A fleeting visit to the Okavango Delta

We always knew that as we got closer to South Africa, we’d probably get a bad case of ‘berg pony’. This phenomenon, to which we were first introduced by our very good friend Arthur (who has helped us with this website – thanks Arth!), basically describes that onwards and upwards feeling that you get when you’re almost home, but not quite. The name derives from those little ponies which one is so often issued with in the Drakensberg (a wonderful area of really rather large mountains in South Africa). They never like to leave home and go on the mountain treks for which they’re hired out, but are always keen as anything to get back, so tend to speed up as they get closer to home – sometimes losing a rider or two in the process!

Anyway, we were conscious of this when we sat down to revisit our schedule and make plans to enter our penultimate Okavango Delta from the aircountry: Botswana. We knew that we were a bit ahead of schedule, and so could spare a couple of days extra time here. Our key site of interest was, not surprisingly, the Okavango delta. The world’s largest inland delta, it covers a huge area – some 6000 square miles. It is one of those places that you see featured in BBC nature documentaries or National Geographic films and think to yourself ‘I must go there one day’. So, we did.

The ride there was all on tarmac, which meant we completed it at speed, except for the part where we rode through a terrific thunderstorm. The raindrops were so huge, and hit with such force, that I wondered if it was hailing. Fortunately, we could see it coming a mile off, so had managed to jump off the bikes and don our boil-in-the-bag rain suits. We rode through, arriving in Maun, the main town just south of the delta from which most safaris and related activities in the swamps are launched. As with the Tanzaninan town of Arusha, Maun felt very much like a launchpad – a place through experience-seeking tourists expectantly pass on their way to a vast African wilderness, little noticing the vast infrastructure and teams of people who exist there permanently in order to make their dream a fleeting reality.

Our chosen accommodation, Audi camp, was a few clicks on the other side of town. We seemed to be the only people there when we Sunset over Audi Camp, Botswanaarrived, but it soon filled up with families on holiday from neighbouring South Africa. We staked our claim to a sandy patch of ground, and began investigating how we might get a dose of the Okavango delta. After much consideration of the rather hefty prices, and having then been told that the camp itself couldn’t organise anything with their concessionary area so late in the day anyway, we decided to try and organise our own Mokoro ride in the morning. Mokoros are traditional dugout canoes, and are a good way to visit the delta.

The following morning we donned our biking gear and headed north for the gate of the nearby Moremi Game Reserve where we’d been told we’d probably be able to organise a Mokoro. I’m not sure who gave us this advice, but it meant we took a 3 hour ride on sandy roads (and by now you know how I feel about these) past skittish giraffe, zebra and brown kites, only to discover that (a) there was no way we could get into the park, (b) there was no way we could organise a Mokoro ride from there and (c) there was no way we could even use the toilets, as there was ‘no water’ – this in a place that floods every year! I was not best pleased, but we made the best of a bad situation by taking some nice off-roading pictures of ourselves, something we’d neglected to do most of the way ‘cos we’d been concentrating too hard on our riding! I can’t complain too much about the road, as it did actually have a good base, so despite the sand the riding was not too difficult and we returned to base a bit deflated from our abortive mission but equally pleased to have the chance for a swim and a cool down before deciding on our next plan of action.

Quietly, and without consultation, I decided to investigate scenic flights over the delta instead. This, I figured, would probably be more expensive, but it would mean that we could see it from the air – something we’d been told was just wonderful, and worth the expenditure. It would also mean you weren’t mosquito food either! So, while Glyn tinkered with the bikes (removing another nail, again without bursting the inner tube), I toddled off to see if I could get some info on the internet about flights. Two hours later, and we’d not only booked a flight for the next morning, but we’d managed to share the costs with a new arrival in camp – Brian, from San Fransisco. A backpacker, travelling north, Brian was keen as we were to see the delta; and because the flight I’d found was in a 3 seater it all worked out just brilliantly.

Flight with Brian over the OkavangoNext morning we were up early to pack everything away and get to the airport by 7:30, which was half an hour before our departure. However, as the clock ticked its way past 7:30, then 7:45 and then 8:00 we realised that there was a problem. Sure enough, our pilot hadn’t been informed of his new plans! However, as Brian said, this is Africa, so we weren’t too worried, and within 10 minutes another of the pilots had organised things so that he could take us up for the hour-long flight. I’ve never been in such a small plane. Glyn compared it to riding in a VW beetle, which is a very apt description indeed. We took off from Maun’s airstrip, and were soon coasting above the many islands, lagoons and sandy channels that make up the delta. I was, I will admit, expecting to see more water than we did; but I shouldn’t have done, as it wasn’t the rainy season yet (that’s around April time). However, it was just splendid to get a bird’s eye view of the swamps. Indeed, once or twice I found myself looking down on the back of a kite or an eagle, which was a very peculiar sensation. We saw quite a bit from the air too, including giraffe, zebra, buffalo and some elephant herds, including babies.

