December in the African bush (and water)

It seems like a very long time ago, but this was only December 2018 and we were visiting the Victoria Falls (in Zambia) and Chobe National Park (in Botswana) with our son and daughter-in-law, who were visiting from Europe. Time for what our friend Willem would call some typical “Smittenstreken” (loosely translated into English as “Smit pranks”).

The trip started in a quite predictable way, our first stop after leaving Lusaka was at the favourite (and almost famous) Coffeeberry Cafe, the obligatory stop for coffee (and a fabulous breakfast!), just before the town of Mazabuka.

Coffeeberry entrance

Suitably refreshed and nourished, we continued on, with our next stop at the “Lay-By”, just outside Choma, a good place to stretch your legs, visit the minimal shop and the restrooms. The coffee there is not great (to put it mildly!) but if you ever plan to forget your phone in a restroom, this is the place to do it. As Marina found out. More than an hour after leaving Choma, when already approaching Livingstone, Marina realised the absence of her iPhone. And remembered where she had last seen it. We were already too far away to return to fetch it, so after we eventually reached Livingstone, we phoned the Lay-By and heard that someone had handed the phone to the manager, and that she’d locked it away safely. (More about this phone later…)

Anyway, we did make it to Livingstone and put up the tent in our favourite campsite, at the Victoria Falls Waterfront. The following day we signed up for a white-water rafting experience on the Zambezi River. Since this was the season when the river is at its lowest, and it was even lower than usual, we could start from immediately below the Victoria Falls and could even swim in the pools directly below the Falls, which would in other seasons be a suicide mission. However, with the river at a lower level, this doesn’t mean that the rafting would be any less exciting – with less water in the river, it changes character and rocks that would otherwise be very deep, now have an impact on the flow.

There are two main operators for these rafting trips, and we used Bundu Adventures, which gave us a fantastic and memorable experience! I can highly recommend them. All such excursions start with a safety briefing by the guides, who generally brag about how few people they have lost over the years, but then make you sign a form that you won’t blame them if anything happens, anyway.

Our own guide was “Potato“, which may sound like a strange name, but actually less remarkable than one of his colleagues, “Black Lizard“… Anyway, Potato is extremely capable and very good with people. Apparently he also works as a ski instructor near Vancouver or Seattle, there can’t be too many Zambians who do that for a living! As the most senior guide (and joker-in-chief) he led us down to the so-called “Boiling Pot”, just below the Victoria Falls. This a rather steep route, even when you are not carrying helmets and paddles and life jackets. There are often baboons in this area, and this day was no exception. One wonders what they think of us and our activities, or perhaps they are more focused on stealing food and cooldrinks from kids, which is their usual activity there.

Swimming and generally fooling around directly below the rather depleted Victoria Falls
Heading into one of the rapids, Reinhardt and Inga in front, Marina and I behind them, and our captain, “Potato”, at the helm, steering us in the right direction.

It’s difficult to describe this experience (and we’ve done it twice now), but it’s a mixture of fear and fun, getting wet and sunburnt, with a bit of swimming thrown in, usually. At times you look at the boiling water ahead of you, try to remember the instructions on when to paddle, and whether to row or backpaddle, when to settle down into the raft and hold on to the rope, and then, suddenly, you are into the roaring foam and just reacting, with the adrenaline rush afterwards. I can’t really do justice to all this with my words here, you’ll just have to come and experience it for yourself!

Heading into a particularly hectic rapid. I guess the outcome is predictable if even the captain of the vessel lets go of his paddle and grabs the rope….
… and indeed, this was the outcome. The services of the rescue chap in his kayak were not needed, however.

Afterwards, there is a very long and steep and sweaty climb out of the gorge. When you finally reach the top of the gorge, and grab a very welcome cooldrink, this is also when you collect all the valuables that you had left in a locked box for safekeeping – glasses, etc. Marina had handed in her glasses, but when she finally got to the box, there was only one pair of glasses remaining, but these were sunglasses and they did not look familiar… A bit of a mystery… Anyway, we were all herded into a safari truck and driven back to Livingstone for a well-earned burger lunch at the Gemstone Grill, which Bundu included in the deal. It’s a great place to eat, have a drink, to exchange stories about the day’s events and to admire the various beautiful agates that are on display there.

Roadside wildlife on the way back into town – there’s an area called “Elephant Corridor”, for good reason, since elephants cross this road on the way to the river (and back), a couple of times per day.

