Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Cape Town, South Africa

We spent the first full day in Capetown at Robben Island. Located 12km offshore, the island has been used as a place for banishment and isolation for years - most recently it was a maximum security prison for political prisoners under the apartheid government. The island became internationally infamous between 1964 and 1982 when Nelson Mandela served part of his prison term there.

The trip took all day though with planning it can be done in just a few hours. Unfortunately when we arrived all the ferry tickets were sold out for weeks and we had to wait around in hopes of cancellations. Fortunately this gave us time to peruse a collection of posters and signs from various protests in the struggle for independence.

The photo below is a picture of Capetown and the iconic Table Mountain from Robben Island.

Our guide, a former political prisoner at Robben Island, wore sunglasses all the time, having been nearly blinded by too many bright days spent in the lime quarry below. The prison, ironically, served as a place of education for many. Older prisoners taught uneducated prisoners reading, writing and more advanced topics, often in the small, carved shelter in the quarry, pictured below.

The island is quite a contradiction though and its abominable history obscures what is otherwise a beautiful place. Whether its the classic view of Capetown, the picturesque lighthouse or the wildlife (penguins, rabbits, antelope, birds) meandering by, a maximum security prison seems like an injudicious use of such a pleasant place.

The next morning we woke up early to climb Table Mountain, the flat topped mountain in the first photo and Capetown's most iconic landmark. We chose the Platteklip Gorge route (pictured below) as it was the best marked and some other routes can get treacherous.

The route starts at the lower cable car station, roughly 300 meters above sea level and continues to the top, roughly 1,000 meters above sea level. The photo below is Capetown's City Bowl, or main downtown area, as seen from halfway up the Platteklip Gorge route. Robben Island is just barely visible as the dark speck in the water on the left side of the photo. The climb up took nearly two hours but the descent took only four minutes - we took the cable car. Afterwards we headed to the Green Point Market, which is teeming with vendors selling carvings, paintings, jewelry and a variety of other trinkets and picked up a continent's worth of souvenirs in one spot.

The next morning we were up and early again but this time for something less physically demanding, a tasting tour through Cape Town's nearby wine region.

We had a great time exploring four different vineyards but my favorite, by far was Fairview Vineyards. The makers of Goats do Roam (the number one selling African wine in the US) won me over with generous cheese tasting options and, of course, a goat photo opportunity. We spent that evening taking care of chores and having dinner on Long Street.

We took a bus tour of the cape the next morning. Our first stop was Hout Bay, originally a logging town it is now a fishing town and great photo opportunity.

The drive from Hout Bay to the southern peninsula follows Chapmans Peak Drive, one of the most scenic drives in the world. The drive wraps around Chapman's Peak, following the coastline, along sheer cliffs and offers breathtaking views of sandy beaches and rocky shorelines.

The next stop was Boulders Beach, near Simon's Town.

Although Boulder's beach is an aesthetic pleasing town with a great swimming beach, most tourists only stop by to see the colony of African Penguins.

The African Penguins are also known as Jackass Penguins, so called for their donkey like hee-haw call.

Boulder's Beach is probably one of the few places in the world where you can find this road sign.

Our second to last stop was the Cape of Good Hope National Park. Our guide dropped us off near the gate and we bicycled six kilometers in to the visitors center. We saw an antelope and a great deal of apparently very rare shrubbery but the most interesting sighting was a few wild ostriches.

The photo above is of Cape Point, taken from the nearby lighthouse. The Cape is not the most southern point in Africa nor is it the point where the Indian and Atlantic oceans meet, as commonly believed - it is, however, the most South-Western point of the African continent.

The next day we walked around Cape Town, exploring some of the older buildings in particular, the Castle of Good Hope. Originally built in 1666 by the Dutch East India Company, the Castle is the oldest building in Africa.

There are no longer any soldiers in the Castle but it is home to the Castle Military Museum and an excellent collection of antique furniture and paintings. The cannon below is part of that collection - note the A VOC logo denoting the Amsterdam chapter of the Dutch East India Company.

We spent that afternoon indoors, escaping from afternoon rain showers. The sky cleared up shortly before sunset and we decided to explore two of Capetown's western suburbs, Camps Bay and Clifton Beach.

