29th August – Livingstone

I’m sure I’ve said before but health and safety isn’t a huge priority in Africa. This morning this is very apparent as a group of us experience Devil’s Pool at the Victoria Falls. We are taken to the Livingstone Resort, a very expensive and beautiful hotel right on the Zambezi River at the top of the falls. A small boat takes us even closer to the falls where we disembark and are greeted with a banana maize cocktail before a short walk to the top of the falls. There are no fences stopping us from falling over the edge and our guide encourages us to take a look over the edge and take photographs. We are soon stripping off into our bathers and swimming across the Zambezi in a current that, 12 feet away, spews over the edge. It is hair-raising, but nothing compared to yesterday’s rafting. We are soon perched on the rocks, shivering in the cold, watching as tourists swim out to the very edge of the falls where a natural pool has been created over the years. A wall about 2 foot wide is all that stops anyone from falling over the edge down the 110 metre drop. Soon enough it is our turn and one by one we swim out to the edge and sit in a line precariously balanced on the wall. It is too ridiculous to comprehend, as we watch another guide taking photographs of us all shivering, with looks of terror and disbelief on our faces. I feel much happier once I am out.

Breakfast is then served under a canopy at the top of the falls. We munch on eggs benedict and home baked scones, drink coffee and chat about what we have just experienced.

Back at camp it is time to say a sad farewell to 4 more camp mates. My tent mate Freddy is leaving, along with Luke, Alex and Beatrice. I’m going to miss these four, it has been so much fun getting to know them.

I wash all of my laundry and hang it out on the elephant fence to dry. Then meet my new tent mate Meacer from Romania. Luckily Dewett gave me the heads up about my new arrival and I cleaned up the tent.

Sandra and I have a lazy afternoon eating lunch at the camp’s bar before we head out with most of our remaining camp mates, and our new edition Rebecca from Germany, on a sunset cruise. We spot hippos and crocodiles and make the most of the free bar – drinking Zambia’s favourite beer Mosi.

We eat together after the cruise at the camp’s restaurant – David enjoyed the free bar a little too much and ends up jumping into the restaurant’s pool, twice – soaking some nearby diners. I get to know Meacer over a final beer then we all head to bed.

28th August – Livingstone

Today we ride the rapids. The Zambezi river in Zambia is the second best white water rafting location in the world so it seems a shame not to experience it.

We have breakfast and then head to a health and safety briefing at our campsite. We’re fitted with helmets and life jackets and warned about the dangers of the waters, then sign a disclaimer to say we understand the risks involved. Boyd, our guide, introduces himself and we all remain pretty confident and jovial on route to the Zambezi river near the Victoria falls.

Walking down the rocky pathway into the gorge David and I stop for a last minute nervous bushy bushy before arriving at the waters edge, it is like organised chaos. Eventually we notice Boyd bobbing about on the giant yellow dinghy that will be our vessel for the full days rafting. The gorge is beautiful, steep rocky sides tower above us and the water is surging. We spend a short while in “the boiling pot”, a huge swirling pond that keeps us away from the rapids giving Boyd a chance to run through instructions on how to row the boat. He shouts things like “team row forward”, “right over left” and, “down and hold”. Suddenly everything becomes very real.

The first rapids we encounter is a class 3. Let me put this in perspective; Rapids are classed according to their difficulty, 1 being the lowest. The Zambezi has one class 6 and it is considered too dangerous for us to attempt. So being faced with a class 3 rapid on our first encounter is terrifying. We follow Boyd’s instructions as he shouts them from the back of the raft and we row with our oars as fast as we can. Thankfully we pass without too much difficulty but we are soaked in the waves and Rebecca falls out, other rafts aren’t nearly as lucky and their entire dinghy upturns and several unfortunates find themselves in the water.

Today we will ride 25 separate rapids, some split into smaller sections, and most have names like stairway to heaven, the cliff, the overland truck eater and the 3 ugly sisters. We enjoy the first few and really get into the spirit of things, shouting and whooping when we clear a rapid, bringing our oars together high in the air in celebration, even copying Boyd’s favourite expression “ooh-haw!”, this is brilliant and we are brilliant at it.

Things then change.

