Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Himba Nation

One of the things that was important to us during this trip was making sure we connected with the people of each area we visited. To be honest, this ended up being more challenging than we thought it would be as we were often viewed as tourists (which, of course, we were) and as a source of income. That said, we still had plenty of deep and authentic connections with people all through our travels, and one of the most intimate experiences we had was when we visited a Himba village.

The Himba people live in northern Namibia and form a very specific tribal group. The Himba are cattle farmers and the men often take more than one wife. In our case, the family we visited had four wives, one husband, and sixteen children.

Himba husband, two wives, and children around the main fire

Julia with the first wife

Family photo 

The Himba people live in northern Namibia and also in Angola, and set up their villages in the desert. The village we visited was just in the process of moving locations, which basically means re-building the round, earthen huts they live in and moving their few belongings.

Himba playground

Himba toy

The first wife of the village was very interested in teaching us about her culture, and particularly about what women do to be beautiful. In traditional Himba culture, the women wear almost no clothing except for a small piece of cloth over their lower body. The women are not allowed to touch water, and never bathe. Their form of bathing is to build a small fire each night, burn herbs and incense in the fire, then cover themselves in a cloak over the fire to let the smoke penetrate their skin.

Wearing handmade jewelry and rubbing ochre into skin makes this Himba woman beautiful

A large part of Himba beauty involves rubbing ochre into skin. The women from Himba villages will travel for days by foot, or, if they're lucky, in the back of a truck, to collect ochre from the mountains. They then rub the powder into butter and rub it into their skin and hair.

First wife with ochre rubbed on her hair

Hands dyed red from ochre

Julia has been beautified by getting ochre rubbed on her legs and by wearing the traditional Himba wedding cap

Before we left, the first wife of the village wanted to sing a song for us.We were able to catch it on video, and showed it to her after she was finished. The look on her face as she watched herself was priceless.

The first wife asked to walk us to our car as we left, and after many hugs and a few kisses, we climbed into the truck and headed back to our campsite.

Though we were with this family for just a few hours, the memory will stay with us for a lifetime. What a gift to be welcomed so openly into their lives, even if it was just for a brief moment in time.

Saturday, September 14, 2013

Double Click

We knew when we planned this trip that we would meet many different people from varying tribes and cultures. We've really enjoyed learning a few words in other languages, particularly the languages of the local tribes in the areas we traveled through.

We especially enjoyed our trip to Damaraland in Northern Namibia, where we had the chance to meet and spend time with a lot of Damara people.

We asked Tony, our guide at Twyfelfontein, to make a video explaining the different click sounds in the Damara language and how to make them. He was happy to help, and incredibly professional considering he's never been filmed before. Watch and see how good he is on camera!

We loved his enthusiasm - so go visit him already!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Border Patrol

The town of Kasane, Botswana sits at the corner of three other countries: Zambia, Zimbabwe and Namibia. As we'd already traveled through Namibia, we decided Kasane was a good place to slow down for a few days as we did some research to determine whether we should head into Zambia or Zimbabwe next.

We'd heard from other campers that Senyanti Safari Camp was a good spot, so we headed there. It turned out we liked the camp (and the owners - Louw and Lulu) so much we stayed for three days. The big draw? A private watering hole where animals from Zimbabwe crossed over into Botswana (the border here is around 100 meters behind the water hole) for water during the dry season.

Elephant and Giraffe having a drink in the hot afternoon

Young elephant after a mudbath

Our first afternoon we looked off in the distance and saw something moving near the treeline - and realized it was a herd of buffalo heading our way. As we watched, the buffalo just kept coming - first it was one, then three, then five, then too many coming too fast to count. We looked to our left and saw a family of about 20 elephants moving in as well - and as soon as the buffalo and elephants sensed each other, the race was on to get to the water. The elephants picked up their pace and sprinted toward the watering hole - they have a favorite spot in the center where the fresh water comes out. The buffalo were happy enough to take whichever spot they could find, but they had to watch out as they were quickly knocked out of the way by the large elephants. 

Elephants and Cape buffalo jockeying for position
Two young elephants
By the end of the night, over 300 buffalo had visited the waterhole along with around 100 elephants - that was a view that couldn't be beat!

We did take one night off from the water hole to do a sunset cruise on the Chobe River. We'd heard rave reviews of the sunset view from there, and had to check it out. Like many tourist attractions, it ended up being a little more crowded than we would have preferred, but we enjoyed our time on the river nonetheless.

