I've flown in from Sao Tome. to Libreville. It's a flight from Port Gentil today on my way to visit Loango National Park . The same policemen are on the immigration desk at Libreville Airport. ‘Ca va?’ they beam. Afrijet seems to be quite an upmarket airline. The departure lounge has leather seats and free coffee. I’m the scruffiest person in here - everyone else is dressed in business suits or smart dresses. Today the plane is full.
South over the Equator. Port Gentil doesn’t look at all like its name. There’s wooden shanty housing, oil rigs offshore and a clutch of oil executive houses with swimming pools. I’m paired up with Bill from Seattle who is booked in at the same lodge. Another tourist - a rarity on my travels. It takes three different vehicles to get us to the lodge, over increasingly bumpy terrain. A battered old German estate, an even more battered 4WD and an open safari truck.
The first section is not especially interesting, through empty grassland edged with jungle and over some huge river mouths. This is a (small) country of lakes and waterways. There are smatterings of open shops along the wayside, with the odd concrete school. More than anything the journey is an exploration of Chinese engineering, as a Chinese settlement abuts the road, created to facilitate the rebuilding of the National Highway, which we are directed on and off as engineering permits. The project involves some massive stretches of bridge over the waterways, but they’re not open for general use yet and we clatter over temporary metal structures alongside. I’m glad I can swim.
Once at Ombue, at the end of a long peninsula, we’re on sand, slippy silver alternating with stodgy red and the odd ford, for another two hours, until we reach the lodge on the edge of the lagoon in Loango National Park. It’s a picturesque setting, but it’s the Gabonese equivalent of Fawlty Towers. Matthieu, the French manager, instantly goes into a stream of apologies for the state of the place: ‘Neglected, run down, end of lease, new building sometime', he exposulates, in a good John Cleese impression.’.
It’s certainly gloomy and feels empty and uncared for. I have a two room bungalow suite on the edge of the lagoon, with what looks like a pleasant veranda running around it. Except that the doors to this are locked and there’s no key. Matthieu doesn’t know where it is. 'Maybe the last guests took it?' he suggests. Matthieu might have instructions not to spend on refurbishment, but that doesn’t really excuse this or the fact that half the lights don’t work. There’s no curtain over the bath either, so the floor is a huge puddle by the time I’ve finished in the shower.
The Wi-Fi router doesn’t work - quelle surprise - so we’re all piggybacking off Matthieu‘s own phone. Then it runs out of battery. No one has thought to plug it in.
The only upside is the food which is delicious French cooking on the waterside terrace; stuffed crab followed by captain fish for lunch. And there is some animal entertainment. The lodge is alive with lizards, of all sizes and colours, swarming over the decking and engaging in lively spats.
‘It’s very windy here because it’s between seasons and it’s the worst time of year for animal safari. The animals are moving between feeding grounds and are hard to spot. Even the whales are out of season. The gorillas are especially difficult to get to at the moment,’ is the other happy piece of news imparted by Matthieu. So, it’s not surprising that our evening drive is uneventful. The park is unique in having beach, lagoon (with mangroves), savanna and rainforest, so it promises large land mammals, on the beach, as well as whales out to sea, if you come at the right time.
We’re driving along the edge of the lagoon where there are narrow stretches of sand. There are a few shy forest buffalo in the savanna. These are very stolid, with hippo like bodies and are distinctive for their shaggy stripy ears. There are a couple of elephants hiding in the bushes. Our guide Carl, surprisingly, says he will go and entice them out. Unsurprisingly, the cow elephant isn’t keen. She has a calf to protect. So, she makes a mock charge, trumpets and sprays sand all over Carl with her trunk. That’s our excitement for today.
Yesterday, an ordeal by road transport, today by boat, as we bump over the open lagoon for 40 minutes to the gorilla camp. I’ve sat at the front, as I didn’t realise we were virtually on open sea, so I’m bearing the brunt. The lagoon is immense, stretching for miles and spreading into hundreds of inlets.
