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Updates from Africa 5

Updates from Africa 5

December 23, 2008 8:18 amComments are Disabled

The Okavango Delta is a 18,000 km squared delta spread between Botswana, Namibia and Angola and is a hotbed of ecological activity.  The delta is so vast that it takes thousands of years for water to circulate within it.

Since we had only three days, we decided to tackle the delta in two steps.  First, we decided to take a charter scenic flight above the delta, and view it from above.  Then the plan was to take a safari on the ground and see things more close up.  After shopping around a bit, we found a lodge that does a two day, one night trip to the delta, and we also found a flight that could do a scenic tour of the delta that evening at 5.  We had a bit of time, so we went to Shoprite to buy food for the camping trip:  black beans, canned meat, canned fruit, smoked oysters, crackers, bread, deli meats for lunch, some spices and a 5-litre jug of water.  I thought that 5 liters wouldn’t be enough, but it was all we could carry.

After dropping the bags at our hotel, we took a cab to the Maun airport.  This “airport” is actually bigger than some Caribbean airports I’ve been to, but not by much.  There is one landing strip and two gates, one designated for “international” flights from Johannesburg and the other for domestic flights from Gaborone, Francistown, etc.  Since all flights to and from this airport are local, it is not surprising that there are parking lots for small prop planes, ranging from 2-seaters to 15-seaters.  We met our pilot, George, a South African, at the gate and he took us to our plane, a propeller-powered, four-seat, white stick of gum that looked like it would be eaten by an elephant.  George was very nice and gave us the emergency preparedness demonstration, which consisted of showing us how to pull the rusty lever that operates the one door, and where the barf bags are.  Good sign.

When we took off in this propeller-powered lawn mower, we rose quickly above Maun and soon were flying low over the green delta.  Since we’ve been in Africa, all landscapes have been yellowish-brown, with some low-lying mountains and assorted trees.  Driving on the bus, we’ve been able to see the hay-colored land pass by, but haven’t gotten a real immersion in the land.  The closest we got was at the veterinary checkpoint, when we stood in the shade of a large tree and could look out over brushes and observe beetles, worms and other insects crawling about.  The first thing that strikes you about Okavango is green.  Everything is green, and from the plane, you can look down and spread out before you, for hundreds of miles in all directions, is an endless tapestry of green grasses, speckled with darker green trees, and patches of greenish-yellow grass and sand.

The plane flew low enough to the ground that we could make out animals below, and we saw many.  The first we saw was a herd of giraffes, followed by a large herd of elephants.  It is the rainy season here, so the elephants are coming out to wash themselves, and the watering holes are filling up.  The most distinctive features of the delta landscape from the air were occasional signs of humanity–there was one perfectly square clearing, a hut or two every three kilometers, and a fire burning in the distance.  For the most part, though, this was a completely virgin landscape, and you could see that this land hasn’t changed in thousands of years.

The plane ride was an hour, and the only thing we saw were the giraffes and elephants, but somehow seeing them from a plane was not awe inspiring.  Perhaps it was their diminutive size from the air that gave the experience more of a zoological feel–in any event, at one point I saw a fast-running cat that I thought to be a cheetah, but I wasn’t sure, and it was gone before I could point it out.  When the flying gas can landed, we took some pictures and left for the hotel.  For the safari, we had to be up at 6 and take a cab to the river lodge, so that night we packed and prepared for our trip.

Early in the morning we checked out and made for the Okavango River Lodge.  The lodge is about 5km outside of town, and hosts mostly foreign tourists who come to take day or multi-day excursions in the delta.  The lodge has a bar area and serves drinks and food all day; the rooms are all individual huts with thatched roofs.  A room costs 80 pule/person, but you can camp at the lodge for only 20 pule. There is a pool and a pool table.  There are three dogs that lounge about the lodge–Tito, Smash, and Campsite, and all of them feed on scraps from the kitchen and the guests’ plates. The staff is very friendly and helpful, and by the end of the weekend we had run up a 600 pule tab for drinks and food (considering we were saving so much money on the room we definitely got our money’s worth).  The lodge sits on a main water highway which runs into the delta and is the route on which all the tourist lodges have their docks.  The ORL has several speedboats and a leisure boat for sightseeing, and you can rent canoes and kayaks for trips on the river as well.