Okavango Delta (3)We both commented on how surprised we were to see quite so many palm trees below us. It was really rather odd, having ridden through areas of thick thorn trees to get here, to now see lush vegetation flourishing beneath us. As we touched down, I felt that warm glow that you get from enjoying an experience and being glad you’ve had it. I am incredibly pleased to now have a mental image or two of the delta and what it looks like.

The Caprivi Strip and puncture repair time

Having finished our visit to Zambia, we said our farewells to the two overlanding families we’d met in Livingstone, with whom we’d spent a lovely time playing the traditional Malawian game bao and chatting about our all our travels. They’d advised us about the Zambian immigration and customs offices, which are not on the same stretch of as the Namibian ones – you have to continue straight to them, without turning towards Namibia. This was useful information, as we would definitely just have followed the signs to our next country of entry and would have had to do a u-turn back, which is not my favourite activity! Having completed the formalities in both countries, we were instructed by Namibia’s veterinary services that they needed to search our bikes as part of their foot and mouth prevention programme, as well as ask us to step in a solution with our boots on, and have our bikes’ wheels sprayed. We had no objection to the latter, but emptying all our panniers in the baking African sun was not our idea of fun. Having explained that we had no meat or milk with us, they let us go thank goodness. It was only later that we realised we actually did have a bit of both on us – some biltong (dried meat) in a tank bag and a closed box of UHT milk in our ‘kitchen’ pannier; neither of which we’d actually have minded forfeiting if it had come to that.

We stopped briefly in Katima Mulilo, the Namibian border town, to draw money at an ATM, and then entered the Caprivi Strip which, as wikipedia will tell you, is named after German Chancellor Leo von Caprivi. This strange strip of land which juts out from Namibia into Angola, Zambia and Botswana was exchanged in a deal with the UK whereby Germany gave up its interests in Zanzibar and the North Sea island of Heligoland in return for this land with gave them access to the Zambezi River and a route to Germany’s colony of Tanganyika (now Tanzania) on Africa’s East coast. The long, straight road through this region was bordered by tall wispy grasses and green thron trees – not the environment that first comes to mind when you think of Namibia. But it is incredibly hot, as one might imagine. So much so that, as you ride along, the road ahead of you appears to melt in a shimmering haze, doing away with the horizon and making it seem as if you’re about to launch yourself into the sky. There was little difference to detect between how locals live here and what we saw in Zambia, except that a few enterprising youths had put out small stalls of wooden elephants along the roadside in hopes of getting a sale.

We arrived at our next stop, known as Ngepi Camp, mid-afternoon. Sweat was pouring down our bodies. The road in was Glyn riding the sandy road of Ngepi Camp in Namibiaa dirt track and, inevitably, had a sandy patch which threw me off kilter. I ditched my bike for the umpteenth time, ploughing my helmeted head into the sand. Unfortunately, my left shoulder followed suit, and must have collided with the bottom rim of my helmet as it sustained a very nasty bruising. I got it upright again, with Glyn’s able assistance, and finished the ride in, quivering like a leaf with the adrenaline and asking my self how on earth I’d managed three days of this in the Sudan. I think it probably must have helped that one gets into a rhythm when off-roading, and one starts to relax a bit and get used to the bike’s movements on various surfaces; but after miles and miles of tarmac I was really out of practice!

The Okavango RiverThe camp was definitely worth the trouble though. We chose campsite number 3 on the Okavango River, and settled in very quickly, enjoying sundowners on the sundeck and admiring the ‘swimming pool’, which is more like a floating cage located in the river itself. I’m not sure how much protection it offers against little critters, but at least it affords some protection from the river’s numerous crocs and hippos. Someone who had a hand in setting up the camp has a very good sense of humour, as it’s packed full of funny signs like: ‘Please be careful with personal property – please tell reception immediatley if you lose your sense of humour’, ‘Crocs and hippos in river. Swim at own risk’ and ‘If the water in the shower runs out, please DO NOT panic. There’s plenty more in the river. The loos at Ngepi Camp are all done in amazing style!Call reception, and we’ll start the pump or bring you a bucket’. They’d also done the ablutions in the most outrageously funny setups, including a his and hers in which his was just a concrete floor and hers was done up to the nines, complete with pink loo seat cover. My favourite was another ablution block which was variously signposted ‘The Throne’ for men and ‘Royal Flush’ for women, with the facilities done up in suitably appropriate decor. I didn’t take many photos, but have good ones on someone else’s website. Click here to see more.

Our stay here was lovely and relaxing. We spent our time watching hippos float downstream, caught up on some of the journal writing that we’d been neglecting for a few days and generally lay about, enjoying the comfort of the very colourful bean bags in their lounge area as we did so. Most of the time it was threatening rain, but not actually delivering any. Gusts of wind and dark clouds, sometimes even with lightening, would convince us that it was about to pour down, only to melt away again and bring out the sunshine. In the afternoon of the second day we felt able to cope with doing a quick checkup on the bikes, which were now in need of constant monitoring as Glyn’s radiator was leaking a bit. Lucky job we did give them a once over, as we found two nails, one in each of our rear tyres.