The three sunset photos were all taken in Clifton, although the beach visible in the second photo (below) is Camps Bay.

We mistakenly asked to be dropped off at Clifton, believing it to be the one with more restaurants. Unfortunately we found ourselves among high end housing without a restaurant in site but with some help from friendly locals, we were able to enjoy a great sundowner.

The next morning we were up early and excited to be heading to Durban to meet up with Ellie's friends, Justin and Nathan!

We did a lot in Cape Town but that was only possible because we had help - a lot of it. Thank you, Meri for your seemingly endless supply of street level knowledge about Cape Town and basically planning my week there.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Namibia, on Africa's west coast, is the second least densely populated country in the world. Accordingly, public transportation between many places is slow, infrequent or, often, nonexistent. Also, unlike everywhere else we had been, there is almost no inexpensive indoor lodging. As a result, many budget travelers get between towns in private cars and camp when they arrive.

We spent the final morning in Maun, Botswana frantically calling around car rental agencies in Windhoek, Namibia. With less than 12 hours to go before we were supposed to land in Namibia, it dawned on me that we didn't have a tent and hadn't rented a car. Since it was Easter weekend, many of the car rental agencies did not have a single vehicle available. With 30 minutes to go before the flight, we confirmed a rental for what seemed like the only car available in Windhoek - fortunately it had everything we wanted.

We arrived in Namibia and went through our usual routine for the first hour in a new country:
  1. Deplane
  2. Gather luggage
  3. Clear customs
  4. Estimate daily expenses (in local currency) from guide book
  5. Determine the exchange rate
  6. Complain about the US Dollar (Not applicable in Vietnam, Namibia or South Africa)
  7. Withdraw two to three days worth of money from an ATM
  8. Buy new SIM card and local number for mobile phone
Fortunately the rental agency picked us up from the airport and after signing a pile of contracts and disclaimers we were off, driving through Namibia... sort of. Namibians drive on the left side of the road and the car had a manual transmission - unfortunately I was not used to either of those things. We spent half an hour driving slowly through a neighborhood, practicing stopping, starting and turning before heading slowly to our guest house / campsite. When we arrived the car was undamaged but after stalling a few times, my ego was not. Thank you, Val, for teaching me how to drive manual in one afternoon.

The next morning we woke up early, checked out and drove to a grocery store. Driving in traffic turned out to be another adventure and one that required a great deal of teamwork at first. We stocked up our car refrigerator with enough food for the next three days and headed off to Sossusvlei.

We drove for about six hours along wide open, straight, well kept, gravel roads passing only a handful of cars, even fewer homes and only two towns.

We had read about an inexpensive campsite in Sesriem, the town near the Sossusvlei dunes, and decided to check it out even though we were unable to reach anyone by phone. Unfortunately when we got there we learned that the camp had changed owners and a campsite would cost US$100 for the evening - having more time than money, we decided to look for another option. The next closest campground was 70 kilometers back from where we had come but at $10 per night it was a far better option.

The trip was not wasted though, because along the way we saw ostriches, meerkats, and our first springbok. We arrived just in time to catch a spectacular sunset that faded into a lingering golden glow on the horizon.

We woke up early the next morning to avoid the midday heat and hopefully see some early morning shadows on the sand dunes at Sossusvlei. Along the hour drive back to Sesriem, we enjoyed watching sunrise over the desert while the moon was still up.

Since Sossusvlei is approximately in the middle of nowhere, the park gates are located 63 kilometers away in the nearest town, Sesriem. (most westerners would confuse the "town" of Sesriem with a gas station next to a campground) Along the way we stopped at every sand dune as they got progressively larger.

Sossusvlei is not actually a sand dune, which is what the park is famous for, but is a dried clay pan among sand dunes. Although Sossusvlei is the best known pan, nearby Dead Vlei is more impressive. The brilliant white clay is surrounded by impossibly red dunes rising nearly one thousand feet out of the pan.

Ellie and I climbed up one of the smaller side dunes and took in the large dune next to Dead Vlei (pictured above). At this point we were already a few hundred feet above the pan and I stubbornly insisted on climbing the big dune.

Pictured above: the final leg along the top ridge

The sun-scarred, black remains of a 900 year old forest punctuate the white pan.