We were scheduled for an overnight in the delta, so at 7 we got on a speedboat with our backpacks, and two Swiss guys who were going to spend two nights away.  The speedboat shot off through the water channel, which is about 50 meters wide, and flanked with tall delta grasses.  Most of the delta, of course, is composed of much narrower capillaries, but this particular vein was used to get in and out of the interior of the delta, where we were to catch our mokoro ride.

On the speedboat ride, we passed some pastures with grazing cattle, and occasionally a pickup truck was parked on the river and children waved at us.  As we got deeper into the delta, all there was around us was grass, trees, fields and wildlife–eagles, thrushes, storks, ducks, and various insects, and thousands of lily pads and white lily flowers, which bloom white but turn blue as they are pollinated.  At one point, the speed boat stopped and the driver turned the boat around.  How he managed to spot this traveling at the speed we were driving, I don’t know–but there, on a lily pad, was a cluster of three cm-wide eggs, camouflaged and almost invisible, laid by one of the many birds we had seen flying about.  Also on the speedboat ride we passed a fishing trap and went through a gate in the buffalo fence–the country-wide fence erected by Botswana to separate wildlife areas from humans.  Finally, after about an hour, we arrived at the river bank where fifty mokoros were parked waiting for us.

A mokoro is a long, slender canoe, which is the traditional (and easiest) way to navigate through the thick grasses, and shallow waters, of the delta.  It must be poled by a poler who stands at the back of the canoe and pushes it along with a pole about twice as tall as the canoe itself.  Each mokoro can carry two other people besides the poler, and backpacks.

When we first arrived, there was a truck parked with tourists who had just come in from the river and were loading on to get driven back wherever; several mokoros came in while we were there and the tourists loaded their bags onto the truck. There were also thirty or so locals who were either polers or just lived in the village down the road, and who sat in the sun and chatted while the tourists loaded up to go.  At this time we were introduced to our guides, John and Lockshell; John had to go back to his house in the village to get his food for the trip, so Ioana and Codrin accompanied him back to the village.  In the meantime, the tourists had left and I got to see the river bank cease to become a tourist area and turn into a local hangout for the villagers; it was interesting being the only non-Batswana there and witnessing the kids–they were all late teens, early twenties, hanging out by the mokoros, chatting, flirting, and having a good time.  They largely ignored me; I got some reading done of King Solomon’s Mines.

When Ioana, Codrin and John returned we loaded into the mokoros; I had my own with Lockshell and John poled for the other two.  As they poled us away from the riverbank, the wide river highway that had taken us here was abandoned and we became absorbed in the grasses.  The polers followed what seemed to be arbitrary ‘paths’ of water where the grasses were pushed below the water–I don’t know how they knew where we were going because the grass was shoulder high for the standing polers, and we were navigating through a vast field of criss-crossing estuaries.  We lied low in the mokoros as they went, and that first ride the sun was not too hot so it was a pleasant ride.  The grasses that leaned over our trail would whack you in the face as you passed, so you had to swat them out of the way with your hands.  At one point, like the speedboat driver, the polers stopped and pointed out a small frog barely distinguishable on a blade of grass.  How they spot these things I don’t know.

The gentle ride through the grasses took about two hours, and near the end we emerged into a little “clearing”–more like a pond–and heard a loud snorting sound, which made us jump.  30 yards away there was a hippopotamus in the water; and, as we crossed the pond, another one joined him.  They have a loud snort which sounds like a pig’s, and is rather unpleasant. They also can be very dangerous animals.  Our guides didn’t seem phased however so we sat back comfortably and took pictures as we passed.  On the far bank of the river was the campsite.

The “campsite” was a clearing in a hovel of trees, which seemed to be specially designated as a campsite due to its apparent inaccessibility by large game.  To get into the clearing you have to swat your way through a narrow path and there are low-lying branches surrounding the shaded camp area. We set up our own tents and pulled out our bread and deli meats for lunch.  Lockshell and John started making a fire so they could have some tea.  We finished our lunch, and then we realized we had a problem.