I’m with an expat French lady who speaks English, is quite chatty and tells me she works in the oil business. She says her last attempt to see the gorillas was cancelled before she even got to the lodge. Our Spanish ranger, Sonia, gives us the low down on safety procedures and protecting the gorillas. The great apes, as predicted, have been elusive over the last few days, feeding in the almost inaccessible swamplands, but the trackers have called to say that the gorillas are currently resting in the forest and we set off to look. Another short boat trip and Sonia remembers a final instruction: ‘If we meet an elephant close up, run. It will charge.’
By the time we arrive, an hour later, scurrying up jungle paths, trying to avoid fallen trees and swarming ants, not to mention patches of deep mud, our quarry has retreated into the marshes. Sonia says that even if we manage to get into the swamp, which is a mammoth challenge, we still won’t be able to see the gorillas, as the elephant grass is so high. I’m definitely not keen, as I’ve already left my trainers behind twice, sucked into the brown goo. And Arturo from Mexico, who lives in Italy and works in London, has already helpfully reported that he picked up leeches after plunging up to his waist here.
But French Oil Lady is somehow dealing with the mud more effectively than me. She looks lithe and fit and is totally unscathed; she insists we advance. We’re not allowed to split the party, so I have to go as well. Two minutes later, I’m up to my knees in mud and have to be hauled out by our two diminutive trackers. (I think they’re probably pygmies). We are forced to retreat. FOL doesn’t speak to me the whole way back. I try sitting in the stern of the boat, in an attempt to avoid the bumps, and instead I’m drenched in spray.
After I’ve cleaned up there’s a transfer to my tented camp. The countryside is almost bucolic, with sun on the rippling grass. And there are four elephants, with a calf, some red river hogs and a hippo to be seen. The hogs have extraordinary white patterned faces and snouts.
Matthieu has promoted this new Loango camp, set by the water and deeper into the park, as being infinitely superior to the dilapidated lodge. I’ve decided not to trust anything else he says. The tent is again nicely sited on the riverbank. And it does have an attached wooden bathroom with an open shower, accessible through a zipped door. But it’s definitely not glamping and there’s no hot water. Also, there is a big spider sitting just above the toilet. I’m supposed to have two nights in camp and am trying to decide whether to request to go back to the lodge tomorrow, but I’ve just been told I’m going back anyway. They didn’t know I was supposed to be staying and there is no food in.
Safely zipped in at night I’m reading peacefully. There is a generator that has been switched on for the evening, so I have light. Until the chugging comes to a halt and there are grinding sounds. On - off, on - off until it comes to a complete halt. I guess the generator has given up too. It’s just as well I’m being repatriated.
The water has run out this morning. Fortunately, there’s just enough to flush my outdoor loo. FOL is here also with her two children and insists that we depart early, as she has to get back home to prepare for her children’s school outing tomorrow. Fair enough, except that she then sits at the lodge waiting for lunch after our entirely without fauna encounter return journey (unless you count a terrapin discovery).
Matthieu explains that last night’s camp was not the one I was supposed to stay at anyway. He just forgot to tell me. He wanted me to sample different areas of the park and he offers a night in the original camp tomorrow.
A boat trip round some of the lagoon inlets with Jean Pierre in the afternoon is more rewarding than previous forays. There are elephants (we creep up and view them from behind a bush) and a family of hippos who perform like synchronised swimmers, lining up in a row to watch us. Only their eyes peep out of the water, swivelling as we move round them. Then they obligingly take it in turns to give huge open mouthed yawns.
Tsetse flies seem to love the water’s edge and they descend on the boat in droves. Jean Pierre bashes my arm, saying that I’m about to be stung. He squeezes the offending insect and tosses it to the deck. Immediately an army of tiny ants appear, march across the floor and demolish the carcass. Ants? Even in a boat.
Jean Pierre follows the narrow beaches to the ocean, flirting with the breakers around the neck of the lagoon and then we return, pursued by a very pretty sunset.
Across the vast Loango Lagoon once more to head up the river to Akaka Camp, which is where I was supposed to stay. Matthieu has suggested one night’s sojourn here, but I’ve declined and we will return this afternoon. I’ve had enough of cold water showers and tents. I’ve also acquired at least 50 very itchy bites from the ungrateful mini-beasts with whom I shared my tent and I’m jigging around, tired and grumpy.