Boat parade on the Chobe River Sunset cruise
Elephant on the Chobe River - this one is shaking the dirt off the reeds pulled from the river

African Darter - these birds swim with their bodies under water so they often just look like snake heads sticking out of the water

Open-bill stork

Male waterbuck with a Cape buffalo in the background


White-fronted bee eater
Chobe River Sunset
Chobe River Sunset

Our final evening in Senyanti we were invited by Lulu and Louw to go into the underground bunker they had built just a few meters from the water hole - we were able to see the elephants up close and even had one step on top of the bunker for a few moments:

Watching a breeding herd drinking from the underground bunker

Viewing a large bull elephant from the safety of our bunker

We'd planned to go into Zimbabwe at this point, but as there were presidential elections happening on July 31st, we decided that we'd better avoid Zim for the time being and headed into Zambia instead. (Yes, we know we are quite behind in our posts!)

We'd been warned of the difficulty of crossing into Zambia by the company we rented our vehicle from, so we left camp early to make sure we'd have plenty of time to get through the border.

Exiting Botswana was super simple for us, but much less simple for the truckers who drive the routes into Zambia and Zimbabwe. There were transport trucks lined up for over 5 kilometers waiting to get on the ferry to Zambia - some of them told us they'd been waiting in line for three weeks as the ferry is quite small and can't move many vehicles at once.

Trucks waiting in line for 3 weeks to get into Zambia
Once we'd exited Bostwana, we knew we had to catch a ride with a ferry about 750 meters across the Zambezi river to get into Zambia. Imagine our joy and surprise when this is what pulled up:

Kazungula Ferry to Zambia

The ferry fit exactly two cars and one long-haul truck - plus about 20 pedestrians. Once on the ferry, we had to get out of the cars (even though the ride took only about 5 minutes). We tried not to be too nervous even though water from the river was splashing over our feet as we stood on the ferry.

Kazungula Ferry to Zambia

Asa driving off the Kazungula Ferry
When we arrived in Zambia, we were careful to make sure we stopped at all the offices we needed to visit in order to enter the country. Unlike Namibia, Botswana, and South Africa, Zambia requires the payment of several taxes and fees in addition to a visa.

Our first stop was at immigration where we paid the visa fee of $50 each for a 30 day stay in Zambia. The immigration official was incredibly helpful and even warned us that Zambia had changed it's currency at the beginning of the year and taught us how to tell the difference between the old and new notes.

New banknotes from 1/1/13 in Zambia
After we went through immigration, we had to head to the customs office, around the corner and past a very bored looking guard holding an AK-47. In the customs office, we had to file a temporary import permit for our car, and pay a fee for bringing the car into Zambia. There began our first problem - the customs office only takes Zambian kwacha, and we only had US dollars, Namibian dollars, and South African rand. The customs official told us to simply go around the corner to the bank located within the immigration office to exchange cash - easy enough. We walked over to the bank and asked to change some USD into kwacha. The two men there told us it wasn't possible to change money as they didn't have the correct stationary - they'd just run out. We asked if they had kwacha, which they did, just not the right paper to write a receipt for us. We asked if they could make a copy of a receipt, to which they turned away from us and discussed for a few moments. No, they could not. But they could direct us to another office to exchange money.

We followed their directions and headed out of the immigration office, past the officer with the AK-47, and around the corner to an exchange bureau where we quickly were able to pick up the necessary kwacha. We went back to the customs office and tried to pay our fee - unfortunately, the cashier had gone to lunch while we were out getting kwacha. No big deal, we said, we'll just go make our other payments.

First, we headed back toward the ferry (and past the AK-47) to the police station, where we had to hand over a $20 bill (in US currency). We're still not sure why we had to pay that, perhaps a road tax, perhaps just a quick bribe, but everyone told us to go to the police office to pay $20.

With that done, we needed to pick up third party insurance, which is required if you are self-driving in Zambia. Funnily enough, the insurance covers almost nothing - we just looked at it as another travel tax. After standing in the road trying to figure out where the third party insurance office was, we went back to the customs office to ask the official there as he had been super helpful to us. He walked us outside (again past the AK-47 wielding guard) and pointed at a white building on the outside of the gate. We walked over, knocked, and were promptly let in. We asked for third party insurance and received blank stares - we were definitely in the wrong office. One of the men there told us to go to the green building across the street.