As you remember, we had bought only 5 liters of water which we had distributed among several bottles.  We had left one of the liter bottles on the speedboat, and with the two-hour mokoro ride we had started to drink into our inventory.  We realized we were going to be short on water, so we decided to boil some (at that point we had a couple liters left so it wasn’t a big deal).  After a siesta, John took Ioana, Codrin and me on the short walk, which was our first journey on foot into the interior of the island.  Before we left, we took the remainder of the boiled water the guides had made for tea and loaded one of the bottles.

Right before we left, Codrin had been out for a smoke and came back and excitedly told us there was a herd of antelope right outside our campsite.  We all ran out and saw a herd about 200 yards away, clustered and feeding.  We snapped away and then started to walk north with John for our walk.  The two hour walk was at 4 in the afternoon, but that didn’t stop the sun from beating down on us–hard.  It was probably 30 degrees, and within minutes our shirts were sticking to our backs.  We had gotten pretty thoroughly burned on the mokoro ride, despite having sunscreen, and on the two hour walk Codrin turned into a tomato.

John led us north across the island, which is a several-hundred-square-kilometers-large island in the middle of the delta.  When we emerged from our treed clearing, we could see miles ahead of us.  The landscape was flat, large and yellow under a perfect blue and white sky, perforated by occasional palm trees, many shrubs and bushes, and patches of tall grasses, short grasses and some “oases” of trees like the one our campsite was in.  The other feature dominating the landscape were termite mounds–some as high as 9 meters–which were created as millions of ant-like termites turned dead stumps into packed-tight sawdust.  You could stand on these mounds for a good vantage point of the plains around, and contemplate how many thousands of years it has taken for the landscape to form itself around a thriving savanna ecosystem.

On that first walk, the first animals we saw after the antelope were a family of baboons, which we only saw from a distance before they scampered off.  When we reached their playground, we could ourselves swing from the baobab tree but there were no more baboons.  At that point we turned back to go to the campsite.  Codrin had evidently never had been on such a hot and long walk before, and suggested he didn’t want to do something like it again (we of course had our 4 hour walk the next day).  When we reached the campsite, it was about 6 and we had time to make a fire for our water and our food.

We had finished all of our water on the walk, so we scooped water out of the delta and boiled it over the fire.  Even when boiled, the water had a greenish-yellowish tinge.  We had to filter it as well, but we didn’t have a sieve, so Ioana came up with the brilliant idea of using her sock, which we could stretch over the bottle neck and pour into the pot to make boiled and filtered water.  This “socky water”–not to be confused with “Saki water”, which would have been preferable–ended up being our lifeline for the rest of the trip.  We made two pots that night, and two the next morning.

For dinner I made chili, which I improvised by mixing beans, vegetable curry and spam meat we bought at the grocery store (and spices of course).  Dessert was canned fruit, with a side of boiling hot water.

We left the campsite around 7 to catch the image of the red sun setting over the delta–orange and red spears perforated the clouds and sent a reflective shimmer over hundreds of miles of water.  It was a beautiful sight.

I don’t think anyone slept that well.  Not only was there the fear of wild animals eating us in the middle of the night, you could actually hear the hippos frolicking in the water until well after midnight, and the cricket-like chirping of millions of insects made sleeping on the shore of that island louder than the East Side Highway.  We didn’t have sleeping bags, either, which added to the discomfort.  I had my KLM blanket which I stole on the flight to Johannesburg, and that gave me some sort of cushion.

The next morning, some of our water had cooled but we had to make more, which we loaded into our empty 2-liter Coke bottle. Breakfast was the second can of fruit.  Codrin opted to stay in the campsite for the second walk, so Ioana and I loaded our backpacks and set off with John to spot some game, around 7 in the morning.  We walked west this time, instead of north, and this walk actually yielded some results.  For perspective, we learned later that another group had taken the same walk two weeks earlier and saw nothing.

John was an expert guide, and could see things we couldn’t long ahead of us.  The first thing he spotted was a giraffe, which gradually became three or four giraffes, munching in a cluster of medium-sized trees.  Soon afterward we saw a herd of water buffalo–the two species both are part of the “big five”–the five hardest animals to hunt in Africa (and the most favored sights on safaris).  Also running on the fields were some impala, and flying ahead the entire time were many varieties of birds, including eagles and storks.  At one point, we saw a small jackal darting about and approached it slowly.  It looked like little fox.