We approach a rapid named Midnight Diner, another class 5. Boyd tells us that the route we are going to take gives us a 95% chance of a raft flip. We laugh and go for it paddling hard into the current, we ride the wave steeply downwards then come up high on the crest of a wave before the entire raft flips sideways then upside down and we are all pushed hard and fast under the water, basically the beginnings of drowning set in as I try not to panic, as per instructions, “If you do find yourself out of the raft and under the water please remain calm, the Zambezi is up to 100 metres deep in parts so you shouldn’t hit any rocks”! Trying to remain calm while trying to find which way is up in a churning rapid is not as easy as you may think. I finally pop up from the depths, along with my fellow sailors, Lisa looks at me with a “please help me” expression but I too am helpless. As I try to catch a breath I’m engulfed in another wave, then another, then another. Just when I think my time has come and this is where I’ll die the water calms, my head is above the surface and I can breath again. Coughing and spluttering out what feels like pints of the Zambezi I make my way to a raft, not mine, and some saviour offers me their oar to grab hold of before they haul me out.

Relief and exhilaration erupt in equal amounts. Boyd and my raft catch up and collect me and my team from various different places on the river. Kayaks are dotted all around to help rogue rafters, or missing oars.

We take it easy for the next few rapids as we try to pull ourselves together. Boyd steers us to the waters edge and encourages us to climb high up onto the cliff and take the plunge into the Zambezi – this is so much fun. We also get to a section of the river that allows us all to jump out of the dinghy and float down trying to avoid the current that tries to pull us into the rocks. Before long our flip is a distant memory and we’re all happily back in our positions paddling hard into another class 5 named the Washing Machine. Boyd shouts instructions “keep right and don’t stop paddling”, unfortunately some of our crew (naming no names) are tired. We head straight into the centre of the rapid – without time to even think we disappear and get sucked down. I feel myself cartwheeling under the water like a rag doll in a washing machine! I quickly find myself with my head above the water trying to come to terms with what has just happened. A nearby boat is calling for me to swim to them with panicked looks on their faces as they look down the river, I quickly realise we are heading into another rapid. I get pulled out just in time.

We are all a little freaked out and ready to call it a day with 12 Rapids still to go. Boyd has a word with us all about rowing hard when he shouts and we manage to complete the course with no more flips. Danielle looks petrified throughout and David is devastated that we’re no longer going for the flips!

Riding up in the cable car (that we sign another disclaimer to ride) I feel like we are survivors of some horrific ordeal. I absolutely loved white water rafting – not sure I’d rush to do it again soon!

We dine out tonight Indian style, eating delicious food and enjoying each other’s company. Tomorrow we say goodbye to 4 more of our campers.

I fall asleep with the sound of an elephant ripping apart a tree just the other side of the camp’s electric fence – literally 20 feet away. This is definitely Africa.

27th August – Kasane/Zambia border/Livingstone

This morning I opt out of the opt in game drive in favour of relaxing at the camp, Freddy has assured me that if they see a leopard he will look the other way! So I sleep and enjoy my relaxing morning, packing up my stuff and packing down my tent. I have a leisurely cup of coffee with the others who have also opted out, take a shower and then help Dewett prepare breakfast. It’s like aj’s outdoors!

The game drive folk eventually return and I secretly punch the air when they admit that they didn’t see a leopard! Jo the shirt man visits to take orders for our tour shirts which we can design – the Uganda campers – Lisa, Lee-Ann, Aaron, Danielle and I – are the only ones doing the entire tour so design our shirt together.

Once camp is packed up we hit the road bound for Livingstone. In order to leave Botswana we must first visit immigration and get our passports stamped, then cross the Zambezi river on a ferry. We saw yesterday a ridiculously long queue of trucks waiting to make the crossing, luckily as we are a tourist vehicle we get priority and drive straight to the front of the queue. Alfie tells us that by paying the express fee (which we think is just a posh name for a bribe) we will get across quicker – and we do. Unfortunately the Zambian immigration isn’t quite as straight forward. Rules have apparently changed and we sit for an hour in the sunshine of no man’s land waiting for our passports to be stamped. $80 later (originally it was $50 but suddenly an extra $30 is required to enable us to visit Zimbabwe) we climb back on board Phabeni and make the hour trip to the campsite.