We walked across the street (with dozens of 'touts' in tow - men who want you to pay them to help simplify the immigration process) and into the green building, and were sure we had the wrong place again. There were four women sitting inside and dressed to kill - long artificial nails, complicated weaves, and tight vests and shirts that showed off ALL their assets. It looked much more like a beauty salon than an insurance office, but it turned out we were in the right place. Getting the insurance form filled out took much longer than we expected, and the women were looking Julia up and down for about 10 minutes before one of them said,

"You know, we like your style. Your hair."

Julia: "Oh, thank you."

Insurance woman: "We can't have hair like that, we have to have weaves."

Julia: "I think your hair looks nice, too."

All the women: "Oooooh, thank you!!"

Insurance woman: "You know, we think you don't look like a white girl. White girls are always skinny skinny. You aren't skinny skinny. You have curves and boobs. We like it. It's nice."

Julia: "Um, thank you?"

Finally the insurance paperwork was finished, and we were able to head back to the customs office (and of course past the guard with the weapon) to see if the cashier was back from lunch. She wasn't, but the customs official liked us and called us over. He wrote a note at the top of our temporary import permit saying we could just pay the fee upon exiting Zambia. With a wave and a smile, we ran out to our truck and jumped in, ready to get out of there.

At the last minute, we noticed a woman flagging us down - we had inadvertently passed her when we were trying to leave. We had to show her all our papers, and once she was satisfied, she let us drive through the gate.

Two hours after getting off the ferry we were finally in Zambia! Could have been easy to get frustrated, but we decided to approach everything with a sense of humor, which really helped.That seems to be the best way to handle most things here. We left the border post hoping that our adventures in our fourth African country would be less complicated.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Moremi Game Reserve, Botswana

Moremi Game Reserve is the only part of the Okavango Delta that is officially set aside as a wildlife preserve, and we'd heard from other travelers that it's an incredible place. Before we left on our trip, the company we rented our vehicle from told us that all the campsites in Moremi had been booked out for the past year, so we'd have to take our chances and see what we could find when we got there. Luckily, after an afternoon of driving to different offices, we were able to book campsites for four nights in Moremi.

We left Maun early one morning and headed toward the South Gate of Moremi. We got there early enough to be able to do a bit of a game drive on our way to the camp site. (Seriously, the drives here are LONG - we had to go about 2 hours into the game reserve just to get to our campsite - and that doesn't including stopping and looking at animals on the way).

Yawning Hippo at Black Pools

Giraffe skeleton

Male impala having a little munch

When we arrived at our camp site at Third Bridge, we had a nice surprise - a handful of elephants were quietly eating on the edge of the camp during the sunset, including this mother and baby. They stayed until the sun went down, and then wandered into the bush.We also had a huge bull elephant just outside the back wall of our outdoor shower - we waited until he walked away to take our showers.

Mama and baby at sunset

That evening, we heard all kinds of wildlife around our tent, including lions roaring about 500 yards away, which is one of the most incredible sounds we've ever experienced.

The next morning, we got up early and went out for a game drive, hoping to find the lions we'd heard the night before. It was a pretty quiet morning (sure, we saw lots of elephant, giraffe, zebra and other plains game, but we were ready for a little excitement!), and we were discussing whether or not to turn around and head back to camp before the sun got too hot. We decided to try just one more loop, and were completely delighted to bump into these big boys:

Three male lions in the early morning

These male lions were lying nearly in the road - in fact, two of them had their paws hanging in the tire tracks. We pulled up next to them (meaning, about 10 feet away) and sat with them for 45 minutes as they cleaned each other, licking and purring like normal house cats, except quite a bit bigger and more vicious. They were sleeping near a waterhole, and when we turned to peek at the waterhole we noticed this honey badger coming in for a drink.

Honey badger DO give a damn (if you don't get this reference, please go to YouTube and search for "honey badger don't give a damn" for some hilarious videos on honey badgers)

The honey badger made its way to the water until the wind changed and it caught a whiff of the lions - as soon as it smelled them, it took off in the opposite direction. We managed to catch a quick glimpse of a cheetah as well, and decided that was a pretty successful morning and headed back to camp.

That evening, we were hopeful that the elephants would come back, but they didn't come by before dark. We did, however, have a huge hyena march right into our camp - she wasn't worried about us at all! She came up to the camp fire to check to see if there was any meat on the grill - when she saw there was nothing for her to steal, she moved off to the next camp site.

The next morning, it was time for us to move to Khwai Camp Site on the northern edge of Moremi. Khwai is quite wild - it's well known for having a lot of predators visit the camp sites at night, so we wanted to get there in plenty of time to set up camp and make dinner before dark.