This time the boat doesn’t have any bench seats and I’ve been installed in a canvas camp chair, splendid like Cleopatra. Which is fine till my throne collapses as we bump over the waves. Not so dignified now. Carl rescues me by contriving a wedge out of a piece of timber that’s been washed up.
Other than being bombarded by tsetse flies (fortunately I’ve remembered to wear white) it’s another pleasant day, meandering through the wetlands into the heart of the park. There are plenty of dwarf and long nosed crocodile, snoozing on logs. They sleep with their jaws wide, saw-like teeth on display and their eyes open, and don’t usually notice us straight away, leaping into the water in fright when they do. Most of the animals here are very skittish. They’ve all been hunted and eaten by the locals, even the crocodiles.
We also have buffalo and dainty sitatunga antelope sightings and several elephant encounters. Carl’s definitely not frightened of elephant. His speciality is waterside confrontation, whilst they are feeding on the vegetation at the river's edge. He says there are too many loggy obstacles and too much mud between us for them to be able to charge. I’m hoping he’s right, as it’s me that’s in the firing line. I’ve got a whole series of pictures of flapping trunks and angry red eyes.
And I’m really glad I didn’t opt for the Akaka camp In Loango. It’s been left in total disarray. There’s one tent with no electricity or water and a filthy toilet.
I’m the only one staying at the lodge tonight (it being off season) and the dining room is dead. I’m looking for someone to give me some food…I’m hoping it’s not captain fish again. It’s very good, but I’ve had it three times already. My hopes are in vain. Though there’s an excellent accompanying gratin dauphinoise to compensate.
My bites aren’t getting any better - in fact they’re increasing in number. And nothing I’ve tried is working - antihistamine tables, cream, painkillers. I’m on fire.
A final drive along Loango Beach. It’s a perfect day for it, sunny and breezy, though there are few animals to enjoy it. Even the elephants' usual swimming post is abandoned. ‘They come later in the afternoon’ says Jean-Pierre. I bite my tongue. I’ve been here 4 days and know better than to ask why this trip was scheduled for a morning. The tideline is a conglomeration of plastic - the Benguela current brings it all up from Angola and Congo.
It takes four vehicles to get me back to Port Gentil. Leg 3 is driven by Monsieur Phillippe who gives rides to all the locals in the back of his pick-up and hands the old ladies money for the taxi ride home. I’m obviously right to have misgivings about the Chinese makeshift bridges. As we clatter over Monsieur opens the windows and undoes his seatbelt.
On to Libreville.
I almost didn’t make it over the starting line to visit Gabon. Afrijet has its own terminal, but it’s not equipped to deal with the issue of visas. So, I have to wait till everyone else is stamped in and then I’m bundled into a black police car and driven round the airport. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings and it’s a bit scary. Especially as they then refuse to accept my authorisation of visa documents as they are a copy of the originals printed out from an email. Thank goodness I’m now in a French speaking country rather than Portuguese. No-one here has any English. I give them the phone number of my contacts in Libreville and amazingly someone arrives with acceptable papers. (Or a bribe - I'm not sure which.) Half an hour later I’m allowed in.
I’m supposed to be met by a man with the unlikely name of Fifi. He’s elusive, but eventually I bump into a Robert, who is asking around for a Suzanne and he has access to a Man with a Van, who takes me to my hotel and agrees to fetch me again in the morning for my flight to Loango Game Park.
Gabon has rich reserves of manganese, iron, petroleum and timber and offshore oil was discovered in the 1970s, helping to make Gabon one of the most prosperous countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. In spite of this five percent of the population still live below the poverty line.
eSwatini is an absolute monarchy, although the king does rule in conjunction with his mother (known as the Queen-mother) and parliament. It’s a highly polarised society, with some extremely poor housing and enclosed affluent areas and shopping malls.
This is an extremely male dominated society, where the sexes are brought up very much to follow their respective roles. Polygamy is allowed. The current king has 14 wives (or 17 depending on who you believe). His father had 60 (or 75). Each has their own palace, as do some of the many princes. New roads have been constructed, especially between the palaces, government buildings and the airport. The king is obliged to take leave of his mother, so as to be in touch with his ancestors, last thing before he leaves the country and she must also be his first port of call when he returns. In addition, he needs to be able to zip between his wives, of course.