We set up camp in the shade of the trees followed by a brief meeting with the Livingstone activities representative. We watch a video, decide on what we would like to do and pay. Then beers at the pool. We wander back to the truck before dinner to discover a brand spanking new truck parked up alongside our failing Phabeni and the news that we will be going onward from Livingstone in the upgraded vehicle. It is freaking beautiful! It has an electric door at floor level instead of a ladder, we have lockers, the seats recline, there’s overhead storage and everyone has a usb charger. We also have twice the refrigerated space and a front facing window! Hooray!!!

I get changed for dinner and meet the others in the camp restaurant overlooking the Zambezi river. I eat Zambezi caught bream and drink the local Mosi lager, then sit at the bar chatting with my camp mates before heading to bed as tomorrow the activities begin.

26th August – planet baobab, Gweta/Thebes River Safari Lodge, Kasane

Anti-malarial medicated dreams are a hot topic around camp. Most complaining of violent and bloody nightmares. I woke this morning having lived an extraordinary day as an escaped patient from a mental institution getting a job as a tour guide. Whilst driving the bus with my headset microphone on delivering a very comprehensive description of our surroundings I was looking in my rear view mirror secretly planning the murders of each of my tourists! I shared this dream with Alfie, our truck driver, over coffee and porridge this morning and he admitted that my dream reflected his actual life exactly! Gulp!

We hit the road, driving down Elephant Highway – so named as there are up to 60,000 elephants that pass through this area annually. Unfortunately this makes driving at night very dangerous and we are saddened to see the results as we drive by a seriously damaged truck and the biggest road kill I have ever witnessed, a faceless body of a mature elephant. Thankfully we soon begin to spot several live elephants which helps us rid our minds of this morning’s atrocity.

Passing a kilometre jam of trucks all waiting to board the Zambia ferry (that we’ll be taking tomorrow) we make our way to Kasane and the Thebes River Safari Lodge. We are booked on this afternoons sunset river boat safari. Loaded with wine and The cheese and biscuits Dewett has supplied we board our boat. The cruise takes us down the Chobi River into the national park where we find elephants grazing on an island, there are loads of them. Also basking in the afternoon sun on the rivers edge are crocodiles. Herds of water buffalo with their funny horns that look like hair and a variety of different bird life. We are all very happy when we spot a hippopotamus’ distinctive face surfacing in the river. They are so cute, but Percy our guide reminds us that they kill more humans than lions each year. We while away the day drinking wine, eating crackers and spotting hippos and families of elephants until eventually the sun sets and we head back to camp.

Tomorrow we arrive at Livingstone where we will be staying for four days and sadly saying goodbye to six of our camp mates. So as this is their final camp fire meal Dewett and Alfie have gone all out. Tonight we feast on massive steaks, sausages and butternut squash all cooked on the braai (bbq), corn on the cob, homemade slaw, potato salad, garlic bread and Alfie has even baked a chocolate, caramel and peach cake in a pot on the hot coals that is delicious and served with custard.

Happy and bloated we chat around the camp fire before our eyelids become heavy and our beds call us to sleep.

25th August – Okavango delta/Planet Baobab, Gweta

I hear grunts in the night from outside the tent but fall back to sleep. Rumour has it amongst the polers that hippopotamus’ visited last night, sadly there are no sign of them this morning. However, during breakfast a poler spots a bull elephant only 50 metres from camp across the river where we were swimming yesterday. Elephants have terrible eyesight but as I zoom in on my camera I cannot help but think that he is staring directly at me considering whether or not to charge. It is surreal seeing a real live elephant chomping on a tree just the over side of the water from us while we drink our morning coffee (which tastes like swamp and ends up on the grass).

We pack away all of our camp. The polers dig a big hole for all of the hot fire ashes and we climb aboard our mokoro for the relaxing trip back to the polers station. On route the polers spot a distant elephant with a white bird perched on it’s back enjoying a free ride.

At the station we help unload all of our belongings and equipment and head back to Island Safari in the speed boat where we have much needed showers and brunch.

We hit the road. Aboard the truck there is an air of calm from our relaxing day in the delta and our mornings cruise.