There is a surprising amount of living shrubbery for the middle of the desert, although most of the trees are dried up skeletons.

We quickly burned through the 2 liters of water we brought and were relieved to chug cold water back at the car. The last kilometer walk through the desert was particularly painful as scorching sand poured through the holes in my Crocs. After lunch we were feeling refreshed and decided to drive on to Swakopmund rather than staying near Sesriem again.

The first two hours of the drive were backtracking through the same hills as the day before until we reached a town called Solitaire. The town has a gas station, a hotel and a campground, which by my estimates makes it about 50% larger than Sesriem. The next hour and a half of the drive was flat plains with intermittent wild grasses, rocky outcroppings and sharp drop offs into deep canyons. Unfortunately the only interesting thing we saw for the three hours after that was a sign for the Tropic of Capricorn, the line marking the furthest point south where the sun is directly overhead at noon. As you can see from the photo below, the remaining drive to the ocean was flat and almost entirely unremarkable. We reached the Atlantic ocean at Walvis Bay after dark and drove north to Swakopmund along the coast for the last half hour. Although we couldn't see anything, the cool salty breeze was a refreshing change from the dry desert air.

We got in late and set up our car tent as quietly as possible before falling fast asleep. Swakopmund is a large town (by Namibian standards) on the Atlantic coast with a thriving adventure sports industry. The next morning we woke up early to go sandboarding.

Sandboarding was fun but difficult, I wound up with a face full of sand on many occasions. Apparently sandboarding is an easy transition from snowboarding, although its not at all similar to skiing.

At the end of the day we got to try sand tobogganing. This alternative to sandboarding was far easier and fun but somewhat less rewarding. The camera man, who was also holding a radar gun, clocked me going 68 kmh (42mph).

The next morning was one of the rare occasions when Ellie and I split up. She went on a boat tour to see seals, but I wanted to go quadbiking in the desert.

I spent the morning driving straight up and down the dunes and feeling like the bike was about to flip over the whole time. The experience was certainly less educational than Ellie's but much more adrenalin filled.

Afterwards, Ellie and I met up with Jesse, Van, and Ryan, three Americans we'd met sandboarding, and drove back to Windhoek. We were very happy to have a break from each other and the three CDs we'd managed to borrow from the rental agency.

We spent our last full day in Namibia exploring the capital, Windhoek. Most of the historic buildings look German, like the church below, or Portuguese, like many of the buildings in Macao, China and Goa, India. The German influence makes sense as Namibia was once a German colony although the Portuguese influence is somewhat confusing as it must have been imported from nearby Angola.

That evening we had dinner with our American friends at Joes Beer House, a local restaurant known for its wild game menu. Ellie and I managed to sample many of the animals we'd recently seen on safari, including ostrich, crocodile, zebra, kudu, oryx (eland), and springbok. My favorite of those was zebra, which tastes like a meaty venison.

Finally, I thought I should share two of my favorite signs from Namibia. The first is self explanatory.

The second is an advertisement for a "Sheep of the Week" contest that we spotted in a BP gas station outside Windhoek. Sadly, I lost.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Zambia and Botswana

I caught my first sight of Victoria Falls from the air. In the rainy season, so much water passes over the falls that it creates a vertical plume of mist visible from miles away. We checked into our hotel in Livingstone, Zambia and ran for the showers - no one looks or smells good after 50 hours of travel and we were no exception. After settling in and cleaning up, we had a nice dinner at the guest house and made some friends.

The following morning, we went to Victoria Falls with Richard and Courtney. Following some advice from a roommate, I wore only a t-shirt and bathing suit, this was the best decision I made all day. Richard brought a backpack with a copy of the Lonely Planet and his passport - he had to wring both out later. That evening we decided to venture out for dinner with some friends. I had a chicken and bacon sandwich and celebrated my escape from the involuntary vegetarianism that defines much of India.

Victoria Falls is part of the Zambezi river that forms the southern border of Zambia with Zimbabwe. From close up, the water coming off the falls is so dense that only small portions of the falls are visible at any one time. The falls are more than a mile long and 306 feet tall but it is not the largest waterfall by either of these measures. What is most impressive about Victoria Falls is that the one mile width is entirely unbroken, making it the longest falling curtain of water in the world. During the rainy season, that falling curtain of water expands out from the falls and begins to cover the viewing areas. Even the most well covered visitors end up drenched but that is an essential part of the visit.