The official languages are English and siSwati, a language loosely related to isixhosa, the official language of South Africa.
The currency is interchangeable with the South African rand and the data download speed on roaming (3G) is pretty awful
The new names derive from Mswati II, the 19th-century king under whose rule Swazi territory was expanded and unified. Swaziland became a British protectorate in 1903, after British victory in the Anglo-Boer war, achieving full independence once more in 1968.
The country’s Houses of Parliament are in the city of Lobamba where the royal families have lived for over 200 years. Lobamba and Mbabane are both capitals of eSwatini. Mbabane, in the hills, was established by the British, as they wanted a cooler climate for the government officials to work
eSwatini is Africa’s last remaining monarchy.
Swaziland officially changed its country name from The Kingdom of Swaziland to The Kingdom of eSwatini in April 2018. The change was announced at the 50/50 celebrations (50 years since independence the King’s 50th birthday). The country’s new name means “place of the Swazi people” and is intended to remove the country further from the British (who named Swaziland) and distinguish the country more clearly from Switzerland.
Advice given is that crime levels are low, but street crimes and burglaries do occur, sometimes involving violence. There have been numerous incidences of car hijackings on major routes from South Africa and Mozambique. Vehicles have been taken at gunpoint. Avoid walking in the downtown areas of Mbabane and Manzini after dark and do not travel around in remote rural areas unless in a group. There is often an increase in criminal activity during the festive season.
I didn't encounter any problems.
I’m not actually heading to the place where I booked today, as the king woke up on his fiftieth birthday in April and decided to rename Swaziland to eSwatini. This came as a complete surprise to most of the population, who aren’t very happy about the associated bill. So, eSwatini here I come, from Zambia via Jo’burg.
I’m met by my driver, Thulani, who isn’t sure where I’m staying in eSwatini. It’s not the most auspicious of beginnings. I know I’m booked into three national park camps and I’m hoping they’re not too basic. We arrive at Hlane Park, driving through a great deal of gated fencing and it’s already dark. I’ve been allocated a little hut in a compound; it’s a big site with camping and cottages and there’s no electricity. It’s lit with paraffin lamps, which is romantic as long as you don’t want to find anything.
Thulani is supposed to be showing me to my room, but he can't find it and instead he's dancing around in the gloom declaiming, ’The numbers are confusing me’. I eventually work out which one I’m in and fumble my way in. The contents of my bag go flying as I try and unpack using only the sense of touch. It’s not easy. I’m told to report for a sunrise safari at 5.15 a.m. I double check that. Aaaaargh. Then I reconnoitre my route to the morning meeting place, navigating by following an arc of lamps from a parking lot.
Except that when I venture out at 5 a.m the lights have all been extinguished. I know which way to set off, but I’ve soon gone astray. All I can see is shadowy bush and a group of impala leaping away in front of me. I retrace my steps and realise I’m utterly lost. Time to panic. I eventually stumble across a cottage and knock up the poor inhabitants. They are very understanding South Africans who get dressed and escort me, a little fretful, to the correct place.
The safari park is really just a giant zoo, huge barbed wire enclosed areas of forest and veldt. But the trip passes off well and the resident pride of lions, once discovered, thoughtfully group themselves right in front of our land-cruiser, yawning, growling, licking each other, sharpening their claws on tree trunks and leaping at the odd vulture who ventures towards their recent kill, hidden in the bushes. No spotlights necessary. This is proper elephant country, flat bush interspersed with dead tree trunks and odd thickets where the antelope, giraffe and zebra lurk.
The white rhino (making up the Big Five on this trip - I've come from Zambia) are kept in a separate enclosure, so that they can be better guarded. I’m not sure about this logic. Surely keeping them with lions is a bigger deterrent? Though this way we can be charged separately for seeing them.
