghanzi so we spent the first night at the Kalahari Arms Hotel, just a 5-minute walk from the bus station. It’s the oldest hotel in Ghanzi but it’s been maintained very well. We finally had the chance to open a bottle of wine for a belated birthday celebration for Rizwan.

 

The next morning, we were picked up by Komstsa from Dqae Qare, the San (Bushmen) community lodge, 20 km out of Ghanzi, where we decided to stay for a couple of days, hopefully to learn about the San community. Dqae Qare is owned by and taken care by the San community. Over the years, the San community has been forcedly displaced from their lands and relocated into different grouped settlements when their lands were taken over by the Bantu people and the whites. With it they were forced to change their way of life. Originally hunter gatherers, they had to adapt to unfamiliar systems like money. They were given cattle as compensation but not the skills or knowledge in managing cattle. The cattle then either escape into the wild or get eaten by lions. Since then so many of their original skills are lost too because nobody practise them anymore and they’re not handed down to the next generation. Their culture is dying slowly. Sadly, the younger generation are also ashamed of their roots and choose life in bigger towns and cities. The last San village was removed by the government from the Central Kalahari Game Reserve (CKGR).

 

Komstsa is from the Dcui tribe and speaks Naro. I had so much difficulty pronouncing the combination of consonants and clicks AND vowels. The tribes come from different locations and speak different languages. What I noticed about the San, or at least the ones I met, is that they have softer face features, their skin a gentle chocolate brown instead of coffee black.

 

Wildebeests, kudus and ostriches roam your front porch freely here. The water is slightly salty but drinkable. Similar to South Africa, you can drink the water straight from the tap in Botswana. The sand has a reddish tinge instead of the normal light brown. It was another win, we were the only ones there, in the bush.

 

On the way to Dqae Qare.

Komstsa (right) accompanied here by Shadreck driving us to Dqae Qare.

 

The view from the side of the lodge.

The establishment is not big but consists of one main accommodation block, a few ‘traditional’ San huts, a camping ground, a kitchen and a rest area where food is normally served. There is also a dance arena and lookout tower. Breakfast and dinner are included in the rates, so it’s a good idea to bring your own supply for lunch.

 

The huts.

There are comfortable beds inside the San huts at the lodge, it is merely an experience but not as real. On the left is the ablution block.

 

   DSC_0347A   DSC_0392A

San art and the full moon at night.

 

We went on a bush walk the morning after. We learned a bit about the plants used by the San to be consumed or to be used to heal ailments. Nowadays, the San still gather nuts and berries, their favourite is the brandybush berries, naturally sweet and used to make traditional alcohol (hence the name). Komstsa also showed us animal tracks on the way to the Tatase pan, where we sat observantly, waiting for the animals to come for a drink.

 

Bush walk.

Komstsa explaining about one of the plants during our bush walk.

  

    San child.

A San child.

 

San ladies. 

The kind ladies at the lodge.

 

Spending time with them has brought greater understanding of their life, history and ongoing struggles. A few times while listening to Komstsa, I thought to myself, “All of this sound familiar. It’s just like home.”: - How lands are taken and destroyed in the name of development, communities uprooted as a result.

The greatest challenge is how to make sure that all is not lost – the culture, the tradition, the history, the language, the skills…., most of all, the pride and dignity of the people of the land – before it’s too late.

 

Actual San hut.

This is a present day hut actually occupied by a San family in Dkar, not far from Dqae Qare.

 

Mission: Read – Tears For My Land by Kuela Kiema

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

THEY CALL HER GABS

A long, long day – Botswana Day 1.

 

Our flight out of the O. R. Thambo International Airport in Johannesburg to Gaborone was delayed for an hour and a half. Everybody at the boarding gate claimed that they didn’t know what was going on and we kept getting the standard “technical difficulties” reply. For half an hour we just waited in the bus, standing, sitting on the floor, circling the bus, doing squats, holding on to the poles for dear life. The engine’s turned off, then on, then off, then on again. When we finally took off, it’s almost 12.30 in the afternoon. The guy from Mokolodi Backpackers Lodge was already waiting for us at the Sir Seretse Khama Airport arrival hall in Gaborone. He’d wait a bit more.

 

We landed without much drama. My passport stamped, I was whisked off and it’s Rizwan’s turn. Then they saw his Emergency Passport. Won’t be much of a story if they let him through. This even when it was made clear at the Embassy in Pretoria that there shouldn’t be a problem getting into Botswana. It was conveniently decided by the immigration officer that he needs to apply for a Visa; after a bit of negotiating it just didn’t look like we have any option. So that took another hour. At which point, it’s too long a wait for the pick-up guy. Fair enough, we agreed to take the cab instead.

 

We’re excited that we can finally put all that behind us and made our way to Gaborone. On the way we had to stop by at the ATM as we didn’t have Pula on us.

 

The ATM machine swallowed the ATM card.

 

The contact number didn’t work, the neighbouring branches were closed and even so, there’s no way to retrieve it until Monday, earliest. Everything else was closing too – including the money exchangers. We had to pay the cab driver in South African Rands. He asked for a bit more. It’s 5 p.m.