The following day Ellie went canoeing down the Zambezi and I took the opportunity to update my blog and get a little reading done. Livingstone is home to a thriving adventure sports industry and visitors can do seemingly anything from walking safaris to micro-light flights. While Ellie was canoeing, I was waiting for my adventure the next day. That evening, we had dinner with Katy and Justin at a Chinese restaurant down the street from our guest house.

The next day (March 10th, I walked half way across the bridge between Zambia and Zimbabwe

And stood on the ledge, looking at the water 111 meters below then...

Jumped off!

I also tried the gorge swing, check out the video here:

That evening Ellie was feeling sick so she stayed in while I went on a sunset cruise up the Zambezi.
I saw a few crocodiles and, for the first time in the wild, some hippopotamuses.

The morning of the 11th, we woke up and had to run some errands before meeting up with our safari group. After some frantic running around town, we took a cab to the airport where we met one of our guides, Victor, and another guest, Simon. From there we headed back to Victoria Falls, this time with a camera, and took pictures.

That evening, we drove to a camp on the Zambezi where we had tea as the sun was setting and, after dinner, fell asleep quickly.

The next morning we drove to the border where we met up with our other guide, Andy, and four Norwegian guests, Gro, Willy, Anna, and Erling. On the shore, we were standing in Zambia but about halfway across the Zambezi river, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Botswana, and Namibia meet at one point. We hopped on a small boat and quickly crossed into Botswana, bypassing the three day line of people, cars and trucks waiting for the official ferry (pictured below).

Once we cleared customs, we drove to Kasane and hopped on a boat for a tour around Chobe National Park. Our first animal sighting was a herd of impalas.

Next, we saw kudus (pictured below), followed by a family of elephants bathing, hippopotamuses and more baboons than I can count.

After the boat ride, we drove to Kasane airport and met up with a bush pilot. Since there aren't many improved roads in northern Botswana, traveling by car takes a lot of time. Fortunately there are many little runways around the country so traveling by plane is quick and easy. The flight to Kingspool took less than an hour, but covering that distance in a car would have taken more than 12 hours. A group of warthogs scampered off the runway as we were landing.

We unloaded our bags from the plane and onto our safari truck then took off on a game drive. We saw more kudus, elephants, and for the first time, a giraffe!

After the drive we settled into our camp at Linyanti, a private park next to Chobe, that would be home for the next three days. Ellie and I shared a dome tent with cots that was surprisingly nicer than much of our lodging in India. We ate dinner in the common area, a larger tent with removable sides, a big table and lantern. Although there was no running water, we had warm showers from a hanging bucket with a shower head on the bottom and somehow the staff had rigged up a flush toilet. Although the camp was temporary and collapsible, it had all the amenities and comforts of home.

The next morning we woke up, bleary eyed but excited, before dawn for our first full day game drive. After following lion tracks all morning, we finally found a group of three males sitting under a tree. There were kudus, giraffes, elephants and a whole host of other animals, but the most exciting sighting were the lions. We tried to find them again after lunch but they had moved. We drove away, slightly upset but were surprised to find them laying nearby in the middle of the road. When you're a lion, I guess you can sleep anywhere you want.

After driving around more, we stopped for cocktails at sunset.

On the ride home, we spotted another group of lions sitting on a termite mound. The two lions on the right are older females while the one on the left is a young male.

The morning of the 14th, we left our camp and private game park for a day in Chobe National Park.
Pictured below: lifting an elephant bone at the entrance to Chobe NP

We set out looking for wild dogs but didn't see any that day, or for the rest of the trip. Still the day was a great success since we saw a few zebra herds and gnu or wildebeest.

The highlight of the day was stopping for lunch at a watering hole and being surrounded by wildebeests and impalas.

The safari trucks generally have an open back with seats for the guests. On most days, the open sides were great and let in a refreshing breeze but that day was different. As we drove back through thick brush, branches bent against the truck and unwound, swinging violently through the cabin. We spent most of the three hour ride back dodging branches and leaning inwards.