Rhino tracking involves driving to a spot where you can see the huge mammals, getting out of the truck and following the guide (very cautiously) upwind of them. They have poor eye sight, but good hearing and an acute sense of smell. Five females are dozing under a tree, lumbering suspiciously to their feet as we approach, then quickly slipping back into lethargy when they deem us harmless. Senzo, the guide has a wooden swizzle stick ready to distract them if they become alarmed. He says their sight is so bad they need clear diversions and the best thing to do is bang a tree if they seem agitated. I’m glad he doesn’t have to.
Then a transfer to another eSwatini park, Mkhaya and more cottages lit with paraffin lamps. I have to concede that this one is actually very romantic, though still very impractical. The cottage has half open stone walls, so I’m actually sleeping in the bush. There are monkeys screaming in the forest and I’ve been warned to hide all my valuables, as they stage raids on the dwellings. The rhino and big game is kept out by an electric fence, but there are antelope wandering just outside my room. The pretty little nyala look as if someone has painted their flanks with runny icing sugar. And I shall be checking my bed for snakes and other undesirables before I get in.
I’ve been spoilt for game in Zambia I feel. Here I’ve seen wildebeest (making up the Ugly Five on this trip), warthog, zebra, kudu and giraffe, but the Swazi varieties are skittish, bolting off as our vehicle approaches. The hippo, however, are curious and swim towards us, heads swivelling as we pass, but they still maintain a careful distance. I’ve also seen plenty more white rhino. This park is one of the few places in the world where they also have the hugely endangered black rhino, (we're told) but these are rarely seen, as they feed from the trees and hide in the thickets.
It’s an open air dinner, with candles round a log fire. Definitely romantic. Fortunately, I can read from the Kindle app on my phone when it’s dark. This is helpful when it comes to the ensuing ‘cultural performance’. I’m stoic for half an hour, but sidle away, when the audience participation commences.
We don’t drive out till 6.15 a.m. this morning, so a real luxury of a lie in. There’s little to see except more rhinos, though I’m enjoying the landscape. The flat-topped acacias and pineapple crested aloes are uniquely gorgeous, the red African sun peeping through them.
A walking safari is scheduled after breakfast; I brace myself for the usual lengthy explanations about vegetation, as we manoeuvre along the paths with trepidation. Most of the plants here have wicked thorns, in order to survive in the vicinity of so much wildlife. And, as anticipated, the guide explains about the amazing medicinal properties of each plant. But there’s also plenty of dung of different varieties, and it’s fresh. I’m pleasantly surprised to find that the giraffe and zebra are much more amenable when we’re on foot and we spend a delightful hour hob-nobbing with more than a dozen of the ungulates.
The zebra are hangers-on, says our guide, as they can’t see very well, so they wait for the giraffes to signal if they spy trouble. There’s also another group of white rhino, with two cute babies. The young males entertain the infants with a game of horn bashing, before they collapse for a nap. The white rhino seem more habituated to humans than the other animals here. I wonder if it would be safer for them if they were not.
Another transfer, another dusk arrival. This time I’m at Mlilwane Camp, the original Swazi game reserve. My home for the next two nights is a traditional spherical ‘beehive hut’, in a village circle, with - hurrah - electricity. Except it has no windows at all, which is a little odd, so I still can’t see much. I’ve just sent the curtain on a pole, that divides my bathroom from the main room, flying. The pole supports are well beyond my reach. I knew the cool box Thulani gave me would come in handy for something. You also have to stoop right down to enter, as it has an exceptionally low arched doorway, which has to be modelled on a hobbit-hole.
The setting here is stunning-rich red soil, misty mountains and antelope (very tame indeed here) grazing on jade green pasture in the foreground. The lofty pillar aloes are bearing sunny yellow flowers, beloved of sunny yellow birds. Today, I’m off on a tour to learn something about the country.
Guide, Sifosi, outlines the programme, which includes an overview of the kings and queen of eSwatini's palaces (we’re not allowed close up) and parliament at Lobamba, other government buildings at Mbabane, a cultural village, a cultural show and a waterfall. It ends in a glass factory, so I can do some shopping. ‘It’s all entirely flexible’, he finishes.
‘I’m not keen on shopping’, I begin, but he decrees that we’re going anyway, so I don’t bother to suggest excluding the cultural show too, or dare to inquire what his definition of flexible is.