At the restaurant, we asked about Marina’s missing glasses, which was a mystery to everybody – if the glasses in the box were not hers, then somebody must be wearing Marina’s prescription glasses, which would be a bit weird. Fortunately the Bundu team takes a lot of videos and photographs during the day, and they were able to find one particular photograph taken at the outset, which showed Marina wearing the exact same sunglasses that she now did not recognise! (In her defence, she had been expecting to see her prescription glasses, which she was not wearing when she looked. It’s a better defence that just admitting age, I guess…)

We did have some more adventure in the centre of Livingstone town itself. While Reinhardt was leisurely driving us along the main road, we were pulled over by a traffic policeman. Reinhardt noted that he had been driving less than 50km/h, and the policeman agreed, but explained that he should have been doing less than 40… There is in fact one sign, at the entrance to town, some kilometres away, which indicates 40km/h. So…, guilty as charged. We were prepared to pay the standard 300 kwacha fine in return for the rather magnificent Admission of Guilt certificate that they issue here in Zambia, but instead we had to wait along with more luckless drivers, until they had collected about a dozen of us.

We all then had to drive in a convoy to the police station. We were accompanied by a police car and a couple of motorcycles, all with flashing blue lights, which was actually a good idea since we passed through an intersection with red traffic lights. We felt like the President on his way to parliament. At the police station, Reinhardt was provided with a reference number and sent to a bank in order to make his payment into a police bank account, using the reference number provided. And then back to the police station with the receipt. Waiting for the colourful certificate was going to take even longer, so we concluded that we did not need it, and continued on our way. An unplanned, but interesting way to spend an hour in Livingstone!

We crossed into Botswana by way of the ferry over the Zambezi at Kazungula, but I have already written about that experience in an earlier blog post (even though it happened a few months later), so I will not repeat that here. Anyway, after taking on fuel and buying some provisions in Kasane, we continued along the A33, driving directly to the West through the Chobe National Park. Turning left before reaching the Ngoma border with Namibia, we were out of the Park itself and very soon reached the Muchenje campsite, our base for the next couple of nights.

The sign at the Muchenje gate

Muchenje is a lovely and quiet site, with quite a bit of shade and very good ablution facilities. This was our first stay there, but it would be repeated in the coming months and years. It is located on the banks of the Chobe River, which at that time of the year was just a very wide and very dry floodplain, with Namibia (and presumably, the actual river) in the far distance. The campsites in the Chobe National Park itself are quite expensive and yet basic, so Muchenje is a very good alternative. And it has a lovely little swimming pool, which was very welcome at this (hot) time of the year!

Yes, in this part of the world, December is midsummer and midsummer is hot. Very. Nevertheless, Reinhardt and Inga had come to spend Christmas with us here, so it was a memorable week in many ways.

The afternoon of 24th December, 2018, preparations for dinner.

Reinhardt and Inga are very good with that sort of thing, so they took the lead on the culinary matters. Taught us how to make gemsquash filled with mince and cheese, in the fire, in foil. Yummy!

And that is what a Christmas dinner in the bush looks like! I can’t remember what I said there, but it seems to have simultaneously surprised Reinhardt, amused Inga and annoyed Marina…

The reason for choosing this part of the world was of course the animal population in the nearby National Park. So we visited that a couple of times, once with an open “safari Landcruiser”, and once with our own Toyota Prado. (This was the first one we owned, before it was stolen and replaced by a nicer one.) Everybody was competing for the opportunity to drive it, and I must admit it was nice to be a passenger, with Inga at the wheel. From the outset, we were keen to see the big cats (of course) and Inga (who is somehow addicted to all cats) was particularly keen to see a leopard. These are however notoriously shy and not often or easily spotted. In our initial trip with the ranger, he kept telling us that a leopard should be nearby, since there was a flock of guinea fowl making a racket, which apparently indicates danger. However, no leopard was seen that day, only a single leopard tortoise. Some pictures from those two days:

Young zebra colt (or foal?) strolling through its food.
A couple of young(ish) black-backed jackals.
This tortoise was trying to make a quick getaway after being surprised by Marina and Inga during an urgent call of nature…
African fish eagle on the lookout
I am quite proud of this picture that I took of a Lilac-breasted roller on top of a nearby bush.
Giraffe, taking a break from stripping leaves to look at us.

We spent two days driving through that portion of the National Park between the main A33 road and the Chobe River. There are parts with quite dense bush, so that the very sandy roads appear to be in a green tunnel. This is an “interesting” experience if an elephant just happens to pop out of the bush. In spite of their size, elephants become almost completely and immediately invisible, if they are a metre or two into the bush. And when they do become visible again, this is often very nearby. Anyway, there were no particularly scary moments.

