Though a straight line appears to be the shortest distance between 2 points, life has a way of confounding geography. Often it is the dalliances and the detours that define us. There are no maps to guide our most important searches; we must rely on hope, chance, intuition and a willingness to be surprised.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Namibia - Swakopmund

(What a day this was. These three month old lion cubs were just amazing fun. One of the absolute highlights of the trip. This is an old pic of me when I was in Antelope Park in Zimbabwe. Thanks to Emma for sticking it on Facebook.)

Swakopmund on the Namibian coast is a bit like Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe. Though originally popular for its beautiful setting, the town now doubles up as a site for some of the wildest 'sports' and activities you can do anywhere in the world. (Tandem) skydiving and quad-biking are two of the most popular activities, but I instead signed up for Sandboarding and (solo!) paragliding, on the grounds that there are activities that are extremely rare.

As we arrived in Swakopmund, I saw the Atlantic for the first time in eight months. We had completed our journey from 'Coast to Coast', as our Oasis trip is named.

First off, Sandboarding. Being a keen snowboarder, I'd been looking forward to this for weeks.

Namibia is a sandy country. In fact, it is famous for its sand dunes and home to the largest dune in the world. On one particularly mountainous sand dune near Swakopmund its possible to strap a snowboard to your feet and board down the dune.

After looking forward to it so much I was a bit disappointed. Its not that the boarding doesnt work - it does. In fact, its actually possible to go faster and be more confident than on snow as the sand is finer than the finest powder and very soft to fall in.

The problem with sandboarding is the faff factor. I get frustrated with the faffing part of snowboarding - unclipping the bindings, riding the tow, walking to the paste, but at least with snowboarding there is a piste.

With sandboarding you have to walk back up after every run! And then you have to wax your board before you clip in again - major hassle.

The saving grace on the day was the ramp. I've done jumps in sandboarding but nothing as big as this (below) - this was a really forgiving surface to try jumps on.

(Right - as well as stand-up boarding, you could do lie-down boarding. I managed to clock a speed of 74kmph)

Overall it was well worthwhile, but maybe in the same category as 10-pin bowling for me - ie I could get excited about it if I haven't done it for a while but would probably always quickly get tired with the faffing.

But I still had the paragliding to look forward to after that... except that it was cancelled due to some kind of mix-up. So i decided to do skydiving instead... and then that was cancelled due to high winds. So Swakopmund didn't really go too smoothly for me! Actually though, it was nice to have a few days of just relaxing and not doing anything too strenuous.

With all of my activities cancelled on the last day I had plenty of free time on my hands. I ended up getting 'facebooked' off my nut in Swakopmund. Definitely the best website out there (I'm so over Myspace). Man, I'm addicted. If you aren't on it yet, get on there. It's about as addictive as chocolate cake, laced with crack.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Namibia - Cheetah Park

(On the trailer ride into the Cheetah enclosure: Round the outside - Cal (with bottle!), Maria, Sam, Jane, Numpty, Badge, Sami, Kes, Ness, Josh, Nick, Sheena, Emma and half of Alex. Inside – Brock, Sianeidh, Nicki, Sam, Lou and Clodagh. (Kate, Ed, me and Debbie are behind the camera).)

After Etosha, the next highlight in Namibia was Cheetah Park. On the way though, we had another roadside bushcamp.

Bushcamping is a necessary, but not necessarily loved, part of the Africa trip. It's great fun to camp in the middle of nowhere, have dinner and then sit in a big group round a bonfire with a few tins.

(Right: finger lickin' good. The Cheetah is the big cat that's kinda like a small cat.)

At the same time, most people on the truck are reluctant to bushcamp due to having to use a shovel when you go to the toilet... hmmmm. Not a problem for me though as I never have to go. I can always wait for the luxury of a flush toilet. I'm not sure whether this is a good thing or not... Adam? Anyway, I still haven't been ill at all in Africa - fingers crossed this'll continue.