The cultural show is almost exactly the same as the last one, except that I can see it better, because it’s daytime. And the cultural village is almost exactly the same as the one I’m actually staying in, except that the doors are even lower, to keep animals and other enemies out. It's said to be 'a replica mid-19th Century Swazi village, constructed using authentic materials and techniques. set against the scenic backdrop of Nyonyane mountain', The commentary is amusing, if highly chauvinistic. Women on the left, men on the right. And the scenery is very nice.
Further along the Lushushwane River is Mantenga Falls, as promised, Swaziland’s largest waterfall by volume. The river tumbles through a series of glassy pools.
The food in eSwatini varies in quality, but is always plentiful. Most of the game parks serve buffet style- tasty impala stew, bean and pumpkin casserole, chops etc. There’s usually coleslaw or salad, most commonly with beets. Sadly for my figure, my favourite treat is the sweetish mealie (corn) bread.
It’s raining today and very chilly here in the high veldt. It’s a damp trudge through the squelching mud to the fry up buffet breakfast and the open dining area is dark and draughty. This is why I usually try and avoid anything that smacks of camping. I take my bowl of fruit and yogurt out to the camp fire, which has been protected by a sheet of corrugated metal, but it has been commandeered by two warthogs, who appear to be roasting themselves. I have planned a pleasant walk amongst all the friendly antelopes; this is now a non-starter. I’m not being picked up for my flight back to Jo’burg and onto Reunion until 11 a.m., so I’m marooned in my hut. I retire to bed and blankets.
It’s been a very long day. I’m flying from Brazzaville in Congo to Lusaka. As the crow flies Zambia is to the south east, but that’s not how it works. I have to travel north east to Nairobi and change planes and then fly southwest to Lusaka, covering over twice the distance a crow would. What’s more I have to stop en route at Kinshasa. At ten minutes this is surely one of the shortest international flights ever and the subject of sheer terror in case they make me get off the plane and won’t let me back on again. We also stop at Harare on the second leg and Harare isn’t exactly on a straight line from Nairobi to Lusaka either.
When the captain announces over the intercom, ’We’ve got a bit of a situation on our hands’, it doesn’t do much for your nerves. Fortunately, it isn’t too bad. A light aircraft landing at Lusaka has burst a tyre and blocked the runway. It looks as if we might have to divert, but after a few circuits of the city, while they tow it away and repair the tarmac, we land safely and I’m in the land of malls and fast food.
It’s now 1.15 a.m. so it’s technically tomorrow anyway. My visa on entry goes smoothly. I have U.S. dollars. The driver who picks me up insists on waiting for a passenger who subsequently turns out to be fictitious. I wait in the bus with a Zimbabwean who used to be a BBC engineer. He’s playing modern hymns full blast on his phone, ‘so that I can hear it too’. It seems churlish to point out that I’m not really in the mood. And it’s 3.30 in the morning before I get to bed.
David Livingstone was the first Briton to record having set foot on Zambian soil, in 1851. In 1855 he became the first European to see Mosi-oa-Tunya, the waterfall on the Zambezi River, which he named after Queen Victoria - although the Zambian town near the Falls is, in turn, named after him. In 1888, Cecil Rhodes, a mineral rights concessions from local chiefs and Northern and Southern Rhodesia, (now Zambia and Zimbabwe), were proclaimed a British sphere of influence. Northern Rhodesia was later combined with southern Rhodesia to form the central African federation. The discovery of copper resulted in change of emphasis to mining from colonization to farm and Zambia now produces over 13 % of the world’s copper.
Zambia is one of the poorest countries in the world, with, 60 percent of people living below the poverty line, 83 percent of people in rural areas. The economy fluctuates depending on the world price of copper. Nevertheless, in 2010, the World Bank named Zambia one of the world’s fastest economically reformed countries. After a downturn, the price of copper has started to rise again and tourism has been developed, especially at Victoria Falls, on the border with Zimbabwe and the game parks.