We were up and driving again early the next morning but all the animals seemed to be hiding. We saw impalas and kudus but nothing that could compare with the zebras and lions from the day before. As usual, we stopped for tea halfway through the morning drive.

A brief stop saved the morning right as we finished the first drive. A herd of more than 50 elephants had taken over a pond and blocked the road back home.

The evening drive was unfortunately less exciting but we did manage to spot a leopard turtle.

Next morning, the 16th, we woke up and took a long drive where we saw ostriches and had a nice lunch by a river. Later that day we flew to Vumbara field where we were supposed to drive for a few hours to our next camp, Lechwee.

There was much excitement as we landed since a guide had recently spotted a leopard nearby. After searching fruitlessly for 20 minutes, we were about to give up when our truck broke down. We waited around for a few hours trying to fix the car and eventually had to call for a mechanic. Then the rain began. By the time the car was working again, we were all a bit damp and our spirits were low. Fortunately, as we were leaving, we spotted the leopard from earlier. Since the sun was nearly down at this point, we couldn't make the drive to our next camp and had to stop at the safari operator's closest available camp. That camp happened to have private, permanent rooms with plunge pools and a professional chef. That evening, our group jokingly discussed ways to ensure that our car would break down again the next day.

The next morning, March 17th, we woke up early to drive to Lechwee and get stuck a few times along the way. Once we got into camp, ate and cleaned up, we went canoeing. Aside from a few small frogs, we didn't see much but I was quite happy that the crocodiles and hippopotamuses were somewhere else.

The 18th was Simon's birthday and accordingly we all sang for him at breakfast. To stay on schedule we needed to get back to Vumbara air field that afternoon. Andy, and the rest of our group, was convinced this would be nearly impossible because the roads were so poor and he arranged for alternative transportation.

We took the helicopter to the Vumbara airstrip and waited there for a plane that would take us to Xigera, in the Okavango Delta. The plane was only on the ground for a few minutes since a major thunderstorm was was about to strike but we made it to Xigera with no problems. After landing, we still needed to get to our camp, a small island in the delta.

Since we couldn't walk or drive, we took a mokoro, a traditional canoe made from a dug out tree. Our mokoros were the slightly more modern, fiberglass version. We enjoyed a two hour mokoro ride from the air strip to camp through water lillys and reeds.

We finally got to camp in the late afternoon and a long, steady rain begain shortly thereafter. We spent that evening huddled in tents, chatting with Simon and the Norweigans.

The next morning Vic and Andy walked around the island with us, explaining the traditional uses for a variety of plants and berries. Although we saw leopard and elephant tracks the only notable sightings were impalas and giraffes. Later that day Andy gave a presentation on the Okavango delta and the vast Kalahari sands. The most interesting fact he mentioned was that 95% of all islands in the delta started as termite mounds. Later that evening we took another mokoro ride and everyone got to try their hand at steering a mokoro. I spent a few minutes prodding around with the stick and not moving the boat much at all before finally figuring out how to move myself around in circles. Steering those canoes with the grace and ease the mokoroers have is quite a skill. We stopped off at an island for our last sunset cocktails and found a pair of old elephant tusks.

Along the way, we saw a few frogs and snakes and fortunately no crocodiles!

That evening was our last but certainly not the least exciting. When we returned from the mokoro trip, our guide stopped the boat a few meters away to point out an elephant walking around the campsite. Unfortunately our Norweigan friend's tent was directly under a fruit tree and the elephant was quite keen on eating. Ellie and I returned to our tent to freshen up but Erling and Gro could not because the elephant was still busy eating outside their tent. Eventually the elephant left, but not before overturning and collapsing their tent.

The next, and final, morning at breakfast Erling and Gro looked a bit groggy. Apparently the elephant had returned for a midnight snack and woke them up as it was picking fruit. The elephant was not satisfied to just eat and became curious about the tent. Fortunately the tent stayed upright this time, but the elephant did stick its trunk inside while Erling and Gro were still there.

We took one final mokoro ride back to the airstrip and flew from there to Maun, Botswana. After a round of hugs, Simon went off to another safari, Willy, Anna, Erling and Gro headed back to Norway and Ellie and I tried to find a hotel.