Cheetah Park was once a working farm run by a white Namibian family. As was – and often still is – the norm, farmers in Namibia shoot Cheetahs in order to protect their livestock. One day, after shooting a Cheetah on their land, the family discovered that the Cheetah had three small cubs. Rather than letting the cubs die, the family took them home and reared them themselves.

Since then, they have taken in a number of Cheetahs (they have around a dozen adults at the moment) over the years, which they have recovered from other farms. They have converted their farmland into extensive enclosures where the Cheetahs live.

It’s quite a different prospect to Antelope Park in Zimbabwe, where there is an expectation that lions will be returned to the wild. Nevertheless, I think they are doing some good. For the Cheetahs they save there probably isn’t a better option available.

When we arrived at the park, we ‘met’ the domesticated Cheetahs and got our photos taken with them. This didn’t have the same impact as the lion walk or lion cub viewing. I couldn’t help but feel that a domesticated Cheetah is something less than 100% Cheetah. Nevertheless, they are beautiful animals. Very graceful, they appear even slimmer up close. The only slightly less attractive feature is their heads, which really look too small for their bodies.

The Cheetah feeding in the afternoon was much more thrilling and showed the Cheetahs in something closer to their natural habitat. The group all piled into a trailer, which was towed into the huge enclosure.

After a while Cheetahs started to emerge, until there were ten all around the trailer, waiting to be fed. There followed much prowling, purring and mewing, after which, chunks of (horse?) meat were thrown to the Cheetahs.

As if being towed around on a trailer didn’t feel amateur enough, the tractor wouldn’t start and a few of us had to get out (into the Cheetah enclosure) and push-start the tractor. This was after the Cheetahs had been fed obviously…

Had a really good laugh that night. Much gossip, though none about me. And Alex secretly recorded many drunken conversations on his ipod, which gave most of us a good laugh when we played it back on the truck the next day.

(Spooky campfire shot.)

The next night was spent at the massive rock outcrop of Spitzkopfe. Great opportunity to do some rock scrambling. Plus, chilling out under the stars, after a dinner of Kudu stew gave us all a nice slower-paced evening before the adrenaline activities at Swakopmund.

Namibia - Etosha National Park

(With two-foot long horns the Oryx (retreating on the left of the picture) has been known to kill lions when attacked. But nothing will mess with a thirsty elephant.)

Another indicator of our progress into the more developed part of Africa was the border crossing from Botswana to Namibia. The quickest, easiest and friendliest crossing yet.
It was just a short drive from the border to our first campsite. The campsite had a bar next to the Chobe River from where we could sit with a beer and watch a herd of elephants on the far side drinking, washing themselves and generally wandering around. Incredible.

(RIGHT: The Oryx - between the zebra and antelopes - is a beautiful creature... and also makes for a tasty kebab as I found out in Swakopmund on the Namibian coast.)

That night I turned down the opportunity to drink all 25 shooters at the bar – well done Brock, Nikki and Jane – and had a fairly sedate evening. Still wasn’t a great night’s sleep though as I was woken up in my tent early in the morning by the sound of an elephant in the camp. I couldn’t decide whether to hide in the tent or run for safety. I quickly tried to remember how close to a tree I’d camped.

(LEFT: kneasy does it - another option for drinking from a waterhole when you're a giraffe. RIGHT: elephants wearing booties after a dip in a waterhole.)

Deciding that fleeing was better than being trampled without knowing about it, I emerged to find people milling around the truck fixing breakfast. Turns out the ‘elephant’ was the sound of one of the squeaky doors on the side of the truck opening. Doh.

After another driving day and bushcamp night, we arrived in Etosha National Park, now recognized as one of the best game parks in Africa.

We weren’t disappointed. Over two days we did a number of game drives and saw huge numbers of antelope, oryx, zebras, giraffes and elephants. Plus we saw a pride of lionesses stalking (though not attacking anything). Again the highlight was seeing a leopard. In seven visits to the park, Chris – our driver – has only seen a leopard twice. The trip seems to be blessed again. Plus, I got another picture of a leopard jumping into a tree!

Our campsite within the National Park was superb. Just a couple of minutes walk from where we camped was a floodlit waterhole that was teeming with animals at all times of the day and night.