On the way, we stopped to watch a family of monkeys playing in a tree above the road - one of the best things about doing a self-drive is that we can stop and watch whatever we want without having to worry that we are on a set schedule. Vervet monkeys are incredibly entertaining, and their complex social structure makes for interactions between the monkeys you can watch for hours.

Young vervet monkey

Once in Khwai, we agreed that we should do some prep work to get dinner ready so we could go on an afternoon game drive (we'd heard there was a leopard in the area we really wanted to find!) and still have an early dinner. As we were chopping vegetables, we heard the cracking of branches that can only mean one thing: elephants. We realized a family of elephants was heading straight for our camp, so we threw the pots and pans into the car, and watched as they ate their way around our camp site.

This elephant walked past our camp, then managed to pull down an entire tree
After the elephants left, we finished our prep for dinner and jumped in the car for a quick afternoon game drive. We'd heard that there was a leopard in a leadwood tree with an an impala kill very close to our camp, but we never managed to find it. We did, however, spot this beautiful giant eagle owl with a fresh kill in a tree.

Giant eagle owl after just capturing dinner

We drove back to camp just before sunset, and decided we should probably shower before it was dark. As Julia was showering, Asa worked on setting up the tent. He heard a noise, and was blown away to see a herd of impala run sprinting right through the camp site. He knew right away they were being chased by something, and kept his eyes out for what, exactly, was chasing them. As Julia came out of the shower building, Asa saw something moving behind her. At first, he thought it was a pack of hyena, but it turned out to be wild dogs instead:

Wild dogs on a hunt just next to our camp site

What you can't see in the photo is that Julia is standing just to the right of the bush in the foreground. The dogs ran right behind her, with one taking a few looks to determine whether or not she was a potential meal. Then they split up and took off, clearly communicating and hunting with a strategy. We fell asleep that night feeling incredibly lucky - people visit Africa for decades and never have the chance to see wild dogs, and we had them right in our camp.

During the night, we heard the roaring of lions and the howling of jackals and hyena - it's better than any kind of white noise machine you can find. We woke up very early with the goal of going for a game drive (and hopefully finding the wild dogs) before we headed north into Chobe National Park for the next night of camping.

We drove toward the Khwai River, knowing predators often pop by for a drink in the early morning. We were beyond thrilled to see wild dogs almost right away, and they were clearly on a hunt. We followed the wild dogs on their hunt, along with two safari cars, through an employee camp and watched them as they picked up the scent and then sprinted away, faster than would have been possible to follow. We decided to sit and have a cup of coffee and watch skittish impalas - the two safari cars drove away. Once again, we relied on our instinct to guide us, and as we took a turn around a thick wooded section, we found the wild dogs again on a fresh impala kill.

There were 7 dogs hunting that morning, but just three dogs took this impala down, and immediately ripped it into pieces.

Three wild dogs on an impala kill

Wild dogs usually rip their prey apart alive - just like they did with this impala
We could tell these three dogs were looking for the rest of the pack, and we soon saw the remaining four come sprinting through the bush from behind - watching them reunite was unbelievable - it was like the dogs were talking to each other and saying, "look what we did, look what we caught for you!" They were yipping and barking and wagging tails - it was incredible.

About 10 minutes after the dogs had their kill, the vultures and eagles started showing up, looking to see if they could get a bite.

An African fish eagle checking out the scene above the wild dogs

 The impala was gone in less than half an hour, and the dogs headed off after a quick drink to bring food back to their den and their pups, and all the other adults that were either sick, injured or on babysitting duty.

Post-kill drink

The best part was that we had the dogs all to ourselves for almost half an hour before we saw the professional safari cars slowly making their way to the wild dog kill. We couldn't figure out why they were driving so slowly until they got closer - turns out they were following a lioness who must have smelled the blood and was checking out the scene to see if she could snag any food for herself. She ended up just watching from the bushes for a while and giving up, but it was still an incredible scene.

And if that weren't enough excitement for the morning, we came across a male and female lion on a buffalo kill, just happily ripping the contents of the buffalo's belly out and spreading it across the grass. It was amazing to see how the lions weren't at all bothered by the game cars - we're not sure if that's a good sign or a bad sign when it comes to letting wildlife be wild in these game reserves.

Lioness pulling apart a Cape buffalo from the inside out
As we've been traveling, we keep hearing that we are lucky. We know we're lucky in that we get to be on this adventure, but we're also seeing so much incredible wildlife - much more than others have seen on similar trips, so we are incredibly grateful for our experiences. This trip has been life-changing, and continues to shake us to our core each and every day. We live in a beautiful, vicious, thrilling world, and we're so happy we're getting to experience this.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Into the Wild (Botswana Edition, Part 1)

Botswana is considered the absolute mecca when it comes to viewing wildlife. It's often on the top of safari travelers' lists because you're nearly guaranteed to see lions, leopards and other predators along with hundreds of elephants and plains game like antelope, wildebeest and smaller animals.