Throughout the walk John pointed out not only wildlife but signs of wildlife–along the path there were hippo tracks, buffalo and giraffe dung, and the occasional branch that had been stripped by an elephant.  He showed us how to identify how recently tracks had been made; in one case, we saw an elephant track that had been made just the day before.

We had walked northwest for two hours, and were just about to turn around to go back, when John spotted an elephant in a far-off cluster of forest and vegetation.  We approached it slowly until we were 500 yards away, and could clearly see a lone elephant–tusks, trunk, and all–munching away in the trees.  It was quite a sight to behold.  On our way back, we came across a set of elephant bones that had been drying in the sun for some time; Ioana and I took bone souvenirs of course (I got a piece of rib).

On our trek back, we actually had one scare; when we were walking in the tall grasses, John stopped and pointed to where he said something else was moving through the grass.  You could see the grass parting as something made its way through it, parallel to us–of course, you didn’t need to tell us that lions roam these here parts as well.  Again, though, John didn’t seem alarmed so we remained calm as well.

When we were 40 minutes from our campsite, we saw three zebras–the national animal of Botswana–on the plain.  They were beautiful, majestic creatures, and didn’t seem threatened by us.  We watched them stand about, then trot of north again. As we approached the campsite, we saw the same herd of antelopes grazing; they bounded off when we got closer.

We saw one more species, too–occasionally we saw a herd of them in the distance, walking on their hind legs, clustering around their pack leader for protection, looking to hunt, and avoid being hunted, and all the while snapping pictures from the cameras that hung around their starch white necks.  It was interesting to see the interaction of these humans with their environment; little distinguished them from their wild progenitors save for more colorful camouflage and the campsites waiting for their return.

Lest I romanticize the trip to much, let me add that the temperature was well over a hundred degrees and the plains–save for some trees–provide little respite from the sun.  We only had our freshly boiled water–in other words, it was not fresh but scalding hot.  Every landscape feature we passed taller than the knee brought its own complement of bugs.  They loudly buzzed around our heads and one ended up in my nose for a bit (it made me realize how much of an evolutionary advantage the sneeze must have been at one point).  What’s funny about the bugs, though, is that I haven’t been bitten by anything since Johannesburg and that awful night of the mosquitoes.  When Ioana and I got back to the camp, we were hot, cramped, burned, parched and tired. What was more amazing was that John, our guide, had not had a sip of water the entire time, and had much more energy.  He was also twice our age.

For lunch we finished off the meats and smoked oysters, and then packed up camp for the mokoro ride home.  Codrin had had enough of the “wilderness”; he was so ready to pack it in that he broke down the tent himself.  I should add that Codrin and Ioana had run out of cigarettes and had to ration their last two–Codrin had smoked his in the morning so by this time he really needed a cigarette, and, more importantly, a cold Sprite.  Ioana and I, who had actually made the second walk, REALLY needed a cold drink.  We only had the hot water though, which was fine for now.

The mokoro ride back was much, much, hotter.  We left at 1 in the afternoon when the sun was hottest—and if the treeless landscape provides no respite then the treeless, canopyless, open grasses really provide nothing at all.  I had my KLM blanket which I used to cover myself in a makeshift canopy so I could see straight ahead, but the blanket was hot and baked me inside like a toaster oven.  I was wearing my long black sweatpants to protect my legs—my right knee was ketchup-colored—but this, too, created an amplifying effect for the heat.  Thankfully, after an hour it rapidly became rainy, and the heat was gone.  We pulled onto the mokoro shore around 2:30.

This left us about one and a half hours until our speedboat pickup, so we decided to get a drink from the village.  Ioana stayed with the bags and John, and Lockshell took Codrin and me into the village.  To get there, we walked a 200m path then hopped the buffalo fence.  I had brought the garbage from the camping which Lockshell told me to throw into the town landfill, a crater filled with assorted bottles, plastics and paper.  As it turns out, bottles and cans are all recycled in this village—and in a lot of other places, we found—to make huts.  As we walked down the main road through the village, you could see these round huts, about 15 feet in diameter, with walls composed of cemented Coca Cola bottles and straw roofs.  There appeared to be more than two hundred huts of varying sizes, and I don’t know how far this village extended. It is certainly akin to the villages we saw from the air.