Every time I went down to the waterhole I saw different animals. Seeing – and hearing - the elephants at night was awesome. It was really disappointing that we couldn’t spend another night at the campsite – definitely a false economy on the part of Oasis to stay there only one night. Overall though, so far the trip has been superbly well planned and except for Etosha I’ve always felt we’ve spent long enough in the right places.

(It's not easy drinking from a waterhole when you're a giraffe.)

(A lionness lazily stalks some far-off prey.)

Monday, August 13, 2007

Botswana - The Okavango Delta

(A funky little frog sitting on a reed in the waters of the Okavango Delta.)

If Chobe National Park was a surprise highlight, the Okavango Delta was something that I'd been looking forward to for some time (though – as you can see below – there were still some surprise thrills). The Delta is for many people the highlight of a visit to Botswana. It is the largest inland delta in the world covering some 20,000 square kilometers.

The first impression we got of the Delta came from just a couple of centimeters above the water. Twenty of us took a trip into the Delta in a type of two-man canoe known locally as a Mokori. Each canoe was punted by one of the local people, acting as a poler. This was a unique and incredibly relaxing experience. From down at the water level, the Delta is a maze of islands and waterways. The water is nowhere deeper than a couple of metres and reeds and grasses poke out of the water everywhere, making the land and water seem to merge in places.

After sailing out into the heart of the Delta, we stopped at a large island and stayed there for two nights. We were able to try out our skills piloting the Mokoris, with limited success. Nick and I were able to punt our way over to the ‘hippo pool’ where we could see hippos and elephants in the distance.

The above photo is of Debbie and Numpty on the delta. Numpty used to be called Nicki, but was awarded the ‘numpty’ so many times – six times to be exact - that everyone started to call her numpty. Seems a tad unfair now, given that in the Delta I got the numpty for the sixth time myself…

On the first day in the Delta, I’d fallen out of a Mokori, while trying to race across a stretch of the Delta. I had been picking up the technique pretty well, but then, as I always do with snowboarding and windsurfing, I got to cocky and came a cropper. Pretty harsh to get numpty for the fifth time, just for that I felt.

It wouldn’t be fair to say that I was ‘given’ the numpty the sixth time. In fact, after a big night in the delta, I opted to keep it for myself. I received so many nominations the next day, that I have to admit that anything else would have been a travesty. Singing the Scottish national anthem at deafening volume and falling over while dancing and flattening “Big Momma’s” (LEFT) tent being perhaps the most noteworthy nominations.

I can only say that I’ve since vowed to mend my ways (!) and have not received the numpty again since. Although there was a very near miss a week later, when I was nominated for

(a) getting up at 6am to go on a game drive, but then missing the truck and having to wait at the camp… because I wandered off to check when the internet would be open (gotta admire that commitment to the website)

(b) being annoyed because someone had ‘stolen’ my battery charger from the toilets and then finding it later in the pocket of my jeans

(c) leaving a plastic plate next to the fire and returning only after it had melted into a kinda bowl shape. (I was told that unfortunately there was no need for extra bowls, so sadly the plate hit the bin)


(d) being caught writing a postcard to myself… which started “Hi Calum, remember this...”. Now to be honest, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing yourself a postcard. Isn’t it a great way to remember your holidays? (Rhetorical question)

(Me, Sheena, Alex, Brock and Sam looking extremely relieved to be back on solid ground.)

After returning to camp from our two-night trip out across the waters, we had an opportunity to see the Delta from a very different perspective. Five of us - Brock, Alex, Sam (Girl), Sheena and I took a scenic flight in a 6 seater Cessna out over the Delta.

This was a very special way of seeing how vast and beautiful the Delta was. The dots in the photos below are herds of elephant or water buffalo. We also saw giraffes. It was an amazing feeling spotting the animals from 350 feet up.

However, none of us will remember the flight primarily for the animals... our pilot, 24-year old Chris (RIGHT) turned out to have a penchant for stunt flying. After a few minutes of flying over the Delta, he brought the plane right down until we were flying at full-speed just a baw-hair above the water.