Reading tells me that Zambians are exceptionally friendly, and this is definitely true. Everyone has a greeting or offers help (though there’s also some begging). There are rules about who speaks first and, French style, you mustn’t initiate a conversation before exchanging a greeting. Apparently it’s also fine to call on Zambians unannounced. Though I assume that only applies to friends and relations. It’s generally considered a safe country to visit but there are the usual warnings about taking care after dark and especially out of town.
The two main draws are:
The population of Zambia is concentrated mainly around the capital Lusaka, in the south. The city is another urban sprawl and reading isn’t throwing up any must-sees. There’s a definite western influence apparent. My hotel is surrounded by shopping malls –it looks as if they’re still building most of them – and this seems to be where life in the city is centred. I’ve been for a wander round. It’s all very sixties, even though it’s new and the large Spar supermarket products are displayed along American lines – robust and well organised rather than elegant. It certainly isn’t cheap for such a poor country.
I'm travelling one of the great classic overland routes: Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe to Cape Town, through Botswana and Namibia in a truck. There are 12 passengers and I'm going to be sharing with Liz. I swore I was never camping again, but the trip dossier says that the drivers put our tents up for us.
Botswana is very flat, mainly Kalahari Desert, with most of the remainder taken up by the Okavango Delta. Modern-day humans first inhabited the country over 200,000 years ago. For the most part, the eventual settlers were the Tswana (hence Botswana), descended from Bantu-speaking tribes. In 1885, the British colonised the area, anxious about German influence in the area and wanting to preserve routes north from the Cape. They declared a protectorate called Bechuanaland.
Bechuanaland became independent, as Botswana, in 1966. Since then, it has been a representative republic, with a consistent record of uninterrupted democratic elections and the lowest perceived corruption ranking in Africa since at least 1998. Botswana is one of the most sparsely populated countries in the world and it was one of the poorest too, but the GDP has improved very rapidly over recent years - mining (Botswana is the world's biggest diamond producing country), cattle and tourism. Both the Kalahari and the Delta (during the seasonal floods) are home to a multitude of wildlife. It sounds promising.
We navigate the perimeter of the Caprivi Strip, a strange elongated finger of Namibia, to Chobe Game Park in Botswana. The park is famous for vast herds of elephants and it doesn’t disappoint. They are giant enough to fill the camera frame without a zoom and there are grey specks of elephants as far as the eye can see across the savannah. These are Kalahari elephants, the largest of them all. There are also elephant hunting lions (calves and weaklings), Cape buffalo, rhinoceros (both black and white), warthog, kudu, impala, zebra, hyenas, hippos, crocodiles, baboons and wildebeest. This is possibly the greatest concentration of wildlife in Africa.
As well as game drives we get a boat trip on the Chobe River. Here's a chance to really eyeball the hippos.
But disaster. We’ve been told we have to pitch our own tents. I’m distraught, until it transpires that my tent mate, Liz, loves anything practical. When we arrive at the sites, she packs me off to the bar and sets everything up on her own. She says it’s easier without me. We have two twenty something guide cum drivers (Brett, South African, Sven, Namibian) who amuse us by cooking topless, as well as coping with all the chores. This sort of camping is not too bad at all. It’s just a bit grubby.
I signed up for this trip because it featured an eclipse and I loved the atmosphere of the one in Cornwall in 2000. We pitch up to a clearing in the middle of the bush and get a brilliant clear view. It lasts from 7.05 to 8.20. We all pose for photos in our eclipse tour T-shirts - which we have been made to pay for. On to Maun and a laze by the pool, which we share with a herd of goats..
Next onto the renowned Okavango Delta, a vast and swampy inland river delta in northern Botswana (when it's the wet season). Here, the Okavango River runs into what's called a tectonic trough. There's no way out. The water just eventually evaporates.
We are punted past hippos, elephants and crocodiles in dug out canoes (called mokoros); giraffe and warthogs cavort. Even when there is no wildlife to spot, it’s extraordinarily relaxing laying back and peering through the waving papyrus fronds. I think that all I need is a fan and some grapes. Maybe, it’s not as relaxing for Andy and Deb who manage to capsize their boat. Going solo has its advantages at times.
The local villagers, who make their living from us tourists, are very friendly. Sundowners in the bar, to the accompaniment of the Frog Song, leading us to invent a toilet detecting compass. Namibia next.
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