As the big yellow truck pulled away down the streets of Swakopmund, Namibia, people were hanging out the window, thumping “Hooked on a feeling”, with inside jokes being yelled to and fro. It was an emotional goodbye, culminating in our final act of the tour being Mark bounding down the street like a springbok. As we’d mentioned previously we had initially felt conflicted about signing on to a tour, but it didn’t take long for us to feel at home with an awesome group of people, and 4 weeks miraculously melted away with Absolute Africa. As the saying goes, “Time flies when you’re having fun”. It was also nice to not have to organise getting from A to B squashed in vans of questionable safety, with drivers with even more questionable driving credentials, finding places to stay and having arguments about the cost of a taxi into town, and to actually have bed mats in our tent after prematurely giving ours away in South Africa. But above all, it was the people that made the trip what it was.
As we departed Zimbabwe,we were glad to finally be able to put to the side palpable stress of never quite knowing the best way to pay for anything, and never wanting to have anything other than the exact change. Such is the economic strife the country is in, you never quite know in what currency you’re paying, what type or even if they have change, it wasn’t uncommon have the manager be called to go to the safe to recover your battered and bruised $2USD as though it was the crown jewels. That said, we had plenty of fun and enjoyed the ability to get to know everyone better and let our hair down a little in Victoria Falls.
Onward to Botswana we hadn’t even reached the border and had an encounter with a pack of African Wild Dogs, Hyenas, Giraffes and Elephants. After crossing, we had the opportunity to check out Chobe National Park, the first and largest in the country. Most of Botswana has the appearance of a national park, where it’s not uncommon to see elephants and giraffes on the road side, with large swathes of flat expanses as far as the eye can see. The main attraction for us though, is the Okavango Delta.
The delta itself is one of the largest inland deltas in the world, which uniquely doesn’t empty into the sea, but just seasonally floods creating a interconnecting network of rivers, lakes and islands. While one of the best ways to see the delta is from the air, which is remarkable, seeing herds of elephant, buffalo and every other animal among the vast scorched earth landscape (we were there during dry season), to get a feel for life here, you need to get down there for a wander. One way to get around (or rather, the only way) is on dug out canoes, locally called ‘Mokoro’, manoevered by what in Venice might be called a ‘gondoliere’, but here goes by the name of ‘poler’. It’s sort of like Venice, sure replace the crowds of instagrammers and cruise ship hordes with wide open space, and the Italian artisans with African elephants, and real toilets with a hole in the ground….ok so maybe not that similar, but we have the boats.
We got walked through the landscape by our local guides, which certainly gives you the feeling of vulnerability, seeing wild elephants and buffalo on foot. Aside from the ample game spotting, hearing hippos a little too close to the campsite and sunset Mokoro rides, fun was had with our local guides. The last evening brought some real entertainment as the locals belted out Botswanan folk songs -one resulting in a usually shy and quiet guide to come to life like a death metal belching frog- and our fabulous guide Joe throwing a Kenyan one into the mix. The crescendo however (aside from Melissa apparently now identifying as a snake) was a rather absurd and frankly galling rendition of Queens’ “Bohemian Rhapsody”. When asked by the locals to perform a cultural song for them, we were at loss, somehow we struck on this and proceeded to butcher one of the greatest songs of all time, taking timing from 2 phones in cups, out of key and tune, while Mark gave the baffled locals a light-show to remember with the help of 2 head torches, I’m sure this will live long in the memory our Botswanan hosts, wanted or otherwise.
Namibia was to be our last destination on the tour, sad face, but luckily we had plenty to see and do before we were ripped from the others’ arms. One such activity was to see a bush tribe. Here we followed them as they showed us healing plants, how to make fire, and set traps. All explained in some outrageously descriptive actions – say nothing of the man if not he would dominate a game of charades – and, the native mother tongue. Involving clicks, it was quite something to listen to, and I’m sure if she could Martina would have started hassling them about grammar. It also featured a rather emasculating foray into archery for Mark, whereby his first shot of the arrow somehow didn’t even leave the bow, and the second dropped at his feet, only for Martina (and most others) to overshoot the target.