As trees approached ahead, he pulled the plane into a steep climb and then when we were a couple of hundred feet up, levelled off suddenly, giving us a sudden sensation of weightlessness and making my binoculars fly to the back of the cabin.

After he'd done this another twice, each time flying below the level of the tree-tops, the five of us were both traumatised and grinning like idiots. I was also sweating prefusely, though perhaps not as freaked out as Sam, who (RIGHT) had to bury her face in my shoulder any time the pilot started doing anything crazy.

This was definitely another absolute highlight of Africa. I'm grinning again any time I think about it.

(LEFT: The Delta looked beautiful from the air. A rich green and blue mosaic with the light brown of trees and occassional reds and yellows.)

(Animals appeared infrequently, but often in large numbers. To see a line of elephants wading through the shallows was breathtaking. One herd numbered thirty or more, water buffalo perhaps two or three times as many again.)

(Flying at top speed below the tops of the trees. The Okavango Delta wasn't just about relaxation...)

Botswana - Chobe National Park

(Elephants - including a tiny baby elephant walk across the grasslands and waters of Chobe National Park.)

After Zimbabwe, going into Botswana was like going to a different continent.

Immediately the roads were better and there were new shops and petrol stations.

It seemed that everyone was better dressed, and I noticed in particular how people had new-ish leather shoes whereas I remembered that most people in Zimbabwe had poor shoes or none at all.

It was also noticeable how people seemed to walk around with some kind of purpose while a lot of people in Zimbabwe didn't seem to have anywhere to go to, or anything to do. Not surprising given that unemployment in that country is 80% in some areas, whilst Botswana's economy has been one of the best performing in Africa in recent years.

This wasn't an entirely new sensation. Going from Bolivia to Chile in January was quite a culture-shock, but though this felt similar, it was a much bigger change and left me with a really strange feeling. After looking forward to Botswana so much, I now had a feeling of disappointment, as if I'd left part of the real Africa behind...

For once, I decided to leave my camera behind so that I might better enjoy the cruise. This turned out to be a big mistake as the wildlife was amazing. Both of our tour leaders - Chris and Nancy - said that it was miles better than any time they had done the cruise in the past. Luckily Alex had his camera and got some great shots (he's got a great eye for a beautiful photo) - some of which you can see here. And anyway, I didn't feel as bad as the other half of the group who didn't go at all!

Chobe National Park is a spectacular game reserve close to Botswana’s borders with Zimbabwe and Zambia. The key feature of the park is the Chobe River which flows through one corner of the park and provides a huge number of drinking and bathing options for discerning elephants, hippos and water buffalo.

The park has the highest concentration of elephants in Africa, with an incredible 120,000 in the park. As you can see from the photos, we didn’t have any trouble spotting elephants.

Amazingly, we didn’t have any problems spotting hippos out of the water either. We had seen hippos a number of times in Tanzania, Malawi and Zimbabwe, but always just a tantalising glimpse of their eyes, the rest of the hippo being hidden in the water. Now we were treated to the sight of a herd of about 30 walking around out of the water, drinking and yawning, as if posing for photographs. There were also some very young baby rhinos which were an absolute joy to watch.

Hippos are famous for being the most dangerous animal in Africa, responsible for the most number of deaths each year. Although they looked docile for most of the time, we did see a couple of fights.

Charging hippos are quite a pulse-quickening sight – they can definitely outrun humans. The hippos always seemed to keep some distance from elephants and water buffalo, all of which seem to treat each other with a lot of respect.

As well as those big three animals, we saw some other big game, including a huge crocodile and beautiful Kudu, of which there are pictures of a male (above) and female (below) here.
The absolute highlight of the cruise was saved for last.

Just as we were heading back up the river, we were lucky enough to see an elephant wade across the river right in front of the boat. The water was never quite deep enough that the elephant had to swim, but watching it wade across, using its trunk as a snorkel, was spectacular. You can see photos here of the elephant in the water and emerging at the other side.

Another of those ‘tearful’ moments that I’ve had quite a few of on this trip! (Embarrassing, heh heh heh!)