As we approached the town center, we heard a loud uproar.  The two local football teams were playing a match, and someone had just scored a goal.  The entire village was gathered to watch the game.  We went to the “bar”, which appeared to be the only store in sight, and bought some cold drinks.  Codrin downed three Sprites in one gulp.  He bought another and some cigarettes, and we bought Lockshell a drink.  We three sat down in a shady grove and before long some villagers came up to us, and we chatted about various things, where we were from, whether we had girlfriends, and so on.  Then, out of nowhere, a Jeep drives in with about ten kids, playing loud music, and the teenagers got out and started dancing.  There was a beer keg on the back of the pickup and some kids seemed a little too sloshed (it was 2 in the afternoon).  At one point, a boy about nineteen dancing in only jeans and holding a beer cup suddenly stopped in his tracks, and a pool of liquid spread from his groin and onto the ground.  Needless to say, he was the subject of much ridicule.  Several guys came up to Codrin and me and shook our hands, introduced themselves, and talked with us for a bit.  One tried to teach me the step dance they were all doing, which looks like a side-stepping version of the tango with a more complicated 6/8 rhythm.

After watching the party for a while, and when it was halftime at the football game and people started to come enjoy the entertainment, Codrin, Lockshell and I walked back to bring Ioana her well deserved drink and cigarette.  What was so interesting about the village was that the entire economy of the village centered on mokoro rides through the delta; the lodges would hire polers from the shore for the excursions, and we saw later would pay them when they came to pick the clients (us) up.  Lockshell, he told us, was twenty—our age—and made a living sleeping in a tent in the delta a couple times a week.  Most males in the village serve as polers.  It is as if the entire village is contracted for this one tourist attraction, the mokoro, and the entire existence of the village is predicated on the mokoro ride as the accepted version of the true delta experience.

One more anecdote:  when we were on our way out of the village, a woman came out of her hut holding a half-dressed baby, held it up and yelled “I’m selling this baby!”  We tried not to laugh and hurried along.  Lockshell said it was a joke.

The speedboat picked us up on schedule and we went back to the lodge.  At the lodge, we treated ourselves to steaks made from the same cows, no doubt, we saw upriver, and then we went off downtown to check the internet and find a way to get to Livingstone the next day.  We got back to the lounge at night and treated ourselves to a couple drinks.  That night, we met some Batswana from Francistown who were up to see the delta. They were both footballers from their local teams and had brought their girlfriends along.  I asked one of them what his name was, and he said his name was “Tow.”  Then I asked his friend, what’s your name?  “Row.”  Tow and Row.  Only in Botswana.

We drank with Tow and Row for an hour, then went to bed.  The next morning, we found that between drinks, food and cigarettes we had rung up an 800 pule bar tab.  However, considering the money we saved by staying there instead of the first hotel, it was worth it.  We had a fabulous time.

We couldn’t get a chartered flight to Livingstone in Zambia, or a flight to Kasane on the border.  So we were sort of at an impasse.  We also learned that the border at Kasane closed at 6.  It was 10 in the morning, and we knew it was a 6 hour drive to Kasane, so we decided (and it turned out to be a good call) to hire a taxi to take us to Kasane (for perspective, that’s like hiring a taxi in New York to take you to Washington).  The first car we hired didn’t show up to pick us up, so we found another.  This taxi was driven by a 23-year-old named Mokanke who had a loud stereo system in the car.  We offered to pay him 1200 pule for the drive (about half a month’s salary for a taxi driver), and we trekked off to Nata.  You can’t drive through the delta, so you have to drive three hours backwards to Nata, then forward to Kasane.

The car drive to Nata was uneventful—really uneventful.  The flat, empty landscape is beautiful when on safari, but when driving for three hours it becomes a little disconcerting.  We would drive for a hundred kilometers without seeing another car or person; and there was only one stop on the way, and that was a veterinary checkpoint where we had to stamp all our pairs of shoes in a cleansing liquid to prevent hoof and mouth disease.  Nata was the next place we could stop to get something to drink; we bought Mokanke a jug of fruit juice and we had some beer and fried chicken.