 

So we arrived at the Mokolodi Backpackers Lodge, late, beaten, starving. All the bruhaha of the day seemed to have come to an end. FINALLY finally. Or so we thought. So much happening  that day, perhaps it’s the misunderstanding surrounding our arrival, maybe it’s just a bad day for everyone, who knows, but there’s tension in the air. The conversation wasn’t going anywhere after we enquired about the bathroom. They told us that they ‘didn’t want people to be unhappy staying there. It’s a ‘high end backpackers lodge’’. Apparently. Mokolodi was quick to offer another place for us to stay. We understood the message immediately. We didn’t want to make a fuss. If only we knew that toilets’ a sensitive issue….sheesh. Low class backpackers we are, we left and took the cab to the Metcourt Inn. (It’s BWP350/night for a private twin in Mokolodi in case you’re wondering, that’s about USD55/night)

 

P1140878

The accommodation at the Mokolodi Backpackers Lodge, the few minutes we were there waiting for a cab to arrive. Good thing the dog’s friendly.

 

 P1140888

 

P1140884 

At least this cheered us up that evening. A Chinese restaurant just next door!

 

That was last Saturday. Things have turned out great since then, as it always does.

 

Gaborone is so chilled out and relaxed. As a capital city, it’s far from being uber metropolitan; it’s not Pretoria nor Johannesburg. We are far less fearful for our safety – we’re finally walking at night. Botswana does feel like its run by her own people, which is quite refreshing. A sight quite spectacular I came across - people playing pool - on the sidewalk! We were invited to dinner in Tlokweng by the Weeks the other day and get to see a bit of the University. Next thing we knew, we were staying with them.

 

Yup, everything’s looking up from here.

 

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A sundae cone….at Bimbo’s :)

Thursday, April 7, 2011

WEST OF THE CAPE TO GAUTENG ON A BAG OF BILTONG

It was spider season when I came.

 

Now it’s the beginning of autumn. It’s gray. It’s chilly. Unfortunately I’m not built for this weather. Coming from Malaysia (or South East Asia for that matter) where the seasons are defined as either hot, humid, wet, dry, blah, or a combination of any of these all year round, it’s still a new concept for me.

 

This morning I was at the Restorative Justice Centre in Pretoria where Rizwan is running a workshop and me doing the agonizing work of going through 1000+ photos we have between us, each one going through the process of scrutinizing, deleting, editing, reducing, hopefully uploading when the connection’s a lot better. I’m being brutal unless I want to end up with 1000+ photos by the end of this exercise.

 

It all went smoothly until the unfortunate discovery that our rental car got broken into. It didn’t even look like it until we realized that a friend’s GPS device we’re borrowing is missing.  Mild panic ensued, we went back to the office retracing our steps, just in case we dropped it but found nothing. We had to settle with the fact that it is indeed stolen. Here’s where the adventure began as we had quite an interesting time at the police station to report it. For a country that’s notorious for crimes it’s so quiet and chilled at the station. We’d expect to be stuck in a long queue but we were attended to very quickly , even the police woman was graceful enough to agree to a photo. The whole thing took about an hour and we were out of there. Without a GPS, we had to rely on instructions given to us verbally – all the way back to Johannesburg in the evening. We only found out later that the house keys are also missing – very, very bad news – lucky for us, the house number is not stated in the GPS. We’re hoping until now that the thieves won’t bother to look.

 

In South Africa traffic lights are called ROBOTS. Probably one of the coolest things I discovered here. “Drive to the robot.”

 

“And give him a high-five.”

 

And oh my, the food! If you managed to get away from the sandwiches and the pastas and the pizzas and the burgers, which is a norm menu here and get your hands on proper local food, you’ll be dreaming about it thereafter, I promise you. Very fortunately the first home-cooked South African dinner we had was at Sunelle’s in Stellenbosch. The bobotie, pap and malva pudding were just marvellous! We had it with cider – another big thing here. Savanna is what you ask for on a hot sunny day. We always have a bag of biltong with us in the car the first two weeks driving around. The variety to choose from at the Food Lover’s Market is mindboggling! I’m wondering why I don’t have it with me right now.

 

South Africans are proud of their braais, and rightfully so. Thick slabs of meat, boerewors and mielie (maize) will leave you wanting for more. We experienced a few different braais, all set against a different backdrop. First one was at the students’ block, the Academia in Stellenbosch. The second one was at the Thulani Game Lodge -it was humongous braai fest outside but disappointingly polite small portion on a large plate later. But the treatment was the best – a family runs the lodge and the mother even played the piano for us over dinner. The third and most unforgettable one was definitely at Zain’s, these people are serious about their meat!

 

 P1140720A

Zain working on his kettle braai.

 

P1140736

Braai feast!

 

P1140723A 

Chilling out with Mark at their home. It’s a quiet place out of town with a huge compound and I’m hidden amidst the green.

 

But I think the one most worth mentioning is Thembi’s Kitchen in Hammanskraal. The concept is the same as mixed rice or economy rice back home. It’s rice or pap served with side dishes of your choice. Shredded cabbage, carrots, beetroot cubes, mashed pumpkin, beef, chicken, pork, mutton of different styles – simply marvellous!

 

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At Thembi’s Kitchen

 

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Now this is a meal!

 

It’s towards the end of my stay in Johannesburg. This Saturday I continue my journey to Gaborone, the capital of Botswana.

 

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The children in Hammanskraal. They were playing indigenous games at the village, taught by one of the local boys. Villagers say hello to you from their front yards!

 

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With a couple of the girls from the Siyakhula Learning Centre in Johannesburg.

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