Glyn’s came out without any problems, as it was in one of the large tyre nobbles. But mine, sadly, made that horrible Glyn fixing Cathy’s puncutured tyrehissing noise, making us both sigh. Shaking his head, and wishing he’d not been boasting just a few days before that we’d not had any punctures, Glyn set to work sorting it out. Two hours later, and we’d replaced the inner tube with a spare one, repaired the punctured one as a backup, and refitted the tyre to the bike. Luckily, our friends Heidi and Craig, from Livingstone, arrived that afternoon and we were able to borrow there electric tyre pump. However, we were now both a little edgy about the dirt road, lined with thorn trees, that we’d have to ride on to get back to the main road. We had been very fortunate to have and repair our puncture in a place that had cold cokes on tap and shade everywhere – we didn’t want to repeat the experience on a hot, sunny and dusty road! Fortunatley for us, we managed our exit without any further bike ditchings or punctures, and after two days were on our way again, this time headed for Botswana and the Okavango delta.

Zambian officialdom and a stunning visit to Vic Falls

We left Malawi on a Sunday, and were wondering if this would impact on our ability to cross the border in any way. We’d had one official at the Kenyan–Tanzanian border tell us that because it was a Sunday when we did that crossing we would have to pay overtime. I was very skeptical indeed about this, suspecting him of issuing a thinly veiled request for extra income; but after asking around a bit we figured it was probably genuine, so handed over the cash. Not so at the Zambian border. No. Here it was open corruption with a capital ‘C’. They have a very weird system here, which stems I gather from the country only being open to tourists for 13 years or so.

Anyone entering Zambia on passports other than those from SADC (the surrounding southern African countries) is required  either to pay for a visa or, if they have organised accommodation in the country, they can obtain what is known as a visa waiver. This is basically an application by the establishment at which you are staying to the relevant border which states that you have booked to stay with them and are therefore entitled not to have to pay the visa costs. Why they have this system, I don’t know; but for those of us who don’t know exactly when we’re entering a country, and can’t organise anywhere to apply for such a waiver in time, it leaves the door well and truly open to exploitation.

This is how it happened: I explained to the official that we didn’t have a waiver, and half-heartedly tried to get her to recognise our SA passports, though I didn’t think this would work. It didn’t. She said we would need to pay the full US$60 per person. As we only had hundred dollar bills on us, I asked (as we are now in the habit of doing) if she had change. A very odd look crossed her face. She said no, that was a problem, and what did I have on me. I said I’d be paying with dollar bills, and showed her the two that I had. The next thing I knew, she’d whipped one of them away from me, slipped it in her back pocket, and said ‘Ok, here we go. I’ve stamped your passport with a visa waiver for 14 days. That’s enough, Anti-corruption rhetoric in Zambiahey?’ What could I do? In hindsight I’ve thought I should have asked for a receipt, although I am guessing that she could have produced one, having demanded the extra 20 dollars, and even then I’m not convinced that the money would have made it into government coffers. What made me laugh was that there was a bumper sticker on her cubicle window which proclaimed zero tolerance of corruption. The word corruption had actually been ripped off the sticker. Such must have been the discomfort of her position. A few miles down the road we came across a billboard declaring similar commitment to stamping out corruption. Such is the gaping chasm between ideals and reality!

Glyn in microlight over Vic FallsSpeaking of chasms, we visited Victoria Falls yesterday. What an amazing experience! We decided, on the recommendation of our good friend Sam from Lalibela, to take a microlight flight over the falls. He’d said it was definitely worth doing, and as most of his other recommendations have turned out to be fabulous, we decided to treat ourselves to early birthday and Christmas presents. I was very much looking forward to visiting the falls, as this is where my parents got engaged. Their association with intrepid explorers into the African hinterland has also meant that they have always held something of a fascination for me. So it was just awe-inspiring to finally see them in all their splendour, from the air. As we took off from the airfield one could see the white ‘smoke’ that gives the place its native name, Mosi-o-Tunya, which literally means ‘the smoke that thunders.’ Gaining height, with the land falling away below you, the scale of the Zambezi River and its carving away of the landscape become clear. Beyond the current falls are seven zigzags of gorges, each of which were once where the falls were located. I hadn’t appreciated just how clearly visible this would be from the sky – you certainly don’t pick them up from any of the many pictures taken of the falls, which all focus on the wall of water and its associated mist and rainbows. Today we revisited the falls, but this time on foot. It’s been incredibly wet here, so we tried to go when it wasn’t pouring with rain, which it is again now (and so our bikes, including Glyn’s manky sheepskin, are getting completely soaked!). It was lovely to see them from the ground too – a different and unique experience. And one I’ll never forget.