A food interlude, because there’s nowhere else to put this:

Batswana love fried chicken.  If I didn’t know any better, I would guess that KFC, Harold’s Chicken and Popeye’s were all Batswana exports to the United States, instead of the other way around.  Not only are there hundreds of name brand fried chicken joints, there are a barrage of local ones as well. Botswana is fried-chicken-crazy.

During our 6 hour bus ride to Maun, the break was at a roadside restaurant–in a village, in the middle of nowhere–called “Southern Fried Chicken.”  You could get a side of fries and mashed potatoes as well.  I didn’t partake in this delicacy, but I had gorged myself in KFC that afternoon.  I was chickened out.

There’s a Portuguese brand fried chicken place called Nando’s next to our hotel.  We ate 1/4 dark with mild sauce.  That’s right, the identical thing you can get at Harold’s in Hyde Park.  The mild sauce is just as good.  Aside from chicken, since we have been here we have eaten samosas, schuwarma, pies (lots of pies) and heapings of coleslaw and fries.

Anyway, back to the trip to Kasane.

On our way out of Nata, we got stopped at another veterinary checkpoint.  This time, however, there was a lone officer, and he had an agenda.  We were driving in a taxi—which means not only did we have the yellow taxi sign but the license plates were blue.  The officer seems to have decided to give us a hard time, and told Mokanke we had to pay 200 pule for “diversion of route”—driving the taxi out of Maun.  We don’t know if this is an actual fine or not.  However, we asked the officer to give us a receipt for the payment, at which point he disappeared into his guard house.  He then said we could pay him 100 pule and he wouldn’t mention anything.  (From what I’ve read, bribes are very much cracked down upon in Botswana and I was sure to report this incident to the Botswana government hotline.)  After that checkpoint, Mokanke took the yellow taxi sign off his car.  We were now just a car full of four young people on a road trip.

The ride from Nata to Kasane was just as long and flat, but this time there were potholes, and more importantly, there were elephants.  It happened like this.  We were driving along and we saw a cloud of dust on the road ahead.  We saw that cars were trying to navigate through potholes, and then had stopped.  For an elephant crossing.  About ten large-eared, long-tusk elephants crossed the road slowly, as the cars and trucks patiently waited.  After we crossed this point it was elephant city.

Elephants were everywhere along the side of the road—we saw way more of them than humans—and they either were eating or walking away from the cars as they passed.  Codrin kept wanting to stop to take pictures, but the elephants would always disappear too quickly.  Then, we saw an immense 10-foot-tall elephant, and Codrin asked Mokanke to stop.  This elephant was ten yards from the car, on the right (cars drive on the left side).  Codrin gets out of the car, pulls out his camera, and starts snapping pictures.  Ioana and I get some good pictures too, from inside the car.  Then we tell Codrin its time to go, we can’t stay for long.  Codrin insists he knows what he’s doing.  He knows the head of an elephant orphanage, he says, who told him that elephants are scared creatures.  So Codrin continues to take pictures of the elephant from outside the car.  At first, the elephant seems fine with us idling there, but you could see the elephant becoming increasingly agitated.  It didn’t move, but at one point looked directly at us (or at Codrin) and gave its head a rather forceful (and agitated) shake.  I could have sworn that it stepped forward slightly too.  We start to yell at Codrin to get in the car (Mokanke included), but Codrin says “Don’t tell me what to do” and continues to take pictures.  Finally, when Codrin was ready, and when he wanted to (not because we told him to), he calmly got in the car and Mokanke hit the gas like he was squashing a bug.

We reached Kasane at 6:45 and the border was closed.  Mokanke expressed his desire not to drive back that night, and we sympathized with him.  We figured we’d be able to find a cheap place to stay that night, and hit the border first thing in the morning.  Boy, were we wrong.  Unbeknownst to us, Kasane is the most expensive place to stay in Botswana.  Apparently, the wealthy come to Kasane to have access to all the safaris, and Namibia, Zambia and Zimbabwe right there to travel to.  We ended up finding a rate of 500 pule for a double room, and got two of them.

But first, one anecdote.  It was getting dark, and as we were driving along the main highway from Kasane toward the border where the Toro lodge is, Mokanke hit the brakes suddenly and we looked up and there was a GIANT ELEPHANT looming out of the darkness, stepping onto the road.  It was the biggest one we saw, and it just slowly trod across the road.  Spooky, but cool.