In Botswana, the Okavango Delta is considered the best place for experiencing wildlife. The Delta is a unique ecosystem where rains from the mountains of southern Angola move down through Namibia and into the Okavango River, flooding into the desert in Botswana and creating the Okavango Delta. It's the biggest oasis on the planet, and the only place in the world where the floods start in the desert and end in the desert - the water runs out before it reaches the ocean.

Because of the huge quantities of water in the Okavango Delta, animals from hundreds of miles away migrate to the region during the dry season for easy access to waterholes and abundant foods. Reaching the Okavango Delta has been one of our main goals on this trip, and we were blown away by how many animals we saw in Botswana.

We entered Botswana from Namibia on the Western side of the Delta and spent a few nights at Guma Lagoon. Getting there proved to be a challenge - we had to drive through deep sand and a small lagoon to arrive at the camp site. It didn't help that our GPS pointed us one way, the signs on the route pointed a different way, and these boys told us an entirely different way.

Highway robbers - these boys wouldn't tell us the way to our next camp site until we gave them our chips, and even after that, the road they pointed us to was completely flooded over.

It was great to stay put for a few days in a row and not have to collapse the tent. We enjoyed time going for leisurely walks, reading, lying in the sun and we spent an afternoon (unsuccessfully) fishing on the lagoon.

Sunset on Guma Lagoon

After a few days of R&R at Guma Lagoon, we made our way to Maun, one of Botswana's larger towns and the epicenter of the safari action going into the Okavango Delta. Our first stop was the Toyota Service Center - our LandCruiser kept refusing to turn off, even when we took the keys out of the ignition. We'd gotten good at stalling the car to get the engine to shut down, but thought it should be looked at and needed to have our 10K kilometer service done anyway.

Once in Maun, we started researching places to visit and potential campsites for Moremi Game Reserve. Before we came to Botswana, we had been told that it was impossible to book a campsite as they had all been pre-booked for months in advance. We had been told that each camp site holds one or two spots for people who show up last minute, so our plan was to simply show up at a campsite at 4 or 5 in the afternoon and ask for a space. At that point, the camp is required to give you a spot as you're not allowed to drive through the national park and wilderness areas at night. We were surprised and delighted to find out that we were able to book a few nights in Moremi Game Reserve and one in Savuti Camp - both very wild places where you're guaranteed to see a lot of game.

We had a few days before our newly booked camping reservations in Moremi, so we decided to do some true bush camping in the Okavango Delta and signed up for a 2 night canoe camping trip out in the wild.

The morning we departed we were loaded into a huge military type truck which was, for some unknown reason, named Roberta.

Roberta, our post-war ride to the mokoro boat launch

After a 90 minute drive through the mostly sand roads, we arrived at a small village where the mokoro boats (traditional wooden canoes) were waiting. Each mokoro is operated by a professional poler, who has likely been navigating through the Okavango Delta in a small wooden canoe for most of their life. 

Mokoro ride in the Okavango Delta
After a few hours of poling through the tall grasses of the Okavango (and avoiding hippos, crocs and elephants when we came across them!), we arrived at our campsite. Our guide, Gideon, informed us that the primary activities during our two nights and three days would be relaxing and bush walks. He wasn't kidding. We did a 4 hour bush walk each day, and pretty much spent the rest of the day hanging out, reading, and taking spins out in the delta trying to learn to navigate the mokoro as gracefully as the experienced polers.

On one of our bush walks, we spotted a huge herd of giraffe - we counted a total of 73 in all. They are seriously impressive when you see them from a vehicle, but it's quite another thing to be on the ground looking up at them. There was also a large group of zebra together with the giraffe - apparently the zebra rely on the giraffe to be their eyes in the thick bush, spotting predators from a distance.

Two young male giraffes fighting over access to females

Part of the 70+ giraffe herd we spotted while on a bush walk

Watching the moon on a bush walk
Running zebra on our bush walk

One evening our guide took us out for a sunset ride - not a bad view!

Okavango Delta sunset

Please know we are doing our best to keep this blog updated but connections are very slow and hard to find. Plus, we're just trying to enjoy our time in the bush without being on the computer too much! We promise we'll continue to share stories about our adventures as often as we can.