The floodplain of the river is more open, and we had most success spotting animals on the floodplain, or along the fringes.

The king (and queen) of the animals, resting in the shade: panthera leo.
Greater kudu, browsing on a green salad.
… and finally, when we had already given up hope of seeing one, this beautiful leopard (panthera pardus) in the shade.

After another uneventful border crossing back into Zambia, we spent some time visiting the Victoria Falls themselves, even though they were a mere shadow (or tickle?) of their usual self. Almost the entire rock face formed by the fissure in the basalt, was dry and visible, with a very depleted flow (visible in the picture below) and some more water on the Zimbabwean side of the river, where it is deeper and gets more water. Difficult to believe that this relatively small amount of water gave us such an exciting experience in a rubber raft, a few days ago.

The obligatory group picture with the Falls in the background. Amazing to consider that if you come here a few months later, say in March or April, then that entire rockface is completely invisible, under a roaring torrent of water, and even the place where this picture was taken, would be drenched by the spray.

Leaving Livingstone behind, on the way back home, we were in for another small hiccup. We were stopped for a routine inspection of documents (insurance, vehicle and drivers licence, etc.) and it turns out that Inga (who was driving) had left her driver’s licence in Lusaka. So this required a visit to the policeman in a temporary container-based office, and some grovelling and promises to never do it again. I happened to mention that I was employed (sort of ) by the Ministry of Mines and Inga was “pardoned” by the policeman who managed to convey the message that he was doing us a tremendous favour.

At Choma, we stopped to collect Marina’s cellphone (that she had forgotten there on the way down) but when we asked at the Lay-By, the staff confirmed that they knew about it, but that the safe was locked and the manager was … in Livingstone! So we had to wait a couple of weeks for someone else who was passing through Choma, to bring the phone (and the driver’s licence in the same holder) to us in Lusaka. Anyway, all’s well that ends well and we are very grateful to everybody involved, for eventually reuniting Marina with her phone.

The last notable event on this trip was a terrific thunderstorm that we experienced on the road near Mazabuka. There was so much rain that the windscreen wipers, at full speed, were struggling to cope and we were slowly driving along the T1 main road which was populated with lots of large (and now flooded and invisible) potholes. Fortunately, this also passed without any incident and we eventually reached Lusaka tired, but safely.

I need to end this post with this picture. We were somewhere in the middle of the Chobe floodplain, under a shady tree. Having checked that there were no predators also resting there, we made and ate some sandwiches. We posed for this group picture looking roughly towards the East. Perhaps we should have been less concerned about lions in the bush nearby and more worried about a little virus that would erupt from that direction about a year later…

5 thoughts on “December in the African bush (and water)

  1. Hallo Ron, nu ik al jullie belevenissen en avonturen zo lees vraag ik mij (heel afgunstig) af, werk jij ooit nog wel eens voor de kost? Maar ga vooral door met Rons Rambling. Ik vind het iedere keer weer fijn om te lezen.

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    1. H Hans, zoals je weet ben ik al zo een 15 jaar of zoiets een consultant en “self-employed” betekent voor tenminste en aantal maanden per jaar eigenlijk “unemployed”… Maar momenteel is het afleggen – ik heb weliswaar geen echt werk nu, maar Marina wel, meer dan fulltime, eigenlijk, dus “ramble” ik maar door over recente en lang geleden trips. Ik beloof ook aan iedereen dat ik nog wat meer ga schrijven over onze tijd in Ghana, ook al heb ik daar minder foto’s van (of in ieder geval niet digitaal op mijn laptop). En het moet ook niet te technisch worden, want niet iedereen vindt goudzoeken zo een interessant verhaal. Maar dat verhaal komt er definitief aan.

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  2. Nee Hans, ik ken Ron al sinds 1985 en kan je verzekeren dat hij nog nooit in zijn leven heeft gewerkt. Hij geniet van iedere seconde dat hij om zich heen kan kijken, van de bush, van de natuur, van de dieren, van de vrouwen en van bier. Hij is een geoloog. Louis (een oud-collega geoloog).

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    1. Hi Louis, ik denk dat jij toch een andere herinnering hebt van de geologische loopbaan, dan ik… Ik geniet inderdaad van alles om me heen, inclusief een biertje in allerlei plekken, maar ik herinner mij niet zoveel vrouwen…. Die kwamen allemaal later, nadat ik een consultant was geworden. Toen kreeg ik ineens vrouwelijke collega’s (en bazen), meestal van in dezelfde ouderdomsgroep dan onze jongens. Maar daar heb ik ook aan kunnen wennen :).

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