The Toro Safari Lodge was not as nice as the River Lodge, for five times the rate, had a bar where a Heineken cost 16 pule and a restaurant where the only dinner option was a four course meal and cost 120 pule.  We decided that, since it was our last night in Botswana and we needed to spend our pule anyway, we would treat ourselves (and Mokanke) to a luxurious feast.  So we bought drinks, ordered dinner, and made the most of it.  Mokanke, Codrin and I talked about Zimbabwean politics and Ioana and Mokanke chatted about hip hop.  Mokanke took full advantage of our quarters, went to bed early and when I went to our room he was sprawled out on the bed exhausted.  He really was a sweet guy and I’m glad we could make the long drive (and unexpected night in Kasane) worth his while.

At 6 in the morning we checked out and Mokanke drove us to the border.  As we approached, we passed a 10-km-long line of trucks, all carrying heavy cargo.  I figured it was a line for border inspection.  As it turns out, the border at Kasane is actually a ferry.  Two ferries go back and forth between Botswana and Zambia all day, and they can only hold one large truck, or two smaller trucks, apiece.  So for a truck to cross that border has to be a 20 to 40 hour wait at least, given it takes 15 minutes between ferry loading.  People can cross without a problem, though.  When we had paid Mokanke and bid him a warm farewell (and Merry Christmas…he has a girlfriend in Gabarone of four years and he’ll make use of his payday), we lugged our bags to shore to wait for the fairy.  This was a rather seedy area, where Zambians and Batswana mingled in the mutual goal of taking advantage of everything confusing about border crossings—transportation, currency, gas and oil, commodities, taxis—and since we were the only white people we got special attention.  My personal favorite was the man who asked Ioana for a job.  “We don’t offer jobs,” she responded.

Fuel running is apparently profitable, for a pickup truck carrying thirty jugs of petrol drove up just in time for the ferry and the fuel was carried on.  On the other side we would see “Gas stations” that were just houses with jugs of fuel that was haggled over.  After a 16-wheeler loaded onto the ferry, we pedestrians followed suit, and 10 minutes later we were in Zambia.

The first thing you notice about Zambia is how different it is from Botswana.  Botswana is calm, wealthier, more secure, and civilized.  The other side was suddenly chaotic, crowded, noisy and in disarray.  For the first time since we’ve been in Africa, I suddenly felt like we were in the third world. Hundreds of people were exchanging currency on the street in a sort of black currency market.  You could buy kwacha (Zambian dollars) or Zimbabwean dollars.  One taxi driver targeted us and offered us a price of 650 pule to go to Livingstone (35 minutes away).  We went through immigration, and when we came out the same driver was trying to get our business.  We knew it should only cost 50 pule a person, so we weren’t about to go with him.  But then a woman who had arranged for him to pick her up asked to share the ride with us, and we got a price of 150 pule for the three of us.  Perfect.  It turns out that this woman, Isabella, is the daughter of the town clerk of Livingstone and in the course of our ride offered us a tour of the neighboring villages and a free bungi jump off the falls, which Ioana and Codrin wanted to do (count me out). Although I’m looking at a poster for it right now which claims a 100% safety record.

We checked into the Jollyboys Backpackers hostel, where we got a private three-person room for $12 per person per night.  A far cry from the 1000 pule we had spent the night before.  The hostel is beautiful with a pool, a bar, a kitchen, and it’s right in the middle of town.

Once checked in, we decided not to do the falls today and instead explore the town and the market.  We spent time at the bakery, the pub, a couple banks, and finally did some hard bargaining at the market.  We spent the rest of the day lounging at the hostel.  Codrin and I visited the Livingstone Museum, which provided a good historical and ethnographic background to the area.  On the street, we bought 500 billion Zimbabwean dollars for $2, which is the current exchange rate today (it’ll change tomorrow).

Tomorrow the plan is to visit the falls, and the village of Mokami nearby which is where all the tourist trinkets are made.  With any luck, we will have a beer for a trillion dollars on the Zimbabwean side of the falls.

This has been a very long post, and I apologize for the tardiness, but it has been difficult to get a computer and I owe Jollyboys $10 at this point for internet, so I’m going to sign off and I’ll post more updates soon!

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