Luckily, after that we only had to sit in the truck and watch out for animals in Etosha national park, one of the biggest in all of Africa. For 2 days, and even one night drive we rolled around and witnessed some of the most amazing animal encounters at the waterholes. One of the waterholes were just outside our campsite which played host to multiple families of elephant and even 6 rhino at one point. We had some great rhino luck, and saw no less than 16 in our time there. We then moved onto Africat, a sanctuary for large cats, in particular, cheetahs, some have been picked up injured, others rescued from captivity, or handed in by owners who had them as pets and didn’t know how to handle them. It’s a safe place to rehabilitate and release where possible, or in the case of some, like Micky the leopard, a safe haven where re-release isn’t possible.
Alas, our last stop crept up on us, we’d arrived in Swakopmund, which is supposed to be the Queenstown of Namibia, a curious comparison, for, while it does offer some adventure sports, the 24hr bars and restaurants are sorely lacking. But who really needs a bar when you can get juiced up and create a dance party in someone’s room and try to sully the reputation of other tour buses on the premises by loudly dropping their names in our conversations after nearly knocking the door off its hinges to the tune of Darude’s ‘Sandstorm’. We followed up the next night when we could actually find a bar open after 10pm. Melissa hijacked the DJ booth invoking the “read the room” defense every time she changed the song of the actual DJ. Gettin’ low to greats such as Lil Jon & The East Side Boyz along with the truck anthem “hooked on a feeling”, where we commandeered the whole d-floor, were particular highlights, and a great send-off! Unfortunately, the next day we had booked a sand boarding trip, we shall give you the tip, while a few people went skydiving, which could be tough, the winner of the worst things to do while nursing a wretched hangover, is to, of your own volition, climb up huge sand dunes in 35+ degrees. Thankfully, after a couple of runs we came right and had a fun day, but the first few drudges up the dune were horrible.
This then brings us to Mark bounding down the street, emulating a springbok, in an alley beside a super market, only mildly cleaner than the bar room floor a couple of nights prior. It was time to say goodbye, it’s quite funny the common bonds you can make in a month when forced to camp, cook, clean and sit in a big yellow truck together. With the added sadness of farewelling new friends was saying farewell to Mark’s sister, Melissa.
After watching everyone head off, there was a big yellow bus sized hole in our souls. Lost and alone we flew to Cape Town, to couchsurf for a few nights and do our best to see this marvelous, surely among the most beautifully set city anywhere in the world. We drove to Simon’s Town to see the penguin colony, and Cape Peninsula, where aside from the scenery, we watched unruly baboons ransacking some unlucky tourist’s car. As one jumped in and stole something, the tourist took chase, although in a bit of an oversight left the doors open, meaning more baboons poured in and started ripping off the parcel tray in the trunk. This only led to more jumping in the back, it really was fiendishly hilarious, until we went over the hill and came back and had to run down the hill and shoo away a bunch of them grooming each other on the roof of our own rental, what is it they say about karma… Climbing Lion’s head and drinking in the epic view from the top was to be our last act in Africa.
Africa has been something of a revelation for us, not only have we learned more and more about the continent and its people, our preconceptions have been obliterated. We expected challenges at every turn relating to transport, border crossings, perhaps even the odd scammer, sure we had one notable run in with border police, and some pretty torrid bus rides, but all in all it was no harder than anywhere else in the world. We also found, despite being more expensive than other places, we managed to stay largely on budget, even with things like the gorillas and Masai Mara safari. As for booking the overland trip with Absolute, for countries such as Zimbabwe, Botswana and Namibia, it wasn’t a prerequisite, but it improved the journey outside just transport and accommodation and financial savings. Not only the activities, but more hard to measure metrics like traveling with good sorts, a healthy dose of banter, good times and antics for a good price. In short, whether by tour (only need to consider Absolute Africa), or by your own steam, 5 months or 3 weeks, Africa is open for independent travel.
Now for a couple of weeks in Europe before we start heading East towards Central Asia and all the adventure that will bring, until then!
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