Arriving at Planet Baobab Camp we set up tents beneath a giant Baobab tree. These trees are crazy looking with thick fibrous trunks and high branches that resemble roots, giving them their nickname of the upside down tree. It is hot today. I quickly change into my bathers and head straight to the campsite pool making the most of diving into the cold refreshing water. We dive and play ball before drying in the sun. Danielle and I head over to the bar for an afternoon beer in the sunshine and are soon joined by the others in the campsite’s lovely snake shaped bar. Dewett takes us all on a walk to the back of the camp where a giant baobab tree magnificently stands. This thing is massive. Dewett tells us a bit about the species and we have a photo in front of it. I spend much of the afternoon getting to know our newest campers Rebecca and Daniel, they are really lovely and before we know it it’s dinner time. As a treat to us and himself, as he doesn’t have to cook, Dewett has booked a table at the camps restaurant and we all tuck into burgers and chips.

Many of us drift back to the bar and I spot a miniature version of the game we saw the Damara tribe playing at the museum back in Namibia and challenge David to a game. Luckily we were concentrating that day as both of us remember the simple rules of Morabaraba, played with stones and 32 holes. This game takes bloody ages to play, the bar lady tells us that it is impossible to finish if anyone cheats, my eyebrow raises as I suspiciously look at David. We decide to call it a draw and go and join Danielle and a very drunk local (also named James) at the fire pit. I finish my beer and head to bed leaving them all to it.

Climbing into my sleeping bag I say goodnight to Freddy and as I turn off my headlamp I hear Danielle’s distinctive Irish lilt outside our tent, “Freddy…. Freddy!”, Freddy replies and before we know it the tent zip is opened and Danielle, Lisa, David and Lee-Ann come piling in. We are officially having a tent party. Luckily the party doesn’t last long as we are not the quietest bunch and the rest of our camp mates have retired to bed hours ago. I thank them for coming as they leave and snuggle down to sleep.

24th August – Maun/Okavango Delta

I have been looking forward to today since booking my trip. Today we enter the Okavango delta in a particularly special way.

We wake early, pack away our tents and have breakfast. Now on a normal morning we would chuck everything under the truck in the many storage compartments; tents, rucksacks, chairs, cooking equipment, food storage, washing up stuff etc.. but not today. Today all of these things are loaded onto a jeep and we all head down to the bar for another briefing. Robert explains what today will entail and some basic health and safety.

We are then loaded aboard a boat on the river and take an hour scenic tour stopping to see the rivers wildlife, many birds, donkeys and cows. David, Lee-Ann and I leave our seats and sit up front to get a better view. With the wind in our hair we head toward the polers station at NG32. The boat drops us off and we are reacquainted with Dewett and all of our camping equipment that has been loaded onto canoes. The polers station is a bustling hive of activity, people everywhere loading and unloading boats.

We are introduced to our team of polers and in pairs our personal poler introduces himself – his name is “Best” and he invites Freddy and I aboard our mokoro – a traditional long wooden canoe like boat, our tent mattresses have been positioned like seats and as I climb aboard and settle into a horizontal position I am instantly comfortable and relaxed. I have my water bottle, a bag of snacks and my camera in a ziplock waterproof bag. Best stands at the back of the canoe with an eight foot pole and with punting expertise we are soon gliding through the still waters of the Okavango delta. We follow our camp mates in a long line of mokoros as we pass effortlessly through the rivers reeds passing plumes of blossoming water lilies. We ask Best lots of questions about his life as a poler as we are pushed along at a gentle speed. I eat my peach, munch on cashew nuts, sip my juice (which is hilariously called Whispers of Summer), drinking in my surroundings and enjoying every second. Dewett warned us earlier that it is such a soothing experience that we may find it hard to stay awake and I do struggle as the sun beats down listening to the hypnotic tones of the polers speaking to each other in their native tongue Tsitwana. I could easily sleep now, but as I drop off I get hit in the face by a rogue reed.

Our boat momentarily heads off piste into the thick river reeds. One of the polers has spotted a tiny colourful frog clinging to a stalk so we go in for a much closer look. We rejoin the others but it isn’t long before we verge off again to see a crocodile sunbathing on a mound. Best is so good at balancing the mokoro that he encourages both Freddy and I to stand up to get a photo.

We arrive at our destination for the night, a remote island somewhere in the Okavango. We set up camp and are given our camp briefing. For the third time we are told that we are now in the territory of dangerous predators. We are not to leave the camp unless we are accompanied by a poler, who will also be camping with us this evening. Very importantly if we need to go bushy bushy in the night we are to wake our tent buddy and together open our tents and shine our torches around in the darkness – if we see green eyes it’s probably antelope, red eyes are predators and we are to zip up our tents immediately. If it’s all clear we are to wee near our tents, however if we need pushy pushy our camp mate must accompany us to the toilet and keep guard!

Next we are introduced to our toilet, a very kind poler has a dug a 3 foot deep square hole in the ground just a short walk from the camp hidden behind a bush. It’s not very glamorous but does the job, at the foot of the path visible from camp is a shovel and a toilet roll hung on a nearby branch – these are known as “the door”, if they are not there then the toilet is occupied.

We spend the afternoon chilling out, playing cards and even take a dip in the water – all of us pretending that we didn’t see the crocodile earlier! I make a pretty successful attempt at being a poler – the disobedient mokoro doesn’t always go the way I intend and the power of my mind will not change this no matter how hard I concentrate, I’m just happy that I don’t fall in. Lisa begrudgingly agrees to be my guest on the mokoro and I sing to her as I pole, even stopping to pick her a water lily – what a gent!

Mid afternoon we head back out on the mokoros to a nearby island where we disembark and are taken on a nature walk. The Botswanan guides are so chilled out it is hard to get enthused but we still spot antelope, zebra and a herd of wildebeest.

Our polers take us to an open expanse of water to watch a unique sunset from our mokoros before heading back for dinner at camp. The polers have set up a little stall selling handmade crafts, jewellery and baskets. I cannot help but purchase a mini mokoro as a reminder of this wonderful experience (now I’ve got to carry the bloody thing all around the world with me!)

After dinner the polers have a surprise for us – they build a giant campfire and entertain us with traditional Botswanan songs sung as a choir in harmony, dancing and entertaining us with their infectious rhythm.

We toast marshmallows and eat them between delicious tennis biscuits while spotting fireflies flashing on and off at the waters edge. Then filled with memories of my best day yet I fall asleep listening to the campfire chatter of the polers.

23rd August – Ghanzi/Maun

A bit of a long drive today on our way to the Okavango delta. Stopping for money exchange from Namibian dollars to Botswanan Pula, snacks, a water bottle and the all important 5 litres of drinking water (we are going through so much water now that the temperatures are soaring during the day).

We arrive at the campsite and make the most of their terrible wifi just managing a few whatssap messages, no hope of facebooking or blog publishing here. I finally do my first load of hand washing and feel properly chuffed with myself as I hang it out on my travel washing line connected between my tent and a nearby tree. It looks clean, but the colour of the water as I rinse it out would suggest otherwise. Add to that the amount of dust being blown up in the wind, I’ve a sneaky suspicion that my washing may be a little dirtier by the time it has dried!

Today’s activity is slightly exciting. We are going on a scenic flight over the Okavango delta. Surprisingly Maun has an international airport, though it is the smallest international airport I have ever seen. 5 of us at a time are bundled into little propeller planes, no bigger than a small family car, and after a tiny little runway run up we take off. It’s a tad bumpy as illustrated by Lisa’s rear seat screams and yelps and the temperature on board hits new highs as the blazing sun warms up the cabin. We fly 150 metres above the delta and once we have crossed the buffalo fence we begin to spot animals. Herds of elephants, towers of giraffes, buffalo, zebras and antelope. I’m sure I spot a hippo too which cheers me up no end as up until this point I am yet to see one. It is so good to see animals in their natural habitat and so novel to see them from this viewpoint. The flight is 50 minutes, if it was any longer I think we would all pass out from heat exhaustion and dehydration, as we are not allowed to take any drinks on board. We land quickly and safely and thank Ian our pilot for our flight.

Alfie has been waiting to whisk us back to camp. A swift beer at the bar before dinner and a big briefing. Tomorrow we enter the Okavango delta! More about that in tomorrow’s blog instalment.

I fold away my lovely clean(ish) washing, pack my day bag and head to bed, excited about what tomorrow has in store.